Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
Grounded Magical Realism
   O R ,   h o w   t o   f l y   a   k i t e   a l o n g   t h e   c l i f f s
   o f   a   d r i f t i n g   c o n t i n e n t


By José Saramago, translated into English by Giovanni Pontiero
© 1996 ~ 292 pp
San Diego/Harvest Books

I ONCE read that the fantastic aspects of the work of José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, might be called a more "grounded" magical realism. But, I asked myself, what exactly does that mean? The word "grounded" suggests only a slight difference in content -- that if magical realism is viewed on a continuum, Saramago's work tends more toward the realistic end of the scale than the fantastic. However, Saramago's magical events, his sudden plagues and drifting continents, are as strange and intrinsically unrealistic as anything in the work of Gabriel García Márquez. The difference in Saramago's use of the fantastic stems from his quirky, shifting narrative style and his highly realistic details.

I preferred Saramago's earlier work, The Stone Raft, over his more recent novel, Blindness, which tells the story of a plague whose victims, the inhabitants of an unnamed country, see whiteness rather than darkness, a "milky sea." The Stone Raft describes events more improbable, in this age, than a sudden plague, and explores issues of Portuguese identity in relation to the rest of Europe. The central event of The Stone Raft is a geological fantasy: the entire Iberian peninsula breaks away from Europe and goes floating away into the Atlantic, nearly colliding with the Azores.

Saramago's complex narrative techniques help him make his extraordinary magical events work when other writers might fail. Throughout The Stone Raft, Saramago's disarming narrators approach these events with perhaps the same skepticism as readers. At times it is as if there are three speakers or more. We hear the reactions of the characters experiencing the events, a narrator reporting these events after the fact as if to some unknown committee, and another narrator, apparently the writer, who speaks directly to the reader. As the Iberian Peninsula breaks away from Europe, this commentary follows: "Those who are curious, not to say skeptical, will want to know what is causing all these serious developments, as if the simple breaking up of the Pyrenees were not enough for them, with rivers turning into waterfalls and tides advancing several kilometers inland, after a recession that has lasted millions of years." The narrator here, or perhaps the writer, preempts and even makes use of doubt -- everyone's doubt, it would seem.

The narrator continues, as if questioning himself yet beholden to the tell the "truth:" "At this point the hand falters, how can it plausibly write the words that are about to follow, words that will inevitably throw everything in jeopardy, all the more so since it is becoming extremely difficult, should such a thing ever be possible in life, to separate truth from fantasy." The fantastic events become something inevitable, like fate, and march on, no matter who believes them.

After the peninsula's split, it leaves "a gap of ten whole meters." In general, once one of Saramago's central magical events begins, he immediately fills in the concrete details of his now-extraordinary worlds. As Harold Bloom has said, "In the midst of the most astonishing fantasy he has a dry, meticulous sense of detail." With these details, Saramago continually hauls his imaginative kites down to earth and lets them out again -- always in control.

Saramago's most extreme events, such as the splitting of the Pyrenees, are rendered with helicopters, trucks, and camera crews. As governments try to fill the initial breach with concrete, "the cameras clicked incessantly, the television crews, overcoming their fears, moved in, and there, close to the edges of the crack that no longer existed, they filmed great layers of the rough concrete, the evidence of man's victory over the vagaries of nature." Concrete mixers become the tools of Saramago's magic.

The two ancient ships discovered in both One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Stone Raft, while not the most fanciful events of either novel, beg comparison. In García Márquez's book, the discovery of the ancient galleon is a seamless part of the separate world of the book. However, in Saramago's work, the seams are part of the design.

García Márquez's galleon, we are told, is aground far inland, preserved with "an armor of petrified barnacles and soft moss," and its existence is reconfirmed in a return visit. It is also a scene of the most gorgeous imagery -- it is seemingly made of flowers. "It had hanging from its intact masts the dirty rags of its sails in the midst of its rigging, which was adorned with orchids," and, "Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a thick forest of flowers."

Saramago's stone ship is not the raft of the title but a rock formation (or is it?) on a beach in Portugal. The stone ship is seen both in moonlight, as a complete ship with prow and mast, and in the light of day, with a larger audience, when it seems to be just a pile of stones. The choice is ours. Pedro Orce, the character who discovers the ship, immediately has his doubts, yet he finds a way to explain its existence as well:

"What Pedro Orce knows about chemistry is more than enough to explain the discovery, an ancient wooden vessel brought here by the waves or abandoned by mariners, stranded on these rocks since time immemorial, then the fragments were covered by earth, their organic material petrified, once more the earth has retreated, thousands of years will be needed, until today, to blunt the edges and reduce these volumes, wind, rain, the erosion of cold and heat, the day will come when one stone will be indistinguishable from the other."

Later, when Orce returns with his traveling companions in daylight, the ship looks more like a simple pile of rocks. Another character, a woman born in this region of Portugal, provides the local explanation: the "stone ship" was once the ship of a saint who left his footsteps in these same stones. The original ship Orce first saw, that combination of his imagination and something else, something that may be the supernatural or just a moonlit night, is not fully gone but is preserved in his and the reader's memory despite the evidence. "Pedro Orce has no choice but to accept and confirm, but keeps to himself the memory of another ship that he alone saw." It is as if he and the reader have gained the slightest of reprieves from reality.

Rather than flowers, Saramago's ship is unmistakably made of earth and stone. The description, while lovely, is not the gorgeous dream of García Márquez. It is too much a part of our world, the world where wind, rain, erosion, cold, and heat belong to chemistry. Saramago's practical, unadorned magic seems to reflect something central to his work: it is ordinary life and ordinary people who are allotted the beauty in his novels. This "grounded" magical realism, if it is indeed that, is made up of the familiar details of daily, modern life, and in that sense it is unusually affecting: this magic could almost be ours, if we only stopped to look.

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