Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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

A SHADOW self, a second skin, a reflection staring back from another world, those are my impressions when I think about the Other. So it was with interest that I read Tamara Kaye Sellman’s “Practical Magic,” an essay published spring, 2004, in Margin. Broadly defining the Other as anyone outside ourselves, Sellman added a quote by Dr. Mary Klages, who identified the Other as “non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational.” Sellman’s essay, a meditation on magic realism and the Other, got me thinking about this juxtaposition and dovetailed with my reading of José Saramago, and how he fuses these entities, particularly in three of his novels.

The Other has been a subject of enduring interest going back, as far as I can recall, to the seventies and the popular novel by Thomas Tryon of the same name, where a brother is possessed by the spirit of his dead twin. Around this same time, I read Steppenwolf and recall a quote toward its end. “The mistaken and unhappy notion that a man is an enduring unity is known to you,” Harry Haller is told. “It is also known to you that man consists of a multitude of souls, of numerous selves.”

It’s an old quote, but a valuable one. In reaching out to these numerous selves, the author must have at some level an empathy, an understanding, or even an informed onus toward the Other. Magic realism can be useful here by allowing a psychic landscape where that alienated “self” can flourish. It gives the Other the opportunity to come forward, towing its own strange domain. It fixes a point on the soul’s spectrum where a character is known to the author—through research or experience or imagination—and yet is set at some remove. I’ll take as an example Saramago’s 1992 novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, probably my favorite of the six novels I’ve read by him.

No doubt through his reading and imagination and his status as a fellow Portuguese, Saramago had a definite “feel” for the character of Ricardo Reis, and yet Reis maintains a distance from Saramago. This is because Ricardo Reis is a pseudonym, or to be precise a heteronym, of the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa, who died in 1935. One of the heteronyms that Pessoa used (he used four) was Ricardo Reis. So Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is a book written about a character who is a pseudonym by another author, said author also appearing as a ghost, a friend to Ricardo Reis, and yet in some ways even he is not an intimate. “We never really understood each other,” Pessoa tells Reis at one point. Reis replies, “That was inevitable, since each of us was a multitude of different people.”

If the novel’s main character is a walking hall of mirrors, then the rest of the book can hardly resist this hallucinatory pull. Indeed, Reis is an unstable character—not unstable in his psychology, but unstable in, shall we say, a molecular-imaginative way. His is a vapory existence, and he frequently has the sense of himself as two or more different people existing in a world that, although the novel doesn’t have the overt signs of magic realism—no object moves when it shouldn’t, flies when it couldn’t—is a kind of mirage. This effect is created in part by the incessant rain that persists through the book’s first half, rain like a second skin, falling from the book’s beginning when Ricardo Reis, after a fifteen-year exile in Brazil, arrives in Lisbon in 1935. Precipitation seems to be a metaphor for the veil that separates Ricardo Reis—despite his love affairs and medical practice and the police suspicion that he is a spy—from the world. He barely exists. Or, which may be the same thing, his existence may be split into several different existences. “Yes,” he thinks, in one of the novel’s typical asides, “at this very moment another Ricardo Reis may be dining in Oporto or lunching in Rio de Janeiro.”

I wrote above that Ricardo Reis was a heteronym, a term that Pessoa used idiosyncratically to denote a writer writing outside himself. Pessoa invented a name, a history, and a personality who “wrote” poems as Ricardo Reis. This dislocation of personality obliged Saramago to adapt Reis’ story as much as invent it. The bare facts of Ricardo Reis’ life and personality were set down before Saramago began writing. He is a separate entity inside his own force field of personality, which both accommodates Saramago’s creative impulse and establishes boundaries. To me, this boundary shows in Saramago’s treatment of romantic love. In the other six books I’ve read by José Saramago, love between man and woman is positive and life-affirming even when, as in the case of All The Names, the object of a man’s love, or obsession, is unknown to him beyond an old photograph and an address. Yet Ricardo Reis, who is the ghost of a ghost, a creation of Fernando Pessoa, can only, ultimately, be a spectator of life. As a result, the love that might have changed Ricardo’s life, if he were free, must be denied. Thus the feelings that Ricardo has for Marcenda—he calls them love, then later wonders if he were ever in love—wither when she rejects his blurted proposal of marriage, and the relationship he has with the chambermaid Lydia soon fades, part of Reis’ own dissolution toward the novel’s end.

I’m not saying that Saramago is required to write positive love stories. I’m saying, however, that Reis’ established personality, his Otherness, limits the options that Saramago can devise for him. He’s doomed from the book’s beginning.

So in a sense is José, the surname-less protagonist of Saramago’s 1999 novel, All The Names, who is obsessed with finding a woman who first appears to him as an entry in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, where he is employed as a clerk. As we get to know José, we find that his workplace is a vast labyrinth of records where employees in search of remote files have to use threads of string to avoid becoming lost, as some have done for days at a time. When José discovers the young woman’s record, he takes an interest. I don’t think she represents the Other as much as an access to another side of Jose’s personality. His search for her wakens some dormant double. A dash of magic realism helps Saramago to identify this changed consciousness. The author’s familiar technique of using commas to separate dialogue between characters acquires a supernatural bent when José’s inner voice assumes its own personality. It surfaces once he’s decided to undertake his investigation. “Why,” the voice asks him, “is it that you keep staring at the card of that unknown woman, as if she were suddenly more important than all the others, Precisely, my dear sir, because she is unknown.” Later on in the book, the ceiling of José’s small house begins to talk to him, telling him, among other things, “You take a long time to understand things…there was no reason why you should go looking for this woman… Unless you were doing it out of love.” To which José replies, “Only a ceiling would come up with such an absurd idea." For my money, I side with the ceiling: He is acting out of a kind of disembodied love. Regardless of José’s motives, the juxtaposition of voices here emphasizes the duality of his nature.

As do his actions. First, he visits an elderly woman who turns out to be the unknown woman’s godmother. She confesses that years ago she committed adultery with the unknown woman’s father, and she tells José that a marriage is made up of three people, the couple plus a third composed of the two. She adds, “if one of the two commits adultery, the person who is the most hurt…is not the other person, but that other “other”…. Later, José breaks into the school that the woman had attended as a child—and where, as it turns out, she later taught mathematics. During the midst of his crimes, though he steals nothing more than food from that school pantry, he catches sight of himself in a mirror. He is filthy and sweaty, doesn’t even look like himself, and then thinks, “yet he had probably never looked more like himself.” And in the book’s second half José is back at the Registry, crawling through the archives at night, terrified, listening to his shadow self say, “Don’t be afraid, the darkness you’re in is no greater than the darkness inside your own body, they are two darknesses separated by a skin.”

I will not divulge what becomes of José’s quest, I only give the fragments above to indicate what I see as the book’s themes, that identity is a mystery, that death and life are mirrors of each other, and that the journey to the Other is the journey to one’s own self. Yet just as Ricardo Reis remains at a distance from his two creators, Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago, so too does the unknown woman remain distant from José, a mystery ultimately unknowable, however alluring.

Which raises a question. Must the literary Other be an alluring entity? José searches for the unknown woman to fulfill a need for romantic love, just as the melancholic, elegant Dr. Ricardo Reis is a figure that appealed to the imagination of José Saramago. Yet if the definition by Dr. Mary Klages is valid, and I think it is, how are we to deal with those things, whether rational or hygienic or gay or straight or black or white or not, that we find foreign, odd, or objectionable? How are writers to go beyond the limits of our own skin and experiences, to escape the trappings of writing characters that are strictly within the limited purview of “what we know?”

I would submit José Saramago’s novel The Cave, published in 2002, as one way of dealing with this issue. The novel concerns three people: Cipriano Algor, his daughter Marta, and her husband Marcal, who are forced by economic necessity to move from their village to a “planned community” called The Center. Clearly Saramago imagined The Center, a sort of massive shopping mall and living complex, to satirize the sort of air-conditioned nightmare that represents capitalism in its most soul-smothering aspect. It is hygienic and rational and, I would add, secure, full of guards and cameras and those who take an interest when Cipriano Algor writes down some of the Orwellian maxims that appear on the walls in the Center’s labyrinthine structure. Maxims that are only supposed to be read, not written and, worse still, analyzed. “We think about you all the time,” run one ominous sentence, “now it’s time for you to think about us.”

Still, Cipriano is determined to explore, and I think that his reaction to his new surroundings can, if metaphorically interpreted, cast a light on how magic realism can deal with the Other, particularly one that might otherwise be viewed as foreign, strange or objectionable. The writer can turn away or, as Cipriano does, take action, “throw himself into the discovery and methodical investigation of this marvelous island on which he’d been cast up after shipwreck.”

The use of magic realism can both bring forward that other world in the writer’s imagination and help to highlight its more salient aspects, whether for satirical, illustrative, or humorous purposes. Thus we are told that The Center, in which every shopping need is satisfied, has fifty-five commercial catalogues, and each of them is some fifteen-hundred pages. It contains within its seemingly infinite structure—and here Saramago’s debt to Borges is apparent—a roller coaster, a zoo, a Taj Mahal, an Egyptian pyramid, an angel playing a trumpet, and et cetera, in short, so many things that you couldn’t see them all, “even if you had been born in The Center and never left it for the outside world.” In one hilarious sequence, Cipriano visits a funhouse in which the changing weather of the outside world is reproduced, including rain, snow, and finally sunshine. Clearly, Saramago is using elements of magic realism to ridicule that which he finds troubling about the contemporary world, its sprawling growth, its commercial heart- and soul-lessness, and the use of artificial experience to replace the real thing. In a similar manner, magic realism can comment and yet avoid the pitfalls of didacticism or the use of stereotypes. We can exaggerate for effect, and yet by working within the purview of magic realism, we can make that hyperbole consistent and artistic. Saramago’s is an approach writers can learn from.

Learn, take a step beyond; those are the themes that seem to bind these three novels. The characters set out on journeys to uncertain and strange terrain, and at the end of each book the characters are on the move again. Perhaps that’s Saramago’s underlying message: Have courage, take the step into the darkness and believe that the thread that binds us together, in spite of our differences, is greater than the distances that make us strangers. The face in the mirror is closer than you think.

Hesse, Harman. Steppenwolf. Henry Holt & Company, New York. 1963

Saramago, José. All The Names. Translated by Margaret Jill Costa. Harcourt, Inc. 1999

Saramago, José. The Cave. Translated by Margaret Jill Costa. A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc. 2002.

Saramago, José. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Translated by Giovanni Pontiero. A Harvest Book, Harcourt Brace & Company. 1991.

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