Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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S A U D A D E ' s   f r u s t r a t i n g   b e a u t y


By Katherine Vaz
© 1994 ~ 297 pp
New York/St. Martin's Press

WHEN I first read the opening sections of the novel Saudade, I was impressed by Katherine Vaz's prose, her fluid imagination, and the ambitious way she strives for beauty. Early in the book, every page offers something rewarding in terms of metaphor, imagery, and other forms of invention. Her magical realist episodes almost always work. Why, then, in the midst of something of an embarrassment of riches, did I find myself bogged down by some of the same things I often look for, fruitlessly, in other novels? It was the fraying of the novel's narrative thread as the story wore on, the repetition of sentiment, and, at least to my taste, an imbalance between the lyrical passages and the plain language which is necessary both for contrast and for the character and scene building a novel of this length needs. I found I preferred Vaz's style in shorter forms, such as in her next book, the collection Fado & Other Stories.

In their anthology Magical Realist Fiction, David Young and Keith Hollaman describe Gabriel García Márquez's fiction as "fueled always by a narrative energy." Perhaps, in the best of magical realism, this is what keeps a reader engaged in the material, drawn through otherwise unconnected flights of the imagination. When narrative falters, otherwise good pieces can fail to cohere and something is lost, not gained, in the accumulation. Magical realism is appropriate to Vaz's material, and she is a master of many aspects of it, but the delicate balance that makes it work seems just a little bit off in this particular work.

Opposite the title page of the novel, Vaz offers a definition of saudade: "A Portuguese word considered untranslatable. One definition: Yearning so intense for those who are missing, or for vanished times or places, that their absence is the most profound presence in one's life. A state of being, rather than merely a sentiment." Throughout the novel, as one might expect, she explores loss, depicts the strange ways people deal with their disasters, and questions the amount of pain one person can endure.

Saudade opens in the Azores, Portuguese-owned islands in the Atlantic, and moves, in a kind of a daze, to California's Portuguese settlements. I say "a daze" because, as another reviewer once noted, the use of the third person throughout keeps the reader at a bit of a distance from the characters. Also, without a distinct separation between the narration and the characters' dreamy, desperate, and sometimes mad thoughts, there is no consistently lucid voice to act as a guide. The opening sets the themes up well and is one of the more engaging parts of the book. The first scene is charming, incorporates magical realism smoothly, and is human and funny. It is the farewell party for José Francisco Cruz, whose best friend is a man "who milked cows for such interminable hours hoping to save money for America that his hands were swollen into bleached sacs, each with five teats." Later, when José Francisco goes on his long fishing voyage to the Grand Banks and is lost in a dory in the fog, he discovers his own "Soup of Sorrow," fulfilling a legend and learning what his own particular, inescapable sorrow will be. Discussions of sorrow recur often enough to keep the first part thematically together as Clara, José Francisco's daughter and the main character, grows up in a nicely rendered and not overly exoticized Azores.

Clara is born mute. Then, after the death of her parents, she learns to speak. My favorite passage from this section describes the "sugar language" Clara uses as a young girl:

"Some words were patted into rough shapes with sugar -- cat, cow, eggs, boat, ferns, lava, wine, lobsters, America, Virgin Mary. The nice thing about sugar-pictures was that they retained the essence of the words they had been, even after being frugally scraped back into their containers, where they intersected other sugar-pictures so that when used in cooking, within flans and cakes or suspended in coffee, there drifted lobster-cats, wine-filled ferns, the Virgin piloting boats to the New World."

The balance of imagery and plain language feels right here. There is something to hold on to, the simplicity of people drawing shapes with sugar in order to communicate a list of everyday things, so that the leap to the idea of the melding of these persistent shapes is not too much of a stretch. The welcome image of "the Virgin piloting boats to the New World," relates nicely to Clara's story and even to the larger history of the emigrants. However, a note of distance is here, too, in the use of the passive voice.

In the midst of relatively mundane events in the early sections, there is already a seed of melodrama and repetitiveness, which is indicative of some of the larger problems throughout the book. "Windows with tropical warping rested like stuck guillotines on bottles that had been put in trees to have sex with blossoms and now held full-grown oranges." The "stuck guillotines" and the "having sex with blossoms," not to mention the addition of "tropical warping," are too much and too distracting for this short description. I would prefer the space to picture this strange little item for myself, with a single metaphor to help me see it, preferably the one most directly related to the story or suggestive of a layer of additional meaning. Given enough time or space in the reader's mind, one really apt metaphor might be able to expand to its full potential, the way, for instance, many of Nabokov's uncluttered ones do.

Later, Clara immigrates to inherited land in California, which has been taken over by an unscrupulous priest. She is forced to live in an isolated guest house on the property. From then on, she hatches a scheme to get the land back, has a child, loses the child to a deformity, meets a man, leaves him, and so on. As the book progresses, emotions often build until they take over the plot and the setting up of scenes. In the repetition of descriptions of Clara's grief over the death of her baby, I lost the sense that the big statements in these pages really meant something:

"The baby has grown old and dreamed, now the galaxies have truths but not explanations in store for him. Such as: Opposites in the heavens wheel together and explode into light."

"After burgeoning new selves and children, what follows is the phase of dreams that are a mist."

"Where can they go that is safe? Where safe? He is her child of colors. He is still red, yellow, and blue."

"…but God is the murderer of all. The living and the dead must combine forces to become light in order to detonate Him."

"There has to be a means of putting colors to flight to make them scale upward. There has to be a key to giving sounds to colors to make them sing."

Once again, Vaz might have chosen one of her many notions and developed it to stand alone. Dramatic pacing falls off in this part of the book. Some of the dream sequences seem to only repeat other themes and might have been left out. The weight of many of the passages seems equal, and with nothing to tell us which is the important conclusion, this crucial part of the book starts to seem repetitive rather than affecting.

Where Vaz is very good, though, in this section and in many others, is when she expertly renders a magical part of a scene in mostly matter-of-fact language. A man's ghost limb plays with the baby:

"Gloria and João come into the kitchen in their bathrobes. João's ghost arm buzzes like a five-pointed eel where it ends in the invisible hand. He holds the baby with his real limb and tries to entertain him with the phantom one, zapping him under the chin, walking invisible fingers up him singing rhymes."

Dislocation, collisions between cultures, a secret language, isolation -- there are many hallmarks of magical realism in this novel. There is even something oddly appropriate in the very things I have complained about. Saudade could be read in such a way that it is simply a separate world, with Vaz not making concessions for those of us who are a little too literal-minded to immerse ourselves in it entirely. The sense of distance and the disconnect that comes through in some of the fantasy relate to the American immigrant experience, and in particular to the Portuguese version of it, with their relatively slow assimilation (in some cases). Further into the book, Clara's lover Helio realizes his world is still circumscribed by this experience:

"His mind wandered to how insular he and his fellow Azoreans remained, how weighted with fantasies and chary of well-organized ambitions, even when they moved into the larger world. He had left his house today hoping to change that, and yet here he was, an island on the bleachers, timidly clutching an empty cup."

Beyond this, what I will remember most about this novel is the way Vaz reaches for words to embody the concept of saudade itself, and how that is, perhaps more than to tell a compelling story, the function of this beautifully frustrating novel.

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