In New York in 1923 the Argentinean boxer Luis Angel Firpo – the ‘wild bull of the Pampas’ – knocked the American heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Dempsey, out of the ring. Rather than count him out, the referee allowed Dempsey 17 seconds to recover and, in the second round, he knocked out his opponent, to widespread Argentinean outrage. On the same night in Buenos Aires, Richard Strauss conducted a premiere performance of Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony and, in a city centre hotel, a Viennese cellist was found dead, apparently having hung himself. Fifty years later, two Argentinean journalists, as part of the anniversary celebrations of their provincial newspaper, set out to explore the unlikely links between these seemingly disparate events.
These are the narrative bones of Martin Kohan’s intriguing novel, his first to be translated into English. In 17 chapters – one for each second Dempsey spent out of the ring – he tells a very human story of memory and loss, while teasing out universal themes of power, pride and justice. The arc of the novel, echoing both Dempsey’s fall and symphonic structure, is a beautiful construction and Kohan puts it to good use in crafting a work which speaks to both the heart and the brain.