Wednesday 31 July 2013

If On A Winter's Night A Traveller.

You go into a bookshop and buy If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. You like it. But alas there is a printer's error in your copy. You take it back to the shop and get a replacement. But the replacement seems to be a totally different story. You try to track down the original book you were reading but end up with a different narrative again. This remarkable novel leads you through many different books including a detective adventure, a romance, a satire, an erotic story, a diary and a quest. But the real hero is you, the reader.
Amazon Description

Metafiction is sometimes a trait of the magic realism genre. The Oxford Dictionary defines metafiction as:
fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions and traditional narrative techniques.  Calvino's book is a first-class example of this.

The book is an incredibly ingenious in how it approaches the story. It opens with the sentence: You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Throughout the book the point of view of the protagonist, a young male reader known simply as The Reader, is in the second person. By apparently addressing us, the book disorients us. We know within a sentences we are in unusual reading territory. There is a second character, a female reader, referred to by the author as the Other Reader. The relationship between the two characters is one of the two plot drivers of the book.

The second plot driver is the search for the ending of the books that the two readers keep starting. The Reader starts one book which he thinks is by Calvino, but which stops after thirty pages. Trying to find a correct edition, he then finds out that the book is actually by a Polish writer, Bazakbal, but when he tries to get another copy, he finds that that this too is interrupted just as it is getting started. And so on as successive books turn out to be incomplete and written by another writer. In all, Calvino gives us the openings of ten different books in different genres. We share The Reader's frustration each time when he starts a book and begins to get into the story only to have his hopes dashed, because we too are taken up in the story, even if we know that the story will not be completed.

In many ways the book is about the process of reading and even book buying. There is a wonderfully observed section at the beginning where Calvino describes going in to a bookshop: In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which are frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you.

The two central characters share a love of reading for reading's sake, in contrast to some of the other characters in the book. It is this shared love which drives the romance, but the book recognizes that reading is ultimately an activity you do alone: One reads alone, even in another's presence. But Calvino also draws the parallel between love-making and reading.

As I look back over the last few paragraphs I notice how often I have used the word "but". That is perhaps symptomatic of the illusive and playful nature of this book. Just as you think you are at ease with it, it does something else. In contrast to The Reader and Other Reader with their love and faith in books, there is what might loosely be termed the antagonist - a man who is deliberately subverting literature by flooding the market with counterfeit translations. The story of The Reader's search takes him from a realistic setting, to a fictitious country, where people he meets are counterfeiting infiltrators. It is like a room of mirrors, such as one that plays a prominent role in one of the stories.

This is not a book for people who like a conventional plot line. It is a book for people who enjoy playfulness and thought. It is an extraordinary read.

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Sunday 28 July 2013

Quin's Shanghai Circus by Edward Whittemore

In Edward Whittemore’s masterful and surreal alternate history, a man’s search for answers about his vanished parents propels him on an odyssey from the present into the past, from a bar in the Bronx to Tokyo and Shanghai during the Second World War.

Quin, born in China and raised in the Bronx, is orphaned in the closing days of the Second World War when his parents go missing and are presumed dead in Shanghai. Years later, in a Bronx bar, Quin encounters a stranger who hints that he can uncover the secrets of his past by accompanying Big Gobi, an adult orphan too simpleminded to travel alone, on a journey to meet his guardian in Tokyo. Quin arrives in Japan determined to uncover the truth about his parents’ past, but his search soon raises more questions than answers. What are the connections between a Russian anarchist, a one-eyed baron who is head of the Japanese secret service known as the Kempeitai, and the atrocities committed during the rape of Nanking? And what does any of it have to do with Quin’s parents?

Part espionage novel and part surreal fantasy, Quin’s Shanghai Circus, the first novel by Edward Whittemore, is a remarkable and audacious literary feat. Alive with a fascinating cast of characters and equally enthralling turns of events, former CIA officer Whittemore offers readers a mesmerizing glimpse at a secret history of the twentieth century.

I was delighted to receive this book from the publishers Open Road Media via Netgalley.  Open Road Media specializes in publishing backlist books electronically. Their lists include books like this one which are unavailable in print and which are hard to obtain as a printed book - the cheapest price on for a second-hand paperback is currently £27.47!

One of the great masters of magic realism . . . Tom Robbins? John Irving? Even God Vonnegut—forget ’em—read Whittemore. —Jonathan Carroll.

Edward Whittemore's extraordinary life, as a CIA officer in the Far and Middle East, informs this novel not just through the setting (in China and Japan) but also in its view of the world as illusion and deception.  We are led through a world of lies, like Quin not knowing what and who to believe. This world is huge, realistic and surreal, like a drug taker's trip.

The image of the Shanghai Circus is a metaphor for life: let us recall that other circus, the circus we knew as children. The sweep of the trapeze acts, the grace of the dangerous cats, the ridiculous clowns, the lumbering elephants, the confusing jugglers, the flying bareback riders. A magical show without end because of the magic in a child's heart. Yet when we go back years later we see a different performance. The costumes are shoddy, the smells cheap, the clowns not quite so funny, the aerialists not quite so daring. The dream is gone and what we see is crude, even grotesque. Sadness? Yes. Because we know the circus hasn't changed.
In Whittemore's hands the grotesque circus with the murderous final performance becomes a realm of horror.

This is very much a book for adults. Scenes include a chilling account of the Japanese army's atrocities at the Rape of Nanking and the cast of grotesque characters includes the psychopathic brother of Mama, a tattooed ex-prostitute who had sex with some ten thousand men by the time she was twenty-five. It is not a book for the squeamish. I should probably add at this point that it is also a book leavened with humour, such as Japanese gangsters singing the company marching song to the tune of Roast Beef of Old England.

The other balance to the horror is the scenes of humanity, love and even tenderness, such as the relationship between Quin and the simpleton Big Gobi and that between Mama and the Japanese general she loved. At the core of the book are relationships. Quin starts the book wanting to know about his parents, but as the book progresses that search expands to a need to understand the interrelationship between a much larger cast of characters. As each new character is introduced, the reader and Quin have new questions.

The story twists, turns and reprises. We go down dead-ends, we start again, sometimes the dead ends are not dead at all. Anyone, who like me, enjoys American mystery thrillers will find much to enjoy here. This is a book which merits rereading, as you will miss things on first reading.

So, based on this book, is Whittemore one of the great masters of magic realism? Not if you are require magic realism to have magic. But as we have seen elsewhere on this blog, magic realism can also be defined as realistic fiction infused with surrealism or fantasy. When we read about some of the real activities of the secret services we can't help but think that some of what seems fantastical in this book, e.g. the meeting on the beach of three conspirators wearing gas masks to prevent their words being lip-read, might actually be realistic. This is an extraordinary novel and an important book in the magic realism canon.

This book was given to me by the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. On Monday I wrote a post about what I have learned from my year of reading magic realism books and my attempt at a definition. Yesterday I gave short summaries of the 55 magic realist books I have reviewed so far on this blog. This is the 56th book in my magic realism challenge.

An endearing classic of childhood memories of an idyllic midwestern summer from the celebrated author of ‘Farenheit 451’.

In the backwaters of Illinois, Douglas Spaulding's grandfather makes an intoxicating brew from harvested dandelions. ‘Dandelion Wine’ is a quirky, breathtaking coming-of-age story from one of science fiction's greatest writers. Distilling his experiences into "Rites & Ceremonies" and "Discoveries & Revelations", the young Spaulding wistfully ponders over magical tennis shoes, and machines for every purpose from time travel to happiness and silent travel. Based upon Bradbury's own experiences growing up in Waukegan in the 1920s, ‘Dandelion Wine’ is a heady mixture of fond memory, forgiveness, magic, the imagination and above all, of summers that seemed to go on forever.
Amazon description

I had not read any books by America's great science fiction writer and had no idea what to expect. What I found was a book that reminded me of Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, another coming-of-age story, this time set in rural England not far from my hometown and a great favourite of mine. Both books are written by older men looking back at the golden days of their early teens. At the same time both Laurie Lee and Ray Bradbury remember the joyousness, wonderment and optimism of youth and also are able as adults to understand the world better. In particular Bradbury creates some lovely portraits of old people approaching death with dignity. Both writers enjoy a poetic love of words that shines through their descriptions, something not all readers appreciate, but I do. Bradbury's language is just beautiful.

Dandelion Wine is a series of short stories woven together by the boy's perceptions and his brother's. Each is bottled, stored and allowed to mature like the wines of the title. Each one is delightful and a pleasure to read. I enjoyed all of them. I know some people find Bradbury wordy but I loved his writing. I felt that the lushness of the writing suited the tales of golden times.

Although Bradbury is quoted as saying 'Dandelion Wine' is magic realism about my childhood, the magic realism is quite subtle and one cannot always be certain whether the magic is created by looking at the world through the eyes of a child. But then does that matter? Children believe in magic. Does it matter if the Lonely One is an evil monster or the local psychopath? Or whether Honeysuckle Ladies Lodge is really a coven of witches? The key to reading this book is to go along with it, to lay aside adult assumptions against magic. For a child the everyday world is magic realist and Bradbury conjures up that magic brilliantly. Plus there are some episodes which cannot be easily reasoned away.

Although the world Douglas inhabits is bright and magical, at the same time there is sadness in the book, as befits a realist account of childhood. There is that major disaster of childhood, the loss of a best friend, the friend's parents are moving away and suddenly taking him with them. There is illness, even a death of a much-loved family member, the end of summer and the impending return to school. And behind it all is the loss of childhood itself. This is the year when Douglas realizes: I’m ALIVE. Thinking about it, noticing it, is new. You do things and don’t watch. Then all of a sudden you look and see what you’re doing and it’s the first time, really. We as adults know that this is a sign of growing older.

The Magic Realism Blog Hop
Below are the other blogs on the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Please take time to visit them, you'll find some fascinating posts. Oh and while you're about do take part in the Rafflecopter giveaway at the bottom of the post. You could win a collection of magic realism ebooks. You get free entries by commenting on this or other posts, by joining the Magic Realism Facebook page (see right) or following this blog, and lots of other ways.

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Tuesday 23 July 2013

Some Brief Descriptions of Magic Realism Books

Over the last year I have reviewed fifty-five magic realism books. As part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop, here is a summary of each book. Click on the title to go to the full review.

Winter's Tale by Mark Halprin  - North American modern, alternative history
The Story Sister's by Alice Hoffman - modern women's magic realism tackling difficult subjects
The Enchantress Of Florence by Salman Rushdie  - post-colonial magic realism, historical fiction
The Knife Thrower by Steven Millhauser - North American short stories
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter - feminist British magic realism
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey - Alaskan modern fairytale
Life of Pi by Yann Martel - post modernist tale
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling - North American mythic fiction
Beloved by Toni Morrison - magic realism tackling the psychological legacy of slavery
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke - British retelling of fairytales
Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw - British magic realism
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill - North American very realistic mythic fiction
Fludd by Hilary Mantel - quirky magic realism by Booker prize winning author
The Silver Cloud Cafe by Alfredo Vea - magic realist mystery focused on the lives of immigrant workers
Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel - Mexican magic realism, food as magic
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht - Orange prize winning book set in the Balkans
The Scholar of Moab by Stephen Peck - surreal and amusing American magic realism
Chocolat by Joanne Harris - more food as magic
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho - hugely popular fable from Brazilian writer
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - surreal story that inspired Garcia Marquez
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender - American surreal food-as-magic novel
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami - Japanse post-modernism
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz - several generations of a family from the Dominican Republic
The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea - Mexican, historical fiction around the life of a traditional woman healer
One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - classic South American magic realism,
The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz - magic realism set in British Columbia influenced by native American myth
The Inner City by Karen Heuler - short story collection from science fiction
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya - Chicano magic realism set in New Mexico
The Threads of the Heart by Carole Martinez - French magic realism following strong female characters
Orlando by Virginia Woolf - British early magic realism set across the centuries
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro by Joao Cerqueira - Portuguese satirical magic realism,
This Magnificent Desolation by Thomas O'Malley - dark novel with touches of magic realism
Black Juice by Margo Lanagan - collection of short stories from Australian fantasy writer
Tracks by Louise Erdrich - native American magic realism
The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel AymĂ© - collection of short stories by French magic realist
The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington - surrealist, feminist, British magic realism
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman - African gods meet modern London in this fun magic realist book
Sexing The Cherry by Jeanette Winterson - post modernist, historical magic realism
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson - British literary magic realism, what if you had life after life
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko - Native American magic realism
Last Summer At Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand - collection of short stories by
The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud - collection of Jewish American short stories (not all magic realism)
Forged In Grace by Jordan E Rosenfeld - indie writer's realistic portrayal of faith healer, psychological magic realism
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende - family saga from leading South American magic realist
Goldenland Past Dark by Chandler Klang Smith - a freak circus tale
Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill - a mystery for Laotian coroner and shaman
The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce - psychological magic realism set in 1960's Britain
Missing in Machu Picchu by Cecilia Velastegui - popular women's fiction meets Peruvian native beliefs
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi - a child with Nigerian/British heritage meets a strange friend
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo - massively influential magic realism novel, set in dream-like Mexico
A Floating Life by Tad Crawford - surreal magic realism
The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni - food as magic, India meets US culture
The Blue Fox by Sjon - Icelandic magic realist novella, historical setting
Dona Flor and her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado - epic magic realism tale by Brazilian writer
Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala - Jewish/Mexican magic realism.

The Magic Realism Blog Hop
Yesterday I wrote a post about what I have learned from my year of reading magic realism books and gave my attempt at a definition of magic realism. And tomorrow I will be reviewing my fifty-sixth magic realism book, the wonderful Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury.

Below are the other blogs on the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Please take time to visit them: you'll find some fascinating posts. Oh and while you're about it, do take part in the Rafflecopter giveaway at the bottom of the post. You could win a collection of magic realism ebooks. You get free entries by commenting on this or other posts, by joining the Magic Realism Facebook page (see right), by following this blog, and in lots of other ways.

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Sunday 21 July 2013

What is Magic Realism

This is the first day of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Twenty bloggers are taking part, so when you have finished reading this blog post pop along to the other blogs (see the links below).  

On the 29th July this blog will be one year old. I started the blog as a way of ensuring I finish my magic realism challenge - to read a book a week for a year. And the reason I started the challenge was because I was told I wrote magic realism, but I didn't know what that meant. By reading 52 books, I hoped to have an answer. I deliberately read as widely as possible, both in terms of geographical origin and genre. So what have I discovered?

The first thing I discovered is that there is no easy definition and that there are a number of interpretations of what magic realism is. 

There seem to be three main strands of magic realism. The first is what one might call Latin American magic realism, exemplified by the works of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In this form of magic realism, "magical" events are treated as normal occurrences in an otherwise realist world and are not commented on. This magic realism strand is informed by the coming together of two cultures in a post-colonial world: the western realist/rationalist (and dominant) culture and the "magical" indigenous cultures of South America. Whether the post-colonial context is essential is open to debate, but this mixing of two cultures with different belief structures has become so frequent a theme in magic realism, that arguably it is essential to the definition. Examples of this "two cultures" magic realism are not restricted to South America, but also include native American writers such as Silko and Erdrich, Jewish writers such as Alcala and even Kafka, British South Asian writers like Rushdie and Afro-American writers such as Toni Morrison. Arguably this definition also applies to feminist magic realism, such as that by Angela Carter and Virginia Woolf. 

Then there is the European strand. The roots of the European magic realism are in the surrealist and post-expressionist movements. The first use of the phrase "magic realism" was by art critic Franz Roh in 1925 when writing about the post-expressionist movement: 
We recognize the world, although now - not only because we have emerged from a dream - we look on it with new eyes. We are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane. This new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. It employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things.
For me this definition is still important: everyday things having deeper-than-expected meaning seems to be a key element of magic realism. 

This European strand has an approach that is very different from Latin American magic realism. It is more self aware, so much so that metafiction regularly features in some leading magic realist novels, such as Life of Pi, or If On a Winter's Night A Traveller. To show that my attempt at definition is fraught with problems, some of the best examples of this approach come from outside of Europe, such as works by Borges and Murakami. And there are plenty of common roots for both strands. Franz Kafka is in many ways not a magic realist writer, he is too surrealist, but he is remarkably influential on the development of magic realism. Arguably he is the root of magic realism - it was his story Metamorphosis that inspired Marquez to write as he does. 

There is a third strand, which is what might be termed popular magic realism. This uses magic realism as a story-telling technique. The magic can be a way of showing the psychology of characters, such as in the Tooth Fairy, or of exploring alienation, such as in The Story Sisters. It can be used to show religious and non-rationalist beliefs that exist even in western society, for example in Fludd. Or it can simply be used to add a touch of magic.

Magic realism in all these strands questions the nature of "reality". In some ways it is unfortunate that it is called magic realism. In the context of our world, which is dominated by rationalism and science, the term "magic" often implies unreality. However magic realism allows the writer to draw a world where there are alternatives to rationalism. It might be better described as "alternative realism". 

Please follow the links below to take you to posts on magic realism from lots of other bloggers. And please come back here tomorrow and Wednesday, when there will be two more posts as part of the blog hop. And there's a giveaway too - a collection of magic realist e-books and a Kafka bookmark. See the Rafflecopter below. Remember leaving a comment on this post gets you an entry.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

The Blue Fox by Sjon

The year is 1883, and the stark Icelandic landscape is the backdrop for this spellbinding fable that is part mystery, part fairy tale. The fates of a priest, a naturalist, and a young woman with Down syndrome are intrinsically bound and gradually, surprisingly unraveled.

"Sjon's fable...describes its world with brilliant, precise, concrete colour and detail while at the same time making things and people mysterious and ungraspable...The world of 19th-century Iceland is brilliantly and economically present: the bareness of the dwellings, the roughness of the churches and congregations, the meager food...The novel is a parable, comic, and lyrical about the nature of things."—A.S. Byatt for The Times

Sjon was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1962. A novelist, playwright, lyricist, and poet, he wrote the lyrics to Bjork’s hit songs “Isobel,” “Joga,” and “Bachelorette” and was nominated for an Academy Award for his lyrics to the music for the film Dancer in the Dark, directed by Lars von Trier.

Goodreads Description.

This is one of those books I came across by accident while exploring Amazon. I’m not a great fan of the Amazon suggestions, they seem to often bear little resemblance to my likes or too much so in that I have already bought them (sometimes from Amazon), but sometimes they throw up a gem like this lovely novella by an Icelandic writer I had never heard of and now will be seeking out.

The book starts as the relatively simple story of a man hunting a fox across the winter wasteland, a contest of cunning and endurance. As was the writer’s intention I was firmly on the side of the blue fox vixen. It then expands into the tale of a herbalist, Fridrik Fridjonsson, and the Down Syndrome girl he saves and protects. The story is set in the 1883 when Down Syndrome is not understood and in Iceland children born with it are routinely killed at birth. Fridjonsson’s gentleness and generosity are in stark contrast with that of the hunter, who also happens to be the local priest and who refused to have the girl in his services.

As for the magic realism in the book let us just say it concerns the blue fox of the title. To say more would spoil the story. The ending too in which the strands are brought together must for the same reason remain a blank.

I loved this book. It is beautifully written and equally beautifully translated: Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves.

The descriptions capture the landscape and the tension of the hunt beautifully. The story is as beautiful and brutal as a northern winter. Despite or perhaps because of that brutality I loved the humanity of the book: the portrayal of the herbalist and the girl’s relationship. I recommend this book to you.
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Tuesday 16 July 2013

Next week 20 blogs are joining forces to blog about magic realism. Visit again on the 22nd to find out more and to discover what I've learned from my year of reading and reviewing magic realism books.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Dona Flor and her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado

When Dona Flor's husband dies suddenly, she forgets all his defects and remembers only his passion. Erotic nightmares haunt her. Dr Teodoro, a local pharmacist, proposes marriage and Dona Flor accepts, hoping to recapture the ecstasy she now craves. One night, her first husband materializes naked at the foot of her bed, eager to reclaim his conjugal rights. The visit is the first of many, as Dona Flor, racked by desire but reluctant to betray the upright pharmacist, responds to the ethereal demands of her first husband. Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands shows why Jorge Amado is Brazil's best-known writer. It is the work of a brilliant story-teller whose love for his characters matches his powers of evocation. An epic book.
Amazon description

If I told you that Dona Flor's first husband Vadinho dies on page 3 and doesn't turn up as a ghost until 425, you wouldn't be surprised to hear that the description does not really cover what this book is about. It is a long book - my version amounted to 550 pages - and offers the reader a rich tapestry, filled with the colour, tastes (Dona Flor teaches Bahian cookery), smells and sounds of the Brazilian city of Bahia. In particular Amado draws the twilight world of gambling dens, casinos, whores, crooks and conmen that Vadinho lived in. The first half of the book is filled with tales about how Vadinho courted Dona Flor and their married life, and not only their lives but the lives of the many characters that inhabit Vadinho's and Dona Flor's lives.

Vadinho is the ultimate loveable rogue; indeed Dona Flor's passion and love for him survives his death. He is a gambler and womanizer. He is constantly on the lookout for people he can scrounge money off. He wins Dona Flor under false pretensions (claiming to be someone he is not in order to get into a party), and continues to deceive and play false with her, stealing money, disappearing for days and nights on end, having affairs with her pupils and the local prostitutes. Nevertheless this larger than life character is able to sustain Flor's interest and affection, as he does ours. One thing in his favour is that he is very good in bed, which is the reason Dona Flor finds herself overwhelmed by feelings of lust after his death. 

In contrast, her second husband, Teodoro, is an upright, hard-working and loyal husband, whose orderly behaviour verges on the obsessive compulsive, e.g. sex takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays with an encore on Saturdays, optional on Wednesdays. But he is not enough for Dona Flor and with the arrival of the lusty ghost of Vadinho she is faced with a dilemma: neither man is perfect. Vadinho is no more reliable dead than alive and Dona Flor is reminded of the nights spent waiting fruitlessly for his return from some casino or harlot's boudoir. 

What Amado has done with this book is explore the dilemma many women face: a choice between the exciting bad boy and the reliable but boring good man. As Vadinho explains: I came back from the beyond and here you have me. To bring you joy, suffering and pleasure…to stir up your longing and provoke your desire, hidden in the depths of your being, your modesty. He [Teodoro] is the husband of Madame Dona Flor, who protects your virtue, your honor, your respect among people….To be happy you need both of us. 
In Amado's hands the theme is treated with humour and a sense of fun. In others' the heroine is destroyed by the problem.

The book, having been very realist for four hundred pages, explodes with magic with the arrival of the ghost and the resolution of the story. The book draws on Afro-Brazilian candomblĂ© beliefs, which are similar to Haitian voodoo. Interestingly Amado published this book in 1966, before Marquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude and yet here is a book which combines magic, realism and a sense of humour in one book.

One of the problems of trying to reach a definition of magic realism, which is one purpose of this blog, is the issue of how we deal with subject matter that is a sub-genre in itself, in this case the reappearance of Vadinho after his death. Is this book a ghost story? It has a ghost. But then that ghost is not treated as unusual: Dona Flor seems to be half-expecting him. And the ghost offers the writer and the reader the way to explore then bad boy/ good man theme. Is that what makes this magic realism and not just a ghost story?  

I enjoyed this book, although on occasions I found myself wanting the book to get back to the main plotline, rather than be diverted down admittedly colourful sidestreets. Give yourself time to read and enjoy it. It is a book to be read with a large box of chocolates and a bottle of wine near at hand. 

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala

A spectacular tapestry of folklore, spirituality, and landscape, this extraordinary first novel vividly blurs fantasy and reality as it details one family's search for identity. In a small village in northern Mexico, the Carabajals have long been practicing their Jewish faith in secret. The father, Julio, spends his days dabbling with alchemy. His wife, Mariana, cannot speak but is clairvoyant. Their son has allied himself with a Catholic woman and is obsessed with his search for gold. Central to the surprising destinies of these characters are the momentous events and the ancient and sacred cliff dwellings of Casas Grandes, high in the mountains. This story of two cultures, of the elusive bonds of love and faith, is dazzling in its originality.
From Goodreads description.

This book is one of a number of novels which followed on in the wake of One Hundred Years of Solitude and the Latin American magic realism boom. This book is not a simple Marquez or Allende wannabe. Unusually it combines Jewish mysticism with the dual belief systems of the indigenous peoples and their Catholic Spanish overlords. 

Kathleen Alcala, although a US citizen, comes from a Mexican family and regularly stayed in the area she writes about as a child. This gives the book great authenticity and the reader has a strong impression of the landscape, towns and culture of the area. In addition Alcala draws on the mix of Judaism and indigenous beliefs held by her mother's family. As the book makes clear, Judaism was still a persecuted religion at this time, practiced behind closed doors and far removed from organised Judaism and so open to dilution. 

There are several forms of belief in the book. One is Julio's strenuous approach, obsessively pursuing the Lord's truths and plans for the world in the texts and alchemical formulae that he hoards in his secret room, shuttered against the eyes of the world. When he tries to apply this approach to the garden, he ends up destroying its life force. Julio's wife, Mariana, dumb since being attacked as a child, is the opposite of her husband, open to receiving the divine through her oneness with nature. And then there is their son, Zacarius, who starts off as obsessive as his father destroying his marriage in his pursuit of gold and silver in the hills of Mexico, but who discovers a mystical understanding of the world and god through his experience of the local indigenous peoples and nature. These belief systems are in turn contrasted with the severity, worldliness and intolerance of Roman Catholicism. 

The book jumps from the story of one character to another, and not just Zacarius and his parents, but also Zacarius' wife Estela and her family, the Zacarius' twin brother and sister, even a visiting photographer gets a chapter or two. Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude where the width of canvas could allow us to view a whole family through several generations, this novel is comparatively slim and so the movement between characters is jerky and unsatisfactory. That is not to say that the characterization is not good, it is. I would have preferred it if the writer had focused on giving us more of a narrative of Zacarius' life and the Jewish side of the family.   

The book's cover blurb speaks of the novel being in the tradition of Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel - a multigenerational tale of family passions. To my mind it does not live up to Allende or Marquez, but then not many authors do. Nevertheless it is an enjoyable piece of magic realism.