While studying abroad in college, I had a flatmate who spent hours on his laptop playing a genre of sports video games that I could never imagine taking off in the States: Management Sims. In these PC and console games, which cover every sport in mind-bending detail, you put together a roster for a football team, for example, and use adjustments and stat tracking to give your squad the best chance of advancing to the finals. To be clear, you don’t play football in these games, you play numbers; you’re the manager or coach, never the player. Finalize your lineup and match results are rendered with the click of a button. You never even see the pitch. Anyone who calls it soccer is less likely to understand this world than the football fanatics whose every waking moment is dedicated to one sport and one sport only.
I had that foreign affinity in mind for my read of Papers in the Wind, translated from Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem. With the World Cup taking center stage, Other Press has seen fit to ride the global fever and publish Eduardo Sacheri’s 2011 comic novel about a group of man child best friends and their forays into management.
From the opening whistle, we know that shortly before dying, Alejandro “Mono” Raguzzi has asked his brother Fernando to make sure his daughter is taken care of. The only trouble is that Mono’s entire fortune was wrapped up in the contract rights to a particularly awful player named Mario Pittilanga, whose once rising star had dulled. With this dying wish driving them, Fernando and his best friends set out to hustle the transfer rights to the overweight Pittilanga, now relegated to Argentina’s minor leagues.
Each friend offers their own expertise in decoding the management side of the sporting life, where some of these athletes have been under contract since before they were even teenagers. It is a system all but unrecognizable in America; here, the thought of paying collegiate athletes for the millions of dollars they rake in for their respective institutions remains one of the most polarizing questions in sports. In other countries, these contracts are bought by millionaires and penny hustlers alike, sold (or purposefully shelved) for profit and pride. As seen in the book, it is a system that invites rampant corruption, all of which is fair game to recoup Mono’s investment.
The dying wish aspect is treacle, but the Elmore Leonard-esque plot, involving corrupt journalists, doctored video clips, and a long con inspired by The Sting (which is lovingly referred to a dozen times throughout the book, perhaps overselling the outcome) brings more to the table than the average sports novel, a genre that has never made much headway among American readers. Sacheri keeps it breezy: the chapters are short, and chatty dialogue takes up much of the book. Sacheri’s use of names in dialogue is rare, giving readers the message that they are speaking as one, in a way. In this scene, late in the novel, the friends gather around Mono’s hospital bed, lovingly teasing the failed ex-athlete to the end:
“Give me the paper so I can read it! Give it to me!”
“Shhh! Hands off.”
“I’ll read it to him.”
“No. I’ll read it to him, I’m the one who found it. Okay: ‘Menstrual irregularities,’ that’s always been–”
“He always had that–”
“That’s nothing new–”
“I’m talking about this–ha!”
“Come on, fool! Read it already!”
“‘Stunted growth in children.’ Should have known, Mono, that’s why you’re so short.”
“Why don’t you go fuck yourselves?”
“Poor little Mono. Forgive us. It seems it was from the medication.”
“They shot him full of injections, as a kid, and that’s why he’s like this.”
“You guys are assholes. All three of you.”
This excerpt is almost the entire chapter, which gives you an idea of the novel’s tone and the brevity of the flashbacks. It is the insults and bickering of this brotherhood that makes Papers in the Wind read like a bromance. And with that category comes all the trappings: the raunch, the chest-puffing challenges, the frat-boy behavior. One of the biggest downsides of translation (through Maria Faye Lethem, whose track record is pretty astounding) is nailing the comedic tone. Perhaps it is lost in translation, but Sacheri’s jokes fall flat on the page. The friends are constantly arguing and razzing one another, yet there is not one scene that I found particularly funny. Comedy on paper is hard, especially when you’re not writing outright satire, and yet sometimes I wondered if Sacheri was doing his best to make the book screenplay adaptable. The movie adaptation of Sacheri’s debut, the crime thriller The Secret in Their Eyes, was the 2010 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Picture. (He is also the author of four story collections, all of which are bestsellers in his native country.) Jokes aside, seeing what happens behind the scenes of the beautiful game is more than enough to keep any sports nerd turning the pages.
I would be remiss in my reviewing duties if I wrote about Papers in the Wind and failed to mention two of the greatest ever soccer books ever written, neither of which, like Papers, is about athletes: Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs. One’s a memoir and the other is journalism, sure, but they are compulsive nonfiction writing of the highest caliber.
Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel
Publisher: Other Press
Pub date: May, 2014