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31 July 2006
MR OVER THE WEEKEND + COMMENTARY: Is there room for children's perspectives and science fiction tropes in magical realism?
Topic: July 2006
[ed. note for 8.05.06: not sure why this entry doesn't seem to show up as the most current, but I'm hoping it'll at least show up in the July 2006 listings.]


Ever heard of a "hungry ghost?" If your answer is yes, it's likely you've got connections with Taoism. The Hungry Ghost Festival is widely observed by Chinese throughout Asia, and it has a tremendous effect on daily life at the time it's celebrated. From an article in Reuters/India: "It's the time of the year many Chinese businesses dread—the hungry ghost festival, when families avoid moving house, couples postpone their wedding plans, and tourists shy away from beach resorts."


[07.31.06]—Spotted on the Independent's top 50 hottest summer reads: at #37—The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. "Hugely influential feminist retellings of classic fairy tales like Bluebeard and Mr Fox, reissued along with other key Carter works. Sharp, brilliant and thought-provoking stories from the much-missed doyenne of British magical realism." Carter is one brilliant die-hard magical realist! You go, girl, wherever you are!

[07.30.06]—Folks in the Pleasant Hill, CA environs recently discussed the magical realist accents in the novel, Maybe a Miracle by Brian Strause at Orinda Books as part of the Contra-Costa Times book club led by Lynn Carey. Read their findings here.

[07.27.06]—This New Yorker discussion of African author Ngugi wa Thiong’o by John Updike is not to be missed.

[07.23.06]—Two titles by Will Clarke discussed by Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times deserve some scrutiny by those inclined to connect dots between magical realism and madness: Lord Vishnu's Love Handles: A Spy Novel (Sort Of) and The Worthy: A Ghost's Story, both published by Simon & Schuster.


[07.31.06]—Praying Mantis by Andre Brink—Writes Laurence Phelan for The Independent—"[Protagonist Cupido Cockroach] wasn't born in the usual way, but 'hatched from the stories his mother told.' One of these had it that an eagle dropped him in her lap, another that a phantom stranger delivered him in a dream."

[07.30.06]—The Keep by Jennifer Egan—Writes Madison Smartt Bell for The New York Times—"Jennifer Egan is a refreshingly unclassifiable novelist; she deploys most of the arsenal developed by the metafiction writers of the 1960s and refined by more recent authors like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace—but she can’t exactly be counted as one of them. The opening of her new novel, The Keep, lays out a whole Escherian architecture, replete with metafictional trapdoors, pitfalls, infinitely receding reflections and trompe l’oeil effects, but what’s more immediately striking about this book is its unusually vivid and convincing realism." Perhaps not magical realism, but metafictionally ancillary?

[07.30.06]—Sleepwalking Land by Mia Couto, tr. David Brookshaw—Writes Uzodinma Iweala for The New York Times—"War in Africa is hardly a new phenomenon, nor are voices telling its stories of terror and triumph. Yet some of the continent’s most devastating conflicts—and the literature born from the experiences of their survivors—have often gone unnoticed in the West. The Mozambican writer Mia Couto’s 1992 novel Sleepwalking Land, newly translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, helps correct this oversight by telling of his country’s 16 years of brutal civil war, using magic realism to turn its harsh reality into an exceptionally beautiful nightmare."

[07.29.06]—The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo—Writes Jenny Sawyer for The Christian Science Monitor—"…[T]his isn't a story about a girl who loved a china rabbit. It's a story about a china rabbit who learned to love a little girl—and not just a little girl, but a sailor and his wife, a hobo and his dog, a sickly child, a homeless boy. Royalty and riff-raff alike—but especially the riff-raff."

[07.29.06]—Madonna from Russia by Yuri Druzhnikov, tr. Thomas Moore—Writes Tibor Fischer for Guardian Unlimited—"The writing is at times reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn—indeed, he has a guest role—but Druzhnikov has a lot more humour (well, he missed the gulag) and even offers a whiff of magical realism."


This past weekend, I had the amazing experience of viewing the Spanish film, Spirit of the Beehive [here's a link to a discussion of the film by blogger Campaspe for Self-Styled Siren]. In a nutshell, the film is about a little girl in post-Franco Spain who, after viewing the Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein, decides to try to invoke his "spirit" (a ritual as described to her by her naughty older sister) in an attempt to learn why both the little girl and the monster in the movie were killed.

Oh, what a beautiful film! And the music was perfectly evocative, capturing the oddity of living as a child without supervision in a landscape so vast and remote and yet so close to the vest of the Franco regime. The subtlety of this film is its greatest strength.

One of the reasons I chose to watch this film? One of Margin's readers asked us to include it as a title on our film list. Having not seen the film previously, I did a little research and decided that it could be, at least peripherally, considered magical realist in its form (theoretically). Having seen the film now, I think I'm a bit more on the fence for a couple of reasons.

First: The key "magical realist" scene involves an interaction between the child protagonist Ana and Frankenstein. This lingering between worlds—of childhood imaginings and harsh reality, along with the possible and the impossible—seems to suggest a solid planting in the magical realist œuvre.

But then I pull back. When are stories told from a child's point of view simply imaginary (fantastic) and when are they truly magical realist? Magical realism is rooted in the real, after all. Part of the answer to this inquiry relies upon our perception of the character in question. In the case of Beehive, the child is a gullible 8-year-old (who ends up being not so gullible after her big sister fakes her own death—Ana is then once bitten, twice shy, I'll wager—but, still…) Did little Ana really see Frankenstein (another way of putting it: Was that really Frankenstein?), or did she only want to see Frankenstein?

More to the point: As an adult watching this film, does it even matter what I think? I was sympathetic with Ana (who wouldn't be, her beautiful dark eyes had me from the first), but I think she only wanted to see the monster in order to make things right in her own mind. In a way, her actions rewrote Shelley's version of the story as a way to resolve unanswered questions within herself.

Second: Is there room for science fiction tropes in magical realism? When we first placed Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on our recommended reading list, I had second thoughts. Should we really strive to function more on an Either/Or basis with this list? Should work be only magical realist, or should it include works that are only partically magical realist? Should it include authors whose bibliographies are not exclusively magical realist?

Except that so much of magical realism shares rent with other imaginary forms, like surrealism (Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz) or parable (The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho) or speculative writing (Blindness by Jose Saramago).

Should one draw a line, and if so, where?

So we included Frankenstein because, while it exists as a commentary on the horrors of science-gone-bad, it's also a story about common people set in a realistic world in which something extraordinary occurs. (And Margin is nothing if not a place to debate, for we don't have the answers any more than anyone else does.)

And think about it: the mundane way in which a pseudo-man is pieced together by a zealous scientist can't be altogether different, after all, than Melquiades' lessons in turning lead into gold in One Hundred Years of Solitude, can it? What about the engineering of ice in the same novel? That "miracle" had sociological repercussions as well.

Let me know what you think.

Posted by at 10:18 AM PDT
Updated: 4 August 2006 8:12 AM PDT
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