Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by Joao Cerqueira

When God receives a request from Fátima to help prevent a war between Fidel Castro and JFK, he asks his son, Jesus, to return to Earth and diffuse the conflict. On his island, Fidel Castro faces protests on the streets and realizes that he is about to be overthrown. Alone, surrounded, and aware that the end is fast approaching, he plays his last card. Meanwhile, Christ arrives on Earth and teams up with Fátima, who is convinced she can create a miracle to avoid the final battle between JFK and Fidel Castro and save the world as we know it. At the end, something really extraordinary happens!
Goodreads Description 
Just when I begin to think I've seen everything that can be done with magic realism, along comes a book that shows another use - in this case magic realist satire. The scene is set for this extraordinary book with a preface explaining that the book is set in a fictional time and place and all the characters are entirely fictional: Hence, Christ has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, the son of god.... God does not represent God.... as no one has have ever been able to depict Him. JFK is someone other than an American president with the same initials... Fidel Castro perhaps has some similarities with the revolutionary leader and dictator... 
Things are and are not real. What is real is the book's focus on the complexities of human (and possibly divine) nature. 

Although Christ, God and JFK all have major roles, the central character is Fidel Castro, who is in many ways seen as a classic flawed tragic hero: "Are you aware that it is you who will destroy your work? That you'll end up resembling those that you overthrew?"
"This is the price I have to pay. My tragedy."

But this book is more than a tragedy about the fall of a hero. It is a commentary on the politics and fallacies of communism and capitalism, on religion and the inability of the divine to change human nature. That could be very dry, but it is a commentary delivered through the absurd and is laugh-out-loud funny in places, such as when Castro dons a pink dress and high heels in order to observe decadence in a night club or when a town threatened with invasion divides into two factions led by the priest (the Padristas) and by the local Madam (Putistas), a division which is to be decided by a wrestling match between the two leaders. In this last example the author foreshadows the duel between JFK and Castro at the end of the book.

The book is multi-layered and references all sorts of philosophies, as well as stimulating the reader's own thoughts. It manages to be a book of ideas, whilst moving the plot forward, making it an easy book to read and a good book to ponder.   

I have no doubt that some people will be offended by this book. A warning should be placed on the cover directed at people who don't like authority (divine or human) to be mocked or indeed people who have difficulty with magic realism and the absurd. But if like me you are someone who grew up on Monty Python, love magic realism and enjoy contemplating ideas, then I urge you to go out and buy this book immediately.  
Note I received this book from the publisher in return for an unbiased review.

Sunday 24 March 2013

This Magnificent Desolation by Thomas O'Malley

Duncan's entire world is the orphanage where he lives, a solitary outpost on the open plains of northern Minnesota. Aged ten in 1980, he has no memories of his life before now, but he has stories that he recites like prayers: the story of how his mother brought him here during the worst blizzard of the century; the story of how God spoke to him at his birth and gave him a special purpose.

Duncan is sure that his mother is dead until the day she turns up to claim him. Maggie Bright, a soprano who was once the talent of her generation, now sings in a San Francisco bar through a haze of whisky cut with sharp regret. She often finishes up in the arms of Joshua McGreevey, a Vietnam vet who earns his living as part of a tunneling crew seventy feet beneath the Bay. He smells of sea silt and loam, as if he has been dredged from the deep bottom of the world - and his wounds run deep too.

Thrown into this mysterious adult world, Duncan finds comfort in an ancient radio, from which tumble the voices of Apollo mission astronauts who never came home, and dreams of finding his real father.

The book opens with the statement which would have been read by President Nixon in the event of a catastrophic failure in the Apollo 11 moon landing, which would have left Aldrin and Armstrong on the moon's surface and Collins circling above. The book's title is a quotation from Buzz Aldrin's description of the lunar landscape.

The young hero Duncan is obsessed with space travel and the story told him by a dying friend that the Apollo 11 mission was a failure and that the astronauts were left on the moon. There are obvious similarities with Murakami's Sputnik Sweetheart. Both books use the symbolism of space travel to portray the isolation of human beings, in this case stuck like Collins in an unending orbit looking down at the world. The difference between the novels is that whilst Murakami's writing style is lean and sparse, O'Malley's is poetic and lyrical to a degree that it sometimes gets in the way of the story. But the plot is not the driver of the book, instead the focus is on young Duncan and his relationship with his mother and her boyfriend, Joshua. 

This is not a magic realism book in the sense of Latin American magic realism. There is magic, but its roots are Duncan's strange upbringing in the Capuchin monastery where he spends his childhood. compounded by the fact that Duncan cannot remember anything from the first ten years of his life, apart from his birth, which he believes he can remember clearly and during which he believes he heard God talking to him. He listens to the radio at night, and hears the voices of the astronauts, who would have died years earlier. Joshua and he encounter an angel who has a job as a cook at a diner. But angels in O'Malley's bleak world are not benevolent, they carry people into the air and drop them. This approach to magic realism is an interesting one - it is used to portray the psychology of the leading characters. Unfortunately because of the desolation of the protagonists' stories - Maggie and Joshua are unable to break out of their orbits - the portrayal by magic realism does not go as far as it might. 

But the book is not completely bleak. There is genuine love between the three main characters, even if Joshua cannot break from the Vietnam service induced self destruction and Maggie is an alcoholic. Maggie and Duncan find some hope in religion. Maggie finds hope through music too and Duncan understands that. When the song ends, many are bright-faced, looking at one another and laughing, and Maggie is laughing also, with joy and happiness and, finally - Duncan likes to believe - some manner of redemption.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan

In this extraordinary short story collection, human frailty is put to the test by the relentless forces of dark and light, man and beast. Each tale offers glimpses into familiar, shadowy worlds that push the boundaries of the spirit and leave the mind haunted with the knowledge that black juice runs through us all.
Goodreads description

I included this collection of short stories in my magic realism challenge because it appeared in a "best of magic realism" list. While the majority of the stories are not magic realism, two might be considered magic realism. The other stories are better described as fantasy/sci-fi/dystopia.

Margo Lanagan was unknown to me. After reading this book I will be looking out more books by this highly talented Australian author. The stories reminded me of the works of Alan Garner and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, with their modern or post-apocalypse settings which at the same time feel medieval. This blurring of history with the present is something I am fascinated by. It creates a sense of the familiar mixed with the strange. I suppose it is why I felt so at ease with these stories.  As a magic realist fan I was also at ease with the lack of explanation of the context for the stories, in fact it contributed to my enjoyment. 

The central characters of the stories are teenagers or young adults and most of the stories were written in the first person. The themes explored are not surprisingly therefore family relationships, coming of age and alienation. The stories are dark but not horrific. The book often is categorized as young adult fiction, but to my mind that does the book a disservice in that it appealed to this adult and I am sure would appeal to others.

Lanagan's use of language and imagery is remarkable:
Those angels started me thinking; their smell was like crushed mint to my brain, breathing open new spaces there that I’d not the faintest notion how to fill. 

This wind doesn't shriek or moan - nothing so personal. When the river took Jenny Lempwick last spring and half-killed her while we watched, it was doing what the wind's doing now, racing so strongly that a little thing like a person was never going to matter.

As in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker Lanagan sometimes develops language, introducing new words or resurrecting old ones to imply the post-apocalyptic world in which the stories are set. 

I really enjoyed this book, so much so I recommended it to other members of my family, but it only magic realism in parts.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Tracks by Louise Erdrich

A New York Times Bestseller, ‘Tracks’ is a masterpiece from Louise Erdrich, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction 2012 – a story for our times, narrated by a uniquely twentieth century figure.

By turns reticent, garrulous, spiritual and profane, Nanapush, like the Native American culture he belongs to, is a living contradiction – alien, beguiling, strong and dying…
Set in North Dakota, at a time in the early twentieth century when Indian tribes were struggling to keep what little remained of their lands, ‘Tracks’ is a tale of passion and deep unrest. Over the course of ten crucial years, as tribal land and trust between people erode ceaselessly, men and women are pushed to the brink of their endurance – yet their pride and humour prohibit surrender.

The reader will experience shock and pleasure in encountering a group of characters that are compelling and rich in their vigour, clarity, and indomitable vitality.

Amazon  Description

Tracks is a tale of a key moment in the destruction of Native American culture and society in the face of illnesses brought by the white man (we started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall) and the machinations of the government officials and commercial companies interested in exploiting the natural resources that the Native Americans had both relied on and cherished:  once the bureaucrats sink their barbed pens into the lives of Indians, the paper starts flying, a blizzard of legal forms. 

The book follows the lives of two women. Fleur is an attractive young woman who loses her family to illness but is strong in the old ways, so much so that she is regarded by others as having magical powers. Pauline is half white and early on shows disdain for her native roots and expresses a desire to be like my grandfather, pure Canadian. This disdain expresses itself in a destructive spite towards Fleur and her family and  also in a masochistic Catholicism, which she uses to justify her actions. Both women are remarkable creations.

I wrote in my review of The Hummingbird's Daughter of duality. Here in another magic realist book we get duality. In fact, looking over the various books I have read as part of this magic realism challenge, dualism seems to be a regular element of the genre. As in The Hummingbird's Daughter we have two cultures meeting and clashing. Pauline's mind is torn apart by her two backgrounds. 

The duality in Tracks  is also reflected in the narrative structure. There are two narrators in the book, with alternate chapters spoken by Pauline and the old man Nanapush. Nanapush is a tribal elder, who has seen the destruction of the old ways: In the years I’d passed, I saw more change than in a hundred upon a hundred before.  He saved Fleur when she was found ill with her dead family and regards her as a pseudo-daughter. His narration is told to Fleur's estranged daughter in an effort to secure a reconciliation. It is not an accident that Nanapush is based on the Ojibwe trickster hero Nanabozho. In his tale Nanapush admits to tricking others and lying, so we are warned not to trust his narrative, although one gets the impression that his deception is done for good motives. Pauline's narrative is equally unreliable, but for reasons of her mental instability and self justification/delusion. 

One of the interesting aspects of this narrative structure is its impact on the magical elements. Both Nanapush and Pauline present Fleur as having magical powers linked to native spirits and nature: It was as if the Manitous all through the woods spoke through Fleur, loose, arguing. . . . Turtle's quavering scratch, the Eagle's high shriek, Loon's crazy bitterness, Otter, the howl of Wolf, Bear's low rasp. But should we always believe them? When I read Nanapush's accounts I didn't have any problems with the magic, but Pauline's account of magic, which in the second part of the book combines native American magic with visions of Jesus sitting on the stove, seemed more like the delusions of a tortured mind.

Another aspect of the narrative structure is that the central figure of Fleur is present but removed, always filtered through others' eyes. She is nevertheless a powerful presence in the book, haunting the actions and thoughts of others. This seems appropriate in that Fleur stands for the world that is being lost.   

by Zoe Brooks

Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday 6 March 2013

The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé

A collection of funny and fantastical short stories, Marcel Aymé's The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Le Passe-muraille), is a classic of French literature, loved by children and adults alike.

Monsieur Dutilleul has always been able to walk through walls but has never bothered using his gift, given the general availability of doors. One day, however, his bullying boss drives him to desperate measures, and he develops a taste for intramural travel... 

The titular tale sets the tone for this collection of ten stories from the great French humourist, novelist and children's writer Marcel Aymé. Elements of science-fiction and fantasy are present throughout this volume, written under Nazi occupation during the Second World War, which pokes fun at the occupiers and occupied alike.
Amazon description

I am embarrassed to say I had not heard of Marcel Aymé until I came across his work  while searching for magic realist books. I was somewhat relieved to hear that my bibliophile husband hadn't either. And yet Aymé is a writer described by George Simenon as The greatest French writer of the day.

Unfortunately little of Aymé's writing has been translated into English, which, if this collection of short stories is anything to go by, is a great shame. 

There are ten short stories in this book and nearly all can be considered magic realism. I was reminded of Kafka when I read the book. Aymé's approach is to take a fantastical element, set it in a realistic setting and follow the internal logic to its conclusion.This appeals to me - as I said in my review of The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake I like there to be a logic within the story. Dutilleul, the man who walks through walls, starts hardly using his "gift" at all but a series of actions and events take him down a slippery path. Likewise the woman who can duplicate herself starts with just one other self , but after a while her other selves are duplicating and the numbers increase exponentially. 
Jean Marais' tribute to writer Marcel Aymé
Jean Marais' tribute to writer Marcel Aymé (Photo credit: towse)

Some of the stories are amusing surrealism, but others have a dark tone to them. Published in 1943, the stories reference the grim reality of life in occupied France. The most striking is Tickets on Time in which in response to shortages the government decides "to put unproductive consumers to death" by rationing the number of days they are alive. Unproductive is defined to include the rich, elderly, unemployed, writers and artists and of course Jews. Sadly the subject matter is still relevant in 2013.

My favourite story was The Seven-League Boots. This story looks at a gang of boys and their relationships, and the wider context of social status. Not until the end is there much sign of magic realism. In this and in all the stories, Aymé's strength is the characterization of the stories' participants. Despite being short stories the characters' motives and emotions are well defined and explored. No wonder Simenon admire Aymé so much. 

Zoe Brooks Google+ page
Enhanced by Zemanta