I have just for the third time recently replaced back on the shelves, between Okri and Rushdie, 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My problem, as ever, is this: What's it all about?
Is there something wrong with me, I ponder neurotically, splaying the pages of Midnight's Children wide in search of some hidden meaning, that until now, has eluded my philistine, unimaginative brain? Why shouldn't a cloud of butterflies surround the woman you love - particularly if you live in literature?? It's a metaphor. And are metaphors after all, not the prerequisite of literature? If it happened in a movie it would be ridiculous, cliche, absurd. But when you do not actually see it A.K.A in writing, then it is more of a hint, a suggestion, an abstraction of an idea that leads to an image IN YOUR MIND.
I am certainly no fact-obsessed purist. I do not solely want to read diary entries, memoirs, travel literature and GASP!, shocking celerity reveals passed off as writing. I'm not the person who says, 'I just can't get into it knowing it's not real.'
Literature is, in many ways, the freest artistic genre. You are not confined by limitations as with many other mediums (the painter and the size of the canvas, the colour of the pigments; the photographer and the constant problems with light and composition - even the weather.). (Martin Amis said as much last week at the Hay Festival, incidentally). Thus you can inject it with endless amounts of imagination. In theory, I'm very much in favour of Magical Realism. I'm all for concept taking over from the specifics of the physical world. One of my favourite novels, Brave New World, does just this - set predominately in a dystopean future version of the UK, actuality is somewhat sidelined by concept; which is the point of the fable-like tale really. Within fantasy we glimpse fable, then moral dilemma, a warning and truth.
All three of the novelists I have mentioned that have recently come under the (mystical) umbrella of Magical Realism have spurned the term. Ben Okri prefers to see his work as 'dream-logic' narrative, stating, 'I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality ... nobody has an absolute reality.'
Fair enough. I'll buy that. But I still couldn't finish The Famished Road. I wonder if an exceptionally inspiring English Lit teacher could explain something I am obviously not getting, and persuade me to look at it differently. As for now, I do not feel like the 'magical' aspects of the 'realism' add anything. If anything, they cloak the humanity of the stories and make them into something untouchable and almost laughable, like fairytales.
After getting so perilously close to the end of 100 Years of Solitude, I remarked to a friend that, 'I loved the irony of it all. I mean - the families' concerns are so petty.' To which I was greeted with a stoney face and the remark that, 'It's not meant to be ironic. You are actually supposed to care about the dirt-eating girl and the ever-decreasing size of the colonel.' But then, I am English and it was originally written in Spanish. And English is a horribly ironic language.
(If you consider yourself such a teacher as mentioned here, please get in touch by the way.)
If we go to the other end of the literary Cool Spectrum, we find ourselves surrounded by goblins and dragons and reading Terry Pratchett. I do not like his books - the humour seems infantile and nerdy to say the least - but I like the brashness with which he condemns Magical Realism, saying that it is, 'like a polite way of saying you write fantasy and is more acceptable to certain people ... who, on the whole, do not care that much.'
Unsurprisingly, the term was originally coined by an art critic. Franz Roh first used the phrase in 1925 to describe a painterly offshoot of Surrealism known also as The New Objectivity. But it was later that it became adopted by several prevalent European writers in Buenos Aires (and with the publication of Jorge Luis Borges' Historia Universal de la Infamia in 1935) that Latin American Magical Realism really took off.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez clearly follows in this tradition - characters eating dirt, coming back from the dead, obviously I've mentioned the butterflies - but I still just don't get it. What extra element does it bring to the prose? To me, (I have yet to find a Magical Realist novel that thrills me or that I cannot put down) this genre, while, admittedly forced upon its writers at least in name, is something I just can't understand as interesting. Perhaps if it was done in a different way - could Virginia Woolf's Orlando be considered a Magical Realist novel?? - from what I have read, then all the disparate pieces of real life Argentina and fantastical spirit world of the elders could be brought together in a powerful, evocative, relevant work of prose.
As it is, I feel like Magical Realism is a bit like the Hitcher going nu-rave in Series Three of The Mighty Boosh - opposing elements 'combining to make something not quite as good as either.'
Maybe we should all just watch this entertaining Surrealist-style film featuring a young, pre-Female Eunuch Germaine Greer and ponder the conundrum??
If you strongly disagree, please leave a comment. I would love to be swayed. Also, any reading suggestions, anyone?