magic realism

Suspend Your Disbelief: Strange Bodies

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s instantly attracted to pretty much anything bearing the name Theroux…

Whether it’s a book like The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, a documentary by his son Louis, or a novel by author Marcel Theruox, the name is synonymous with quality, compelling storytelling, and more than it’s fair share of quirk.

strange bodiesMarcel’s most recent novel, Strange Bodies (Faber) is the first of his novels that I’ve read and I couldn’t put it down. I wasn’t quite sure where it was taking me, how it was going to pan out, but hey, that’s half the fun of reading isn’t it?

It’s an unusual premise, presented as matter of fact…

Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months. So when a man claiming to be Nicholas turns up to visit an old girlfriend, deception seems the only possible motive.

Yet nothing can make him change his story.

From the secure unit of a notorious psychiatric hospital, he begins to tell his tale: an account of attempted forgery that draws the reader towards an extraordinary truth – a metaphysical conspiracy that lies on the other side of madness and death.

As with most good magic realism, the bizarre is unapologetically posited as as mundane, the reader’s ability to suspend their disbelief is assumed. I find this type of reading really liberating – the requirement for me to relinquish control and go with the flow of the narrative, accepting these facts exactly as they are presented – is a wonderful type of escapism.

The main protagonist, Nicholas is a complex character. He is earnest, honest and hardworking and yet he is somewhat unlikeable in his awkward single-mindedness. Regardless, as I’m sure was intended by the author, I couldn’t help but feel his frustration and despair acutely, as he tries to reconnect with those he loves, both before and after ‘the procedure’…

“In all the startling discomfort of coming to my senses in a new carcass, I don’t recall a more agonising moment than this. All the shame and the pain and the pitying eyes of strangers. My awareness of myself as weak and hopeless. What made it harder was my perception that while I was broken and tearful, Leonora was speaking with a voice of reasoning tenderness. I was the one clinging to a fantasy about our marriage as insane as Roger N’s delusion that Mossad has implanted a radio transmitter in his brain.”

His physical and emotional pain throughout the novel is raw and quite terrifying, yet the book itself remains quite humorous. The comedy is black, obscure and entertaining.

Interestingly too, I learnt a great deal reading this novel. Marcel is obviously incredibly expert in the field of literature and history. His knowledge of the eighteenth century lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson is beyond thorough, and his appreciation for random trivia relating to writers, texts and vintage health conditions is impressive. He had me googling names and references throughout the whole novel and I was fascinated as, page by page, I picked up random facts that I’ll probably never use again, but enjoyed completely.

Strange Bodies is a fascinating book, especially suited to those who love magic realism or who love shameless literary name-dropping (which, as it happens, I do). I’d say, take a look at this literary, science fiction, black comedy, high brow, fantastical novel – you won’t be disappointed.

You can find out more about Marcel Theroux’s novel at the Allen and Unwin website here.


My Monday: Like Water for Chocolate

O0, ah…

My choice this Monday, Like Water for Chocolate is my guiltiest pleasure. I’m no romantic, but this love story moved me and has stayed with me since first read.

I’m not sure if it was the magic, the mythology or the menu that drew me to this novel, but I found Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate completely irresistible.

“A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and in desperation he marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her. For the next 22 years Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all odds.”

Constructed around a culinary calendar, this novel is as much recipe book as it is love story and for me, with a weakness for cookbooks, this was always going to be a favourite. Couple this with the fact that it is a fine piece of magic realism, with more than a dash of absurdity, and it is securely in place in my top ten.

Esquivel’s use of imagery is very unique, at once symbolic and also surprisingly literal:

“The way Nacha tells it, Tita was literally washed into this world on a great tide of tears that spilled over the edge of the table and flooded across the kitchen floor. 

That afternoon, when the uproar had subsided and the water had been dried up by the sun, Nacha swept up the residue the tears had left of the red stone floor. There was enough salt to fill a ten-pound sack – it was used for cooking and lasted a long time.”

Similar to my last My Monday pick, Lessing’s The Memiors of a Survivor, the fantastic and starkly realistic are inseparable from each other. This makes Esquival’s novel a curiousity, a delightful mixture of myth and matter-of-fact.

The passion of the relationships in this book is intense. Readers are given a true sense of the hatred, the torment of desire. Tita’s love for Pedro is insurmountable, and the complexity of mother-daughter relationships is fascinating.

In short, this book gripped me. Even now, on re-reading the last three pages of the book for this review, it gave me chills, goose-bumps and a tickle of a tear.

What’s the most moving love story you’ve ever read?

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Malinche – a hard work read

I’ve been really lucky to be able to get through a few books over the last couple of weeks (Malinche, The Red Tent, The Midnight Zoo), so I’m pleased to say that I’ve got few reviews in the pipeline.

I’m busting to talk about all of them, but I wanted to start with Malinche, by Laura Esquivel because, to be blunt, I wanted very much to get it off my desk.

You see, I have to unhappily confess that I didn’t like it. Not one bit. This, despite my excitement when I first found it and eagerly began reading. I absolutely loved Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate and I think of it often. I’m not a big fan of romance, but Laura’s perchance for magic realism had me completely entranced by the tragic love story of Tita and Pedro.

And, by the blurb of Malinche I was expecting a somewhat similiar experience here:

When Malinalli, a member of the tribe conquered by the Aztec warrior, first meets the conquistador Hernan Cortes and becomes his interpreter, she – like many – believes him to be the reincarnated forefather god of her tribe. Naturally, she assumes she must welcome him, and help him destroy the Aztec empire and free her people. The two fall passionately in love, but Malinalli soon realizes that Cortes’s thirst for conquest is all too human, and that he is willing to destroy anyone, even his own men – even their own love.

Bursting with lyricism and vivid imagery, Malinche finally unveils the truth behind this legendary and tragic love affair.

Now, I’ll first up admit that I don’t know much about Mexican history. I didn’t know the story of Malinche before this novel, and many of the religious references went way above my head.

I did get the sense that this novel was about a time of great upheaval, when individuals, cultures and religions violently collided for both love and money. Cortes and his Spaniards enter as explorers, transform as conquistadors and stay on as owners. Malinche, who’s life had been one of spirit and sorrow even before the arrival of the Spaniards becomes involved and implicated in their mission, as both translator and confidant.

Interestingly, in history, Malinche is seen by many as a traitor to her people, although Esquival’s treatment of this deeply spiritual character was far more generous. I don’t feel we are meant to see her at fault in this tale.

I’ll admit, the deeper meanings of the relationships, regions and religions were a little lost on me and the style of storytelling did not really provide me with enough to grab hold of. But my disappointment in Malinche was about more than just the narrative or subject matter. I was most perturbed by the almost complete lack of love story in this novel, despite it’s synopsis.

This novel was about violence, about pillage and conquest. Malinche was not romanced, she was taken. She was assaulted and possessed as a slave, and only makes fleeting and unbelievable references to love or passion throughout the novel. I saw no romance here, only ownership.

To be fair, Esquival’s ability to construct beautiful, lyrical and visual prose is undeniable and I was never left wanting when it came to the ‘what’ of the story:

“First came the wind. Later, like a flash of lightning, like a silver tongue in the heavens over the Valley of Anahuac, a storm appeared that would wash the blood from the stones. After the sacrifice, the city darkened and thunderous eruptions were heard. Then, a silver serpent appeared in the sky, seen distinctly from many different places.”

It was as to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the story that I struggled. I’m not adverse to non-linear narrative but I really did feel that there were huge gaps in this novel. Some of this could have been due to translation, but I’m really not convinced that this was the problem in this case. I think it just tried to be a bit too esoteric for its own good and as a result come across as vague and clunky.

I can’t in good conscience recommend this book. If you really enjoy highly spiritualised storytelling then maybe you’ll enjoy this, but overall this novel is very hard work with minimal reward.

I feel really bad about having not really ‘gotten’ this book, so I think to make up for it I might re-read Like Water for Chocolate soon – that’ll make me feel better…

Has anyone else read Malinche? What did you think of it? Am I right off track?

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