Somehow, I didn’t encounter Mal Peet's work until a couple of years ago, after I’d written Kick. It was probably just as well; Peet’s extraordinary football novels - Keeper, The Penalty, and Exposure - are good enough to put you off writing. The common thread through each book is Paul Faustino, ‘the top football writer in South America’, who manages to be likeable despite his many flaws. Over the course of the trilogy, Faustino’s underlying goodness and decency emerge through his faults, eventually coming to define him. But it is in Keeper, my favourite of the three novels, where we get to see Faustino at his journalistic, morally ambiguous best.
The premise of the novel appears to be fairly simple: Faustino has secured an exclusive interview with El Gato (the Cat), a legendary goalkeeper who has just won the World Cup. Almost the entirety of the novel is presented orally, as Gato relates his life story and the events that led him to football’s ultimate prize. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the World Cup trophy sitting on the desk between Gato and Faustino – an object that would take on near-mythological qualities in almost any other football novel – is one of the least remarkable parts of the story. We don’t have to wait until the final pages to witness this coveted object: it is given to us in the opening chapter, after the dramatic victory has taken place (offstage), and diminished by Peet’s description:
‘It was in the shape of two figures, wearing what looked like nightdresses, supporting a globe. It was not very beautiful. From where Faustino was sitting, it looked rather like an alien with an oversized bald head. And every footballer in the world wanted it.’
So if winning the World Cup is not the remarkable element of this novel, what is?
The answer lies in Gato’s story. The son of a logger, Gato is born into poverty and destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, felling the majestic trees that surround his remote jungle town. Ungainly and awkward as a child, Gato is originally nicknamed La Cigüeña (the Stork) and soon gives up football matches in the plaza to explore the surrounding rainforest. It is here, in the noisy, dangerous darkness, that Gato makes an impossible discovery: a large, turfed clearing with a goal at one end. Gato meets the Keeper – ‘a ghost, a shaman, a conjuror, a non-existent person with no name’ – who teaches him how to keep goal, week after week, until Gato is sent to work with his father. It is while playing in one of the loggers’ rough matches that Gato is spotted by a scout and signed by a professional club.
Faustino is naturally sceptical. From a reader's perspective, the oral nature of Gato’s story adds to its elusiveness: we hear everything second-hand, filtered through memory – just as Faustino does. And, like Faustino, we’re unsure how much to believe. The office takes on the quality of a confessional, but it is the confessor, Faustino, who is flawed, while Gato undergoes a hard-worn apotheosis. His tale is full of hardship, struggle, and tragedy, and Peet expertly juxtaposes humanity’s destructiveness with the regenerative strength of nature. Gato reveals that his goalkeeping mastery depends upon him becoming the impenetrable forest and regressing to the animal state; he must move instinctively, become the hunter. It is a powerful reminder that we owe everything, right up to our greatest achievements, to the natural world.
I don’t think Keeper should really work as a novel. It focuses on perhaps the least glamorous and most esoteric footballing position, blends it with magical realism and environmentalism, and presents the result through the lens of journalism. There is a magnificent twist towards the end, and while you’re still reeling Peet hits you with another. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Brilliantly.
Keeper is a truly enchanting tale that will leave you lamenting the destruction our species has made its speciality, whilst yearning for the heroes that are forged under the bright lights and crushing sounds of stadia around the world. It will make you wish these two spheres could overlap, that the heroes could turn the planet’s slow defeat into an unexpected victory. It makes you believe that maybe they can. That maybe they will. ‘“I owe a great deal to the forest,”’ Gato says, ‘“and now I want to pay something back.”’
Recently, I read Katherine Rundell’s superb Amazonian adventure, The Explorer, and I found myself feeling inexplicably homesick for a place I’ve never been. It wasn’t until I re-read Keeper that I understood why: reading Rundell’s novel took me back to Gato’s childhood world. And that’s when I understood the true gift of Peet’s story: it made me realise that the rainforests and jungles belong to us all, and that we belong to them. Keeper didn’t persuade me of this truth, it just made me understand it. The whole planet is our home, and it must be respected and protected. As the enigmatic Keeper puts it:
‘“You have something to defend, to protect. It is only a football goal, of course: three pieces of wood and a net. But this is more than most people have. And if you can protect that, then perhaps other things, more important things, can also be protected. Do you know what I am saying?”’
Yes, Mal, I know what you are saying.