Monday, 25 October 2010

Think Magic Realism

When we think magic realism we think of the expansive, the mystical. We think of fantastical events made natural, never acknowledged or explained by the cunning narrator(s), whom we come to form a relationship with. We think triple names – Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa. Certainly, we think Latin America.

When we think magic realism we often think social subversiveness – or blasphemy, depending on your politics. We think of José Saramago – whose novel The Gospel According To Jesus Christ received the full fury of the Catholic Church, but also a Nobel Prize – and we think of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses winning similar acmes of condemnation and praise.

Some of us think postmodernism, especially if we’re into Italo Calvino, or Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore – in which case we also think of a sky raining fish.

Interestingly, many of us think of Kafka himself, though it’s hard to say if Kafka or the imagined community of magic realism would be keen on this attribution. Works like the claustrophobic Metamorphosis, where a man in his room is transformed into a beetle, are usually understood as more allegorical than magical, and they do not completely naturalise the bizarre, as required by the genre. Or, perhaps, they are a different type of magic realism – more straightforward, less epic, tangled conceptually but not in narrative. Either way, it seems many of us are thinking about definitions of magic realism – and some useful ones can be found on the Arizona State University’s website.

When we think magic realism, most of us think folklore and fable as we have seen them in Isabel Allende’s writing: ancestors’ spirits, cyclical time, and natural settings that are living things. These motifs make many postcolonial readers resist the term ‘magic realism’ itself, arguing it defines as magic the things that were understood as real in the Latin American traditions from which they stemmed, such as talking animals and conversations with the dead.

According to this article by Neil Ayres, when we think magic realism we also think Man Booker Prize, which only affirms the literary prestige the genre has won over the years. And if magic realism makes you think Nobel Prize, that’s also understandable: Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias (1967), Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1971) and American novelist Toni Morrison (1993) are only a few of the laureates writing in the genre.

Some of us don’t think it’s a genre at all, but a technique or literary mode – though this argument weakens against the rigorous stylistic criteria that make a work magic realist, and weakens again when we trace the substantial historical development and literary canon of this, um, genre.

Those who were reading in the ’80s might think of the luscious recipes of Tita in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (and for them quail will never not be erotic). For those who were born in the ’80s, Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Jonathan Safran Foer might be more familiar (but still triple-named) proponents of the genre.

More recently, and on our own southern hemisphere, when we think magic realism we think Wayne Ashton. Ashton’s first novel, Under a Tin-Grey Sari, was shortlisted for the 2002 WA Premier’s Book Awards, the Judge’s Report stating that ‘The narrator's Rushdie-like sense of magic realism helps create a rich tapestry of human emotions and actions even as the characters live in a chaotic, mystical world. Wayne Ashton's postcolonial narrative mimics colonial absurdities and then undercuts them with quiet, ironic force. He has re-created a world both with child-like wonder and a carefully nuanced sense of social responsibility.’ (Read the full Judge’s Report here).

Ashton’s newly released novel, Equator, is his second contribution to contemporary magic realist literature. Equator is epic in its temporal, geographical and historical scopes. The novel’s playful epigraph isn’t kidding when it says, ‘Gotta mix, gotta mingle, hup two three, over the hungry mountains and over the hungry seas.’ The mingled storylines, concepts, and characters are delivered not only clearly, but wholly. In a story told by multiple narrators and addressed to a butterfly, the creativity and foresight of the writer seem uncanny. Cyclical time, so typical of the genre, is explored through the intergenerational relationships of the characters, but also through the manipulation of memory, which – like water, we are told – has three states: ‘cherished or loved; lost or forgotten; bit­ter or destructive.’ Like the great magic realist stories of love – those we see in Allende’s Eva Luna and García Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of SolitudeEquator shapes an intricate and expansive love story as it follows the boy Carlos on his search for Rosa. And like the great magic realist stories, Equator broaches social issues so effortlessly, so boldly, that we get that flutter in our stomachs when we put it down. Because ultimately, when we think magic realism, we don’t think at all – we feel.

Naama Amram, Fremantle Press Editorial Intern

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