By sheer chance, three recent novels I’ve read over the last couple of months have shared a certain element of what one might call the supernatural or magical. All were by writers I had not read before and all were books picked up in my usual scattershot way: this one had an interesting review, that one had interesting blurbs, this other one had an interesting dust jacket. And I had quite different responses to them.
The first, in order of reading, was The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel, which I think could be described as an example of magic realism. (My prior acquaintance with that genre is limited to a single book, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My opinion on this topic is, accordingly, of little or no value.) In both books, the shifts between realism and magic realism were abrupt, and I found myself wondering what the authors were trying to accomplish. Garcia Marquez conveyed an enhanced sense of the identity of a place, compounded by letting mythic elements into the body of the work. But I’m perplexed as to what Martel was after. Over all, the book seems to be about people seeking to escape from their losses. They are real losses, grave losses, to be sure. But is flight, by itself, enough to hold a novel together? In the end, I felt not. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I were receptive to the kind of nature-mysticism that offers some closure at the end of the book; but my mystical promptings are of a more traditional sort.
The second book was This House Is Mine by Dörte Hansen, translated by Anne Stokes. I wouldn’t call it a work of magic realism; but, like that genre, it hints at a human reality less securely limited to brute fact than the purely realistic novel would tolerate. A reader who resists the idea that there is anything to our world beyond the physical (including the strange psychological carryings on of the brain) could read the occasional hints of other realities as coincidences. A reader comfortable with the occult would have a different take. The somewhat agnostic reader might be content simply to see the boundaries fogged a bit. None of this, however, has much to do with why I found this novel so much more satisfying or why I would be happy to read more by Ms. Hansen. Her characters, too, are severely damaged by their losses, but are not content merely to flee. In depicting the ways we struggle with past troubles and how our varying degrees of success and failure shape our domestic surroundings (and perhaps even communicate through them), she has written a deeply humane novel. And if it ends on a note of hope, I don’t share the widespread modern prejudice against that.
The third book was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Since it’s set in a kind of fantasy world of post-Roman Britain (there is a dragon and Sir Gawain plays a part in the action), it isn’t magic realism. It’s just the sort of world where one expects everyday life and magic to commingle. Indeed, the whole course of action seems driven by a strong but inexplicable sense that the two elderly protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, have that they must leave their village and search for their son. Here, too, are people who seem to have experienced a great loss, yet cannot quite admit it and hope only n the vaguest way for some positive resolution. In the end, they don’t appear to succeed, but this reader, at least, found himself reflecting in a new way on the mixture of blessing and curse found in our mysterious human powers of forgetting and remembering. This was a book that I suspect I will still be thinking about for some time to come.
In a way it’s meaningless to group these three books together. They formed only a casual assortment. But the differences among them were of more than passing interest. One of them opens onto a humane future of some kind. Another seems to want only to be absorbed into the “natural” world and wound up seeming, to me, entirely about retreat. Yet another left me pondering about how the “retreat” of historical amnesia can, when dissipated, actually open onto a world of renewed violence. In fiction as in life, ongoing human engagement with our lives and our world and the hope that makes that possible are the interesting things.