Margin: Exploring Modern 

Magical Realism

s p o t l i g h t

WE'VE CHOSEN a dozen magical realist authors around the world for this special column for a couple of good reasons. One, we know our readers have read a lot of magical realism; perhaps this new list of unfamiliar titles will provide a summer's worth (or a year's worth?) of reading for them? We'll see… Two, we bet you'll look down the list to see if you recognize any of these authors. Let us know if you do!—TKS, ed.

War With the Newts
KAREL CAPEK [1890-1938]
      Country of Origin: Austria-Hungary
      Review: From Danny Yee's Book Reviews: "This is mostly lighthearted, but has a dark undercurrent in places, reflecting the clouds looming over Europe when Capek was writing: perhaps the most disturbing section is a report from a German scientist carrying out murderous experiments on Newt subjects. War With the Newts is entertaining but, first published in 1936, it is also a penetrating dissection of the late 1930s."
      Distinctions: Karel Capek, who wrote plays and novels which were highly critical of European fascism in the 1930s, was considered Public Enemy Number Two (or Three—sources disagree) on the Gestapo's list of people to arrest after the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Capek would have likely received the Nobel Prize for his acclaimed novel, War With the Newts, had it not been "politically uncorrect" at the time; as the theory goes, the Swedish were said to have feared recrimination from Hitler and, therefore, passed on Capek.
      More Info: Center for the Study of Complex Systems website


The Palace of Tears
      Country of Origin: Turkey
      Current residence: San Francisco
      Review: From Publishers Weekly: "Lush, sensual writing is enhanced by touches of magical realism and cameo appearances by historical figures. Readers of Laura Esquivel and Isabel Allende will likely find this novel a pleasant distraction."
      Distinctions: Alev Lytle Croutier is perhaps best known as the author of the non-fiction international bestseller, Harem: The World Behind the Veil. She earned the first-ever Guggenheim Fellowship for screenplay writing for "Tell Me A Riddle," based on the Tillie Olsen novella. She is the only female novelist of Turkish origin to be published worldwide, and her work has been translated into 21 languages. She was also one of only two women invited to contribute to the G8 Summit in Genoa.
      More Info: Alev Lytle Croutier website


The Ten Thousand Things
MARIA DERMÔUT [1888-1962]
      Country of Origin: Dutch East Indies
      Review: From The New York Review of Books: "First published in Holland in 1955, Maria Dermoût's novel was immediately recognized as a magical work, like nothing else Dutch—or European—literature had seen before. The Ten Thousand Things is an entranced vision of a far-off place that is as convincingly real and intimate as it is exotic, a book that is at once a lament and an ecstatic ode to nature and life."
      Distinctions: Maria Dermoût wrote her entire life but did not start publishing her until she was in her sixties.
      More Info: The New York Review of Books website


      Country of Origin: Somaliland
      Current residence: Capetown, South Africa
      Review: From The New York Times: "In Secrets, the eighth novel of the expatriate Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, the boundary between human and animal worlds is extremely porous. The same is true of the line between contemporary urban life ('Why do you never return my calls?' a Somali mother nags her son) and the parallel existence of spirits, changelings, the mythic past. Every character is transformed by the intervention of magic, usually in animal form, and every character is capable of articulating the theoretical implications of that transformation."
      Distinctions: Nuruddin Farah's fiction has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has won numerous awards, among them the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998.
      More Info: Kirjasto website


The Cripple and His Talismans
      Country of Origin: India
      Current residence: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
      Review: From So Misguided: "Reading The Cripple and His Talismans was like reading an Indian Gabriel García Márquez. A sense of doom hangs in the story, but it is mixed with strangely magical moments. There are passages in the book that are still vivid in my imagination. Magical realism from Bombay."
      Distinctions: Born in 1974, Anosh Irani is an up-and-coming author and playwright whose novel, The Cripple and His Talismans, was met with critical acclaim in Canada. His newest play, Bombay Black, about a blind man and a dancer, made its world premiere in Toronto in January 2006.
      More Info: Raincoast Books website


The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice
As Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura: A Novel
in Thirteen Books and Seven Intermezzos

      Country of Origin: Chemnitz, Saxony, Germany
      Review: From The Complete Review: "The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura is a major novel, a modern masterpiece, a book that ranks as significant as any written in the 1970s. It is among the handful of best novels to come out of East Germany (and, though English-speaking audiences seem not to be aware of it, some damn fine novels came out of—or perhaps stayed in—East Germany). It is one of the best novels that could be called feminist, and one of the best that could be called socialist, and it easily transcends these limiting ideological labels. It is a fantasy and a fugue, a fairy-tale and contemporary political novel. It is—a rarity in these times—a work of literature."
      Distinctions: Irmtraud Morgner won the GDR National Prize for Literature in 1978. However, later novels were banned, censored or treated to "production delays" in attempts to stifle her voice.
      More Info: Geoff Westgate's editoral


A Book of Memories
      Country of Origin: Budapest, Hungary
      Current residence: Hungary
      Review: From "Nádas made his international breakthrough with the monumental novel A Book of Memories (1986), a psychological novel following the tradition of Proust, Thomas Mann, and magic realism."
      Distinctions: Nádas is the recipient of the Prize for Hungarian Art, 1989; the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, 1991; and the Vilenica International Prize for Literature, 1998.
      More Info: Twisted Spoon Press website


At Swim-Two-Birds
FLANN O'BRIEN [née Brian O'Noland, 1911-1966]
      Country of Origin: Ireland
      Review: From the Chicago Tribune: "At Swim-Two-Birds is both a comedy and a fantasy of such staggering originality that it baffles description and very nearly beggars our sense of delight."
      Distinctions: Flann O'Brien's books attracted a wide following for their bizarre humour and Modernist metafiction. At Swim-Two-Birds is now considered the most important Modernist novel published prior to 1945 and O'Brien is frequently cited as a critical pioneer of postmodernist writing. He also published under the pseudonyms Brothers Barnabas and Myles na gCopaleen.
      More Info: The Scriptorium website


Omon Ra
      Country of Origin: Moscow, Russia
      Current residence: Moscow, Russia
      Review: From Publishers Weekly: "Pelevin portrays the Russian space program as a vast propaganda enterprise, a distraction to paper over the tawdriness and fear of everyday life. Many allusions will be lost on American readers. And, in light of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction state of contemporary Russian society, some of the Soviet-era satire seems oddly tame. Nevertheless, as captured in Bromfield's superb translation, Pelevin is blessed with a distinctive mix of eloquence and nervous energy, inventive storytelling and subversive wit."
      Distinctions: Geoffrey Hosking, the Russian Booker Prize Judge for 1993, described Victor Pelevin's work as "socio-metaphysical fantasy" having an "exotic and inventive imagination."
      More Info: Harbourfront Reading Series website


The Museum of Unconditional Surrender
      Country of Origin: Croatia, Yugoslavia
      Current residence: The Netherlands and the US
      Review: From Publishers Weekly: "Ugresic has designed this fragmented narrative of war-ravaged contemporary Eastern Europe carefully, so that her portrait of the stalwart but traumatized citizens, offered as a series of closeups, is not entirely available until the very last piece has fallen into place. The bulk of the book's narratives describe the lives of characters in various socioeconomic cubbyholes in major Central and Eastern European cities such as Berlin and Moscow; these translucent and occasionally magic-realist stories of transformation illustrate the repercussions of change within the private sphere convincingly and sometimes whimsically."
      Distinctions: Dubravka Ugresic has been nominated for the 2007 Man Booker Prize by People's Choice. In her former Yugoslavia, Dubravka Ugresic has been the recipient of the Gjalski Award, the Meša Selimović Award, NIN Award and the Award of the City of Zagreb. She as also won the European Essay Award, the Heinrich Mann Award of the Berlin Arts Academy, the Swiss Charles Veillon European Prize, the Austrian State prize for European Literature, the Dutch Resistance Prize, the German SudWest Funk Prize, the Premio Feronia-Citta di Fiano (Italy), and a nomination for Italy's Strega Award.
      More Info: The Complete Review website


The Leaves of the Banyan Tree
      Country of Origin: Western Samoa
      Current residence: Manoa, Hawaii
      Review: From "Wendt mixes in the story personal metaphysics with mythic symbols arising from Samoa's landscape and Polynesian traditions."
      Distinctions: Albert Wendt's Leaves of the Banyan Tree won the New Zealand Wattie Book of the Year Award and is considered a classic of Pacific literature. His work has been translated into many languages. He has also been honored with the Senior Pacific Islands Artist’s Award (New Zealand), the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture (Japan), the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and New Zealand’s Montana national book award for the anthology he co-edited, Whetu Moana.
      More Info: New Zealand Book Council website


BANANA YOSHIMOTO [Yoshimoto Mahoko]
      Country of Origin: Tokyo, Japan
      Current residence: Japan
      Review: From Desi Journal: "Banana Yoshimoto’s book Asleep should be read early in the day. If you dare to read it at night, its surreal and dreamy essence will lure you to sleep. You will listen to the rhythms and you will match your breaths to that of the book, and you will not realize you’ve fallen like its characters."
      Distinctions: Banana Yoshimoto has won numerous literary prizes since 1987, including the Kaien Newcomer Writers Prize, the Izumi Kyoka Literary Prize, the Yamamoto Shugoro Literary Prize, the Murasaki-shikibu Prize, the Literary Prize Scanno, the Fendissime Literary Prize, the Literary Prize Maschera d' argento and the Bunkamura Duet Magot Literary Prize. Yoshimoto's works have been translated and published in more than 20 countries.
      More Info: Banana Yoshimoto website



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Rev'd 2006/06/09