NEAR THE END of Papers in the Wind, Argentine writer Eduardo Sacheri’s frustrating tragi-comic second novel, Mono, the cancer-ridden owner of a floundering soccer talent, is talking to his brother Fernando and their best friend Ruso about the futility of prayer — specifically, praying to God to decide a soccer game in your team’s favor. “On the other side,” he says, “in the other stands, or at home, there are a ton of guys asking for the opposite, you understand?” His companions reply that, no, they don’t see what he’s getting at. “When somebody wins,” Mono clarifies, “somebody else loses.”
This is the kind of epistemological prickliness that anyone who maintains an unwavering faith in anything — gods, sports franchises, lovers — must inevitably confront. Mono is speaking about his team, Independiente, which he and his buddies grew up worshipping with unquestioning devotion. But that faith was contextual — Independiente were winning cups, he and his friends were eking out unfulfilling but comfortable lives. Today, after investing $300,000 in a B-league striker called Pittilanga, who has since grown fat and lost his touch, after plenty of chemo and a disappointing trip to a local witch doctor — after years of losing — Mono feels like he’s playing a rigged match. This simple articulation of the soccer fan’s crisis is about as deep into the existential mire as Papers in the Wind cares to delve.
The novel begins with Mono already dead and in the ground, his three best friends — his uptight older brother Fernando, the brutish, materialistic lawyer Mauricio and the idiot-savant Ruso — strolling away from his grave, through an afternoon drizzle. We are soon taken, in the first of many flashbacks involving the deceased, to the middle-class Buenos Aires barrio where the four friends grew up. We see Mono as a cocky adolescent climbing to the top of the highest tree in the neighborhood to win a bet with his brother. Victorious, he hollers and prances (earning his nickname, Mono, ape in Spanish), only to plummet to the ground when a neighbor’s car crashes into the tree, earning him his first major stint in hospital. This collapse foreshadows the calamitous investment that comes to define the final stretch of Mono’s life.
In the intervening years, he has worked his way up the ladder of a technology company, and developed a prefab software system that puts him in a position to make a lot more money. But Mono is weary of the travel that comes with the promotion, so he quits, collects a healthy severance pay, and invests every last cent in the aforementioned Pittilanga, whose potential as a 17-year-old looks to be boundless. Alas, this shot for the stars misses high and wide, as the “big and dark” Pittilanga languishes in Argentine backwater leagues, and is about to be dropped from his contract. With cancer putting its finishing touches on Mono, his buddies cook up a series of plans, some legitimate, some corrupt, to raise the value of Pittilanga, sell him off to a European or Middle Eastern club team, and use the profits to settle Mono’s daughter for life.
In the course of these travails, Sacheri paints a disturbing picture of the underbelly of the beautiful game in Argentina. Characters that are too crudely cynical to make for good satire are briefly woven in and out of a narrative that never quite decides what it wants to be about. It’s not a novel about soccer — or, it is, but like the sports radio host who Fernando pays off to put in a few good words on air about the previously unheard of Pittilanga (and raise his transfer price), this soccer-cum-literature conceit is about “the spectacle. All about the business of spectacle.”
Pittilanga gets short shrift here, but he is the gritty, tragic face of both the novel and the sport it’s (roughly) based on. A once-promising talent, he’s been grinding his way from one minor club to another. Far from European capitals and endorsement deals, soccer for him has become just another poorly paid blue-collar profession, the kind that defines the community he hails from. Pittilanga’s crisis of faith, we come to see, is of a different quality than Mono’s — he’s never known anything else.
In an interview with the Chilean daily La Tercera after the release of the Spanish version of Papers, Sacheri related that, “Football is one of the few places where the poor can win — or at least that’s our illusion.” Spectacle, prayer, illusion, faith: these are all synonyms. Argentina, a country in which 90 percent of the population supports a soccer club, won their second World Cup in 1986 partly because of a score that shouldn’t have been: Diego Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal against England. And while that mythology was used in defense of a breakdown of another kind, perhaps the greater trick was performed eight years earlier by Jorge Videla, the military dictator who overthrew Isabel Perónin a 1976 coup d’état. Videla instituted a systematic culling of dissent leading up to the global game’s biggest stage, ostensibly to present the image of a stable Argentina on the country’s home turf when Argentina hosted the World Cup in 1978. After his regime abducted and killed thousands of political enemies, he left it up to the national team to transform a tournament into yet another mythology, that of national unity, while people outside the stadiums (and perhaps inside as well) still mourned their dead or hoped for the return of their disappeared. The Argentine writer Rogelio Ramos Signes probably best captured the surreal nature of the confluence between the country’s cherished national obsession and its dictatorial regime, writing:
[The junta] called it soccer anyways, and it was the only sport they played. The ball, made of transparent glass and elongated like a chorizo, was carried from field to field in an apron pocket. You couldn’t touch it with your feet (and if you did happen to touch it, you got an automatic prison sentence); the penalties were decided by how the dice fell into a swimming pool; hanging from a helicopter, the goalies scored the goals, heading the ball, and only if it was raining.
Though Sacheri hints at a critique of modern, democratic Argentina (Fernando going from one “poorly tended [field] inching back to a wild state” to another), by the book’s conclusion, Papers lets itself get caught up in the spectacle. The novel’s title isn’t a reference to one of Mono’s jagged-pill meditations on death; it’s a phrase he utters as he slips into a dreamy nostalgia for Independiente’s run of championships; he and his buddies waiting to meet the players that were nothing less than their dreams made incarnate; the papers circling in the wind through the empty stadium. It’s hard not to draw a parallel between this nostalgia and the experiences of Argentine fans in 1978 (or, indeed, with the experiences of poor Brazilians in the run-up to this world cup).
When Mono leaves the field for good, the book dispenses with all of this unpleasantness. Sacheri’s first novel, The Secret in Their Eyes, ends in a twist that confirms, rather than whitewashes, the basic cruelty that both good and bad people have in their hearts. The improbable and confusing turn in Papers in the Wind leads to a finale that disappoints not so much by its insistence on the literary version of a injury-time poacher’s goal for the home team, but by the fact that after spending hundreds of pages unmasking the lie at the heart of soccer fanaticism, Sacheri casually slips the mask back on, assuming that the reader, when all is said and done, needs something to cheer for. He might have left us with a flawed but realistic view of the devious confluence between life and sport, something akin to the on-field/off-field brutalityof David Peace’s The Damned Utd. Instead, the novel concludes with a weepy nod to the purifying magic of the spectacle.
Tim Benjamin’s essays and reviews have appeared in Truthout and Sounds and Colours, among others. He is a writer and translator living in Santiago, Chile.