Short Story Review – Réka Mán-Várhegyi – Woman Striker Has Killer Left Foot (trans. Owen Good)

One sweltering summer morning I wake up to find I’m Lionel Messi, the FC Barcelona player.

It’s a dream, but it sets in motion the next decade or so of the narrator’s life.  Previously she was in public administration, living life (though perhaps not loving life), when suddenly she is struck with an unnatural ability to play soccer.  From nowhere, she is a star.

With a foreign mastery my right foot controls it and my left boots it back. The ball soars in a perfect arc and there’s something elegant about it—I can’t believe it was me who did it.

Soon, she has joined a club.  Soon, she has been signed to play professionally.  Soon, she is rich, successful, hurtling from one major team to the next, written about, glamorised, idolised.  Who is this woman?  How did she spring so fully formed?

And yet, there’s always, in the back of her mind, a feeling that she hasn’t quite received what she wanted out of life.

…I dealt with failure, I enjoyed university, and settled into public administration. I got married during university and I’ve been doing yoga for years to ready my body for pregnancy. I keep my body in perfect shape, time doesn’t bother me, or only a bit. I long for an air-conditioned, three-bedroom flat with a rooftop terrace, a spacious fitted wardrobe in the hallway, and a dishwasher in the kitchen, and I want a spine-friendly coir mattress.

The story races through time. Mán-Várhegyi rushes us so quickly through the life of the narrator that neither we, nor her, have time to think.  Instead it’s just -achievement – achievement – achievement.  Money pours in, and accolades.

But that niggling feeling never vanishes.  Where is the child?  The pregnancy that she had always wanted?  It hasn’t happened because of soccer, both because she was too busy, but also because her contract explicitly forbids it.  Slowly, over time, the amount of money, and fame, falls away to nothing because she never achieved her true goal of having a child.

Mán-Várhegyi’s use of language here is interesting.  So many expensive, extravagant, amazing situations are mentioned, but they are dealt with so quickly, and with such ordinary prose, that they clearly have no meaning or real value to the narrator at all.

Elle names me Woman of the Decade.

This is a sentence tossed at the end of a lengthy paragraph outlining many other achievements.  None of them matter because they are all just listed there.  Certainly, the narrator says she values them, but the way she explains them to us suggests otherwise.  It is only when she remembers her old life, and her old desires, that the language of the story relaxes, slows down, and breathes.

The tug-of-war between motherhood and a career is here, but it isn’t the primary focus of the story.  Instead, we are encouraged to become swept up in the rapid-fire activity of the story, and to appreciate this challenge as an undercurrent.  Just like it is for the narrator, for us it is supposed to be something we remember every now and again – that feeling that something is a touch wrong.  That somewhere life, even if it is good, has taken a turn it wasn’t supposed to.

Near the start of the story, just after dreaming that she was Lionel Messi, she wakes up and her new life begins.  Perhaps though she never woke, and the remainder of the story is a continuation of the dream.  And perhaps not – it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that all the glamour, glitz, power and fame meant nothing, in the end, when at the end, she hadn’t made the family she always wanted to raise.  She doesn’t care about the other achievements, and even jokes about returning to her old job.

But, hang on.  She does have children towards the end of the story.  They do exist, but they are dealt with in the same flippant manner as the rest.  That event, like all the others, becomes as nothing in the whirlwind.  And the reason is simple – they are adopted.  They are hers, but not hers in the way she wanted when she was young.  They have become an accoutrement of her fashionable life.  They are an accessory, a ticked box.

Most appealing to me is that the narrator doesn’t really seem to realise this herself.  She never wallows in her choices and achievements, nor what she lacks, but she doesn’t exactly exult in them, either.  It’s clear that the direction her life has taken holds little meaning for her, and is treated as such.  The story ends when she realises, along with her husband, that she can’t have everything.  And that’s it.  And it’s true.  But she didn’t want everything, she really just wanted a baby of her own.  And it has become clear that a fantastic career wasn’t a substitute.  That adopted children weren’t a substitute.  That money and fame weren’t substitutes.  She really wanted something, truly desired it, and the story ends with the two of them realising it isn’t going to happen, and while it may not be okay, it is what it is.  And then there’s no need to worry about the rest of her life, because she won’t.

Woman Striker Has Killer Left Foot is a short story by Hungarian writer Réka Mán-Várhegyi, and was translated by Owen Good.  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author Réka Mán-Várhegyi
Title Woman Striker Has Killer Left Foot
Translator Owen Good
Nationality Hungarian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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