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“I actually could not put the book down. It is well written and kept my interest. I want more from this author.”
Reader review of Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead on Amazon.com 

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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Hand of God

Note: This particular entry is being cross-posted on both my book and expat blogs.

Because of my personality type, I find myself compulsively scanning newspaper headlines from several different countries on a daily basis. Usually, there is a logical degree of variation, from country to country, as to what lands on the front pages. Sometimes, though, the same news dominates the front page everywhere. Normally, that tends to happen only there has been a major disaster of some kind or a particularly dramatic development in the United States. Sometimes it is the death of someone famous.

Rarely have I seen such uniformity in top headlines as I have seen today on the covers of papers in Ireland, the UK, the rest of Europe, Chile, Peru, the rest of Latin America and even the US. It is a testimony to the unifying power of the sport of soccer that the top story everywhere was the sudden death of Argentine soccer god Diego Maradona of an apparent heart attack at the age of 60.

I say “even the US” because soccer does not have quite the hold in my own country as it does in the rest of the world. This is despite the fact that many of us would have played the sport in our youth and would be quite familiar with the rules. Certain countries, i.e. the ones that use the word “soccer” (the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland), have their own homegrown sports they call “football.” Most everywhere else, though, that word and its variants (fútbol, le foot, fußball) refer to what is universally called “the beautiful game.” While Maradona’s demise was widely reported in the US, he did not make the front pages of, for example, The Bakersfield Californian or The Seattle Times. He did make the front page of The New York Times, though well below the fold. He likely would have made the front page of The Wall Street Journal, but that paper does not publish on Thanksgiving. (Happy Thanksgiving, by the way, my fellow Americans.)

An impressive number of papers made a playful reference to God’s hands in their headlines, as exemplified by the UK’s Daily Express: “RIP: The eternal, flawed genius… now safe in the hands of God.” These are all not-so-subtle references to a famous/notorious goal he scored in Mexico City on June 22, 1986. It was in a quarter-finals match between Argentina and England. The goal should not have counted because Maradona used his hand. In fact, he should have received a yellow card for the infraction. Amazingly, no referee had a clear view, so the goal was allowed. Combined with a subsequent Maradona goal, it meant a 2-1 victory for the Argentines.

Afterwards, Maradona proclaimed that his first goal of the match had come thanks to “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” The goal was henceforth known as the “Hand of God” goal. The second one became known as the “Goal of the Century.”

In Asif Kapadia’s documentary Diego Maradona, released last year, the soccer titan drew a link between that win over England and the Falklands War a few years earlier: “We, as Argentinians, didn’t know what the military was up to. They told us that we were winning the war. But in reality, England was winning 20‑0. It was tough. The hype made it seem like we were going to play out another war. I knew it was my hand. It wasn’t my plan but the action happened so fast that the linesman didn’t see me putting my hand in. The referee looked at me and he said: ‘Goal.’ It was a nice feeling like some sort of symbolic revenge against the English.”

Maradona’s passing comes at a time when his life and career and even the Falklands War are all fresh in my mind. That is because the la Guerra de las Malvinas, as the Argentines called that conflict, is a plot element in Searching for Cunégonde, and there is even a reference to the soccer player in the novel. In Chapter 14 our hero Dallas’s search for his long-missing friend Antonio leads him and his new British friend Donal to Mendoza, Argentina, and to a man named Alberto. To keep their quest from ending in failure, they need to gain the wary Alberto’s confidence. It appears that the pair have run out of luck until, by chance, Donal and Alberto discover a mutual bond over their passion for international football.

“There is a young Argentine player you need to watch out for,” says Alberto. “He is only twenty years old, but he is already better than George Best ever was. Listen to my words. Remember the name Maradona.”

Indeed, at that point Maradona had wrapped up five years playing for a club called Argentinos Juniors and around that time signed a contract worth US$4 million with Boca Juniors. At not quite 16 years old, he had become the youngest player ever in the history of the Primera División. He had scored 115 goals in 167 appearances. Early on he was dubbed el Pibe de Oro (the golden kid). So Alberto did not need to be a gifted prophet to see Maradona’s bright future all the way back in 1981. What he probably did not foresee was the star’s later life beset by addictions and health problems.

Sadly, I will now never get the chance—as if I was ever likely to—to ask the great man if he was at all flattered to be featured in my novel. I suppose there is still hope, though, to someday ask actor Rob Lowe what he thought of his brief mention.

In the end Dallas and Donal get the information seek from Alberto, so at least that part of their quest is successful. As Dallas narrates, “I continued thanking him as he walked us back to the street. Locking the gate after us, he said to Donal, ‘Remember my words, Gringo! Watch out for Maradona!’ ”

Prescient words indeed.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Thumb Out

It happened again the other day. On one of my occasional isolated Covid walks, I met a neighbor, and we had a chat to catch up. He reported that he had reached the final three chapters of Searching for Cunégonde.

“Go on,” he said, “these are all things that happened to you, right?”

By now I just deal with these comments by wearily “confessing” and saying, yes, every single incident in the book is something that I actually experienced myself. Even the crazy lovemaking incident in Santiago as well as the one in Berlin. All of it.

To be fair, in the first Dallas Green novel, Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, many of the incidents were plucked from youthful experiences I had with my wild best friend. Or with one of my college roommates. Or some other friend I made along the way. Others were stories I had heard and which I shamelessly stole. The thrust of the story, though, was a fiction. I never traveled the length of Mexico in search of a missing friend. As if I would put myself out that much for someone else.

In the next book, Lautaro’s Spear, fiction veered ever farther away from my own reality. I never lived and worked in San Francisco, though I might have if life had not led me to Seattle instead. I have never attended the Deauville American Film Festival, as much as I would like to. On the other hand, I did once wander the streets of Paris all night long, and I did visit Jim Morrison’s in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Also, as I have recounted here before, I did spend a night on a train drinking fine scotch with a group of random people who all spoke different languages, more or less as I described in the book. Disappointingly, I still have not heard from any of them, so presumably none of them have chanced across my book, found that long-ago experience described therein and recognized themselves. Or if they have, they haven’t bothered to make contact.

The narrative of Searching for Cunégonde is even farther removed from my own biography. While I have spent much time in Connemara, I have never hidden out there on my own. I certainly have done no farm work there—or anywhere else for that matter—for at least six and a half decades. Taking photographs did happen to be one of my duties at an early newspaper job of mine many moons ago, but unlike Dallas, I can by no means be considered a photojournalist. I certainly did not witness the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in fact, I was nearly oblivious to the event because at the time I was working day and night at a time-consuming job in the software industry. And no, I did not live in a small apartment with a beautiful French woman in the 15th Arrondissement off the Rue de Vaugirard or, for that matter, in any other quarter of Paris. And I most definitely have never attended a World Cup soccer match.

Having said all that, I will confess that there is one interlude in the novel that was taken largely unaltered from my own experience, and it is likely the one you might least expect. On the day of French President Georges Pompidou’s funeral in Paris, there was indeed a young Dutch-Indonesian man trying to wend his way through the chaos of the traffic. And he did indeed pick up a hitchhiker on the way there, somewhere in northern France. And he did tell the hitchhiker a story about how he emigrated from Indonesia to Europe. And he was indeed engaged to be married to the daughter of a prominent and wealthy Argentine family, though he was not rushing to meet her on that particular day. Where Chapter 5 of Cunégonde deviates from reality is that the hitchhiker was not Irish but American, and he most certainly did not steal anything. Furthermore, I have no idea what happened to the driver of the car after that day. I never saw him again, and as far as I remember, we did not even exchange names.

Will he (or someone close to him) happen across my book and recognize himself and perhaps get in touch? I am sure the odds against such a coincidence are astronomical, and while I have had some quite interesting coincidences in my life, they usually are not as unlikely or as full of portent as those that happen to Dallas.

Why do I think that if I told my neighbor, who is prone to believe that everything book is something that happened to me, that the incident in Chapter 5 was one of the few things in the book that actually had happened to me, he wouldn’t believe it?

Oh yeah, and a priest really did tell me that he had performed an exorcism in Australia.