November 27, 2006
Magical Realism Visits the Middle East
Students of Latin American literature will be familiar with "magical realism," a technique of writing frequently associated with Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, the Nobel-prize winning Colombian novelist. Wikipedia notes some elements of magical realism, several of which are excerpted here:
* Contains fantastical elementsIndeed, Garcia-Marquez's novels contain all of these elements. The primum inter pares of these is One Hundred Years of Solitude (which has even made it into Oprah's Book Club, though it was first published in 1970). Garcia-Marquez's masterpiece contains such passages as this:
* The fantastic elements may be intrinsically plausible but are never explained
* Characters accept rather than question the logic of the magical element . . .
* Distorts time so that it is cyclical or so that it appears absent. Another technique is to collapse time in order to create a setting in which the present repeats or resembles the past
* Inverts cause and effect, for instance a character may suffer before a tragedy occurs
* Incorporates legend or folklore
* Mirrors past against present; astral against physical planes; or characters one against another . . .
* Open-ended conclusion leaves the reader to determine whether the magical and/or the mundane rendering of the plot is more truthful or in accord with the world as it is.
"The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point."What could possibly be realistic in these passages? As Garcia-Marquez knew, it was the inherent fantastic nature of daily life in places like Columbia that made nearly anything believable so long as it was presented in a plausible way -- and if the storyteller believed it himself.
"She was in the crowd that was witnessing the sad spectacle of the man who had been turned into a snake for having disobeyed his parents."
"'What day is today?' Aureliano told him that it was Tuesday. 'I was thinking the same thing,' Jose Arcadio Buendia said, 'but suddenly I realized that it's still Monday, like yesterday. Look at the sky, look at the walls, look at the begonias. Today is Monday too.'"
"Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized thirty-two armed uprisings and he lost them all. He had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night before the oldest one had reached the age of thirty-five. He survived fourteen attempts on his life, seventy-three ambushes, and a firing squad."
"As soon as Jose Arcadio closed the bedroom door the sound of a pistol shot echoed through the house. A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps, and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendia house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano Jose, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Ursula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread."
Such lessons are illustrated in Mark Bowden's tale of the hunt for and killing of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious cocaine smuggler in history. In Killing Pablo, Bowden describes the lunacy that results when Pablo negotiates his surrender with the Colombian police, on the condition that a special jail be built for him, at a location of his choosing, staffed with "jailors" on his payroll. The place was called La Catedral:
Not long after Pablo moved into La Catedral, the purity levels of cocaine on the streets of New York were restored and the prices dropped.
Lawyer Roberto Uribe visited him weekly and found the place growing cozier. At first the living quarters, gymnasium, and cafeteria had seemed like a real prison, but gradually the furnishing became more lavish . . . Anything could be brought in. The prison guards were no more than Pablo's employees, and the army checkpoints just waved Pablo's trucks through . . . To have plenty of cash onhand, Pablo shipped in tightly rolled American hundred-dollar bills in milk cans, which would be buried in the fog of dawn at places around the prison. Two of the cans, each containing at least $1 million, were buried under the soccer field. A bar was installed, with a lounge and a disco. For the gymnasium there was a sauna. Inmates' "cells" were actually more like hotel suites, with living rooms, small kitchens, bedrooms, and bath. Workmen began constructing small, camouflaged cabanas uphill from the main prison. This is where Pablo and the other inmates intended to hide out if La Catedral was ever bombed or invaded. In the meantime, the cabanas made excellent retreats, where the men entertained women privately . . . Food was prepared for them by chefs Pablo hired away from fine restaurants, and once the bar and disco were up and running, he hosted many parties and even wedding receptions . . .
It was not a normal prison in other ways. Pablo, for instance, did not feel obliged to actually stay. He rarely missed an important pro soccer game in Medellin . . . Pablo considered such excursions minor . . . he did after all, always come back. He had made his deal with the state and intended to honor it . . .
It is all too easy to see the similarities between the fictions penned by Garcia-Marquez, the surreal nature of negotiating with terrorists such as Pablo Escobar, and the presumptions of American political elites who believe that by engaging Iran and Syria -- thereby admitting their involvement in Iraq's chaos -- that such chaos might be ended on terms favorable to either the US or Iraq. Such dreams are the stuff of our own variety of magical realism, but rather than resulting in pleasant narrative escapes, they will result in the irrelevance of the United States, whether one means its military power, its national interests, or its once-admired revolutionary Democratic ideals.
Negotiating with Iran and Syria, whilst they hold positions of strength, is likely to be only the first of the magically realist positions that the US political class breathlessly advocates. There will be more, and the ones to follow will be even sillier. In one episode in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the entire village of Macondo succumbs to an incurable insomnia, "the most fearsome part of which," was not "the impossibility of sleeping, for the body did not feel any fatigue at all, but its inexorable evolution toward a more critical manifestation: a loss of memory." Only through painstakingly going throughout the town and painting the names of objects upon them are the villagers able to remedy their memory loss.
With an inked brush he marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan. He went to the corral and marked the animals and plants: cow, goat, pig, hen, cassava, caladium, banana. Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use. Then he was more explicit. The sign that he hung on the neck of the cow was an exemplary proof of the way in which inhabitants of Macondo were prepared to fight against loss of memory: This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee in order to make coffee and milk. Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.While everyone forgets, we can begin to label the things we encounter today in the news, hoping that the values of the letters are not forgotten: evil, enemy, tyranny, appeasement, suicide, madness. The village of Macondo was saved from its insomnia-induced memory loss when a traveling gypsy magician returned from the dead and offered an antidote. Will something similar be conjured from history to redeem us?
Posted by Chester at November 27, 2006 10:06 AM
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"Will something similar be conjured from history to redeem us?"
The answer to that question in today's liberal/socialist environment needs to be asked over and over until an answer is found.
But, I'm afraid that all the blogs, thinktanks, conferences and summits will not come up with an answer in time.
Instead it will fall onto an event, an unimaginable event to awaken those forces that will "redeem" us. Those forces will be the age old emotions of rage, hatred and revenge.
They will not embrace logic, nor compassion, nor regret, but they will spark the beginning of the end of appeasement and of the "enemy".
It's very unfortunate, but the most realistic.
Posted by: Papa Ray at November 27, 2006 12:25 PM
That magical magician, returning from the dead, may turn out to be Rudy Giuliani.
Posted by: doc at November 27, 2006 6:15 PM
Unfortunately, I think you are correct in your assessment. The West is currently sleep walking through a crisis that is unimaginable to most of it's inhabitants. When Mushareff in Pakistan is no more (either through abdication or assassination) the nukes in that country will become available to al Queda. When a Western city goes "boom", we will come to our senses and wage a war for total victory.
Posted by: Jackv at November 27, 2006 9:50 PM
Magical realism has much in common with gross stupidity. When over-educated diplomats offer BS and nonsense thinking they can win-over extremists anxious to behead them and return filled with joyous news, don't believe it. The only magical realism I want to see is Madame Pilosie burned at the stake when it fails.
Why are we so determined we are failing? We aren't!!
When push comes to shove, and it is almost here, don't we always shove more than we get and you know where! It is outragious that we give in to such stupid people who dared to attack us!!It is outragious we can't speak out and call them what they are, that cartoonists have to hide, that we dare not upset them. We need MORE not less. If they trample each other in the streets SO WHAT!
I'm sick and tired of pussy politicians!
We need leadership not seen since World War II.
Posted by: JimboNC at November 28, 2006 12:50 AM
It's Colombia, not Columbia.
Posted by: asdf at November 28, 2006 1:50 AM
Colombia, Columbia, the magical reality just differs in language: Spanish, English.
From history, like Churchill screaming about Nazis, is there any hope of anything less than catastrophe to wake the great moderate America?
Islam is an aggressive, warrior religion. Moderate Islam retains all the seeds of a Caliphate seeking cell. Like most successful movements, it seeks its great future by pointing to its past greatness as a beacon for future glory. Whether Alexander pointing to Phillip's glory in Macedonia, Caesar to victories over Hannibal, Augustus to Caesar, Constantine to his predecessors, William the Conqueror to Edward the Confessor, Lincoln at Gettysburg to America's forefathers, etc., sons and decendants look to the past to define future greatness.
This son succeeding father process is the source of great or growth-oriented dynasties, even in modern politics, Bush 41 to 43, the Kennedys, Harold Ford, Jr.
The converse is the mindset that focuses on past failures as a sign that no future glory is possible: McGovernite Democrats. Taken to its extremes, this can result in the Balkan or Shite mindsets where the greatest celebrations of the ethnic group is the group's military defeats.
Human psychology is based on growth of all social elements. When that growth ceases, the social system collapses. The problem is that successful growth has unpredictable elements. The greatest growths in the modern capitalist infrastructure began in the middle ages when the Crusades were pursuing an ultimately failed mission. Venice, Genoa, and like Italian cities grew great on commerce and the birth of modern banking throughout Europe, as states needed to supply soldiers far from home and natural, physical supply lines.
Lacking a great, modern vision can be overwhelmingly punishing. Post-Napoleanic France and Islam for the past 300 years both have suffered from dilussions of modern grandeur based solely on prior eras successes. France lost its grand vision after Waterloo. Don't tell a Frenchman that; he will deny it. France went from powerful and dominating of European thinking even to the point where everyone wished to speak French at courts throughout Europe. Like Latin before it, French remains a repository for past great ideas, but little new power is generated in its modern exposition. As a Francophone, I say this with regret.
Islam, since being repulsed at the gates of Vienna, has suffered similar problems to the French. Ironically the conflict between the French and the Algergians played a part in the relative self-perceptions of this two cultures. Islam finds itself uniquely resurgent due to sudden wealth from oil. The resurgence of wealth has lead to a resurgence in pride. Its philosophy is being discussed because of the power that wealth has allowed its guerilla fighters to carry into the field. Petro-dollars buy arms; arms make guerillas; guerillas with a vision . . . now that has power. An al-Qaeda insurgent carries a written vision of the future into battle almost like a Napoleanic soldier carried the Napoleanic Code in his napsack.
The lessons in these? Seek great visions and fight the adverse visions that seek your destruction. Your vision may fail, but sometimes the unintended consequences will be far more powerful than you had hoped. Rarely does the lack of a great vision lead to anything other than a self-perception of greatness based on your ancestors' successes.
Posted by: Jeff at November 28, 2006 9:15 AM
Thanks. I have corrected the entries.
Posted by: Chester at November 28, 2006 9:23 AM
Can we now call an end to unreal 'Realism' before IT ends us?
Posted by: a jacksonian at November 28, 2006 10:19 AM