As always, when ‘critics’ enter the literary arena, contention follows. There seems to be as much of a war of words on what is magic realism? as on where/how did it originate?
According to the author of Magic(al) Realism, M.A. Bowers, the term was invented by critic A. Flores who named J.L. Borges as the first magical realist. But other critics disagreed and applauded Pietri for equating the European painterly style to Latin American fiction. Much confusion and frustration ensued in scholarly circles as a result, at which point Guatemalan author W. Spindler attempted to categorize the literary occurrence as three types: metaphysical, ontological and anthropological. Fault-finders were quick to caution against his culturally-specific perspective. Author Alejo Carpentier of The Kingdom of this World (1949) then proposed that Latin America with its history, myths and beliefs is the ideal inspiration for literature of ‘marvelous reality.’
Nowadays, despite claims of Latin American exclusivity, magic realism is considered an international commodity. Critics are even proposing a connection between magic realism and postmodernism, some of their shared characteristics being: “the dissolution of character and narrative instance, the erasure of boundaries, and the destabilization of the reader.” The contention continues, as is evident from this article: No More Magical Realism: Juan Gabriel Vásquez and the New Latin American Lit, published by The Atlantic Wire (Aug 23, 2013).
While novelists exploring magic realism enter the spirit world via their stories, in many cultures across the globe there are intermediaries like shamans and sorcerers who use special abilities or powerful drugs to journey from the mundane into other worlds. In previous posts you've learned about author Ian Mathie and his upcoming book featuring his experiences in the magical realms of African traditions: Sorcerers and Orange Peel. Below follows his last installment of a four-part series about African sorcerers:
Sorcery as a literary subject has tremendous potential that has been utilized for years by fantasy and science-fiction writers. There are thousands of books about wizards, witches, black magic, dragons and all sorts of exotic creatures and practices. The theme is rich, allowing the imagination to be completely unfettered. It offers the ultimate form of wish fulfillment; writing about sorcery has made some writers very rich, like J.K. Rowling. There are many other fantasy enthusiasts who have also created bestsellers featuring anything from conventional wizardry to whole planets where magic and spells are depicted as normal interactive or combative techniques; where the use of enchantment to clinch political clout or amorous adventure is permissible.
In the real world where sorcery is somewhat more prosaic it's, ironically, less understood as so much of it is necessarily shrouded in mystery. Writing about sorcery as a non-fiction author is a very different task from that of fiction. You first have to know the subject you’re writing about and then explain it to an essentially disbelieving audience in a way that brings the facts to life—you can’t rely on Abracadabra magic to convince readers of the events or the circumstances surrounding them or the people involved.
Sorcerers are very real people who can be found in many parts of the world. Some drift along comfortably on the fringes of society, leading their own lives and only including others at a superficial level when they seek friendship, like those serving the shamanic or spiritualistic cults in California and various parts of Europe. Others, as I know from my experiences in Africa, take a more active part in the daily lives of their communities and society gives full credence to their abilities and functions. Even when not preaching to believers, their abilities can be breathtaking. Some of their doings are clearly little more than conjuring tricks such as might be within the capacity of any stage magician. Their primary purpose is to maintain belief in the sorcerer. The majority of their actions, however, have even advanced science baffled. Understanding this sort of sorcery requires a certain capacity to accept the verity of the inexplicable, a bit like having faith in God whom you can neither see nor touch.
The rituals, chants and performances with which sorcerers, witch-doctors, shamans and others ply their craft are all methods based on sound psychology. These practitioners are adept at focusing the minds of their audience, thus achieving the desired result of the rite in question. More often the results require some sort of interpretation, a bit like the Oracle at Delphi. This keeps the sorcerer in play and the supplicant locked in so that the shamanic process perpetuates itself. This is not to say that those communities could do without their sorcerers; far from it, because there are so many matters that cannot be resolved without them.
In many cultures it’s possible to find individuals who claim ability to commune with spirits, see ghosts and understand the afterlife. Most of them are mere charlatans who are in it for personal acclaim and profit, though a few do have special abilities—an example would be those who by laying on of hands can remove pain or heal wounds, and they do this without requiring payment of any sort because they consider it a gift to be shared. Those who can contact the spirit world are more difficult to define because few can clearly identify individual spirits and even fewer of their audience can understand them. We are left then with the observable effects and with belief.
Thanks to extensive contact with a number of sorcerers over the years I worked in Africa, I don’t need convincing. I have witnessed extraordinary things, been involved in some of them and have entrusted good friends to witchdoctors to be cured of curses. I share some of these experiences in my collection of African memoirs, particularly in the latest one, Sorcerers and Orange Peel—details below.
Ian Mathie was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Africa and the Far East. He has worked as a Royal Air Force pilot, rural development officer in Africa, high-tech irrigation project manager in the Middle East and industrial psychologist in the UK.
Today, Ian is known as a prolific author of stories about his experiences in Africa. His contact with the dark continent began whilst still a baby, and although he has lived in Warwickshire for the past 16 years, Ian has never been able to shake off his fascination with Africa. He can be contacted at website / Facebook / mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ian Mathie’s books are out as paperbacks and e-books—I suggest you go to his website to see ‘how to buy’ this remarkable series of African stories. His fifth memoir, Sorcerers and Orange Peel, will be published by Mosaïque Press in October 2013 and will appear simultaneously in paperback and e-book.
Please join me in thanking Ian for his wonderful contributions to this blog series on Magic Realism vs. Magical Realms. Next, Bruce Nicoll will conclude the series with a post about his interest in shamanism and w.i.p. YA novel on the concept of adolescent rite-of-passage. After that, I may or may not continue to explore the concept of magic realism - stay tuned until further notice.