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The Street Hustler Storyteller’s Art Isn’t Dead

February 1st, 2010

Of course it isn’t. It lives on in television infomercial hosts, wrestling announcers and multi-level marketing gurus. But I’m talking about the real thing–the carnival barker, the frontier snake oil salesman, the witch hunter. I didn’t think that was something you could see anymore in a public setting: a silver-tongued philanthropic capitalist addressing a preferably credulous public in order to convince them at length and in grand style to buy whatever it is. In Guatemala I was astonished and really very happy to find that tradition thriving. These people are serious storytellers, doing it to survive.

I took a series of chickenbuses to Chichcastenango, a highland maya town on a hilly plateau at about 6,000 feet where they have a big market on Thursdays and Sundays. It was windy and cold and the thin air made it hard to walk uphill. At one end of town, there’s a pastel-colored graveyard on a cliff, at the other, a stark white church built in 1600 on whose steps the local adherents of the maya religion make their offerings of flowers, tobacco and copal.

Five steps into the market I met a lady selling packets of medicine to kill stomach parasites, ringworm and the like. Four pills for four days. She had a collection of specimens–actual stomach parasites preserved in alcohol in baby food jars. She picked them up one at a time as she lectured. “Look at the size of this one,” she’d say. “This demon came out of the belly of a twelve year old girl.”

Chichicastenango, you’ll recall from my earlier ranting about it, is the town where the Popol Vuh was hidden away for 250 years before Friar Ximenez found it in 1701, transcribed it and copied it into Spanish. I went to the museum in Chicago where that copy now resides; they wouldn’t let me see it, but the whole manuscript’s been scanned online anyway. Anyhow. I went to the monastery courtyard where Ximenez would have sat to make the translation. It’s right in the middle of the market, and it was packed with people resting from the ordeal of shopping. A man by the fountain was telling a story to a crowd of a hundred mostly boys, teenagers and young men. The story consisted of a long series of ad-libbed episodes illustrating how the magic elixir of strength he was offering–in clear plastic vacuum bags with straws like those juice packs you drank in junior high–had caused hilarious awesomeness to spring out wherever it fell. He’d puncture a bag of elixir and use it as a visual aid to demonstrate peeing, a pregnant lady giving milk, a guy spitting at a joke, some more peeing, wine being turned to water, water to blood, hooch being drunk, rain. The resourcefulness of it was impressive, despite the lowbrowness perhaps of the humor. And I stood there and listened for 15 minutes, trying to figure out if there was some underlying thread I’d missed or wasn’t picking up, or if this was just how the story went. Everybody was having a good time, anyhow. And when I left, he still hadn’t tried to sell anybody anything.

Now there’s a storyteller.


A bridge in Chichi. Note the depiction of quetzalcoatl above the arch. (That’s El Nubo in the backpack–my intrepid guide.)

On the long bus ride back from Chichi, a twelve year-old kid got on for the leg from Chimaltenango to Jocotenango with a shoebox full of glue sticks–paste glue in a blue lipstick tube, like I used in 2nd grade. He handed two glue sticks out to every person. He clambered to the middle of the bus, gave a three minute lecture on the proper use and benefits of these glue sticks–great for arts and crafts, a great gift for the niños, easy to use, no mess. He named a price. Then he walked back around collecting up most of the sticks he’d handed out and some money from people who wanted to keep theirs. He got off in Joco, replenished his supply from a bigger box guarded by a girl a couple years younger, and climbed back onto the return bus to present his spiel again.

Then there were the “saved” men. Usually with scars or an arm missing from the civil war. Booming preacher voices, a summary of their path from loneliness and sin to oneness with Dios. They are performing a public service, providing a lesson with a clear moral. They ask for donations.

   Guatemala, HM, Magic Realism, Precolombians, Religion | 2 Comments »

Out in the Cold Rain and Snow

December 17th, 2009

Serendipity has been circumventing my attempts to celebrate the winter solstice in any true style for several years in a row. This year I get to spend the 21st on a plane. I hope I have a window seat.

The other day I was walking on River Road in Sunderland at around one in the afternoon, getting towards the end of our first big snow storm. The precipitation had turned to a fine sleet, and underfoot were four inches of snow topped by an inch and a half of hard slush. I followed other people’s footprints when I could, but mostly they’d been left hours ago and had healed over with ice.

I was walking by a gap between farmhouses when I heard something from the big, empty field behind them. Music. A couple of chords played on a big ole synth pipe organ, strung together into part of a melody. The sequence repeated itself once, then ceased. I wasn’t sure if I’d really heard it, so I stood there in the iced-over driveway for a minute, looking around at the clapboards and the maple trees for a light in a window, an open garage door. Something that might hint at the source of the sound. Nobody was out.

After a minute I heard whoever it was play through the same half-melody once more. I recognized it, but couldn’t place it. Maybe it was part of a Christmas song. I wanted to figure out how I knew it, and who was playing it.

Fairies? Angels? The Dead?

I turned away from the road, between the farmhouses and into the field, into the wind, the wet ice coming down on my face, turning it numb. Straight ahead over the pines and hemlocks at the far side of the field were the profile of Mt. Toby and the Bull Hill bluffs. Left, a church spire—no, it was the tower of the Blue Heron. The building had been town hall once, but never a church. No synth organ music issued from any of the above. I didn’t hear it again.

The wool coat I had on was getting close to soaked-through. I gave up, turned south over the crunching, sopping-wet fields towards home.

   Magic Realism, Music, Religion, Winter | 6 Comments »

Mother West Wind's Children

February 2nd, 2009

I’ve been meaning to read Little, Big for a very long time. The only reason I hadn’t gotten around to it sooner was a misguided foreboding of immense depth and complexity that made me feel like I needed to be prepared for a challenge of such magnitude or I’d run out of steam halfway through. Because it’s Crowley, and I’ve read Crowley and heard him speak (even performed at a reading with him once!), and because everything I’ve heard about Little, Big makes it out to be such a towering monument among the literature of the fantastic, I was expecting to have to psych myself up to read it in the same way I would do for ye densest of literary classics, The Brothers Karamazov or Don Quixote.

Not so at all, it turns out. The prose is inviting rather than forbidding, yet none the less challenging or beautiful because of it—much more like, oh, I don’t know, Great Expectations set in that house where the Pevensie children discover the wardrobe, or Dunsany as written by John Steinbeck. It’s an intensely human story, using the influence of faerie on a little American town as a metaphor to explain the cause of all the heartbreaking flaws and limitations of human nature and the human condition.

There were no answers, none. All that was within the power of mind and speech was to become more precise in how the questions were put. John had asked her: Do fairies really exist? And there wasn’t any answer to that. So he tried harder, and the question got more circumstantial and tentative, and at the same time more precise and exact; and still there were no answers, only the fuller and fuller form of the question, evolving as Auberon had described to her all life evolving, reaching out to limbs and inventing organs, reticulating joints, doing and being in more and more complex yet more and more individuated ways, until the question, perfectly asked, understood its own answerlessness. And then there was an end to that. The last edition, and John died still waiting for an answer.

Yes! Yes. These massive semicolon-linked behemoths of sentences are exactly the kind of thing I want and strive for, the kind I get scolded for attempting all the time—not because such sentences are in any way inherently wrong, no matter that a certain kind of reader, lacking in the self-psyching-up skills, would argue that’s the case—but rather just because I don’t know how to do them right. Or so I tell myself.

How does Crowley make them work? How can he fill page after page with these forbidding monster riddle-sentences and somehow manage to end up with a prose style that is both lyrical and inviting? Maybe it has to do with the subject matter. Is it possible to write about love and existential sadness set against idyllic summer countryside in a way such that reading it doesn’t feel like coming home? Maybe not.

Because then I come to Book Two, titled “Brother North Wind’s Secret”, and a bunch of schoolchildren passing around a book of woodland stories written by their town’s patriarch, John Drinkwater. And around page 135 or so I begin to realize I am reading an homage to Thornton W. Burgess. Burgess was a naturalist children’s author from Cape Cod whom I read far too much of between the ages of eight and twelve: sort of a warmer, fuzzier Aesop, with talking animals learning wise life-lessons in the course of their daily efforts at survival, and teaching us something about the natural world as they go. I suppose he was very formative for me. I remember particularly my third grade reading teacher once scolding me for showing up with about the twentieth Burgess collection I’d read as a proposed subject for a book report. She wouldn’t let me do it, and so I left that phase behind and moved on to more grown-up books. And probably haven’t thought about Burgess since.

What Crowley does with Burgess is use him as a sort of secret passage to the reader’s childhood sense of magic. Little, Big is very much about lost childhood, about the slow compromises we make to replace the pieces of our childish understanding of the world as they fall away. Here’s a little bit of a Burgess story featuring Brother North Wind (from this online archive of his collected works:

The leaves of the trees turned yellow and red and brown and then began to drop, a few at first, then more and more every day until all but the spruce-trees and the pine-trees and the hemlock-trees and the fir-trees and the cedar-trees were bare. By this time most of Peter [Rabbit]’s feathered friends of the summer had departed, and there were days when Peter had oh, such a lonely feeling. The fur of his coat was growing thicker. The grass of the Green Meadows had turned brown. All these things were signs which Peter knew well. He knew that rough Brother North Wind and Jack Frost were on their way down from the Far North.

Peter had few friends to visit now. Johnny Chuck had gone to sleep for the winter ‘way down in his little bedroom under ground. Grandfather Frog had also gone to sleep. So had Old Mr. Toad. Peter spent a great deal of time in the dear Old Briar-patch just sitting still and listening. What he was listening for he didn’t know. It just seemed to him that there was something he ought to hear at this time of year, and so he sat listening and listening and wondering what he was listening for. Then, late one afternoon, there came floating down to him from high up in the sky, faintly at first but growing louder, a sound unlike any Peter had heard all the long summer through. The sound was a voice. Rather it was many voices mingled “Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk!” Peter gave a little jump.

Endings and sadness and onrushing death—but with a cozy sense of as-it-should-be. Now, here’s Crowley reinterpreting the same sort of story:

‘Good Morning, Mr. Crow,’ the Meadow Mouse called out, feeling quite safe in his snuggery in the wall.

‘Is it a good morning?’ said the Black Crow. ‘Not many more days you’ll be saying that.’

‘Now that’s just what I wanted to ask you about,’ the Meadow Mouse said. ‘It seems that a great change is coming over the world. Do you feel it? Do you know what it is?’

‘Ah, foolish Youth!’ said the Black Crow. ‘There is indeed a change coming. It is called Winter, and you’d better be prepared for it.’

‘What will it be like? How shall I prepare for it?’

With a glint in his eye, as though he enjoyed the Meadow Mouse’s discomfort, the Black Crow told him about Winter: how cruel Brother North-wind would come sweeping over the Green Meadow and the Old Pasture, turning the leaves gold and brown and blowing them from the trees; how the grasses would die and the animals that lived on them grow thin with hunger. He told how the cold rains would fall and flood the houses of small creatures like the Meadow Mouse. He described the snow, which sounded rather wonderful to the Meadow Mouse; but then he learned of the terrible cold that would bite him to the bone, and how the small birds would grow weak with cold and tumble frozen from their perches, and the fish would stop swimming and the Laughing Brook laugh no more because its mouth was stopped with ice.

‘But it’s the End of the World,’ cried the Meadow Mouse in despair.

‘So it would seem,’ said the Black Crow gaily.

I just love the contrast between these two passages. Even looking back at the first Crowley passage, you can see how his prose is informed by Burgess, the simplicity and repetition, the narrative voice, even the mood. But even when he’s playing the children’s storyteller, those monster sentences don’t go away. I would argue they work here to convey a sense of breathlessness, of urgency, both in the story itself and the lesson it’s meant to convey. But the difference that strikes me most between the two is that in Crowley’s version, the inherent wisdom of the animals has been taken away. Peter Rabbit knows that winter’s coming; he knows what to do, because that knowledge was born in him. Not so for the Meadow Mouse–because he isn’t an animal, not really. He’s us. A captive audience. He needs the story, because without it he’ll never know how to survive.

Crowley never finishes this story. The mouse goes looking for the secret of Winter, asking every animal he meets. They all have their own answers, but none of them will work for him. And before we can find out if he survives, the schoolchildren stop reading.

If I could make that kind of point with that much grace, well, maybe I could write long-ass sentences too.

   HM, Magic Realism, Reading | 4 Comments »

Appleseed

September 25th, 2008

This is going to be one of those long, rambly posts that touches everything. So you might as well go get a cup of tea. And maybe not come back. I leave that to you.

My first encounter with the myth of Johnny Appleseed was a big white hardcover picturebook which I swear was called The Joy of Giving, but which I can’t find anywhere on the eeenternets, so maybe I imagined the whole thing. It told the life of Johnny Appleseed in the simplest, most sanguine terms, with cuted-up illustrations and a talking inanimate object sidekick (a shovel, I think). He wore a pot for a hat, dressed in muddy overalls, and hiked barefoot, with a big walking stick and two cloth bags slung over his shoulder: apple seeds and oatmeal. He walked until he was tired, ate supper out of his hat, built an orchard, then started walking again. And now we have apples everywhere, in pies and cider and the American dream.

It doesn’t get simpler than that. And when I turned six or seven and graduated from Mac and Tab Are Friends to that, believe me, I was sold. If I could figure out what the heck that story was actually called it would go on my Jay Ridler Top 100 books lickety split. Along with all the rest of the sappy picture book biographies in that series (each one of which had its own unique variety of inanimate object sidekick).

Sappy and cheeseball though it is, it occurs to me that the talking inanimate sidekick thing–at least as used in that series–is actually a magic realist trope. Everything else about the story dealt in a more or less accurate—albeit syrupy-sweet—manner with the real life of some inspiring historical figure. Madam Curie talked to X-Rays, as I recall, and Louis Pasteur talked to germs. It was awesome. And Will Rogers talked to his lariat. No, really. It’s just taking one element of a story and blowing it up to magical stature via hyperbole in order to grab the fancy of a reader who might otherwise be less than interested. This is why magic realists get accused of pandering and their readers of exoticism. But why the hell else would I have cared what happened to the boring old whitebeard Louis Pasteur if he hadn’t been fighting these big germs that looked like Napoleonic soldiers with bayonets?

It’s apple-picking season. In a couple weeks I will drop off several five-gallon glass carboys at my local orchard to be filled with fresh-pressed, unpasteurized cider. The big Mac tree behind my apartment has been producing apace since August; I’ve been eating at least one a day since then and am now physically invincible. As my affair with the cliff the other day clearly demonstrates. Today, I ate three different varieties of wild apple: a kind of Golden Delicious/Macoun hybrid from the tree outside my work at lunchtime, a hard, mild Spy variety from the edge of a field in Graves Farm Sanctuary at the beginning of my evening hike, and a spicy Macintosh variety from the same field at the end.

Mulling over the last one as I meandered back to the car, I thought of Appleseed. His position in the American myth is unique, closest perhaps to Thoreau (at least among its real, breathing representatives, as opposed say to Longfellow’s Hiawatha) in terms both of pacifism and unabashed love and appreciation for nature. Appleseed has a magnanimity towards the human race that, to my mind at least, the other great naturalists lack. On the the other hand, he is completely un-unique as an unconcerned, if well-intentioned, spreader of colonialism.

Still, I don’t think I can deny being deeply influenced by that spirit–and by Appleseed as a hero–even if there is a bit of hypocrisy involved. Little kids are impressionable, I know. As a six year old I was probably equally enthralled with the story of Helen Keller and her talking water pump or whatever. But not nearly to the degree that her legend can rear up out of a country breeze and hijack my head for a couple of hours.

This is where the dangling spider-threads of my newly adopted fake religion, pseudopagan pantheism, make themselves felt. I am irrevocably a creature of New England. If I ever leave here, I’ll still be that. Which means, because of the legacy of Appleseed and those like him in the oblivious colonialist sense, that as deep as my druidy roots ever reach, they will always have been founded upon a tamed and friendly Nature. I can wander around like an idiot falling off cliffs and getting lost in thickets in the dark without a lot of fear of retribution. No wolves, only the occasional wee black bear to go “aww cute” and scare off, and no place to get lost or horribly crippled where a mere half-mile of excruciating crawling won’t get me to a friendly human dwelling with phones and hot running water. Whenever I meet a serious wilderness enthusiast from west of the Mississippi, I seem to end up getting the same gentle ribbing about being so irrevocably enamored of the nurturing-yet-pansy green hills of my home, even to the point of disregard for real wild things like the Rockies, Yosemite, Olympia. And they’re not wrong. But I can’t help it.

I can’t stand new development. I get very angry when trees get cut down and old farmland gets paved to make way for giant box stores I will never enter and couldn’t even dent with a shoulder-fired missile. And yet at the same time I feel, a bit guiltily, that I owe a lot to Johnny Appleseed. He (or his myth) made what remains of the Western Massachusetts wilderness into the Eden that it is, where I can wander around ignoring trail signs and topography, picking apples and taking meticulous photographs of mushrooms with no regard for life or limb. I could probably live for weeks in the woods this time of year just on apples. Presuming I didn’t get gunned down by hunters. Without him, or the spirit of agricultural imperialism he exemplified, that wouldn’t be possible. My whole philosophy of existence pretty much wouldn’t be possible.

If only I were Erin Hoffman, I could distill all this verbosity down into a heartwrenching 20-line poem that cuts to the quick, sell it, and maybe put it out of my head.

Instead I’ll spend the next year or so mulling over the tragic extinction of the American tall tale, how the sterilization of popular culture into malls and box stores and wax-coated, nasty, gas-chamber megamart apples has utterly exterminated any earnest belief in the old kinds of myths, and the only way to resurrect them is in clinical laboratory examinations such as this. And maybe, If I’m really lucky, six months after that, I’ll have written a story that touches on these sad notions briefly in passing and ultimately fails to do them justice.

   Environmentalism, HM, Magic Realism, Religion, Transcendentalism, Writings | 4 Comments »

The Dogs Shook Their Ears Like Door-Knockers

June 9th, 2008

I couldn’t resist sharing a little bit more of Miguel Ángel Asturias’ The President, which, yes, I am still reading after all this time, partly because of all the TNEO crits piling up on the floor around my desk, but mostly because of the astonishing, cerebellum-like convolutions of the novel’s structure, characters and prose. Each chapter is a unit unto itself, more often than not with its own point-of-view character and its own unique conceit. I have been restricting myself to a chapter a night, often flipping back for multiple re-readings.

The following nocturne comes as a married couple, newly wedded almost by coercion and as a result facing political disfavor and the immanent threat of execution, settle into separate beds in separate rooms and try desperately to sleep:

The moon went in and out of floating niches in the clouds. The road flowed like a river of white bones under bridges of shadow. Now and again everything grew indistinct, with the patina of some old religious relic, only to reappear brightened with gold thread. A vast black eyelid intervened, and cut off this vision seen through flickering eyelids. Its enormous lashes seemed to come from the highest of the volcanoes and spread like a huge spider over the skeleton of the town, plunging it in mourning shadow. The dogs shook their ears like door-knockers, night birds flew through the sky, a moan passed from cypress to cypress and there was a sound of clocks being wound and set. The moon disappeared completely behind the tall summit of a crater and a mist like a bride’s veil came to rest among the houses. Angel Face shut the window.

Asturias spends the first half of the novel establishing his namesake character, Miguel Angel Face, as a left-hand-of-God figure, the eponymous dictator’s personal equivalent to an Archangel Gabriel: beautiful, frigid, fickle and cruel. But by the point of the above excerpt (nearing the end), we see him transformed, a half-redeemed and now entirely sympathetic antihero, more akin to Milton’s Satan. In an astonishing and damning feat of postmodernist cheek, Asturias has written himself into a scathing criticism of a dictatorial government which he himself had served and would continue to serve in the future. He finished El Señor Presidente in 1933, but because of the reigning political climate in Guatemala and his personal implication, it wasn’t published until 1946.

I’ve been thinking of Asturias lately as the originator of the magic realist genre, though, like most originators, he doesn’t actually fit into that genre himself. He was apparently the first to apply the term to fiction (rather than to art), but his own writing is far bleaker, less romantic, less accessible, and more abstract than the flagship works of magic realism’s current market share. All of which tendencies I find myself tempted to strive for in my own writing.

I notice a lot of contemporary writers—Lucius Shepard (in this Strange Horizons interview), Angelica Gorodischer (this interview at Fantastic Metropolis), Alberto Fuguet ((in an essay at Salon.com)—trying deliberately to extricate themselves from the entangling spines of the magic realist umbrella, even as more crossover titles with magic realist leanings (The Shadow of the Wind, Murakami) keep popping up in the bestseller lists. The term having been appropriated and standardized by the publishing industry, I think, deprives the style of some of its impact. Which shouldn’t really come as a surprise; it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, with everything from grunge to hip hop to the co-opting of Che Guevara iconography, etc. A year ago, the implication that nothing truly innovative or vibrant could be done anymore with magic realism would have and did piss me off to no end. Now, though, I have to admit I am coming around to the side of the scrappy heroes of the fringe. Not that I’m quite ready to abandon the term altogether. I still do get mildly annoyed when I see some new and bitter initiate of the ivory tower taking attention-begging potshots at magic realism as a whole rather than at any of the actual human beings who perpetrate it. But I do begin to think that Theodora Goss was doing me a favor when she lumped “The Utter Proximity of God” with the surrealists instead.

Which doesn’t exactly bring me back around to Asturias, except in that his authorial mindset and storytelling style were developed entirely out of the influence of the twenty-first century publishing conglomerate climate, but rather squarely under that of European surrealists like Paul Valéry. And so perhaps I do ok for myself by choosing to obsess about him instead of García Marquez for awhile.

   HM, Magic Realism, Reading | No Comments »

Too Much Marquez?

April 7th, 2008

I think I may have finally burned out on the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

I know, crazy, isn’t it? That I, of all people, the nerd of the surreal, could possibly have read too much of him who is the Bob Dylan of magic realists, the eternal classic, the tentpole of his genre? Stranger still that it would be Love in the Time of Cholera—what I perceive to be one of his best-loved works—that did it.

I got my wife a copy of Cholera for Christmas, knowing that since it was undoubtedly a lush and evocative romance, and that a movie version had recently come out starring the oh-so-hot-right-now Javier Bardem, she would have to read it. And then I could read it, and we would have a fiction book to talk about—a rare pleasure. Sadly, now I am wishing it could have been One Hundred Years of Solitude or even something by another magic realist author with whom I am less intimately familiar. Isabel Allende maybe. Love in the Time of Cholera keeps reminding me of House of the Spirits, her first novel and the only one I’ve read, the publication of which predates Cholera by three years. Not that I think Marquez is cribbing—it also evokes much of his own stuff. He does star-crossed love in Solitude as well as Of Love and Other Demons, both of which I loved. So I’m not quite sure what the deal is, whether I have just read too much of Marquez, seen all the tricks he has to show me, or whether I am finding Cholera to be objectively sub-par.

Part of the trouble may be that Cholera is set in a period more demonstrably modern than his usual conflations of the mythic with the real, that for vehicles of magicality he relies on the technological wonders of the car and the telegraph. But I have seen technology wielded to astonishing magical effect many times before: the fatal Trueba family car in House of the Spirits, the monumental block of ice that opens One Hundred Years of Solitude, the cursed Coca-Cola bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy, the vampiric television set in Lucius Shepard’s “The Jaguar Hunter”.

Maybe it has more to do with the fact that there just isn’t that much of the magical in this story at all? Intentionally or not, with Cholera, Marquez has turned out his closest thing to a mainstream, mimetic novel I’ve encountered, and I’m disappointed. But no, that can’t be right either: I loved The General in His Labyrinth, and its only fantastic element is the general’s stubborn unwillingness to die in spite of the fact that the whole of the world has arrayed itself for his funeral. The collection Strange Pilgrims, Marquez’s nod to European surrealism—I don’t think there’s a single story in there that includes an explicitly magical element, yet many of those stories reassert their influence on my unconscious on a regular basis.

So I don’t know. It seems to me, certainly, as if there’s something lacking in the prose, an absent transcendence I expect to rediscover on every page, which could easily be a result of my having learned all his tricks to the degree that they no longer work on me. Maybe it’s that the translator, Edith Grossman, just can’t muster the fluidity of language I’ve come to expect from Gregory Rabassa, with whose translations I am more familiar. Or maybe it really is just that Marquez is phoning it in.

Here’s part of an uncharacteristically decadent passage (for this novel anyway) that raised my hackles in an oddly unsettling way:

Fermina Daza shared with her schoolmates the singular idea that the Arcade of the Scribes was a place of perdition that was forbidden, of course, to decent young ladies. It was an arcaded gallery across from a little plaza where carriages and freight cars drawn by donkeys were for hire, where popular commerce became noisier and more dense. The name dated from colonial times, when the taciturn scribes in their vests and false cuffs first began to sit there, waiting for a poor man’s fee to write all kinds of documents: memoranda of complaints or petition, legal testimony, cards of congratulation or condolence, love letters appropriate to any stage in an affair. They, of course, were not the ones who had given that thundering market its bad reputation, but more recent peddlers who made illegal sales of all kinds of questionable merchandise smuggled in on European ships, from obscene postcards and aphrodisiac ointments to the famous Catalonian condoms with iguana crests that fluttered when circumstances required or with flowers at the tip that would open their petals at the will of the user. Fermina Daza, somewhat unskilled in the customs of the street, went through the Arcade without knowing where she was going as she searched for a shady refuge from the fierce eleven o’clock sun.

There’s the bizarre-yet-endearing image of those exotic and borderline-magical condoms, the intriguing notion of an antique time when skill with the pen was both rarer and more abased than in the era of Marquez himself, but also that weird repetition of the both-times-unnecessary “of course”—and the element which is perhaps most shocking to me, the fact that the things we’re shown and the character through whom we experience them move on entirely separate tracks, each seeming to bear no influence on the other. Compare this (perhaps unfairly, but what the hell) with an early passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“It’s all right,” Jose Arcadio Buendia would say. “The main thing is not to lose our bearings.” Always following his compass, he kept on guiding his men toward the invisible north so that they would be able to get out of that enchanted region. It was a thick night, starless, but the darkness was becoming impregnated with a fresh and clear air. Exhausted by the long crossing, they hung up their hammocks and slept deeply for the first time in two weeks. When they woke up, with the sun already high in the sky, they were speechless with fascination. Before them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and powdery in the silent morning light, was an enormous Spanish galleon. Tilted slightly to the starboard, it had hanging from its intact masts the dirty rags of its sails in the midst of its rigging, which was adorned with orchids. The hull, covered with an armor of petrified barnacles and soft moss, was firmly fastened into a surface of stones. The whole structure seemed to occupy its own space, one of solitude and oblivion, protected from the vices of time and the habits of the birds. Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a thick forest of flowers.

The discovery of the galleon, an indication of the proximity of the sea, broke Jose Arcadio Buendia’s drive.

See what I mean about the involvement of the character with the setting? The patriarch Jose Arcadio is a stubborn, driven man, but when faced with an insurmountable truth, he succumbs. Fermina Daza, on the other hand, is an almost entirely reactive figure who manages somehow to remain unaffected by everything that is shaping her life.

And maybe that’s the bottom line: that Love in the Time of Cholera just doesn’t give its characters or their conflicts the depth and weight they need in order to compete with and justify the setting. They seem rote to me, in a way. They’re in love, and hampered in that goal by the personal hang-ups of their parents, and by certain hang-ups of their own, inherited or developed in reaction to their parents. What I don’t see is how these lovers are influenced or changed by each other, by the supporting characters or any of the events of the story. In the passage above, Fermina Daza is about to come to a pivotal realization, that her star-crossed fiance, with whom she has been finally reunited, is not, after all, the man for her. And I get nothing out of it, no thrill, not even any real understanding of how or why she comes to this decision, except that (as was revealed very early on) this was an inevitable occurrence, ordained by a Fate far too diverted by what strikes me as a very ordinary pathos.

Which I guess means that it is Marquez, and not just me after all.

I’m curious to see how the movie will deal with all this, it being a rather convoluted storyline, and movies being far more dependent than novels (decadent period romances anyway) on the clarity of character transitions to keep the audience wrapped up in the story.

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The Surrealism of Asturias

January 28th, 2008

Judging by the time I’ve had trying to find translated copies of his work, Miguel Angel Asturias seems to be a writer who has fallen from the public eye, at least in the English-speaking world. I can’t quite figure out why. Born in Guatemala in 1899, he began his career as a political dissident, fled persecution to Europe, where he became heavily involved in the surrealist movement, and eventually returned home, where in 1967 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for the novel Men of Maize. He also seems to have been the first person to apply the term “magic realism” to the written word rather than to art. All of which suggests he ought to have been a prime candidate for competition with Borges, Garcia Marquez, Allende and Fuentes as exotic magic realist bestselling Oprah favorites. Instead, the reading of Asturias has been relegated to obscure academic pursuits. Case in point, the fact that the only places I’ve been able to read his work in English are university libraries. If I really wanted to own a copy of Men of Maize, I could get one used on Amazon—but it would cost me $100. No thanks.

So why the obscurity? I think it’s because of the kind of story Asturias tells, as well as how he tells it. My limited experience with surrealist fiction suggests a tendency, as in slipstream, to abstraction. The speculative element in a surrealist story often has the effect of hyperbole, with the implication that it can’t be taken at face value. Asturias’s fiction tends to draw from the structure and the tropes of the most primal of myth, but to depict these things with a complexity and abstractness of language that comes on like a synesthetic hurricane. The reader is left to find his own way through a soup of mythic symbols superimposed on top of an interpretation of the mimetic world whose structure only occasionally becomes visible through the soup, and which may or may not be what Asturias actually intends us to see.

Because of the very nature of his prose, this tendency to whirling chaos, it’s hard to pull out a concise quote that conveys what Asturias is all about. But I’ll give it a shot. I’ve been ruminating on The Mirror of Lida Sal: Tales based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends. These stories concern themselves with doomed sorcerer-artists, beings possessed of mythic, godlike creative power, but mortal, laughably fragile, who must inevitably be destroyed if not by their creations then by their very devotion to the creative act, which blinds them to the world’s dangers. In “Legend of the Crystal Mask”, a poor sculptor goes into hiding to escape the Spanish conquerors, and by his art transforms the cave of his refuge into a subordinate world, distorted and savage, whose population turns upon its creator and destroys him. This is the beginning:

Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the idols and prepared the heads of the dead, leaving their cast-off bones in the lime-pit nearby, had hands thrice-golden!

Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the idols, the custodian of skulls, fled from the men of worm-white skin, when they put torch to the city, and he took refuge in the most inaccessible of mountains, there where the earth turns into cloud!

Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the gods that made him was Ambiastro, who had two stars in place of hands!

So we get this folkloric chantlike repetition, and we see Ambiastro treated like a god but acknowledged as a man. In everything I’ve read by Asturias (all of which deals in some way with the interaction between the modern Guatemala and its mythic past), there seems to be the implicit understanding and acceptance that the conquest is inevitable, has always already happened, and that thus Guatemala’s history can only be understood through the metaphor of conquest, of dismantling, destruction, rebirth, the piecemeal reassembly of heterogeneous fragments, without a blueprint, into something vibrantly alive and entirely different from either of its antecedents. All of which makes the abstraction, the willing incomprehensibility of Asturias’ writing an essential part of what he’s trying to do.

Which again raises the question of why his writing hasn’t stood up to the passage of time. It seems like, what with the upsurgence of slipstream in the genre publishing world, what with Kelly Link and Cat Valente and Matt Cheney and Dora Goss winning all this recognition, what with all the respect garnered by little slipstream zines like LCRW, Electric Velocipede, Flytrap, that Asturias ought to fit right in.

It probably has to do with the fact that as much critical acclaim as the edgy and poetical obscure seems to garner within genre, it doesn’t actually draw as much popular readership. For Asturias to catch on with that crowd, he would have to find a patron, a small press probably, somebody willing to front the cash and hype the hype. Small Beer managed it with Angelica Gorodischer…but they had Ursula Le Guin to translate.

I do actually own a Spanish-language copy of Hombres de Maíz my sister brought me back from Spain. Maybe someday, if my skills as a reader of Spanish skyrocket to one hundred times their current state, I’ll try and translate it myself.

El Gaspar Ilóm deja que a la tierra de Ilóm le roben el sueño de los ojos.

Hombres de Maís, first line. Roughly (I think):

Gaspar Ilóm leaves the land of Ilóm robed in the dream of his eyes.

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Narrative Art and Magic

December 3rd, 2007

Reading the non-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges is eerily like reading a blog, despite the fact that the one I’m in the middle of was written in 1932. Like most of his writing, none of these articles get much longer than one or two thousand words. His virtuosity is apparent as always, but the indulgence he allows himself in traversing his vast and esoteric interests, without the enforced structural rigidity of narrative, makes these essays feel like things hammered out in an hour before breakfast and thrown slapdash before the public eye—complete with citations from the five most relevant translations of whatever work upon which he has happened to turn the ponderous focus of his wit. It’s reassuring, in one sense, to see how much the process of human cognition has remained the same from one lifetime to the next, in spite of all this technological fragmentation of focus. On the other hand, the astounding subtlety and unity of purpose in these essays is a humbling reminder of his genius.

Actually, I picked up the Selected Non-fictions hoping that, given how so much of Borges’ fiction carries that dumbfounding air of truth (and at times even presents truth as fiction), the writing he chose to present as fact would operate in similar fashion, perhaps akin to the “non-fiction” of Castaneda. Thus far at least, such is not the case. The non-fictions reveal an entirely different side of Borges, featuring new ideas and profundities, and presenting a new set of tools for understanding Borges as fantasist.

As a young man, Borges seems to have perceived a shockingly clear distinction between reality and fiction—shocking given the grand effort he devoted as an older man to blurring that line, not only in his fiction, but in his public persona. In “Narrative Art and Magic”, he argues that the creation of narrative fiction must be approached as an act of magic, and more specifically, of prophecy. In an example from William Morris’ neoclassical epic, The Life and Death of Jason, he references several moments, prior to the arrival upon the scene of the wise centaur Chiron, in which Morris obliquely prefigures or foreshadows the appearance of this fantastical being, in order, Borges claims, to prepare the reader to accept as fact a figure otherwise inadmissible to reality.

“Chiron appears. We are told that he was a mighty horse, once roan but now almost white, with long grey locks on his head and a wreath of oak leaves where man was joined to beast. The slave falls to his knees. We note, in passing, that Morris need not impart to the reader his image of the centaur, nor even invite us to have our own. What is required is that we believe in his words, as we do the real world.”

–Borges, “Narrative Art and Magic”

In one sense, he’s talking about a concept familiar to most genre writers: the necessity of maintaining a willing suspension of disbelief in the reader. What’s unusual is that Borges presents this process as a form of magic. In applying this principle, he makes no distinction between mimetic and fantastic fiction; his examples come from Melville, Chesterton and Joyce as well as Morris and Poe. And perhaps most surprising to me is the fact that he takes his working definition of magic from James Frazer’s Golden Bough:

“This ancient procedure, or ambition, has been reduced by Frazer to a convenient general law, the law of sympathy, which assumes that ‘things act on each other at a distance’ through a secret sympathy, either because their form is similar (imitative or homeopathic magic) or because of a previous physical contact (contagious magic).”

According to Frazer, all ‘magic’ is a form of narrative. The dawn of magic is coeval with the dawn of cognition—indeed, in a sense they are one and the same. The first cro-magnon who painted a deer on the wall of a cave, in drawing a connection between the shape made out of dye and the flesh-and-blood creature, was performing magic. Borges extends this definition to argue that all narrative is magic, that every writer of fiction is a shaman-sorcerer—or else he isn’t doing his job.

Thought about in this light, Borges’ later efforts to conflate the real Borges with the incarnations of him featured in fictions such as “The Other” and “August 25th, 1983” don’t seem so discrepant after all. Likewise, the discrepancy between his fiction and non-fiction, at least insofar as the non-fiction concerns itself, not with narrative, but the theory of narrative, no longer presents a contradiction.

“I have described two causal procedures: the natural or incessant result of endless, uncontrollable causes and effects; and magic, in which every lucid and determined detail is a prophecy. In the novel, I think the only possible integrity lies in the latter. Let the former be left to psychological simulations.”

For someone like me, a born rationalist, for whom the belief in magic can never be more or less than a transcendent, gripping self-delusion, it is incredibly reassuring to learn that Borges himself, in some fundamental place beneath the labyrinth of fictions that composed him, was also a rational man.

For me, this may be the kernel at the core of magic realism.

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Castaneda the Realist

November 19th, 2007

“You must realize,” [don Juan Matus] said, “that it is our cognition, which is in essence an interpretation system, that curtails our resources. Our interpretation system is what tells us what the parameters of our possibilities are, and since we have been using that system of interpretation all our lives, we cannot possibly dare to go against its dictums.”

–Carlos Castaneda, The Active Side of Infinity

It’s a funny thing, my addiction to Carlos Castaneda. He’s not even a particularly good writer, really. I think if you gave me any one of Castaneda’s books and a red pen, I could go through it the same way I would any manuscript of my own and cut 10-20 percent. And it’s not as if his books are long to begin with–I doubt even the hardcovers ever get much past 300 pages.

Most of what I read ‘for pleasure’ can be ascribed by one means or another to my overarching goal of becoming a better writer. Normally, this means reading great writers of fiction, great prose stylists. I went through The Active Side of Infinity with an eye for interesting excerpts I could cull for the purpose of this entry. But I had a hard time at it, because his prose makes it impossible to pull out the meat of any idea without dragging some element of klunk along with it–passive voice, repetitive structure, superfluous wordage–some of it’s forgivable as a form of teaching strategy, but a lot of it feels like the rookie mistakes of a writer less interested in writing than in what he’s writing about.

I wonder about those mistakes. Clearly Castaneda was making bank for some editor somewhere. His stuff has a cult following like no other. Why, then, did that editor choose not to put a little more work into cleaning up the language? Was it a conscious choice? Did this editor believe, perhaps, that not bothering to produce a cleaner manuscript would contribute to a sense of authenticity which, in the case of a crackpot anthropologist writing about the teachings of a fantastical native American sorcerer, was sorely wanting?

I pull down from the shelf the five Castaneda books nearest to hand. From the bindings and front matter, it looks like the two mass-market paperbacks are both from Washington Square Press. The hardcover was put out by HarperCollins, and of the two trade paperbacks, one is Penguin, the other Simon & Schuster–which I believe are the same thing now anyway–but the point is, that’s a lot of imprints. A lot of different hands in the cookie jar. I imagine Castaneda might have made himself rather a difficult talent to work with, what with his insistence on concealing his source, his mysterious disappearance, not to mention the complete irrational implausibility of most of what he asserts to be the truth.

Could something have occurred between Castaneda and his publisher, back before 1968, akin to the conversation that must have taken place between James Frey and some shrewd, impatient businessperson at Random House sometime in 2002?

“Damn, this is a great story. I can’t believe this stuff actually happened to you.”
“Well, it didn’t actually. This is a work of fiction.”
“What? I didn’t buy a work of fiction. Nobody reads fiction anymore. You’re telling me none of this is true? Why the hell didn’t you say that in your cover letter?”
“I was trying to get a foot in the door. I thought I could hook you better if you thought it was true. I mean, it did happen to me. Some of it.”
“Well, you were right. So right, in fact, that I’m not buying it unless you swear on camera in front of God and Oprah and everybody that everything you wrote in that cover letter was true.”
“Uh. Okay. Guess I can do that.”

Of course, I don’t really like this hypothetical. I’d much prefer to assign all the cleverness to Castaneda, just as much as I want to believe there really was an 80-year-old Yaqui sorcerer called don Juan Matus who taught this obsessive, insecure academic how to silence his inner monologue, expand his perception, gain control of himself, kick ass, take names, and transcend time and space. But it’s impossible for me to know one way or another. I can doubt the existence of don Juan all I want; I can even doubt Castaneda the man, at least as his books present him. But there remains a possibility that all of it is real. And that ambiguity is actually a big part of why I keep reading.

I read him for the opportunity to see the line between reality and fiction move. To learn how such things are achieved.

He had said that everything I did had to be an act of sorcery. An act free from encroaching expectations, fears of failure, hopes of success. Free from the cult of me; everything I did had to be impromptu, a work of magic where I freely opened myself to the impulses of the infinite.

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Mia Couto

May 29th, 2007

“And listening to Tuahir’s dreams, with the noises of war in the background, he begins to think: they should invent a gentle, more affable gunpowder, capable of exploding men without killing them. An inverse powder, which would generate more life. And out of one exploded man, the infinity of men within him would be born.”
Mia Couto, Sleepwalking Land

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