Friday, 3 July 2015

Magic, or realism?

Do you ever suspect that people write magical realism because it’s easier than realism? (Plot a bit stuck? Stick in a flying pig. Character doesn’t quite work? Convert them into an angel). But now and then it just works. Some thoughts – and two recent books for the MR enthusiast

Magical realism can be crudely defined as the introduction of fantastic or irrational elements into a rational context. I suppose I encountered it for the first time in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, and it remains the book that most exemplifies magical realism for me. It is a genre closely associated with Latin America. As a language student in Ecuador in 1991, I expressed an interest in this type of literature, and found that this interest was received with real enthusiasm. One teacher spent a week reading Gabriel García Márquez with me; the latter's 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was probably the book that “launched” magical realism for most Anglophone readers.

García Márquez: magical hat? (Creative Commons)
In fact, the genre goes farther back into the 20th century, and its roots are at least partly European. But it does owe its global popularity to García Márquez. In any case, my teachers in Quito clearly saw magical realism as a South American cultural achievement, and took pride in it. Indeed it was exemplified in a then-recent Ecuadorean film, La Tigra, based on a story by Ecuadorean writer José de la Cuadra (1903-1941).

Yet García Márquez himself did not even like the term magical realism. Hazel Marsh, a lecturer in Spanish at the University of East Anglia who researches Latin American culture and politics, tells me he saw it as a way of ‘othering’ Latin Americans. “He spoke a lot about how he wrote about the reality he knew, the things his elder relatives told him, and that was normal for him,” she says. “He lived in a geography that does rain fish and do things that Europeans see as magical, but to him that was a Eurocentric perspective, taking European reality as the norm. As a Venezuelan friend told me once, ‘It's not our reality that's magical, it's European reality that’s bland’.”

Dr Marsh cites García Márquez on the subject in a 1998 book by Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez. The problem with Europeans, García Márquez said, was that “their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn’t limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs. Everyday life in Latin America proves that reality is full of the most extraordinary things. To make this point I usually cite the case of the American explorer ... who made an incredible journey through the Amazon jungle at the end of the last century and saw, among other things, a river with boiling water. ... After I'd written One Hundred Years of Solitude, a boy turned up in Barranquilla claiming to have a pig's tail. ...I know very ordinary people who've read One Hundred Years of Solitude carefully and with a lot of pleasure, but with no surprise at all because ...I'm telling them nothing that hasn't happened in their own lives.”

Well, OK. But I wonder if everything written as magical realism could really substantiate that claim, even in Latin America. Magical realism is a genre I don’t dislike but have probably read enough of. Not everyone is Gabriel García Márquez, or José de la Cuadra, or Isabel Allende. You start to suspect that people write magical realism because it’s easier than realism (plot a bit stuck? Stick in a flying pig. Character doesn’t quite work? Convert them into an angel). In any case, I’m a rationalist, and I am quite sure I can envisage more than the price of an egg. And I do not regard the rational world, European or not, as bland.

Still, I’ve recently read two books that I’d call magical realism, and which were very good – good enough, in fact, to make a case for the genre. In one case, Dana Mazur’s Almaty-Transit, the book works because of the writer’s outrageous imagination. In the other, Daniel Clausen’s The Ghosts of Nagasaki, the ghosts aren’t a plot device; their presence in the rational world is integral to the book. Whether or not the authors themselves would classify their books as magical realism is unclear, but it doesn't matter; if it’s defined as the fantastic in collision with, or present in, the rational world, then these two books fit it to a T.

First, to Nagasaki.

A young American financial analyst returns to his Tokyo flat one evening and begins, for no obvious reason, to write.

He starts with his arrival in Japan, four years earlier, at the age of 22, to work as an English teacher in Nagasaki. We’re in a noisy group of heavy-drinking young expat teachers, and our narrator is as smashed as the rest of them. But there is something a little more reflective about him. As he recounts his life as it was in Nagasaki, we learn that he had a childhood and youth back in the USA that he’s never really come to terms with; life in foster-homes, causing trouble as a child, and eventually a foster-parent who did love him, but who he lost. He is, in a sense, dead inside.

And then he starts to see ghosts – the ghosts of Nagasaki and its past. Why are they following him? Are they real, are they in his imagination, do they want to hurt him, or do they want to help him overcome his past? It slowly becomes apparent that some of them, at least, want to help. But it might be too late.

Daniel Clausen’s The Ghosts of Nagasaki exemplifies the eruption of the irrational and uncanny into the rational world. But in this book, magic realism isn’t self-indulgence; Clausen’s ghosts aren’t arbitrary. They’re products of Nagasaki’s history. What that history did to them, and to their characters, is what ties them to the main character’s own spiritual journey. This gives the book a certain depth, and a genuine narrative cohesion.

Clausen’s ghosts are inspired by two events. One is the atom bomb explosion in Nagasaki in 1945. However, two or three of these ghosts come from the classic 1966 novel Silence by Shusaku Endo. This concerned itself with the suffering of Christians persecuted in Nagasaki in the 1630s, and the silence of God in the face of a profound moral dilemma. Clausen goes so far as to adapt the character of Kichijiro, an untrustworthy apostate who plays a key role in Silence, and to have him come to life in the present. There is an unspoken link with the narrator’s own inner moral struggles.

Although the book’s themes are quite heavy, the book itself isn’t. Clausen’s brand of magical realism has a nice touch of the absurd. The narrator tries to soothe, if not salve, Kichijiro’s conscience by taking him to bars to meet the other students. The besuited Regional Manager of the language school turns into a samurai. There is even an imaginary iguana called Mr Sparkles (with that one, the author does nearly go too far).  Moreover Clausen’s characters are strong. In particular, as someone who’s worked abroad a lot, I think he’s good at capturing the atmosphere that surrounds hard-drinking young expat English teachers. Younger development volunteers can be much the same. They’ve thrown off the constraints of home and are out in the world, and are often pretty anarchic. The boozing is only part of this; it’s a way of thinking. Clausen gets this quite well with the narrator’s British flatmate. You also sense an innate feeling for the rhythms of life in Japan and the way they contrast with the narrator’s own.

The Ghosts of Nagasaki isn’t perfect. Clausen leaves the odd plotline hanging. Here and there he piques our interest in a character and then abandons it. Also, though it’s mostly well-paced, it can slow down a bit now and then, especially in the first half. Besides, to really convince me as a writer, Clausen would have to produce a book that tells a story as good as this without the magic and the ghosts. But I suspect he’d be well able to do so. The Ghosts of Nagasaki is an original and intelligent book that demonstrates how fantastical elements, far from being self-indulgent, can be central to a plot.

The second of these books, Dana Mazur’s Almaty-Transit, opens not in Kazakhstan but in California, where struggling, self-centred jazz producer Merry is trying to get the cash for a special microphone for a recording that she believes could be The One. Meanwhile her family deal with the mess that she is always making of things. Her Kazakh husband Aidar, a marine biology graduate, waits tables. To pay for the mic, their child Sultan must give up the money his Kazakh grandmother has sent him for a new bike.

Over the next two or three chapters, we see Merry interact with her family, and with musicians, and with the dodgy people she meets in her work. Far away in Almaty, we meet Aidar’s mother Alma, deeply saddened because her youngest son has married what she sees as some American tramp; she has never met Sultan. 

So far so good. All the characters, both American and Kazakh, are extremely well-drawn. Merry in particular is extremely credible. It seems we’re going to get a good modern novel about selfishness, dislocation, possessiveness, migration and family. And so in a sense we do, but not in the way we expect. Because Aidar dies in a bizarre accident. But he is dead and not dead, in a half-life in which he can interact with others. That half-life is in Kazakhstan, and he is desperate to see his wife and child in California. The rest of the book revolves in part on his attempts to win that right although the underworld is not likely to permit it; Aidar is from Kazakhstan and the norm of this half-life is that he must live it there.

This switch to the supernatural could have gone badly. It doesn’t, because Mazur is a true queen of the weird. In the course of what is not a long book, we’re hit with pig-faced children, stuffed and mounted humans, anthropomorphic apples and more besides. A chauffeur with a jackal head called Nube (a contraction of Anubis) ferries people between one world and the other. There is a lesbian savant called the Black Shaman. Much of this imagery is bizarre. Some of it is actually disturbing. Moreover it is intertwined with banal scenes from Merry’s life in suburban California as she tries, and fails, to get her life together, and then realizes almost too late that she may lose her son.

Good though it is, I found myself wondering where the hell this book was going. Magical realism, OK; but to what end? What does Mazur want us to take away from all this? Every reader will have to guess. For what it’s worth, I thought the alienation of migration was one theme; but much of the book seems to be about the passage – transit – of souls between one plane of existence and another, and whether that can ever be a two-way process.

It seemed, in fact, to be about who is and is not truly alive, and what defines life over death. I found myself thinking about a very different book (J.B. Priestley’s excellent Bright Day), in which the hero’s friend has a very strange sister, who communicates with the dead and perceives other worlds –the book’s set at a time (1913) when spiritualism was in vogue. One night she remarks vaguely that: “It’s all... quite different ... from what you imagine ... Like the dead and the living ... some people you think are alive are really dead ... and others you think are dead are really alive. ...”. Later Priestley’s narrator considers a cynical businessman of his acquaintance and concludes that he never truly enjoyed anything; was, in fact, never really alive. Bright Day and Almaty-Transit could not be more different, and are set a century apart, but there is an oddly similar theme – do you have soul, and do you belong with the living or the dead? The journey that Merry makes in the book suggests that Mazur is thinking of something similar. If so, there is a parallel with The Ghosts of Nagasaki, in which the narrator’s heart is dying. But Almaty-Transit is not the sort of book that serves up its message on a plate.

In any case, Almaty-Transit has plenty to hold the reader whether there’s a message or not. Mazur isn’t writing magical realism because it’s easy (it isn’t if it’s done well, anyway). She is a good writer. The characterization is excellent; I found Merry and Aidar and Alma very real indeed. The people from the jazz club are well done too. The imagery from the half-life is sometimes gripping (though very creepy; this is not a book for people prone to nightmares). The reader might or might not figure out what Mazur really wants to say, but they’ll have a good time trying.

These two books present two very different types of magical realism. Whether Mazur has a message or not, her vibrant if sometimes gruesome imagery may, for some readers, be the central point of the book. In Clausen’s it isn’t. In The Ghosts of Nagasaki, the ghosts of Nagasaki have a job to do, a role that is central to the story Clausen’s narrator has to tell. Yet both books fit the definition of magical realism: the introduction of fantastic or irrational elements into a rational context. It may be that no further definition of the genre is possible, or needed. If so, debates as to whether it belongs to South America, or whether Europeans are bland, are moot. And the fact that a boy in Barranquilla had a pig's tail is neither here nor there.

Dr Hazel Marsh’s book Hugo Chávez, Alí Primera and Venezuela: The Politics of Music in Latin America will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.

Mike Robbins’s own book, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail, 2014), was inspired by his journey to South America. It is rational but not bland and is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). Enquiries (including requests for review copies) should be sent to

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