Reviewed by Graham Oliver
THE PLOT OF Papers in the Wind could be the beginning of a joke: A Jew, a lawyer, and a high school English teacher walk into negotiations for the transfer of a soccer player. This, of course, is a gross oversimplification of a story that spans years and even entire lives. The soccer player is Mario Juan Bautista Pittilanga, a kid who was a rising power in the U-17 division, but in the Argentinian minors has little hope of achieving stardom. The three men own his transfer because the English teacher’s brother, Mono, used a windfall to buy it, hoping to use the resulting profits to improve his relationship with his daughter, Guadalupe. The book opens with Mono’s funeral.
Confused yet? Papers in the Wind doubles back on itself and overturns prior knowledge constantly. Sacheri tells his story using a two-layered narrative: chapters alternate between the present and past, between pre- and post-Mono’s funeral. The structure allows Sacheri to cover a huge range of life questions. How does male friendship survive the adult world of family life and income disparity? How much is that friendship worth? What happens when masculinity collides with grief? What do we owe to those who got us to where we are?
Ultimately, the plot unwinds in a way that would feel too tidy in a lot of books, but Papers earns its clean ending by demanding its audience constantly ask which characters are in the wrong, which characters are in the right, and where we, as readers, would fall in a similar situation. In the same vein, the characters appear at first glance to be archetypes. Mauricio is the cool-as-a-cucumber lawyer who always thinks three steps ahead and turns situations to his own benefit, whose active goal in life is to exude superiority like his boss at the law firm. El Ruso, “The Jew,” is the group’s yes-man and a serial business failure—when he’s presented with good fortune, he’s described as being “set adrift in the wide ocean of incredulity and silence.” Fernando, the idealistic English teacher, provides the dose of morality and obligation; teaching for him is an act of self-flagellation, one where he’s subjected to classes of students “so doltish correcting their papers will take his entire life.” These archetypes, however, allow for big surprises, and Sacheri knowingly takes advantage of that.
In the process of skillfully utilizing his characters and the narrative structure, though, Sacheri falls into a few traps. The two-layered, parallel stories of past and present start off as useful scaffolding for one another. Each propels the story forward; each chapter gives the reader something new to digest. Unfortunately, the story that takes place in the past loses its appeal and tension before the present story is resolved, yet Sacheri stays true to his alternating chapter model. This means that in the second half of the book, every other chapter feels mostly purposeless. The good news is that those chapters become shorter and shorter, so not much space is wasted.
By the end of the book, none of the women have been fleshed out in the way that, say, the soccer player Pittilanga, the shady “entrepreneur” who helped Mono buy the player, or Ruso’s business manager are. We can suspend some concern about the lack of space given to female characters—the book, after all, is about the intense friendship of four men and the trials that challenge that friendship. But even tangential male characters, like a sports announcer the men try to bribe, seem more three-dimensional than any of the women. This includes Ruso and Mauricio’s spouses, as well as the daughter whom all their scheming is for. The reason for this lack of focus is unclear—in the glimpses we get of the female characters, Sacheri seems able to write them well, but ultimately those slivers are all we get.
Sacheri’s biggest success here is in fully sculpting an incredibly complex and dynamic friendship between four men who have little in common besides a soccer player. Don’t be intimidated by the book’s focus on the sport, though. Soccer is merely the occasion, the backdrop for the friendship that Fernando correctly praises for its simplicity: “There was no affectation. No complication. They called a spade a spade. Fernando adored them, precisely for that simplicity, because they were the closest thing he knew to purity.” We, as readers, root for that friendship, want to believe in it, want it to be sincere. And, ultimately, Sacheri is skillful enough to dodge saccharine or pessimistic irony, crafting a story that both deeply challenges and deeply satisfies.
Trans. Mara Faye Lethem, Papers in the Wind, Publisher: Other Press, 2014, 476 pages, paperback, $18