Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
THE PAST AS BAD DREAM
w h e n   w o r l d s   c o l l i d e ,   s o m e t i m e s   i t ' s   f o r   t h e   b e t t e r

BY OONA PATRICK

MY WORLD IS NOT OF THIS KINGDOM
By João de Melo
248 pp
2003 ~ Aliform Publishing
$15.95 || paperback
English translation by Gregory Rabassa, 2003
Originally published in Portuguese as O meu mundo não é deste reino, 1983, Publicações Dom Quixote

This stunning novel, first published in the early 1980s in Portugal, is, according to Katherine Vaz’s fine introduction, “the most astonishing novel [translator Gregory Rabassa] had read since One Hundred Years of Solitude.” João de Melo is an Azorean-born writer apparently well-known in Portugal—according to Vaz, his work has been made into a TV mini-series and a movie and won major prizes there. But My World is Not of This Kingdom took many years to find its way into publication in English. To read de Melo now felt like a belated American discovery of yet another European writer we should have known already. To read him was also to feel the pleasure of reading a new classic of magical realism which both works and matters. And yet it is a book so wild in other ways that the magical realist or fantastic sequences read almost like a comfortingly conventional device.

For an American reader (if not others), My World is Not of This Kingdom takes some acclimation, for reading this book is a submersion, a wonderful, worthwhile confusion, a volcano of rage and luxuriant profusion of images. The confusion might stem from the racing pace, the surging emotion, occasionally unpunctuated dialogue, or perhaps from something larger--from an unfamiliar worldview that the author holds up and challenges. This novel is tearing at the fabric of something.

The story starts with a presumed shared understanding of a very un-American, fatalistic narrative, one of Biblical scourges, far removed from modernity and ideas of progress. “There had been the year of the plague and the ninety-nine day rains, the year of deadly hunger, the year of earth tremors, the year of the American locusts, and during those years the escalator of death had passed across the Island, because a kind of circular trip was turning life like a carrousel that spun forever on its axis.” Lives consist of a constant grinding down, a cycle of disaster.

My World is Not of This Kingdom takes place in a lost parish in the northeast of the island of São Miguel in the Portuguese Azores, islands about 900 miles off of Portugal in the mid-Atlantic. (Discovered in the 15th century, they were populated over time by groups of Flemish settlers, Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Portuguese mainlanders, and others.) A sense of timelessness pervades in the beginning, as we read a kind of localized creation myth based on the story of original settlers, shipwrecked explorers who came upon this spot and stayed, and forgot the rest of the world. They bury their captain, and: “After that they went to bathe in the gloomy water of the craters, they observed from which side the sun, the stars and the rain came up and they retrieved time, beginning with crude hourglasses made from earthen pots. Then they felled trees and cut the wood with axes made from sharp pieces of lava. Opening clearings, they guided water into the first garden patches, and that was how they spent the six days of the creation of the world.” We are rapidly lost in the centuries as the inhabitants are. As the action progresses, it often seems it could be anytime from the 18th to the 20th century. The people of Rozário lose their connection to the other side of the island and the outside world. But this timelessness is not that of some legendary past of heroes and noble ancestors. This is the past as bad dream. The village that grows here is not so much enchanted as bedeviled.

The characters blend together at first, then become more distinct as we begin to follow João Maria and his family. All of the villagers are suffering under the control of a corrupt mayor as his position solidifies, and of a corrupt priest. João Maria suffers worst of all. He loses his land on which he would have farmed, then slowly retreats into despair, losing his mind, his wife. His children go to work on another man’s farm. Hunger reduces the wife and children, left alone in the main house, to this: “When everything was used up she cooked kale and greens and began killing the hens. She was going to do the same with the pig when she remembered that the dog had died a month earlier…” João Maria lives like an animal in the barn, waiting to die. That he becomes a rat there—“he saw, without any surprise, that his body was changing into a gigantic, yellow-ish rat. His hands and feet were cased in velvet, his face was snout-shaped and a little worried…”—is not, by this point, exactly magic. It’s understandable, it could even have come sooner. Magical realism is almost the more conventional, usual motif here.

Other characters include a charlatan healer, who sadly believes in himself and his cures, and a village idiot. That the idiot is resurrected in another form, later, is perfectly reasonable too, considering what all of them go through: “the earth began to breathe with life, heaving up like a set of bellows and slowly going back down, and it opened up with a boom. It was an enormous forgotten and magical chest that opened up with a sound of rotted fittings, and from its bottom they saw a short man with a long and sumptuous red beard woven into threads and yarn emerge.”

The most vivid descriptions are reserved for the evil characters, and they are so vengeful they seem inspired by something even beyond the rage of this story: “[Goraz] had something of a frog about him, his jowls puffy as they were and his hair twisted about the top of his head, as well as the fact that his eyes bulged out over the outline of his cheekbones. In addition, his body was completely like a toad’s and his way of walking, always in heavy oscillating strides, made his trunk float frontward, while his misshaped hands were like those of a famished crane, making one think as well of the leaps of a frog. It was necessary to look at him crosswise or simply look away and keep on going forward.” These descriptions continue unrelentingly, in revolt against society, the powers that be, and the church: “death would take charge of the sea monster that dwelt in the body of Goraz, the wife-killer, son of a priest, son of a million priests.”

De Melo’s imagination is outrageous, earthy, and over-the-top in a good way. The imagery within his long sentences and descriptions of the sea, especially, have a mixture of light and dark, love and hate, the lovely and the ugly. “It was a sea of dishrags, an asthmatic sea of lye on a threadbare cloth with no design, and its thin water, rocky and salty, gave off to the earth the breathing of a sleep that had no eyelids—and yet the eyelashes of its death burned with a fire of tiny animals loose inside that fat, mortal, white sea.” This too boils over, less with rage here than with a luxuriant imaginative art that prevails over the agony in the story, transcending hatred.

The book’s rant is, in the end, wonderful because it is just so outrageous, and more because it is bundled like kindling with rich imagery, characters and setting. The writing stands with that of António Lobo Antunes (to whom this novel happens to be dedicated). Compared to Antunes, de Melo’s imagination doesn’t travel quite as far into its strange visions. Its imagery rises directly from rural and island life, as opposed to the more cosmopolitan settings of The Natural Order of Things and The Inquisitor's Manual, where people travel farther, taking off and floating above the rooftops of Lisbon, for example. De Melo doesn’t even need such events here.

The poisonous bubble of the world of Rozário finally breaks in a series of events including the crash of an American airplane into the mountain above the village, and the deaths of the mayor and priest. The resurrected João Lázaro returns to life filled with news of the modern world and its inventions. “The people were startled by the revelation of so many hidden things missing from their knowledge.” The change brings an overdue taste of freedom from ignorance and self-appointed overlords, but it is also a release from a way of thinking: the fatalism that held João Maria and the other villagers back, that left them to go off to die like animals in a barn simply because they decided it was time. At the end, João Maria sees “the silent men of the soil, the same as always with the only difference that they were no longer the downcast creatures of days gone by, nor had their lungs been hardened by breathing rock-strewn sand wet with tears. They were THE DIGGERS and they had finally lost the listless movements of someone who’d learned to walk all by himself without the protection of a mother, or even the habit of walking eternally weighted down with possibly imaginary burdens. ” The tale of Rozário is one of the collision of worlds, and in this case, unlike in so many others, it is for the better.

Read two chapters excerpted from My World Is Not Of This Kingdom.

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Rev'd 2004/01/26