E S S A Y
CARIBBEAN MAGICAL REALISM:
a d i s t i l l e d m a g i c?
b y g a r r e t t r o w l a n ~ l o s a n g e l e s , c a l i f o r n i a
YANN MARTEL'S recent prizewinning novel, Life of Pi, an adventure story with a nod toward the fantastic, veers toward magic realism near the book’s end. The shipwrecked protagonist, Pi Patel, lands on an island in the South Pacific. It is not an island in the conventional sense of the term, but a large and free-floating organism, made of algae, with ever-changing terrain, alive from top to bottom. This idea of life abundant, even grotesque, is a reflection of the author’s own copious imagination, and a tenet of magic realism in general. Certainly the genre’s seminal work, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, posits a living, abundant world, a dynamic organism where nature proliferates, death is not final, and time turns like a wheel.
Though Pi takes place in the Pacific, I can't help but be reminded of several Caribbean novels that I've read over the last few years, either by design or accident. Collectively they have modified the metaphysics of García Márquez’s novel, making their own contributions to my idea of magic realism. The quality of that contribution is the subject of this essay.
The natural world is abundant in García Márquez’s book. The leaves of the swamp grow as fast as they can be cut down, the rain is capable of falling for three years straight, and the ants are able to bear away the body of a child’s corpse. While I’ve found no such lavish evocation of nature in the books about the Caribbean that I’ve perused, still there is a sense of abundance that can overwhelm. Jean Rhys, in her novel about Jamaica, Wide Sargasso Sea, shows Mr. Rochester, the love interest in Jane Eyre, riding with his bride through the Windward Islands. The terrain’s intensity overwhelms him. “Everything is too much,” he thinks. “Too much blue, too much green. The flowers too real, the mountains too high, the hills too near.” (70) Bob Shacochis’ excellent novel Swimming In The Volcano, a National Book Award finalist in 1993, mostly concerns the collusion between native politics and a post-imperialist worldview. Yet a sort of magic lurks in his description of the fauna and flora on the imaginary island of Saint Elizabeth. Climbing the volcanic hills, the protagonist, Mitchell Wilson, walks through a green jungle of towering trees that gave “the illusion of opening up, an organic cathedral, many-chambered, the mosaic of its ceiling excessively pillared, halled with expansive naves and pocketed with alcoves, echoless chapels, a maze of overgrown aisles.” (507) Shacochis’ description of the natural world on his Lower Antilles’ island, like the vast coral reefs and a kind of natural Jacuzzi made of water pushed upward by waves, suggest an environment bordering on the miraculous.
This magic, however, is often blemished by the relation of man and the natural world. In one remarkable scene, Cassius, an abused child who will grow up to be a twisted adult and member of the secret police, hunts in the coral reefs and comes face-to-face with a turtle he will subsequently kill. Yet for a moment Cassius stares into “the turtle’s beatific eyes” which have “a secret source of mercy in the world” and stare at him with a “tender honey-glow of amber, as he extended the gun.” (207)
Nature and man regard each other through Caribbean religion, a blend of African cults and Christianity. Russell Banks, in his novel Continental Drift, speaks of the way in which a North American and Haitian might regard a hurricane. The former might personalize the storm into a something like a troublesome pet, while the latter would say that the weather reflects an inattention to one’s ancestors. “We’ve forgotten the dead, les Morts, and Les Mysteres, we’ve neglected to feed them…so today the hurricane comes to remind us that it is we who live for the dead and not the dead who live for us.” (41)
I’ve seen, then, how dualities persist in Caribbean fiction: man and nature, past and present, and especially the real and the spiritual. In the opening of Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, an otherwise realistic account of a Haitian woman’s relationship with her mother, the protagonist, Sophie, watches the local lottery agent come up the road. He’s described as a man with the spirits on his side. “For example, if anyone was chasing him, he could turn into a snake with one flip of his tongue. Sometimes, he could see the future by looking in your eyes…” (5) In Robert Stone’s recent Bay of Souls, the book’s femme fatale, Lara, a woman of French extraction who grew up on St. Trinity, one of the Windward Islands, has trouble looking at herself in the mirror. The reason for that aversion is that she believes herself to have no soul. “People said her dead brother kept her soul with him under the waters of All Saints Bay.” (100) It is her mission in the book to retrieve it, a process that brings considerable change to her lover, Michael Ahearn. In Richard Hughes’ High Wind to Jamaica, the two children protagonists, Emily and John, have free access to a local swimming pond in which a man had drowned, and none of the locals would swim there again for fear that the dead man’s ghost would catch them.
These spirits have a dynamic relation to the living. In All Souls’ Rising, Madison Smartt Bell’s novel of the Haitian revolution in the early nineteenth century, one native revolutionary speaks of the way the dead will help the uprising. “But what the whitemen never knew was that every one of us they killed was with us still…A dead white person disappears but our dead never leave us, they are here among les Invisibles.” (117)
This forms a contrast to García Márquez’s book. To be sure, the first Jose Buendía sees and even speaks to the spirit of Prudencio Aguilar, whom earlier he’d killed in a pique of rage. However, there is something melancholy and passive about this relation, and in general the magic that we see in One Hundred Years of Solitude takes place on this side of the veil: flying carpets, blood that snakes a line back to a corpse, and Remedios the Beauty ascending into the clouds, borne up by bed sheets. The magic I’ve encountered in Caribbean novels is more subtle, a matter of reality sliding into the spiritual. The dualities I’ve noted exist, but not in opposition so much as juxtaposition, as different points along a continuum. As a result, magic does not bloom in a fantastic way, but is more textured, woven into everyday life, and blended with other elements.
More often than not, this other element is historical. In Continental Drift, Vanise, the Haitian protagonist, heads with her son toward a Caribbean beachside ritual. Amidst the beating drums and the mambo’s wails she encounters a loa, a transplanted African God. She looks into the God’s eyes and sees that “It was the very face of history that Agwe wore, skin tightening back to ears, lips grin and taut, eyes filled with watery understanding.” (215) History weeps as it ravages; and it will not be denied.
“No ancient reef or coral can protect you,” Thomas Sanchez writes in Mile Zero, a novel about Key West, Florida, and the Caribbean, “nor modern highway bridged across the sea offer you escape.” (87) Sanchez, in one chapter in particular, reminds us that ancient oppression will play itself out in time. In a kind of voiceover a loa, possessing a historical sense similar to its author, speaks of its ubiquitous ancestry. “I existed here before Ponce de Leon touched these shores in 1513…” (86), adding, “I am a Devil Wind born in the Sahara, a destined swirl of dust rising from Africa, breathing the Atlantic’s hot breath as I whirl my course toward you across water.” (87) In other words, historical laws of redress, or at least revenge, cannot be denied. The Gods will pay back the oppressor’s ancestors.
Unfortunately, the Gods can also be aligned with the oppressors. Edwidge Danticat thinks that the cult of voodoo, with its emphasis on the doubling of a personality, connects with the dictators who have ruled Haiti. She writes, "There were many cases in our history where
our ancestors had doubled. Following the vaudou tradition, more of our presidents were actually one body split in two: part flesh and part shadow. That was the only way they could murder and rape so many people and still go home to play with their children and make love to their wives." (156)
When I say that a sense of history characterizes Caribbean fiction, I do not mean that by contrast García Márquez’s novel is without a historical sense. Far from it. It’s just that I found no echo of Solitude’s mythological presentation of history in Caribbean fiction. Rather, history weaves itself into every aspect of Caribbean life. And time, while it has the same circular elements of García Márquez's novel, is a more fragmentary, evasive element.
Consider the novels of Patrick Chamoiseau. In his Solibo Magnificent a police inspector delves into the suspicious death of a Martinique storyteller, a process complicated by the very nature of Caribbean life, its mixture of the dead and living, the past and present. “The initial facts were never reliable,” Chamoiseau writes, “a shadow of unreason, a hint of evil, clouded everything, and despite his long stay in the land of Descartes, since he had been raised in this country like the rest of us with the same knowledge of zombies and various evil soucougnans, the Inspectors scientific efforts and cold logic often skidded.” (75) When he asks a potential witness what time the storyteller’s death occurred, the response is a flurry of rhetorical questions. “How to know time that goes by, Mr. Inspector? Time is grains of rice? A roll of cloth measured with a ruler the way that Syrians do? Where does it goes through when it goes by: through the front or the back door?” (97)
Shattered history yields shattered time. Reading of the wiping away of indigenous populations by invading Europeans, I wonder where all that time went. That’s the question I would ask the inspector. And what does the subsequent time mean – if it even exists – when those first invasions have yielded an almost unbroken record of violence and exploitation? (An exaggeration perhaps, but reading books like Mile Zero, Texaco, and All Souls' Rising leaves a distinct impression.)
The conflation of different eras is one motif of Chamoiseau’s Texaco. When one exploitation is replaced by another, field house to factory, what’s the difference? The end result is a “history which neither progresses or recedes, no linear progress of Darwinian evolution.” (257) Thus the lives of the father-daughter protagonists of Esternome and Marie-Sophie seem almost like dual halves of the same life, from the shanty towns around Saint-Pierre to those assembled in the shadow of the Texaco refinery. And reading Swimming In the Volcano suggests to me that there’s been only a minor change from the original invaders. They arrived with mainly a lust for money. Their successors came with a lust for sex, drugs, oblivion, and a helter skelter path to self-knowledge. The result is, as the narrator of Shacochis’ book asks, “What was everybody doing down there besides ruining a perfectly good island?” (344) And who is everyone? “Everybody being, quote, a farrago of smelly Eurocentric degenerates and Angloslime, third sons, nouveau scruffies and unclaimed daughters…trollops in pursuit of sun poisoning, attended by an entire community of chuckleheaded yokels, natural idiots, and obsequious wretches.” (339)
Yet amid this historical depravity I found one other thing in Texaco to modify my idea of magic realism, and that is hope. Chamoiseau finds it as well as beauty. While the treatment of time in the book has some of the same circular elements that García Márquez employs, there is not the nihilistic ending with forest-swallowed Macondo disappearing under the weight of its own history. Certainly, the nature of time in Texaco has circular elements, yet there is a dialectic of resistance that ends with the Christ-figure, who had appeared at the book’s beginning, feeling elated as electricity comes to the Texaco shanty. Resistance is not futile. And though the smell of forest leaves has been replaced by the vapors of the oil refinery, still the ocean winds blow, “carrying the island’s rumors to the edge of our silence.” (296) As Chamoiseau’s narrator Marie-Sophie looks around Texaco by night, sees the beauty of the barrels and long pipes and the lighthouse’s glare, she says, “The place was magical.” (296)
It may be a distillation, but it will do.
Banks, Russell. Continental Drift. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.
Bell, Madison Smartt. All Souls’ Rising. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Chamoiseau, Patrick. Solibo Magnificent. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.
Chamoiseau, Patrick. Texaco. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997.
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Soho Press, 1994.
García Márquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Harper and Row, 1970.
Hughes, Richard. A High Wind to Jamaica. Harper and Brothers, 1959.
Martel, Yann. The Life of Pi. Harcourt, Inc, 2001.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.
Sanchez, Thomas. Mile Zero. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Shacochis, Bob. Swimming In The Volcano. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Stone, Robert. Bay of Souls. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
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