19th March 2012 - Benjamin Lovegrove
Despite the acclaim the English-speaking world has granted writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie, magical realism has always been more popular with South American, African, Asian and Eastern European readers. Benjamin Lovegrove wonders if the rise of writers such as Haruki Murakami and Jonathan Safran Foer marks a turning point in our relationship with reality in fiction.
Whilst indulging in a little bookchat with one of our canny managers the other day, she mentioned a rep she'd recently seen - those are the wily folks from the publishing industry that come in to shed light upon forthcoming titles - who'd perhaps been a little embarrassed to use the phrase 'magical realism' to sell a certain book. Firstly, I know it sounds absurd that us booksellers have these sort of conversions in-passing, but we actually do, and doesn't it kind of warm you to know that we do?
I thought this meekness was peculiar though when authors such as Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie - both modern peddlers of the 'magical' realm - were seemingly held in such high esteem in our collective reading conscience. But contrary to this, tropes that define this genre appear to be unfashionable in British and American fiction, considered to be outmoded, airy concepts that we only entertain vicariously through foreign language authors, and which sit uneasily with our own practices - used only as aberrant plot devices rather than natural fabrics. After all, within South American, African, Asian and Eastern European storytelling these features are commonplace, merely an added texture to their fiction rather than a bizarre jolt from the norm. So why the stylistic divide?
At this juncture it may be useful to try and define this milky term. Actually, let's use an example: in Murakami's Kafka on The Shore, Nagata, a tracker of lost cats has been stalking out a vacant plot of land, hoping to glimpse Goma, a young tortoiseshell kitten he has been paid to find by her family. Upon his wait he is approached by a large black Labrador who commands him to follow, not by a snarl or a wag of the tail but by spoken word. Nagata is led by this nefarious canine to a house out of town wherein he meets the bizarre circus figure of 'Johnny Walker', a lithe man decked out in a tall velvet hat, long leather boots and a click-clack cane.
The character intones adroitly, "My name is Johnnie Walker. Johnny Walker... an iconic figure you might say. I'm not the real Johnnie Walker mind you. I have nothing to do with the British distilling company. I've just borrowed his appearance and name. A person's got to have an appearance and name don't you think?" Nagata then asks if he is a foreigner to which Johnnie replies, "Well, if that helps you to understand me, feel free to think so. Or not. Because both are true."
It is ambiguous as to what Nagata's mission may be, or if any of this is 'real' at that moment, but this quote and the outré events leading up to it contain for me (and consider that a disclaimer if you will) the essence of magical realism.
It is this hybrid of reality and non-reality, the weaving of the bizarre into the mundane and the opulence of the phantasmagorical which is so natural in non-Western texts, that is so characteristic of this school of writing and is there unquestionably, not as a contrivance. To paraphrase Johnnie Walker, both reality and non reality can be true - whichever best helps you understand.
Conversely, when it is used in Western texts, magic realism is used more pointedly and politically, as more of a device. But I'll get into that later.
There are many claims to Latin American dominance in this genre, with Gabriel García Márquez as an early forerunner, but for many, the grand-patron of this movement is Franz Kafka, with Metamorphosis being the obvious example. Bulgakov's twisted fairy tales, The Master and Margarita and The Heart of a Dog are also excellent specimens, but laying all claims of foundation aside, it is important to note these are all texts from cultures that hold folklore and elements of surrealism and mythic tradition at the root of their storytelling.
Running at a discordant parallel to this and despite displaying many of its traits in his work, Nigerian author Ben Okri shuns the categorisation, dubbing his approach 'dream logic' instead. This is perhaps the most interesting in revealing the differences between ours and differing nation's approaches to fiction. It points towards an ingrained, African way of life, a 'logic' and when, on the first page of his Booker Prize-winning effort The Famished Road, he balks at the "amazing indifference of the living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe", we begin to fathom the depth of the disparity.
This is a writing much more attuned to the wonders of life and its spiritual possibilities, a work in which folklore never receded in the consciousness. The lines between the spirit world and mortal plain segue effortlessly.
So returning to the original dilemma, why should there be a negative stigma attached to this form? Looking at examples of magic realism in Western fiction we books can unearth of few truths. Giddied by the speed of industrial change and our constant reinvention, we have almost been severed from our esoteric selves and the sense of wonder can imbue many of these other texts. But the works of very prominent authors such as Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer still allude to certain characteristics, albeit in rather more mechanical ways. For example, the riffing upon Jewish history in Everything Is Illuminated and Paul Auster's use of the 'writer-as-subject' technique in, well, pretty much everything he's written both belong to the stable. But these are often glaring mechanisms within the works, serving to create a divergence from reality for that effect alone, often leaving a manipulative aftertaste.
It could be argued that much of our escapism nowadays tips into the hyperreal. Fantasy needs to be overt and clearly defined for us to consume it. Alternatively, this off-kilter deception of the senses which bends reality and invites us to inspect it may be something we simply don't trust. It unsurprisingly doesn't sit well with those from our society who have shunned their deities and prefer a reliance upon the material. Hopefully though, as readers, we can still keep in touch with the 'magical' through a wealth of amazing authors from these mythic and exotic lands. It shouldn't ever be something to be ashamed of.
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