Wednesday 25 December 2013

The Lieutenant of San Porfirio by Joel D Hirst

Something is afoul in the Revolutionary Socialist Republic of Venezuela. Despite food shortages, blackouts and the terrible violence, El Comandante's iron grip is stronger than ever. Newly decorated Lieutenant Juan Marco Machado lovingly caresses his shiny AK-103 as he thinks about his promotion and what he would be willing to do to defend his revolution, and his position. He is about to find out it's more than he ever would have believed. Doña Esmeralda is in trouble. Ordered to demonstrate her solidarity for the revolution and open her colonial mansion (in which she carefully protects her dead husband's ghost) to the barrio dwellers, she decides she is left with no choice but to plot a counterrevolution. Meanwhile, Freddy, an American high school student is propelled by his parents to attend a socialist youth summit in Venezuela, pitting him against Pancho Randelli, a freedom activist and leader of the struggling student movement. And so the fates of four people are about to be intertwined within a country plunged into revolution. The Lieutenant of San Porfirio is the compelling story about four people seeking to find themselves under the chilling pall of socialism. People from different backgrounds and across the hemisphere will find something to love, as well as something deeply disturbing, in this new magical realism twist on a South American classic genre, the dictator novel.
 Amazon Description

This book combines comedy with serious political commentary. In Latin America, which Joel Hirst is familiar with and which he clearly loves and cares passionately about, that is the reality, a reality which is mixes with magic in this excellent novel. 

The comedic is always close to a serious, even tragic, consequence, as exemplified in the character of Lieutenant Machado, who at first appears to be a bumbling drunken fool, but morphs into Porfirio's Head of Security, recruiting a sadistic interrogator. That that interrogator is said to have been the child of a magical being shows how the magic works in this novel. Further examples are Machado's spies - a man who seems able to turn himself into an owl, or the servants at Dona Esmerelda's country club who were specially bred to be invisible. The magic in this book is not on the side of the freedom activists. 

Reading the book blurb I was not sure whether I would enjoy the book, fearing that it would be too politically right-wing for me. This is a shame as I was pleased to see that the book shows an understanding of the motivation of all the main characters, nor does it portray the opponents of the revolution in a universally good light - Dona Esmerelda, the old oligarch, is a selfish elitist, but: each had been searching in their own way for freedom and for meaning. All in different places and by different means.  The book is very good at showing how the most laudable of aspirations can be perverted.  On a minor point Mr Hirst and his publisher should note that democratic socialism has many supporters in the UK and other European countries, where it does not mean the same as it does in the Americas, so references in the description to the chilling pall of socialism will put off potential buyers.

The book weaves together the story of the four characters - the naive American youth Freddy, Lieutenant Machado, the activist student leader Pancho and Dona Esmerelda - as they move to the inevitable violent showdown. If I were to make a criticism of this book it is of how this happens. The story is told by an omniscient narrator, who allows us to see that the Lieutenant knows about the others' plans. This reduces the dramatic suspense to that of watching a slow-motion car crash. At the end it seems that the book is the first in a series and that more will be revealed in future books. I look forward to reading them. 

I recommend this book to you. 

Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier

A few years after its liberation from French colonialist rule, Haiti experienced a period of unsurpassed brutality, horror, and superstition under the reign of the black King Henri-Christophe. Through the eyes of the ancient slave Ti-Noel, The Kingdom of This World records the destruction of the black regime--built on the same corruption and contempt for human life that brought down the French--in an orgy of voodoo, race hatred, erotomania, and fantastic grandeurs of false elegance.
Goodreads description

This is arguably the book that launched Latin American magic realism. First published in 1949, the book opens with a prologue which sets out to distinguish what the Cuban author calls the "marvellous reality" of Latin America from the surrealist marvellous of Europe:  But what many forget, in disguising themselves as cheap magicians, is that the marvellous becomes unequivocally marvellous when it arises from an unexpected alteration of reality ( a miracle), a privileged revelation of reality, an unaccustomed or singularly favourable illumination of the previously unremarked riches of reality, an amplification of the measures and categories of reality, perceived with peculiar intensity due to the exaltation of the spirit which elevates it to a kind of "limit state".

You can read the full Prologue here

Carpentier succeeds in this book in delivering beautiful and powerful magic realism. One of the key points made in the Prologue is that the magical depends on who believes it. Ti-Noel, who stands at the book's centre, is a black slave who believes in voodoo and its powerful magic. It is suggested that when Henri-Christophe stops believing in voodoo and adopts Christianity he starts to lose his power. It is not an accident that his personal crisis takes place in a church. Voodoo drum beats herald revolutions and echo through the book. Macandal, the first revolutionary leader, is said to be able to turn into animals, as at the end in a turning of the circle does Ti-Noel. But neither are successful in their bids for freedom.

The story is ultimately a sad one. Ti-Noel and the black slaves throw off the brutal chains of  one master only to lose their freedom to another - first their French slave owners, then black King Henri-Christophe who has them building a fantastic fortress palace in the jungle and neglecting their crops and finally the mulattoes with their measuring poles seizing the land.  It is not a surprise that many have compared it to Animal Farm. As we know, the bloody history of Haiti has continued ever since. And yet there is something affirming about the book's ending: at the end Ti-Noel understands that a man never knows for whom he suffers and hopes. He suffers and hopes and toils for people he will never know, and who, in turn, will suffer and hope and toil for others who will not be happy either,  for man always seeks a happiness far beyond that which is meted out to him. But man's greatness consists in the very fact of wanting to be better than he is.
 Carpentier uses nature symbolically throughout the book. There is Macandal and Ti-Noel's shape-changing. Henri-Christophe's fortress is being covered by lush red fungi even as it is built. When Ti-Noel returns to the plantation where he had been a slave, he finds it destroyed and overgrown. Nature is at once on the side of the slaves (they are aided by the weather and poisonous plants) and yet at the same time it is beyond them. 

Regular readers of this blog will know how I believe in the value of magic realism in accurately portraying history, for the very reason Carpentier sets out in the prologue - what is magic depends what people believe. Anyone wishing to get a feel for the history of Haiti would do well to read this book, which reveals as much about the island and its past as any non-fiction account.

This short book (150 pages) is unquestionably one of the masterworks of magic realism. Read it.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Moscow But Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia

The first short story collection by award-winning author Ekaterina Sedia! One of the more resonant voices to emerge in recent years, this Russian-born author explores the edge between the mundane and fantastical in tales inspired by her homeland as well as worldwide folkloric traditions. With foreword by World Fantasy Award-winner Jeffrey Ford, Moscow But Dreaming showcases singular and lyrical writing that will appeal to fans of slipstream and magical realism, as well as those interested in the uncanny and Russian history.
Goodreads Description 

The twenty-one short stories in this stunning collection o=often focus on the outsider or displaced, whether it be the adopted Russian child, the ex-countess in Soviet Russia, the impoverished Prince of Burundi in exile in Moscow, or Hector of Greek myth with a mundane job yearning for a heroic death.  Magic realism works when there is this sort of dichotomy and in these stories it works really well. 

The stories are often infused with Russian myth and history.  In Kikimora a lesbian couple discover their true magical natures. In Tin Cans an old man working as a security guard at the Tunisian Embassy faces the ghosts of girls, sadistically raped and murdered by Stalin's henchman and KGB chief Beria. Other stories are set at the end of the October Revolution or at the Stalingrad Seige. All combine historical realism with fantasy and often violence.

Another element of alienation that we find in many of the stories is an alienation with  post-communist Russia, in which many people have seen their livelihoods and neighbourhoods decline in the face of materialism and gangsterism. In By the Liter two men absorb vodka and the memories of murdered mafia victims. 

Sedia is brilliant at taking a story in a way you don't expect it. It is virtually impossible to predict the ending even though the stories are short (about 15 pages). In addition she will often take a fictional genre and twist it: as in Zombie Lenin, in which a girl is pursued by the mummified Bolshevik leader, or in A Handsome Fellow - a take on the vampire myth (Upyr in Russian) set during the Stalingrad Seige. One of my favourite stories is The Bank of Burkina Faso which is based on this premise: what if those email scams about money frozen in overseas banks were actually true - and what if the banks only exist in dreams.

All the stories in this collection were excellent. The two that didn't work quite as well for me weren't set in either America or Russia (Ebb and Flow and Munashe and the Spirits), but that is quibbling. The author's writing is beautiful, her imagery unusual and the psychology of her characters is complex, even if she only has a few pages to draw it. 

Quite simply this is one of the best books I have read as part of my magic realism challenge.

Monday 9 December 2013

Solstice Magic by Jean Stringam

Read about the magical world of cowboys, rabbits, and Ukrainian goddesses that unfolds when Zo’s gruff baba from Ukraine arrives with her savage Caucasian Ovchorka dog. The ensuing chaos of clashing cultures catapults the characters into the extreme sport of rodeo at the Calgary Stampede. There, Vince Lapin, bull-rider extraordinaire, meets up with Susie Lago, protégé of Zo, and the outcome for the other rodeo contestants as well as the animal athletes changes stampede history. Good thing Zo has a best friend with an attractive older brother to soften the trauma. Solstice Magic is magical realism for everybody who ever wished to be more than they are. You'll love this first-in-a-series tale of the Calgary Stampede.
Goodreads description

This is a book for young adults, and I would probably put it at the lower end of that age range. Zo is at senior school but, despite a bit of a crush on her friend's brother, is mostly interested in training her rabbit to compete in hopping courses. I also think  therefore that it is unlikely to appeal to boys. 

I suppose it should be said here that I am not a young adult and haven't been one for a very long time, so long in fact that my son isn't one either. But I do get the impression that this a book which isn't being properly targeted at its core readership. The cover (above) speaks of cowboy adventure to me, not of a tale predominantly about a girl, her magical rabbit, and a fierce Ukrainian grandmother. 

So laying aside these quibbles let me say this is an enjoyable read suited to the market I outline above. It opens with the arrival of a rodeo "clown" at the Calgary rodeo and then shifts back several months to give the build-up to that arrival. Most of the story concerns Zo's family and the arrival of a grandmother from the Ukraine who doesn't want to be there and who refuses to fit in. Grandmother Dolia arrives complete with enormous fierce dog and a hatred of rabbits, which she refers to as vermin. The point of view in the story is mostly that of Zo or of her rabbit. I would have liked more about why Dolia is the way she is. She does come over as rather two-dimensional, although that might be because she is seen through Zo's eyes. 

I am sure many of the book's young readers will enjoy the portrayal of animals in the book. There is rabbit training, sheepdog trials and of course the rodeo. As a Brit I am unfamiliar with the latter and found the descriptions fascinating. All the animals are presented as conversing with each other. 

But is the book magic realism? Well almost. The book is based around Ukrainian beliefs and mysticism. Zo's grandmother brings with her from the Ukraine fierce fundamentalist views on these and she clashes with the family over their more "modern" take on them. Personally I would have liked more about what the book is based on in some sort of postscript - after all the book comes with a glossary of Ukrainian terms. In some magic realist books it doesn't matter that you do not know, maybe because they are written from the point of view of someone who believes in the magic. But Zo is as at sea about what her grandmother believes as we are. Perhaps if Zo had learned more during the story, we could too. As this book is the first in a series, perhaps this will happen in the subsequent volumes.

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

Wednesday 4 December 2013

The Dedalus Meyrink Reader

Gustav Meyrink is one of the most important and interesting authors of early 20th-century German Literature. To establish his reputation in the English-speaking world Dedalus has translated his five novels plus a collection of his short stories and published the first ever English-language biography of Meyrink. Now is the time to produce an overview of Meyrink in a single volume. The Dedalus Meyrink Reader has excerpts from all the translated books and a whole section of hitherto untranslated material, including the stories from the collection Flederm use and autobiographical articles. This volume is perfect companion for both the Meyrink scholar and the first-time Meyrink reader, containing as it does the whole gamut of Meyrink's writing from his love of the bizarre, the grotesque and the macabre to the spine-chilling occult tales and his quest to know what is on the Other Side of the Mirror. Novelist, satirist, translator of Charles Dickens, dandy, man-about-time, fencer, rower, banker and mystic seer, there are many, sometimes contradictory aspects to Gustav Meyrink, who must also be the only novelist to have challenged a whole army regiment to a duel. He has left behind a unique body of work, which can be sampled and enjoyed in The Dedalus Meyrink Reader.
Goodreads description

Gustav Meyrink has suffered from being overshadowed by his fellow Prague resident Kafka. The publisher Dedalus have set out to reinstate Meyrink and his reputation. This collection includes samples of his novels, including the best known The Golem, and as tasters some work better than others. Also included are some fascinating short stories and articles, which shed a different light on Meyrink's writing.

The first question is how does Meyrink's writings relate to magic realism. This is a man who had an extraordinary life, where the real bordered on the magical - when he was accused of fraud in the running of his bank it was said he used spiritualism in the fraud. He was a man fascinated by the occult and esoteric and so the content of his writings are very much based on his beliefs. This means that "magic" is a part of the world he portrays.  In the Cardinal Napellus short story he gives the main character the following words: Some subtle spiritual instinct tells me that every act we perform has a double, magic meaning. We cannot do anything which is not magic. 

He produced a wide range of fiction. This includes psychological suspense, as in The Golem, where the Golem appears almost as a projection of the fears of Prague's Jewish population. It is never clear in the book what is real, especially as the leading character is said to have been mentally ill prior to the events portrayed. Meyrink also tried his hand at historical fiction, as in the Angel at the West Window, an account of the lives of English alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, magic realism has a role to play in portraying lives of people in the past where magic was seen as reality. 

Meyrink's short stories reveal an unexpected lighter side to his character. I particularly enjoyed The Ring of Saturn, which starts darkly and you expect it to be one of his horror stories but it twists unexpectedly. In this story a soul which has been captured escapes into the firmament and the magician, from whom it has escaped, has to recapture it and in so doing must sacrifice himself. However as he dies he tells his followers what horror the soul had been in the process of committing and why. The why is because the soul is that of a vicar's wife, being the only type of human that is truly useless and the horror was she was crocheting a ring for Saturn.

Written in 1903 the story Petroleum, Petroleum is horribly prescient. It tells of an oil magnate who deliberately releases oil into the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil flowing from huge reserves soon covers the whole of the ocean, but humanity is unable to react in a concerted way to counter the problem. 

There are also some fascinating non-fiction pieces in the book. One deals with a point in Meyrink's life where in despair he was about to shoot himself, but is stopped by a leaflet being pushed under the door. The leaflet's title was "On Life After Death." Since then I have never believed in coincidence, I believe in the Pilot.  Another is an essay on Prague, The City with the Secret Heartbeat. Prague appears almost like a leading character in much of Meyrink's writings. In this essay Meyrink says that it is indeed a character, a city that lives, but in a ghostly form: If however, I summon up Prague, it appears more clearly than anything else, so clearly, in fact, that it no longer seems real, but ghostly. Every person I knew there turns into a ghost, an inhabitant of a realm that does not know death.  As someone who spends time in the Czech Republic and knows Prague well, I have to say I know exactly what he is talking about.  As a writer myself, I cannot help but feel the magical other realism that is that great city.