Thursday, 31 October 2013

The tactical fundamentalist

Marcelo Bielsa

Although I am not a very acute observer of football, when a passing side plays well I find it very aesthetically pleasing. I like to watch teams which are attacking and positive. And they do not get any more attacking and positive than Marcelo Bielsa.

When a Bielsa side plays at maximum capacity, it puts teams like Barcelona and Spain to shame. I sometimes find myself yawning when I watch that type of tiki-taka football. Bielsa's teams are well-drilled and pass the ball well, but it is ratcheted up to 500 miles per hour. Every single player presses the opposition and aims to retrieve the ball. His sides play with three defenders and even their role is offensive. The objective is to score more goals than the opposition, regardless of who the opponent is. Bielsa has his own philosophy and it will never be revised. You might call it inflexible and predictable, but for football purists it is a manna from heaven. Even if you call it reckless, you can't argue that it also gets results.

His eccentricities only make him more endearing. With a pair of gold-rimmed glasses dangling from the holders, he resembles a crochety professor or your favourite uncle. He crouches on the manager's dug-out, intently peering out onto the pitch. He trudges through the dug-out, endlessly analysing the ways he can win the game. Indeed, he is such an astute tactician that he can change the course of the match through a couple of substitutions.

Bielsa is from a football-mad town in Argentina called Rosario. The two teams are either Rosario Central and Newell's Old Boys. His father was a Rosario Central and Bielsa, being a contrarian, decided to ardently support Newell's.

His obsessive nature already flowered in early childhood. During one of several military dictatorships in Argentina, the police ordered a group of kids to stop playing a obstructive game of football in the street. They took his ball away. Bielsa stated that if the ball went, he went. He was arrested and his ball eventually returned, because he simply would not stop carping on about it. As we shall see, Bielsa is a very principled man.

After a brief playing career in Newell's, he took over the club as manager and led them to a championship trophy. He even took them to the final of the Copa Libertadores (the equivalent of the Champion's League). He has since acquired a legendary status at the club; one of the stadium's stands is named after him. Only a couple of years ago, the fans were being called upon to vote for a new president and Bielsa flew in and was the first person in the cue to vote.

His career is tainted by one regrettable episode, as Argentina manager the 2002 world cup. It is clear that he 'over did' the preparations. He assiduously overtrained the squad and they literally could only limp onto the pitch. Argentina crashed out in the first round after heading into the tournament as hot favourites.

He remains a divisive figure in Argentina to this day, though he acquired a God-like status in Chile after taking over the reins of the national team. It was footballing renaissance. He also instilled a type of high-pressing game that has now become emblematic of all Chilean football. When he was their manager, he even lived in a little hut in the stadium's ground. Of course, he was accompanied by his encyclopedic library of football videos, which he methodically analyses.

A socialist in his politics, Bielsa only communicates to the media through press conferences. He insists on answering every single question from every media outlet. His answers tend to be long-winded and this means that the conferences drag on for several hours. Indeed, he has stated that 'Every section of the media should get the same attention from me, from the capital's most prominent TV channel to the smallest newspaper in the provinces.'

True to his principles, Bielsa left Chile after some disgusting political manoeuvring. The president, Sebastián Pinera, decided that he simply must go. Bielsa stated that he would leave if his contractor was replaced, Harold-Mayne Nichols. He followed through on this threat when Pinera installed a different candidate.

Later, he moved to the quirky club Athletic Bilbao. As he was now playing European football, I managed to see two of their games.

In the first game, against Real Zaragoza, they managed to win with ten men. The squad had already grasped his methods - they can take a while to sink in - and were climbing up the table. My dad and I even tracked his hotel, but he didn't appear to be inside and it appeared to be a fenced private residence. It could be called stalking, but we were assured that he was receptive to visitors!

The second game was the best football match I have ever been to in my life. It was a Europa Cup tie between Bilbao and Manchester United, in Manchester. Bilbao swept Manchester aside with ease. It was a footballing masterclass. Man Untd. were left very beleaguered.

His methods have also forged a generation of acolytes. Gerardo Martino, the current manager of Barcelona, is an avowed disciple. So is Mauricio Pochetinno, manager of Southampton. And the current manager of Chile, Jorge Sampaoli. All these managers have made their way through Newell's Old Boys youth system. Pepe Guardiola has expressed his admiration, citing him as the best manager alive.

Rigid, obsessive, even brazen, Bielsa makes all of his players believe firmly in his methodology. He is a fundamentalist who never alters his 3-3-1-3 formation. On one occasion the entire Argentinean squad complained that they should play with four defenders instead. Bielsa said, 'Very well, we shall have a vote.' The entire team voted for four defender. 'Ok, then, the team has spoken. We will play with three defenders.'

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Chilean elections

The next general election is under way soon. Initially I thought that the diaspora could vote - I planned on going to the Chilean embassy - but it so transpires that is not the case. (It was mooted as a possibility for a while, but the Chilean right rejected it since the diaspora consists principally of political asylum seekers, who are leftist.)

I feel that these elections are more reciprocal there than here. Whilst it is cynical in the sense that dollops of money are spent on propaganda and campaigning, any political party can snatch victory provided they capture the public's imagination. In the last election, a third-party canditate, Ominami, amassed over 20% of the vote and almost made into the second ballot. Here that is unthinkable because of the nature of the parliamentary system. The SDP in 1983 attained almost the same share of votes as Labour, but didn't get many seats in parliament because they didn't win in local councils.

The two candidates for this election are women: Michelle Bachelet, from the centre-left Concertación and Evelyn Matthei, from the centre-right Alianza Unida. Bachelet was tortured by the military and spent several years in exile. To the credit of Matthei, she played a hand in blocking another coup Pinochet had in store after the 1988 referendum. Apparently they both lived in the same neighbourhood as young girls and played together. (The upper middle classes all know each other in Chile, so stories like these are hardly infrequent.)

Michelle Bachelet

On a social level, I think that things are on a rise. All the aparatniks and levellers of power are finally being confronted. You can finally have a conversation with a right-wing reactionary bigot and convince that person he is wrong. The student protests are also raising a number of pertinent topics onto the agenda.

The centre-right government that has been in power over the last four years has been out of its depth. They have obstinately clung to claims which show that they clearly do not understand the demands made by the student movement. 'We believe that everyone should have a choice between a private and public education and that we shouldn't state should not legislate otherwise.' The glaringly obvious point to make is that hardly anyone can choose to have a quality education. Chile is one of the most unequal societies in the world. You are born into prosperity, rather than work your way into it. That's why radical reforms should be passed.

It is clear that Michelle Bachelette will win. She is a popular candidate and the Alianza has proved to be incompetent in its four year term. It will be a landslide victory. The question is that, after already having served a four year term in the past, she proved to be lethargic at times, precisely on the question of education. It cannot be questioned that she made invaluable decisions on health and welfare. In their twenty years of government, the Concertación's policies were incremental. The neo-liberal economic system left by Pinochet was largely left untouched and it is precisely because of this that Chile remains a very unequal and inequitable society.

Evelyn Matthei

Onimani once more is standing as candidate. Whilst this is dandy and fine, I still would not vote for him. Protests votes do not always translate into great governments. Here the Liberal Democrats revoked many of their progressive policies once they formed a coalition. Not to mention that third-party candidates who come along and say 'Vote for me!' every four years do not have a ministerial system in place. In the unlikely event that they get their share of power, it would most likely prove to be a shambles.

Of course, the main issue is education. Solve that and you solve a whole umbrella of contingent issues. Other major problems that need to be rectified are ones that are constantly tampered and silenced by the Catholic Church. Whilst the church proved indispensable as a force of resistance against Pinochet, they are now pulling Chile back in a number of ways. Because Chile is such a pious country, divorce and abortion are prohibited (the latter even in cases of rape). I also think that attitudes towards homosexuals are also atrocious. I have no issues with people's religious needs, but the clerical influence needs to be admonished.

I certainly love Chile and in an ideal world I would much rather live there (I may do in the foreseeable future). One aspect that does wear me down when I am there is the level of commodification. In many ways, it can feel like one big shopping mall at times. Advertisements abound everywhere. That is the depressing nature of free markets, which is a hangover from Pinochet.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Latin-American literature

Before the Second World War, Latin-American writers were scarce even in their homelands. Cheap paperbacks of the latest European novels abounded in book stores. The only local talent that was read widely was Roberto Arlt - his novels were even sold in kiosks. His novels dealt with the seedy side-streets, ruffians, lunatics and mobs of Buenos Aires.

Apart from the odd elite here and there, there was no modernist movement as such. Poets like Vicente Huidobro hastened to Paris and and became fervid presence in Parisian coffee houses. Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo wrote densely experimental verse, but then he led a tragically isolated life.

Where was there a literature which spoke about nationhood? Where was there a literature which wore its cultural idiosyncrasy on its sleeve? Pablo Neruda wrote the epic Canto General which, among other things, lamented the extinction of indigent tribes. Yet as a whole there was no collective Latin-American 'voice.'

Latin-America has never been a homogeneous culture. Indigenous tribes have interbred with colours and creeds and immigrants have always deluged its shores. Anyone can be a 'Latin-American.' I, for one, having grown up in Chile, consider myself as such. If it ever were to summon up a 'voice,' it would be bound to reflect this cosmopolitanism and diversity.

The European influences of Joyce, Proust, Woolf etc. soon crept in and gelled with the local folklore. Stream of consciousness, unattributed dialogue and multiple perspectives were appropriated by local writers and given a new slant.

Jorge Luis Borges had been writing poetry and prose unassumingly since the 1920s. He was part of the movement 'Ultraism,' which aimed to oppose the prevalence of European modernism and to forge a new voice. Metaphors ought to be kept at a bare minimum, it should be freed of baggy adjectives and still maintain a vestige of ambiguity.

Borges was a very well-read man, deeply familiar with classical literature. He drew from his vast pool of knowledge to form a strange hybrid landscape. He wrote apocryphal reviews and biographies. He wrote about strange creatures. His stories were very prismatic; common motifs included mirrors, parallel worlds, recurring dreams and labyrinths. His deeply surprising stories seemed to take place in a completely different world and lay the groundwork for future writers.

Yet the stories of Borges defied categorisation. You would also be hard-pressed to ascribe him a nationality. Is his fiction Argentinean or is it European?


Later novelists would suffuse this veneer of unreality with local dialect and colloquialisms. Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo is an astonishing novel. It appropriates modernist techniques, it is a non-linear narrative which rotates around multiple voices, yet it is written in Mexican dialect. All the characters in the novel are dead and the novel is comprised by their reveries and murmuring voices. It details the decline of an antiquated Mexican rural town and the eponymous characters who wrought its end.

A writer who held a strong influence, but remains obscure to the Anglophone world, was Juan Carlos Onetti. His style has its own beauty and is characterised by its pessimistic somnolent tone. His novels could be called existentialist, but they still have an air of the unreal to them. Most of his novels take place in the mythical 'Santa María,' such as A Brief Life.  A cross between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, it is a mythical land the character Brausen entertains himself with in the form of a screenplay. As he becomes more and more worn down by the reality surrounding him, he eventually immerses himself into this alternate world. Populated by several eccentrics, Santa María would become the setting for most of his later novels. When Uruguay was struck by a coup, Onetti was surprisingly detained. Released after a petition made by several eminent writers, Onetti soberly had Santa María destroyed in Dejemos hablar al viento. (Though it resurfaced as a wasteland in later novels.)


All this ultimately culminated in what was termed 'El Boom.' This phenomenon boosted the sales of writers like Rulfo and Onetti. It also popularised Latin-American literature worldwide. The four main exponents were Gabriel García Marques, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Córtazar and Carlos Fuentes.

I really can't stand Marquez! His magic realism strikes me as a phony gimmick. I find the writing style monotonous and repetitive. I have tried reading One Hundred Years of Solitude twice and have given up on both occasions. (I also tend to persevere whenever I encounter a cumbersome book!)

Mario Vargas Llosa is a vulpine, versatile writer. He has written about many different periods in Latin-American history and has deft writing style. He has written with panache about tyrants and abuses of power. His writing is very political. Indeed, he run for the Peruvian presidency under the centre-right ticket.

Cortázar is a mixed bag. His stories are brilliant, though I think that his novels have dated horribly. Although Hopscotch has its moments, it is riddled with 1960s cant and follows a group of Bohemians having meandering pseudo-intellectual discussions. His stories have dated far better. They are characterised by their absurdity and deadpan surrealism. Cortázar spoke about 'fissures' - cracks in reality one serependitously chances upon. His best stories rank among my favourites.

Other writers I have not mentioned include Antonio Di Benedetto and José Donoso. The former writes existentialist literature akin to Camus and Sartre, but it is set in the provinces of Buenos Aires. Donoso is a marvellous writer and his brand of magical realism - evidenced in his bizarre tour de force The Obscene Bird of Night - is far more to my liking than the Marquez variety.

Latin-American literature has sparked another resurgence of late. Granta published an issue devoted to a 'second boom.' Writers are generally moving toward realism and becoming ever more self-reflexive. The apotheosis of this is the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, whose tomes The Savage Detectives and 2666 have earned him numerous caveats.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Transposed egos

Most refined people and critics think that fiction should consist of believable, three-dimensional characters. A novelist should have also have an ear for realistic dialogue. Essentially, a novel should represent society in its time and day. The novel should be a naturalistic account of social life.

Sorry but you can get reality in the streets! Why would you want to replicate in a medium where everything is possible? Also, realism has been done so convincingly with the social realists of the 19th century, and even with modernists like Joyce and Faulkner, that it seems like a bit of a dead-end to me. Those writers have recreated their milieus so convincingly that my attempts would prove unrewarding. Whether it is the descriptive writing style of Zola, where the authorial voice is effaced from the text, or the dense introspection of Faulkner, those writers documented their time and age. Indeed, Joyce said that you would be able to rebuild what Dublin was like in the early 20th century after reading Ulysses

Perfection in politics is impossible. Civilisation is comprised of people with different goals and ethics. Strife and attrition will afflict any society. You can get perfection in art, though. Anything is possible and feasible in art. To recreate reality just for what it is, to put it simply, boring. The laws of physics can be altered; dead people can be narrators; the narrative can move backwards instead of forwards. There are no dos and don'ts. 

This does not necessarily mean that fiction is a utopia. That suggests a world where everything is needlessly perfect. (Wouldn't any utopia be incredibly boring to live in, anyway?) We are so afflicted in our lives that this 'attrition' and 'strife' we keep experiencing will invariably make its way into the text.

In my fiction, everyone speaks like me! Everyone thinks like me! All my characters are in some shape or form my ego transposed. Whilst this might prove frustrating to a lot of readers - especially those 'refined people and critics' I mentioned earlier - they are simply facing the frustrations I face in material reality. I mainly find reality frustrating precisely because no-one thinks or talks like me - i.e. bookishly, stiffly and stiltedly. In fiction I can create a world where everyone does. Everyone is wired up the way I am. And it is oh so wonderful.