Place: Italy

Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through Italy, the UK, and Shanghai as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

Prizes, festivals, and book fairs! This week, our editors bring us news about Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, Mantua’s Festivalletteratura, Edinburgh’s vibrant International Book Festival, and Shanghai’s vast international Book Fair. At the heart of all these dispatches is the wonderful ability of cities to draw huge numbers of people together to celebrate a year in literature. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Italy

In early June, Antonio Scurati won the 2019 Premio Strega, Italy’s most important literary prize, for his book M. Il figlio del secolo (M. Child of the Century). Scurati’s book is the epitome of ponderous tome: at more than eight hundred pages it is the first of what will be three volumes that novelize the life of Benito Mussolini, with this first title covering Mussolino’s rise to power. The book has been hugely popular with the Italian public, selling some one hundred and twenty thousand copies before it snatched the prize and has even given rise to some interesting debates with some critics calling into question whether Scurati’s book can actually be considered fiction at all, rather than a straightforward biography. What is particularly interesting is the fact that last year’s winner was also a novelized biography set in 1930s Europe: Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica (translated by Ann Goldstein) traces the final years of Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish war photographer, who bore witness to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism.

Looking forward, if you happen to find yourself in northern Italy between September 4 and 8, it might be worth popping by the small city of Mantua in Lombardy which hosts one of the biggest literary festivals in the country: Festivalletteratura. The line-up of guests could put the Edinburgh literary festival to shame, with a very international cast of writers and themes. Margaret Atwood will be popping by, as will Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli and Elif Shafak. The festival will explore the contradictions of current American society with the help of Colson Whitehead and Meg Wolitzer among others, and academics like Amin Maalouf and Simon Schama will be hosting talks and debates around the future of the European Union. Other interesting events will be centered around modern Albanian and even Italian literature, science and the environment. You can check a full guide of the guests and events here. READ MORE…

What’s New with the Crew? (Aug 2019)

We've been keeping busy!

What do Asymptote staff get up to when they’re not busy advocating for world literature? Answer: Quite a lot! For those interested in joining our team, please note that we have just completed the first phase of our recruitment drive and will conclude the second and final phase by the end of the month. It’s not too late to send in an application!

Communications Manager Alexander Dickow published two poems in Plume, in English and French versions.

Assistant editor Andreea Iulia Scridon‘s poem, Glossa, a re-writing of Mihai Eminescu’s Romanian poem of the same name, has been published by WildCourt.

Copy Editor Anna Aresi‘s Italian translation of Ewa Chrusciel’s Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn, 2014) was released in May by Edizioni Ensemble. 

Chris Tanasescu (aka MARGENTO, editor-at-large for Romania and Moldova) has been featured in a Romanian poetry anthology in Italian translation, Sette poeti rumeni (Seven Romanian Poets) edited by Matteo Veronesi.

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What’s New in Translation: July 2019

Four reviews of translations you won't want to miss this month!

From translations by heavyweights like Ann Goldstein and Jennifer Croft to novels by writers appearing for the first time in English, July brings a host of exciting new books in translation. Read on for coming-of-age stories set in Italy and Poland, a drama in rural Argentina, and the tale of a young man and his pet lizard in Japan. 

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A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.

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Thirteen Keys to a Doorless House in Toledo: On Tela de sevoya by Myriam Moscona

The Ladino language has etched on her tongue the addresses of countless houses in the Jewish Quarters of Toledo and Burgos.

Myriam Moscona’s Tela de sevoya (Onioncloth) was published in English in 2017, translated from the Ladino by Antena (Jen Hofer with John Pluecker). In today’s essay, Asymptote’s Sergio Sarano, himself a Ladino speaker, uses Moscona’s book as a starting point to explore the language and its history, shaped by the complex migrations of the Jewish diaspora. Sergio also discusses Ladino’s current status as an endangered language and highlights the important role that Moscona, as one of just a few writers who continue to publish in Ladino, has to play in keeping the language alive.

“I come upon a city
I remember
that there lived
my two mothers
and I wet my feet
in the rivers
that from these and other waters
arrive to this place”

—Myriam Moscona

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Erri De Luca

We pave roads, shovel snow, / smooth lawns, beat carpets, / gather tomatoes and insults, / we are the feet and know every inch of the land.

In this Translation Tuesday, Italian poet Erri De Luca reflects on the Mediterranean migrant crisis and movement across borders, seas, and languages. From desert crossings and the “thrashing of dust in columns” to exploitation in the first world, De Luca poignantly evokes the struggles faced by the newest Europeans.

 

Six voices

It was not the sea that welcomed us
we welcomed the sea with open arms.

Descending from highlands burnt by war and not the sun
we crossed the desert of the Tropic of Cancer.

When from a high ground we were able to view the sea
it was a finish line, a caress of waves at our feet.

Ending there was Africa, the under-sole of ants,
from them caravans had learned to tread.

Under the thrashing of dust in columns
the first man alone is required to raise his eyes.

The others follow the heel that precedes them,
the voyage on foot is a trail of backs.

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My 2018: Barbara Halla

It would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to live as a woman.

Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.

Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.

Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.

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Fall 2016: A Fresh Opportunity to Talk

Asymptote’s power lies in its willingness to account for the inexpressible and use it as ground-zero for its vision.

Halldór Laxness, Stefan Zweig, László Krasznahorkai—just when you think you are announcing just these three international literary superstars in the Fall 2016 lineup, it turns out you have four. On October 3, Italian journalist Claudio Gatti controversially unmasks Elena Ferrante as Anita Raja. But, even before Gatti’s unwelcome revelation, I had already picked out Anita Raja’s contribution as a highlight and intended to include her name in all our issue-related promotional materials. Fearing that we would be accused of riding the controversy, I drop a note to Criticism Editor Ellen Jones: “What do you make of all this Anita Raja = Elena Ferrante business? Is it opportunistic of us to feature her name in our publicity materials (which we already sent for printing) and on the cover (which can still be changed)?” The issue’s been on her mind as well. “We want to avoid the same kinds of accusations NYRB are getting in this morning’s papers,” Ellen says, “but I don’t think it would do too much harm to have her as one among many names in our promotion materials… I don’t think we need to bury a good essay on purpose, in short.” But what about in the promotional materials themselves? How much do we say about Anita Raja? Communications Manager Matthew Phipps decides in the end to take a risk and state matter-of-factly that Elena Ferrante has been unmasked as Anita Raja (which anyone who has been following literary news already knows). Too frazzled to make a call on the copy after staying up for 36 hours to put together the video trailer (it’s been a while since I made these for Asymptote, and I am rusty), I sign off on the newsletter. That’s how, in spite of a massive publicity blitz that involved printing and distributing 4,000 postcards; print and digital ads in the Times Literary Supplement that set us back by 900 GBP; 97 personalized emails to media outlets, 90 tweets, 20 Facebook posts, and seven blog posts about the Fall 2016 issue (all documented in then Marketing Manager Ryan Celley’s publicity report here), dear reader, we still came to be booed. Here to introduce our Fall 2016 issue is Assistant Editor Garrett Phelps. 

What a work of literature ‘means’ is always tough to get a feel for, let alone talk about. Of course a famous theorist or two have claimed this is an insurmountable difficulty. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Not being too slick with the theoretical stuff, I’ll just say that literature is meaningful to the extent it’s ambiguous and open-ended. And if any idea unifies Asymptote’s Fall 2016 issue, it’s the way interpretive problems result from this state-of-affairs.

For Anita Raja, ignorance is the reader’s point of departure and return. In “Translation as a Practice of Acceptance” she argues that “the translator must be above all a good reader, capable of diving into the intricacies of the text, taking it apart, discerning all its nuance. The translator is, in short, a reader required to puzzle over the complexity of the original text, line after line, and to piece it together in the new language—a fundamentally impossible task.” Good translators are, essentially, readers par excellence. Anyone who’s dabbled in the field probably won’t find this idea controversial. Sooner or later, though, even a top-notch translator hits the same wall as the average reader, who’s more okay letting intricacies, nuances and puzzle-pieces remain gut-feelings. Demanding much more is futile even if doing so is worthwhile. This is especially true of translation, where success is often the sum of accumulated failures. READ MORE…

Winter 2015: We Almost Didn’t Make It

Asymptote was giving—and continues to give—voice to languages and regions across the globe without ever lowering the curatorial bar.

If you’re just joining us, we invite you to revisit our first 16 issues via our #30issues30days showcase here. In honor of our milestone 30th edition, we’ll shortly be launching a contest giveaway with a top prize of $200, so watch this space!

2015 was a milestone year for Asymptote: We won a London Book Fair award and partnered with The Guardian. But only Asymptote staff back then know we almost didn’t make it past January. On 15 December 2014, despairing of the lack of progress in fundraising, I wrote the following (lightly edited) email: 

“Hello team, I’ve been reassessing the situation. It seems I underestimated the support for the magazine and it doesn’t look as if we’re going to hit our campaign target by December 19. Therefore, we’ll be extending the deadline to January 29, 2015. Our January issue will be pushed back to January 30, the very date of our debut in 2011, four years ago, so that we’ll have come full circle. If we don’t hit the target on January 29, we will announce in the editorial that the Jan 2015 issue will be our very last. Social media and blog activities (including the podcast, very sadly) shall cease with effect from 1 Feb. The magazine will fold. Planning for all activities after January should be halted with immediate effect. Please respect this. Section editors, please do not communicate any more acceptances, and please be prepared to rescind your acceptances for anything after the January issue on the event of our closure, if it does come to that. As promised, we will break for the holidays. (I’ll hold the fort on social media during this time.) In January, we will prioritize work on the January edition as well as the two January events. As for those who are willing to help, we will keep publicizing the IndieGoGo campaign and sending out appeals. We’ll see if the magazine can be saved. (During a recent discussion with the senior editors, the question did arise about whether to shield all of you from the hard reality in front of us. But I don’t think it’s good to keep mum, for morale’s sake; also, I would not be so cruel as to ask you to continue working on projects that may not see the light of publication, or events that have to be cancelled. The reality is that I am simply out of funds, and also depleted in other ways. If we don’t hit the IndieGoGo target, I would prefer to end on a high note and move on.)”

Here to introduce our Winter 2015 issue, released one day after 287 supporters brought us past the finish line of $25,000, please welcome Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone. 

“I am always trying to push the market very hard,” David Damrosch told Asymptote contributing editor Dylan Suher in an interview included in the Winter 2015 issue. The Harvard professor of comparative literature explained that he strives to bring so-called minor literatures into the canon of world literature by translating, anthologizing, and teaching works from underrepresented regions and languages.

Asymptote has been similarly pushing against the market since Lee Yew Leong founded the journal in 2011. When the Winter 2015 issue was published, I was finishing my doctoral work, which focused on connections between political contexts and translated literature. As I was immersed in the work of critics such as Damrosch, I was also reading Asymptote, and I recognized then that that the journal was doing something different. Rather than reproducing the inequalities of what Pascale Casanova calls “the world republic of letters,” Asymptote was giving—and continues to give—voice to languages and regions across the globe without ever lowering the curatorial bar.  READ MORE…

Spring 2014: The Space Between Languages

Translation requires an inner urgency that will make that which is different as close to the original as possible.

By April 2014, Asymptote has snowballed into a team of 60. Though I never signed up to lead so many team members, expansion is a matter of inevitability for a magazine that publishes new work from upwards of 25 countries every quarter (and that prides itself on editorial rigor). After all, if Asymptote section editors only relied on personal connections, it would only be a matter of time before available leads dried up. There is simply no substitute for local knowledge and, more importantly, local networking, since getting the author’s permission to run or translate his or her work is often the hardest part. (For the English Fiction Feature in the Spring 2014 issue alone, I sent solicitations, directly or indirectly, to Rohinton Mistry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Chang-rae Lee, Tash Aw, Akhil Sharma, and Tao Lin—all in vain alas.) An entire book could probably be written about how Asymptote wooed author X or translator Y or guest artist Z to come on board as contributor. One particularly memorable (and—I assure you—not representative of the way we operate) episode comes to mind: When her phone call to an author was intercepted and met with a flat rejection by his secretary, a particularly persistent team member signed up for a two-day workshop conducted by said author. At an intermission, she casually makes the ask. The author agrees to discuss the matter the next day, at a restaurant. During dinner, our team member is subjected to intensive grilling before permission is finally granted to run and translate his work. Here to recount how we managed to ask Nobel laureate Herta Müller to come on board as contributor (and to give us permission to translate her moving essay into 8 additional languages) is editor-at-large Julia Sherwood:

I was invited to join the Asymptote team as editor-at-large for Slovakia after volunteering to translate into Slovak Jonas Hassen Khemiri´s Open Letter to Beatrice Ask, which appeared in 20 languages in the Spring 2013 issue of Asymptote. The journal had only been around for two years, but it had already established a reputation for featuring translations from a staggering array of languages and authors who had never been published in English. Slovak, my native language, had yet to make an appearance, so I immediately set out to source suitable texts in high-quality translations. My first success came when “Where to in Bratislava”, a story by Jana Beňová and translated by Beatrice Smigasiewicz, was chosen for the Winter 2014 issue. Soon after that I managed something of a scoop: bringing to AsymptoteThe Space Between Languages,” an essay by Nobel laureate Herta Müller. READ MORE…

Winter 2014: A Rookie Among Giants

Living now under the shadow of Trump, the contents of the issue seem even more desperately near to us.

It takes a while for the blog to hit its stride. Editing to a quarterly schedule is different than editing to a daily one, we quickly discover. It does not help that both ‘founding’ blog editors jump ship within three months (Nick’s elegiac last post goes up on 30 October; Zack’s 31 December). Fortunately, the rest rally and get us through. (One bright spot from that time is Patty Nash’s breezy roundupsa breath of fresh air.) Five weeks after it inaugurates, Aditi Machado’s post on the blog gets picked up by Poetry’s Harriet Blog, joining mentions in BBC Culture and The Guardian. The Guardian article gives a nod to Asymptote’s first-ever London event in January 2014, also the first of many multi-continental events in honor of our 3rd anniversary. These go on to include panels and readings in New York, Zagreb, Boston, Philadelphia, Shanghai, Berlin, and Sydney over the next three months. A point of pride: determined to organize an event in Asia, I somehow manage to pull off a reading without a single team member on the ground, thanks to NYU Shanghai, contributors Eleanor Goodman and Eun Joo Kim, and a friend who happens to pass through. In New York, under real threat of snowpocalypse, Asymptote supporters Eliot Weinberger, Robyn Creswell, Idra Novey, Jeffrey Yang, and Daniella Gitlin all show up to our anniversary event at Housing Works emceed by then Assistant Managing Editor, Eric M. B. Becker, to read alongside Cory Tamler, first prize-winner of our inaugural Close Approximations translation contest (as written up in WWB Daily’s dispatch here). Here to get you excited for the Winter 2014 issue (featuring, among others, a translator’s note that I got J. M. Coetzee to write) is Alexander Dickow, runner-up to that very contest and Asymptote Communications Manager since April 2017. But, first, check out Winter 2014’s issue trailer—probably our best ever—by then Video Producer Sarah Chan.

I knew of Asymptote since its inception in 2011, but it was only in January 2014 that I was named runner-up in the first edition of Asymptote’s Close Approximations translation contest. That contest has had a lasting impact on my work: I later won a Pen/Heim Translation Fund Grant to finish translating Sylvie Kandé’s Neverending Quest for the Other Shore, which was first showcased in Asymptote and is now under consideration by a major publisher. Evoking the Winter 2014 issue of Asymptote, then, cannot not be a little about my own relationship to Asymptote, even though I was an eager young rookie among the issue’s giants— J. M. Coetzee, Jana Beňová, and Michael Hofmann, to name a few. READ MORE…

Summer Ennui: Sun-Soaked Writing from Around the World

Our antidote to the summer beach read listicles.

In May, we welcome summer with long reading lists, ambitious writing projects, and travel plans. But as the temperatures rise, books get abandoned, and drafts get lost. Slowly we leave ourselves to mid-day slumbers, timeless symphonies of cicadas, and a yearning for the early evening breeze. Summer ennui establishes itself around this time, and makes us wonder, when is this heat and everything about it going to end? Our blog editors Sarah Booker, Chloe Lim, and Ilker Hepkaner are joined by our guest contributor William Booker as they introduce their favorite writing about summer’s idleness and slowness.

Manuel Puig (1932-1990) was an Argentine writer best known for his novel Beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Colchie) in which he showcases his ability to develop a complex narrative through conversation and his passion for film. Dwindling tropical evenings—sticky, never-ending, and buzzing with life and memories—are the setting in Puig’s final novel, Cae la noche tropica (Tropical Night Falling, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine), for the conversations held between two sisters in the twilight of their lives. Indeed, the novel begins with a recognition of the melancholic nature of this particular moment: “There’s such a sad feeling at this time of day, I wonder why?”

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Announcing the Summer 2018 Issue of Asymptote

Introducing our thirtieth issue, which gathers never-before-published work from 31 countries!

We interrupt our regular programming to announce the launch of Asymptote’s Summer 2018 issue!

Step into our bountiful Summer edition to “look for [yourself] in places [you] don’t recognize” (Antonin Artaud). Hailing from thirty-one countries and speaking twenty-nine languages, this season’s rich pickings blend the familiar with the foreign: Sarah Manguso and Jennifer Croft (co-winner, with Olga Tokarczuk, of this year’s Man Booker International Prize) join us for our thirtieth issue alongside Anita Raja, Duo Duo, and Intizar Husain, and our first work from the Igbo in the return of our Multilingual Writing Feature.

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In Conversation: Andrea Sirotti on Translating Postcolonial Literature

For me, translating means communicating, interacting.

Translation is a political act and the texts that are selected to be translated—from stacks and stacks of books appearing all over the world every day—ultimately shape the literary market and conversations within a particular culture. With this clearly in mind, English-to-Italian translator Andrea Sirotti has made a career of translating postcolonial writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sujata Bhatt, Lloyd Jones, Margaret Atwood, Karen Alkalay-Gut, Hisham Matar, Alexis Wright, and Arundhathi Subramaniam into Italian, often introducing them to the Italian public for the first time. His translation of Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees, translated with Giorgia Sensi, was awarded the best translation of a foreign work into Italian at the sixteenth Concorso nazionale di Poesia e Narrativa “Guido Gozzano” in 2015. In this conversation with Asymptote’s Copy Editor Anna Aresi, Sirotti talks about his passion for postcolonial literature, giving us precious insights into his translation workshop and the challenges he faces when transposing complex English texts into the Italian.

Anna Aresi (AA): How did your interest in postcolonial literature begin? Was there a particular author that first caught your attention? If so, who and why?

Andrea Sirotti (AS): My interest in postcolonial literature, especially poetry, began by chance. In the mid-1990s I started to collaborate, as a critic and translator from the English, with the Italian journal of comparative literature Semicerchio. Its director, Francesco Stella, asked me to review Sixty Women Poets, an anthology of women poets edited by Linda France and published by the UK-based Bloodaxe. Reading that book was illuminating; from the repertoire of rich and diverse female voices France anthologized, I was struck in particular by authors coming from the ex-Commonwealth, as people called it back then (and this brings another brilliant title to mindUncommon Wealth: An Anthology of Poetry in English, an even more specific anthology published by OUP in 1998). The uncommon wealth of these verses, their unprecedented freshness, lead me to deepen [my understanding of] the topic and, thanks to the internet, I read other anthologies and collections, by men and women, migrant or settled, “pioneers” of the English language as well as second- or third-generation speakers in anglophone contexts. I found myself in front of a fantastic poetry world to explore! If I had to name one poet from the group of excellent poets collected by France (among whom were poets of great worth and originality such as Moniza Alvi, Grace Nichols, Jean “Binta” Breeze, Mimi Khalvati, etc.), I would mention Sujata Bhatt. It was with her poetry that I began my career as a literary translator, publishing some of her poems in Italian translation in the journal Testo a fronte in May 1996. It is around her terse and passionate poetry, her ancient and ultramodern English, that I built my anthology of contemporary female Indian poetry, published by Le Lettere in 2000 (with a second edition in 2006). READ MORE…

Transcending Language Through Sports: Football Writers

Asymptote team members and readers share their favorite pieces of writing about the game.

We are well into the World Cup, which means endless amounts of football (or soccer, depending on your location) for the serious fans and a chance to dabble in that world for those less-serious fans of the sport. The group stage is coming to a close and there have been more than a few surprises, including Iceland’s humbling of Messi and Argentina, Poland going down against the tenacious Senegalese team—and Germany? Really?

The World Cup, an event that very much goes beyond the ninety minutes of twenty-two players and a ball, generates an endless amount of controversy, discussion, national pride, rivalry, and politics from all sorts of people, including our favorite writers. With that in mind, today we bring you a special treat as Asymptote team members and readers share their favorite pieces of writing about the game.

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From Austria: Elfriede Jelinek

Already, the 2018 World Cup has delivered its quota of surreal moments. Some have been joyfully surreal—the director of Iceland’s 2012 Eurovision video leaping to keep out a penalty from one of the greatest players of all-time; Iran’s failed attempt at a somersault throw-in during the final seconds of a crucial game against Spain—but others have had a more sinister edge. Among the defining images from the opening match was the handshake between Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman, two star players for the Axis of too-wealthy-to-be-evil.

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