Amidst disillusioned saints hiding in wrestling rings, mothers burnt by glowing halos, and a Baby Nostradamus who sees only blackness, a gang of flower pickers heads off to war, led by a lonely man who cannot help but wet his bed in sadness. Part memoir, part lies, this is a book about the wounds inflicted by first love and sharp objects.
In my recent post on what is magic realism, I talked about three strands of magic realism. The first of these is what I called "South American magic realism", as exemplified by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with its merging of two cultures (a magic indigenous culture and the colonial western one). The second is what I called "European magic realism", with its roots in surrealism and its emphasis on metafiction and experimentation with form. As is always the way when you try to categorize books along comes a novel that fits in both categories. The People of Paper is just such a book
The fantastical in the book was extremely imaginative and striking: the woman created not from the rib of a man but from paper scraps, whose lovers bear the telltale scars of paper cuts as if members of a secret society; the metal turtles; the woman who is addicted to bee stings; the saint/mexican wrestler who dies in the ring, and so on. This has to be one of the most creative pieces of magic realism I've read.
This creativity extends to the way the story is presented on the page: Baby Nostradamus is presented by black rectangles, the mechanical tortoise by binary code, as Little Merced learns to hide her thoughts sections are blacked out. This book has multiple viewpoint narration with most pages divided into columns, each taking a different viewpoint. At first I was impressed by this approach, but after a while found it tiring, physically and intellectually. In my edition, in order to ensure the columns did not continue over the page, the text size was so small that it occasionally caused me problems. Another more serious consequence of this structural device was that it could be confusing (I counted 24 different points of view in the first half of the book) and it was difficult to engage with the characters. The author's creativity, which I so delighted in, was getting in the way of my enjoyment.
There are two main stories in the book, that of the flower pickers against the omniscient planet, Saturn, and the writer's love life and the writing of the book. Both stories are about loss of lovers. When one character steps out of the flower picker narrative to observe "Saturn", we discover that Saturn is the author. Suddenly the book takes on a whole new aspect. It is also about how the writer's loss has impacted on the themes of the book. But, despite and also maybe because of this, I didn't find myself engaged with the emotions of the book. There didn't seem to be much emotional progression, which for me is an important part of a good story.
So do I recommend this book? Yes, you should read it if you are interested in magic realism. Some people will love it. Some, like me, will have their reservations.