On the Fatal Shore

Magical realism was invented, or reinvented, to address realities that seemed unmanageable—too big, too bizarre, too teemingly chaotic—for the ordinary modes of realistic fiction. As a way of writing novels, magical realism was perhaps not as original or as revolutionary as it seemed when we first encountered The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude; the presentation of the extraordinary as if it were the everyday is as old as Don Quixote. What was new about Günter Grass’s and Gabriel García Márquez’s novels was the way in which they managed to make real diamonds out of the ashes of contemporary history. Little Oskar’s tin drum rattled up an authentic rhythm for postwar Germany, while the mystical doings of the Buendía clan expressed both the seething passions and the melancholy languors of tropical Colombia.

A significant aspect of magical realism was that the latest manifestation of it, in and around the 1970s, had its origins not in academic studies, but in such active, indeed rackety, worlds as journalism (García Márquez), the plastic arts (Grass), and advertising (Salman Rushdie). The magical realists hold no torch for the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that shining Grail of so many of the Modernists. Despite the flash and crackle of their conjurings, Grass, García Márquez, and Rushdie, and their numerous imitators, seek to engage directly and vigorously with society, with politics, with history. Those who took One Hundred Years of Solitude to be a marvelous, grotesquely beautiful fable detached from real life were bound to have been consternated by the lightly veiled attack in the closing pages of the book on the United Fruit Company, which virtually ran Colombia for many years, before the drug barons came to power. Similarly, readers enjoying the metahistorical fabulation that is Gould’s Book of Fish will surely be made glum when, at the end, Richard Flanagan begins to speak portentously of “this country”—in his case, Australia in general, and Tasmania in particular—as if he were the chronicler of its secret but authentic history, battling against the myth-makers who will “forget what happened here…because any story will be better than the sorry truth that it wasn’t the English who did this to us but ourselves….” He is also all too ready to declare his authorial aims through the voice of his main character, the primitive painter of fish William Buelow Gould, as when Gould tells us

how my paintings were not meant for Science or Art, but for people, to make people laugh, to make people think, to give people company & give them hope & remind them of those they had loved & those who loved them yet, beyond the ocean, beyond death, how it seemed when I was painting important to paint that way.

It is perhaps unfair to take such a ringing declaration and quote it out of context, but the book, especially in its ending, is altogether too insistent on explaining and accounting for its, or at least Gould’s, artistic aims.

However, we…

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