Margin: 

Exploring Modern Magical 

Realism

Mini Reviews of International Magical Realism, June 2006

VOICES FROM AFRICA

Botswana
Category: Novella
MARU
© 1971, Bessie Head
Victor Gollancz Ltd.
_________________________

Comments: A FAIRY tale romance, a story attacking prejudice or a criticism of postcolonialism in South Africa? This tense novella suggests all three and deserves multiple readings. Magical realism plays out quietly in Maru through dreams and visions surrounding the arrival of a Masarwa (Bushman) woman, Margaret, to the village of Dilepe, which traditionally treats Bushmen as slaves. Well-educated and raised on a mission, she has been hired to be their new schoolteacher. However, the school is completely unaware that she's Masarwa. To further complicate matters, two men—the village prince, Maru, and the schoolmaster, Moleka—vie for her attention. Whether anyone "wins" anyone's hand remains entirely up to the reader.

 

Ethiopia
Category: Novel
THE GOD WHO BEGAT JACKAL
© 2002, Nega Mezlekia
Picador
_________________________
Comments: A TALE of unrequited love set in feudal Ethiopia, when caste systems and forced marriage for teenaged girls characterized years of tyranny among the warlords. This tale is unusual because the hero of the story is one of these very girls, Aster, the divinely gifted daughter of a despotic aristocrat. Some critics say the language in this novel isn't nearly as beautiful as in Mezlekia's memoir, Notes from the Hyena's Belly, but others praise the author's ability to spin oral history onto the page, story after story.

 

South Africa
Category: Novel
A TIME OF ANGELS
© 2005, Patricia Schonstein
Harper Collins
_________________________
Comments: A CLASSIC good versus evil story set in post-apartheid Capetown among a colorful neighborhood of Italian Jew expats. Food as a theme enriches the drama, and the devil comes disguised as an angel. This is a playful piece of world lit appropriately reserved for quality summer reading—a perfect choice for fans of Joanne Harris' many magical realist fables or Laura Esquivel's infamous Like Water for Chocolate.

 

South Africa
Category: Novel
THE LONG SILENCE OF MARIO SALVIATI
© 2003, Etienne Van Heerden
Regan Books
_________________________
Comments: PERFECT FOR fans of quest narratives. The curator of the National Gallery at Cape Town must travel to an obscure village, Yearsonend, to purchase a mysterious sculpture from a local artist. This novel has lots of quality texture in its writing, as well as several of the nuances associated with South American magical realism: labyrinthine elements, local eccentricity, cultural contradiction, variations on solitude, and the collisions of past with present and future. Yet Van Heerden's writing is definitely his own, and the story arrives at a wonderfully unexpected end.

 

VOICES FROM ASIA

India
Category: Young Adult Novel
MAYA RUNNING
© 2005, Anjali Banerjee
Wendy Lamb Books
_________________________

Comments: THE ONLY typical thing about this delightful young adult story resides in its rite-of-passage theme. Meet the title character, Maya: a sharp-witted Indian (as in the subcontinent) teenager living in small-town Manitoba consumed by the puzzle of her mixed cultural identity. Author Banerjee, Indian-born but of dual citizenship in both Canada and the US) employs telling home-life details, an easy sense of humor and funky plot twists to make this a great read. Fans of Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat series will appreciate this narrative; while it isn't risqué like Block's stories are, Banerjee's voice is similarly plucky and she's fearless in addressing racism.

India
Category: Novel
IMAGINARY MEN
© 2005, Anjali Banerjee
Downtown Press
_________________________
Comments: AN ENGAGING comic drama unfolds as the story's heroine, an American matchmaker with Indian roots, resists an inevitable romance with an Indian prince she meets at a wedding on the subcontinent. Banerjee is especially good at conveying subtle social commentary in her stories while keeping us close to the hearts and minds of her heroines. This story offers a meaningful glimpse into the challenges of being a "hyphenated" American when generations of tradition still preside relentlessly over family matters.

 

India
Category: Novel
RED EARTH AND POURING RAIN
© 1997, Vikram Chandra
Back Bay Books
_________________________
Comments: CHANDRA'S INTERCONNECTED stories comprise a sprawling, epic-length novel set between the worlds of contemporary America and Mogul India. The basic premise: an Indian student enrolled in an American university shoots a monkey, only to find out it's the reincarnation of a powerful freedom-fighter from India's past. This act of ventriloquizing the past isn't accidental. What readers won't expect is the wonderful contrast that the Indian student's pop culture existence in America poses against the backdrop of India's turbulent history and profound traditions.

 

VOICES FROM THE OCEANIC NATIONS

Australia
Category: Novel
DEATH OF A RIVER GUIDE: A NOVEL
© 2002, Richard Flanagan
Grove
_________________________

Comments: "I HAVE entered the realm of the fabulous, of hallucinations, for there is no way anybody stuck drowning could experience such things…" How's that for explaining the premise of this book? Flanagan's hero, Aljaz Cosini, spends the majority of this narrative watching his life—a familial pastiche stretching far into history—pass before his very eyes. Remember Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge?" Envision that story construct, then employ more exquisite language and a more profound unfolding of memory, and you'll find yourself inside this book's emotional, intellectual landscape.

 

Hawai'i
Category: Memoir
VOLCANO: A MEMOIR OF HAWAI'I
© 1995, Garrett Hongo
Knopf
_________________________
Comments: GARRETT HONGO "talks story" (his story) in this compilation of memories saturated by his experiences growing up in Volcano Village and Honolulu in Hawai'i. Hongo, influenced by García Márquez, chronicles his colorful ethnicities (indigenous Hawai'ian and immigrant Japanese) in a personal narrative filled with metaphor, myth and magical realism even as it locates itself in landscapes equally steeped in contemporary suburban American culture.

 

New Zealand
Category: Novel
VISITATION
© 1996, Sue Reidy
Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
_________________________
Comments: WHEN CHILDREN choose to play Martyrs and Suffering Virgins rather than Cowboys and Indians, you know something's up. Reidy's novel depicts a devoutly Catholic family in New Zealand which is forever changed after the Virgin Mary shows up in their back yard bearing a pro-choice message. Reidy is known for her ability to address the complexities of female spirituality and identity; Visitation definitely delivers.

 

VOICES FROM EUROPE

Romania
Category: Novel
THE FARCE
© 2002, Carmen Firan
Spuyten Duyvil
_________________________

Comments: THE ROMANIAN revolution provides the backdrop for this novel, about the father of a family who passes on the story of living between worlds: of communism and of liberation from the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Firan's skill lies in capturing the "in-between-ness" of transitioning nations in a magical way. Writes Andre Codrescu: "You can hear in Firan’s prose the turning over of the wheel of time, the changing of once seemingly immutable orders, the anguish of people struggling to escape history and to understand themselves. Her writing lifts the curse, briefly."

 

Poland
Category: Novel
FERDYDURKE
© 1989, Witold Gombrowicz
Penguin Books Ltd.
_________________________
Comments: A CLASSIC Eastern European magical realist novel. Written in Polish between two World Wars, Ferdydurke is the unconventional story of a grown man forced to return to school to relive the moral and emotional roller-coaster of adolescence. Ferdydurke was considered both bold and hard-to-categorize (what does Ferdydurke mean, anyway?), a strange exploration of cultural and political identity during a time of nation-state transition in Europe. When Gombrowicz died in 1969, his works had been banned in Poland for 30 years. His uncensored complete works only became available in his homeland after 1989.

 

Germany
Category: Novel
ON THE MARBLE CLIFFS
© 1984, Ernst Jünger
Penguin Modern Classics
_________________________
Comments: ON THE Marble Cliffs is dark magical realism at its most controversial. Jünger was an anti-Semite through the 1930s, then switched positions to write this novel, a subversive and relentless critique of German National Socialism. On the Marble Cliffs has been considered the most prophetic book written about Germany during Hitler's reign. Within a year of its publication, authorities halted its production after it reached 35,000 copies in circulation. Jünger's turnabout further confirmed itself when he became dishonorably discharged from the German army for anti-Nazi activities.

 

Serbia
Category: Short story collection
THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE DEAD
© 1989, Danilo Kis
Farrar Straus Giroux
_________________________
Comments: A BLEND of mythology, legend, allegory, predestination, intuition and invention, The Encyclopedia of the Dead lives up to its title by serving as a kind of encyclopedia of unrecorded lives. Kis wrote: "…Each individual is a star unto himself, everything happens always and never, all things repeat themselves ad infinitum yet are unique." This collection, which moves between fact and fiction as if they were one and the same, claims a major following all over the world. Kis was known for idolizing Jorge Luis Borges, and that affectation shows up in the intertextuality of this work.

 

Turkey
Category: Novel
BERJI KRISTIN: TALES FROM THE GARBAGE HILLS
© 1996, Latife Tekin
Marion Boyars Publishers, Ltd.
_________________________
Comments: THIS COULD be a dreadful book, if one considers the premise: How a city's destitute, unemployed population creates a neighborhood on what is essentially an urban landfill. However, the writing is beautiful, and the characters are colorful and memorable (storytellers, whores, and gamblers). Tekin's is a fairy tale commentary on the class inequities of the industrialized world. The plot, flavored with Turkish culture and told from the careful remove of a distance observer, compels readers forward to find out how these castoffs survive the brutality of life in a polluted, marginal community.

 

Greece
Category: Novel-in-Stories
…AND DREAMS ARE DREAMS
© 1996, Vassilis Vassilikos
Seven Stories Press
_________________________
Comments: …AND DREAMS are Dreams is the first new book by Greece's most acclaimed novelist to be translated into English in some 30 years. The first line is a doozy: "There are dreams that are sold in the market, packaged or fresh, at sale price, dreams that are imported or indigenous, tax free, made locally; dreams that come out according to the seasons, like fruit; others, frozen, you can find all year round; dreams sold in farmers' markets or department stores; dreams grown with chemical fertilizers or with manure—that is to say pure dreams, greenhouse dreams, and grazing dreams—" You get the picture.

 

VOICES FROM THE AMERICAS

Chile
Category: Nonfiction Anthology
CONVERSATIONS WITH ISABEL ALLENDE
© 1999, John Rodden, ed.
University of Texas Press
_________________________

Comments: AMERICANS THRONG to hear Ms. Allende read, what with that lovely accent and those sparkling eyes. However, her work is best appreciated in the long view. This gathering of interviews and chronologies of Allende's life and writings takes careful account of her authorial career (both as a journalist and as an author) to lend depth and understanding to her fiction narratives. This is an easy-to-read and enjoyable survey of the famous Chilean author and required reading for fans everywhere.

 

United States
Category: Novel
TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA
© 1989, Richard Brautigan
Mariner Books
_________________________
Comments: RICHARD BRAUTIGAN is famous for generating cult-worthy literature. This is one of the poet's more popular forays in novel writing. It all started for Brautigan on a fishing trip in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s. He was known to carry a seven-foot, two-section bamboo fly rod and reel on that trip. One day, he entered a hardware story and suddenly, it came to him to write the story of a man who finds a "used" stream in the back of a hardware store. This one made the "San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Novels of the West" list. Unique, memorable and all-American.

 

United States/Latino
Category: Poetry
CONSIDERATION OF THE GUITAR
© 2005, Ray Gonzalez
BOA Editions, Ltd.
_________________________
Comments: SELECTIONS FROM the Latino American master's previous books, plus thirty new poems in reverse chronology, are a gift for readers, who can plot his journey from present to past. Recurring themes: desert landscapes in his native Texas and animal mythos. Allegory, magical realism and surrealism are woven throughout. Some favorite poems in the magical realist vein: "The Carved Hands at San Miguel," "Fierce God," "The Light at Mesilla," "My Brothers," "From the Face" and "The Head of Pancho Villa." Not only for fans of Gonzalez, this accessible collection endeavors to reign in new admirers. Gonzalez is, frankly, Laureate-worthy, on the national level.

 

Costa Rica
Category: Young Adult Story Collection
THERE NEVER WAS A ONCE UPON A TIME
© 1989, Carmen Naranjo
Latin American Literary Review Press
_________________________
Comments: TO LOOK at the world with childlike wonder is to stand at the very border between the magic and the real. Naranjo's collection of stories captures both the wonder and the violence that resides within that borderland. The British Bulletin of Publications writes of this book that "There is a strange mix of magic and reality in their worlds—the harsh seeming realities of life often painfully stumbled upon, but also the beauty and magic of imaginary worlds which adults sadly lose the ability to create."

 

United States
Category: Novel
TROPIC OF ORANGE
© 1997, Karen Tei Yamashita
Coffee House Press
_________________________
Comments: OKAY, THIS one will make you stop and think. And that's the strength of Yamashita's œuvre. In Tropic of Orange, the news media professionals who are the story's main characters are so consumed with their work that they barely notice how the world is falling down all around them. This is a great book for delving into cultural and national assumptions about the way we define literature. Yamashita is considered an Asian-American author, but her landscapes are South American and she herself will point out how quickly maps change these days, rendering nearly pointless many discussions about cultural origin.

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