MARGIN: Exploring Modern Magical Realism
Home Page
About the editor

Kid Lit
Book Reviews
Fiction Live!
Poetry Live!

MRWIN: Magic Realist Writers International Network

You are not logged in. Log in
Save the Net
« March 2005 »
1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31
Thursday, 17 February 2005
Topic: February 2005
The first 35 pages of this book are speckled with all sorts of magical realist riffs, not something I really recognized the first time.

Lemme see...

The idea of circuses and exaggeration. Larger-than-Lifeness.

Napoleon's exaggerated personality and appetite.

The extremities of life at camp, where "there is no heat, only degrees of cold."

The introduction of a curious and important character who could speak a "funny language none of us could understand," and yet "he understood everything" [italics added].

An underlying politics:

"We're white with red noses and blue fingers. The tricolour."
and the suggestion that war's reality is not sensible in the way that soldiers or leaders might imagine it.


This differentiates Henri, our narrator in this first section, from other soldiers. While being a true patriot, he recognizes the moral dichotomies of war, that "nowadays people talk about the things [Napoleon] did as though they made sense."

We get the following neat little summation from Henri more than once in this book: "I'm telling you stories. Trust me."

The authentic magical realist tale often demands the finesse of an extraordinary narrator, someone who can see inside and outside the story. Someone who can be reliable, or if unreliable, still believable. We want the tall tale to work.

Henri is one such extraordinary narrator, of good Catholic stock and born to serve his soon-to-be monarch, while still being capable of acknowledging the horrific side effects of war and "liberation":

"Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye."
In other words, he sees what's really going on. He recognizes how people will manage reality so that it's palatable, even when it's at its most horrible.

When he admits he's telling stories, you have two options as the reader: question him (after all, "telling stories" is only a hair different than "telling lies") or trust him.

Henri asks you to trust him. And why not? He's moral, obedient. His character is life-affirming; he loves his mother, is true to God, he believes in angels. And he's There. As Napoleon's private cook, Henri's got an inside into the little general's personal life.

This is how we get to the real stories in history?the reliable narrator. In this case, Henri's revelation of the seeds of tyranny and violence that constitute the rise of Napoleon occurs without ever baldly accusing his beloved leader of immorality.

Henri's observations are sly, but telling. For instance, when Henri is first introduced to Bonaparte's storeroom, he discovers dozens of chickens, sans beaks and claws, held inside wooden cages and "staring through the slats with dumb identical eyes."

The presence of these particular chickens is meaningful to a farm boy like Henri, who has seen plenty of wringed necks and caged animals in his life to not be shocked by the sight. What he is startled by, however, is the silence of the birds.

"Not even a rustle. They could have been dead, should have been dead, but for the eyes."
Henri is telling us something we need to know here. Author Jeanette Winterson is using Henri's point of view to structure the story's message in multiple ways.
1/ She's establishing the humanity of her main narrator to make him credible and sympathetic. Someone to trust? Absolutely.

2/ She's also hinting at events to come. Caged chickens are tyranny enough, after all; to then remove their beaks and claws after they've already been sequestered says something about Napoleon that we now understand to be true: that he was cruel, vain, and a serious control freak.

3/ And finally, she's suggesting the chickens represent something. Are they blind? No, only voiceless, and without any way to defend themselves. What could that stand for, but the aftermath of Napoleon's reign on the innocent? These chickens are witnesses.

That's why they bother Henri, because they're no longer just livestock to him. Not in this context.


Henri is a truthteller, then. One who lives up to his commitment to his family, his church, his country. One who both loves and loathes his leader. What could be more human? More grounded in reality?

Posted by at 4:29 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post
Monday, 7 February 2005
Mood:  hungry
Topic: February 2005
I'd read Jeanette Winterson's The Passion some years ago (early 90s maybe?) and didn't know it to be a work of magical realism. I'd read it not long after I'd devoured Katharine Dunn's Geek Love, another work of 'strange fiction' with which I was moved to compare JW's book. After many, many years of reading fantasy and sci fi and horror, this new realm of 'strange fiction' (new to me, anyway) was a perfect match. It seemed to weave together my love for those genres but in a way more akin to the literature I enjoyed in college: Kafka, tall tales, Gogol. So The Passion was a nice treat.

I'd completely forgotten how much Napoleon enjoyed chicken until picking up the book once again. No wonder this book appealed to me when I first read it! At that time, I had been working as a cookbook editor and food writer in Chicago, and had discovered then how much I enjoyed reading both cookbooks (yes, recipes and all) and epicurean commentary. MFK Fisher and Raymond Sokolov and Betty Fussell and Laurie Colwin and James Beard and the Other Kafka (Barbara Kafka, for Gourmet) were all wonderful prose writers I'd already welcomed to my reading repertoire. I would go on from there to become fascinated with the culture of food politics, idolizing folks like Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter and Alice Waters for their sustainable sensibilities, a subject I would pursue for a few years as a writer, publisher (American Harvest) and researcher before my life changed with the birth of my first daughter.

The term 'food politics' is exactly what it says: Food in America means power, money, class division, morality, culture, identity. How we grow, buy, package, prepare and serve our food serves as a kind of marker highlighting our worldviews. There is a huge difference, for instance, between a red meat eater who buys the cheaper cuts for consuming everyday but Friday, versus a red meat eater who buys the most luxurious cuts by mail order from prime American rangeland, versus a red meat eater who buys only organically grown cuts from cattle grown without steroids or hormones.

What does this have to do with JW's The Passion? These two lines, which occur right away in the book, separated by a single sentence:

"It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock? Odd to be so governed by an appetite."
We are what we eat, let's face it. I'm not saying Napoleon was a chicken, though. What I'm saying is that, from JW's narrator Henri's point of view, Napoleon (who he loved like the patriotic countryman he was), Napoleon did everything in his power to give the world the illusion he was large. Consuming enormous quantities of chicken (defenseless creatures made even more helpless by the removal of their beaks and claws while they yet lived on in crowded cages in Boneparte's storehouse) fed Napoleon's megalomania. Henri says it so splendidly himself on the next page:

"[Napoleon] wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird."

What else might one expect coming from a tyrant? This is one of the reasons I so enjoyed JW's novel: she has a brilliant way of bringing every mundane thing into the spotlight of the extraordinary.

Posted by at 1:37 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post
Friday, 4 February 2005
Topic: February 2005
Next week I shall begin re-reading and discussing Jeannette Winterson's, The Passion. Your comments are, of course, welcomed.


Posted by at 12:49 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 3:27 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post
Now Playing: RE: finishing
Topic: January 2005
I come away from the rereading of this story marveling at the way in which Gabo's simple style, upon successive readings, reveals the complexity of human nature. I've read enough of the short work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to not be surprised with this finding. One of his shortest stories, "Tuesday Siesta," is also one of the most dense even as the narrative style remains so simple. His novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, reads in much the same way: easily and yet nuanced, like the story itself is a thin film hiding a much larger story. This stylistic prestidigitation is one of the main reason's why I love Gabo's work--and why some people do not love it at all.

As for fallen angels and women changed into spiders, I continue to find these curiosities engaging, but must defer to the particularity with which Gabo selected his language to tell their stories and the story of the community at large (including Elisanda and Pelayo's). To me, this remains a classic standard for magical realist short fiction, and one of the best stories for revealing the core of Gabo's worldview.

I'd like to thank Joe Benevento for his essay on teaching magical realism, which is widely read in university classrooms. From his essay, I read his deconstruction of "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," not too long after first encountering that story, and it was illuminating. I also enjoyed reading the entirety of his comparative analysis and hope you'll check out the essay for yourself.

Posted by at 12:42 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 12:55 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post
Now Playing: RE: what to do with a dead angel 101
Topic: January 2005
Our angel, upon being forced out of the coop, thanks to spiderwoman (see previous entry if you don't know what this means!), is left to drag between rooms in Elisanda and Pelayo's home until it appears to them to be multiplying. The sense of crowdedness leads the couple to think of their home as "that hell full of angels."

Don't you just love the paradoxes of magical realism?

Eventually the angel is allowed to stay in the shed. At some point soon thereafter, E and P are alarmed to discover that the angel is showing signs of fever; they expect an imminent death.

What would you do with a dead angel? I'm not sure what I would do. Committing it to a tomb seems to be taking measures in the wrong direction, but a cremation only calls up images of hellfire, which might satisfy the opinions of the angel's hosts in this story, but which seem catastrophic and immoral to me, a Westerner with a penchant for believing in angels as wholesome and benevolent.

Fortunately for Pelayo and Elisanda, and for the angel too, this is not the outcome it suffers. Once left alone to heal (the townfolk have since grown bored of its presence), the angel grows back its wings and eventually flies away from the earth "with the risky flapping of a senile vulture."

This description is arch and sarcastic. The real vultures were the people who came to see a caged angel, after all. As for its senility, there's little room for this community to preach the morality of craziness.

You can bet Gabo meant every word of this description as a way to characterize society at large. While I generally think of Gabo's narratives as ultimately hopeful, I find his attitude in this story less generous. He seems to be suggesting that society has lost its proper faith, its ability to care selflessly. When Elisanda watches the miracle of the angel's disappearance into the sky, she is relieved, but not for the resurrection of the angel, but for the burden that's been lifted from her shoulders.

Posted by at 12:27 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 12:51 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post
Now Playing: RE: An angel carnival
Topic: January 2005
As it turns out, the community puts a stay on Pelayo and Elisanda's plans to dispense the angel to the high seas: they arrive and interact with the angel as if it were a circus animal.

The people toss about ideas for what to do with the angel. Make it mayor of the world? Grant it the title of a high-ranking general so as to guarantee the success of all future battles? Breed it?

Me, I'd get it to an animal shelter, immediately. The poor thing needed health care.

Father Gonzaga appears at this point in the story. After a close examination, the priest determines the angel not to be an angel at all, but the work of a meddling Satan who has sent forth his evil in the form of an angel to confuse and influence the masses.

Predictably, the people don't listen. The angel was pathetically frail and covered in parasites. What sort of devil would bother sending such a loser specimen?

Elisanda, instead, begins to charge admission.

My first impulse to this is: How very American of her. Except that I'm wrong. It's not only an American response, to capitalize on something like a fallen angel. The idea of carnivals, and freak shows, and lookyloos, is not original to the West. This is a human inclination, no matter where it occurs. What we don't understand we either wish to kill or to own. The satiation of curiosity seems to be worth paying for.

The angel, of course, takes center stage. Other adjacent carnival acts cannot compete for the attention our Very Old Man receives from people all around, who are there either to see it for themselves, or in a few cases, to seek out healing miracles from the angel.

(Do I truly believe that a fallen angel would actually be treated like a circus animal if it were to happen today? I don't know. I find it more plausible that it would be treated like the sighting of the Virgin Mary, with all the markings of a Great America theme park ride--no line jumping, please!--and with merchandise being sold in the background. ? At any rate, I suppose the way it would be treated would just depend upon the community into which the angel falls. Frankly, my cynical side thinks it'd be better off falling down in some place remote and unspoiled by human beings. But that's just me shortchanging the human race its ability to be compassionate.)

Pelayo and Elisanda make money hand over fist on admissions, while Gabo reports that "the angel was the only one who took no part in his own act." Of course not. The poor thing, it really just needed to be left alone, or at the very least, treated in a more sacred fashion.

Instead, it's left to entertain the masses inside the depths of a stinking chicken coop which eventually collapses under the weight of what we are told is a superficial, minor anomaly: a sideshow act featuring a woman changed into an enormous tarantula.

Huh? How that doesn't rate as highly in the freak show zone as the fallen angel, I don't know. A spider the size of a small farm animal seems miracle-worthy.

This is not to criticize Gabo, but rather to acknowledge his wicked sense of humor and his insights into the human condition. We have this strange capacity for adaptation.

The woman-spider, which would have been a curiosity in any other situation, is treated by the narrator as a kind of blase, second-rate freak element that exists mostly as a nuisance for all involved.

This is precisely how we shape our realities, on the basis of what has come and gone before. It raises the question: When is the unreal acceptably real? In the footsteps of the fallen angel, the anansi-like creature is normal. Real. We're no longer grounded in the reality of the world pre-angel, but in one recast in post-angel reality.

I'm left with an image recalling Godzilla v. Rodan or somesuch. Which freak will destroy the other? This is the prevailing question, not whether any of it is real at all.

Posted by at 12:14 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 12:57 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post
Tuesday, 1 February 2005
Now Playing: RE: how not to treat our elders?
Topic: January 2005
The first thing I notice about the story at this juncture, something I hadn't noticed before, is the assignment of the label, "the captive," to refer to the angel.

When Pelayo and Elisenda first found the angel, their response was less an exercise in captivity and more an exercise in rescue ("He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down," says the wise neighbor woman).

But the next day, the angel has become, indeed, a captive: Pelayo has taken to watching over the angel with club in hand, then dragging the poor creature out into the chicken coop at night. They are afraid of the angel, who is familiar and yet unfamiliar to them, a creature which they would have ordinarily considered a thing of Heaven, nonthreatening, especially since he is so clearly infirm.

When their baby awakens the following day, having broken the fever at last and yearning to eat, the relief of that news inspires Elisanda and Pelayo to release the angel to the ocean, upon a raft with fresh water and food for three days.

I find this amusing and sad all at once. How in the world is a flesh-and-blood creature of such infirmity to survive that sort of treatment? What were the two young parents thinking? Why were they afraid? And yet, isn't this, in essence, the way so many people treat their elderly? Send them away, or find some other way to forget about them, that in the act of forgetting they might disappear?

Shakespeare's voluminous cast of characters often did such a thing. I've been reading condensed versions of the Bard in short bedtime stories to my six-year-old, and I am reminded that, in fact, this is what Leontes did to his best friend in "The Winter's Tale," is it not? And what about the Duke in "The Tempest?" Was he not cast away by people who wanted his throne?

So now I'm reading this story as if it weren't about an angel at all, but perhaps about a betrayed king or God, or about a character who symbolizes a forsaken grandeur, or a reference embodying the notion of a long-gone prosperity: the good old days.

Posted by at 2:58 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 1:00 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post
Wednesday, 26 January 2005
Topic: From the editor
Hello dear reader, Just a note to explain the recent absence...I've been busy with the production of Margin's 5th Anniversary edition (lots of extra features!) and the schedule's a bit tight. I'll return to this discussion on Friday, January 28. Thanks for your patience.

Posted by at 4:49 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 1:00 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post
Saturday, 15 January 2005
Topic: From the editor
Please pardon this brief departure from the discussion.

Below is Tamara Sellman's prelude to her reading of a section of Pearl S. Buck's The Big Wave, to be presented at A Wave of Caring: a concert for tsunami relief to be held at the Bainbridge High School gymnasium on Sunday January 16 at 3pm in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

"I read the story, The Big Wave, about a year ago to my daughters as a bedtime story.

The Big Wave is the prizewinning children's book written by Pearl Buck, about a Japanese fishing village that is wiped out by a tsunami.

One year later, I am tucking my oldest daughter in one night, and we are discussing the tsunami when she asks, Is it like The Big Wave?

I am reminded then how providing a human context for the disastrous events of our lives, big and small, close and far away, is essential for healing the human spirit.

Watching the TV news or reading the paper only provides information and facts, but information and facts are not enough to help people, including children, to cope with bad news.

I've found, as a lifelong writer, that literature is one of the best ways to explore the uncertainties that befall the human condition. The Big Wave filled in blanks for my daughter that I was not sure I could fill in myself.

When I tell my daughter that, Yes, the tsunami is the same thing as The Big Wave, she does not respond with fear. Instead, I see her process the comparison, and her next response is not one of panic, but of compassion. How can we help? she asks. How can we help?

Thanks to Pearl Buck my daughter makes that important leap. She understands that if we share and have faith as a global community, life will persist."

Posted by at 3:21 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 12:49 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post
Thursday, 13 January 2005
Now Playing: RE: Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program...
Topic: January 2005
I don't remember this from my original reading of "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." In small caps, as a sort of subtitle to the story, are these words:

This belies an interesting beginning for a story that commences with the image of a man killing crabs in his house all night. American children's book publishers would have a fit at the idea of such inherent violence starting off "a tale for children"!

No matter. This first scene, loaded with sensory images ("drenched courtyard," "stench," "Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing..." "glimmered like powdered light..." "a stew of mud and rotten shellfish") sets the reader on a typical course of magical realist storytelling, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of course, holding the reins.

One doesn't know what to expect entering one of Gabo's stories. So it comes as no surprise (indeed, it makes me smile) to see that he would introduce the figure of an angel in the most earthly and abominable way, as a frail and elderly man on a gloomy day found lying face down in mud, impaired by a pair of ungainly wings. I think immediately, not of an old man at all, but of a desperate seagull caught in an oil slick, when I read this.

Immediately, the unlucky character who finds the old man, Pelayo (the one who was staving off the invasion of crabs for days before, and the father of the newborn child fallen ill) thinks of the old man as a nightmare. He grabs his wife, busy tending their baby, and shows her out to where he'd found the man, who Gabo describes simply as "dressed like a ragpicker."

But wait, Gabo's more sensitive than that! He goes on to say, "...his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had." Lovely. Gabo's not so judgmental after all, is he? This is a sad description, certainly, but it aims to try to reclaim for the old man some sort of dignity, it suggests the old man was, at one time, quite patriarchal.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez strikes me as one of the most empathetic truthtellers of our times. In our politically correct times here in the US, editors might flinch at a story where an elderly person is described in this way, but at the heart of Gabo's description is the necessary impulse to be honest.

And what of those wings? "Huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked..." They had, of course, been the old man's undoing, trapping him in the mud of three days' rain.

Right away, we learn something about Pelayo and Elisenda. They are not much different than anyone else. They are surprised, of course. But they do something that we all do in the course of our lives?they expose themselves to the reality of this irreal presence for so long a spell that they forget that he is part of their cultural mythos. Angels are not part of their everyday landscape, after all; angels are the couriers of omens and miracles who thrive in stories told by priests and grandmothers. In other words, Pelayo and Elisenda become desensitized?a state which encourages the mind to attach familiarity to what would otherwise be classified as irreal?and accept the old man's presence, wings and all, as something ordinary.

That is not to say that they don't still think he is an angel. He's just no longer extraordinary, not quite a nightmare, but rather, a pathetic discovery. They try to speak to him. They call on a gifted neighbor to help them decide where he came from (the old man's sailor-like voice and dialect suggests to them that he is a foreigner in the more earthly sense of that word). The woman declares him an angel, but with no more fanfare than if someone were to declare him a cab driver.

"He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down."

And that is the end of the angel's introduction.

One of the things I love about Gabo's writing is his ability to create dense, rich scenes that move. He spent as little time as necessary to create the premise for the story. In two paragraphs, we learn a great deal about the characters, the tone of the story, the setting, even the state of the world in "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." Gabo wrote this story like all of his others, with tremendous confidence in his literacy of time, place and the human condition. No wonder he's such a master.

What happens next? Stay tuned...

Posted by at 12:22 PM PST
Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005 1:01 PM PST
Post Comment | Permalink | Share This Post

Newer | Latest | Older