The plot and format, after all, would have appealed to the great librarian writer.
There are 17 chapters, each representing one of the seconds spent outside the ring by world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey when knocked through the ropes by the brawling Argentinean Luis Firpo, and focusing on Dempsey’s thoughts and impressions in that second.
But interwoven with that narrative is an account of an event that took place the same evening, when Richard Strauss conducted a Mahler symphony in Buenos Aires. Then there’s the death of a cellist, also in Buenos Aires, a mystery which reaches down the decades to 1973, when a journalist looks into the Dempsey-Firpo fight on its 50th anniversary.
Clearly there’s a lot of plot going on here.
Reading the book you can’t avoid the conclusion that there’s also a wider point being made about Argentina itself, a relatively small country overshadowed by larger neighbours, whether it’s Brazil or the United States, but the subtlety of this point is tricky, and may be related to the fact that the book is translated from Spanish.
It’s not that this is a bad translation — there’s little of the stiffness that you usually associate with a book that’s been converted to another language, though it lacks the brio of my all-time favourite Argentinean translation. (The English version of Diego Maradona’s autobiography, whose freewheeling colloquialism goes so far as to put pearly-queen cockneyisms in the mouth of one-time national team manager Carlos Bilardo; at one stage he barks: ‘Leave it out, Diego,’ at the great man, as though they were all down to Covent Garden for some jellied eels.)
However, there’s a flatness to the prose style that does no favours to the different registers that Kohan has to try and juggle — the voice of the omniscient narrator looking over Dempsey’s shoulder ringside and that of Roque, the young journalist who’s learning about boxing and Mahler in 1973, often seem to bleed into each other and become difficult to tell apart. Perhaps in the original Spanish it’s easier to distinguish them, but there was a lot of loud exhaling as this reviewer tried to work out who had the floor at various stages in the book.
Serpent’s Tail is an imprint with a well-earned reputation for spotting the offbeat and the quirky, and in an era when appealing to the lowest common denominator is the rule of thumb not just in publishing but in most creative fields, they are to be applauded.
However, even allowing for a fondness for the Dempsey era, for Toots Shor and Joe DiMaggio and Damon Runyon et al, this book was a bit of a stretch. I applaud the ambition but Kohan and his publishers have just gone a little too far into left field.
The point nobody ever remembers about Jorge Luis Borges, with whom Kohan is compared, is that he wrote short stories: you can try all the literary tricks you want, but the master knew that brevity is the best way to hold a reader’s attention.