Wednesday 22 December 2010

Magical Realism: European, Latin American and Indian.

Shreepad Halbe’s office is at Hutatma Chowk, the central business district of India’s commercial capital — Mumbai. The office is situated in an old building of the Raj period, populated by the numerous offices, mostly table spaces. The tiny office is equipped with an air-conditioner, a computer and telephone abd there are some office assistants, too. I wonder how Shreepad, a tall man, manage to enter the office and settle on the chair. His is a consultancy firm in finance, company law etc. He is a voracious reader. Politics and literature are his favorite subjects. He gave me Carols Feutes’s book and there I found the mention of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

It was in 1987, nearly 20 years after the publication of his masterpiece, OneHundred Years of Solitude. I was then involved in the production of a Diwali Special Number. In Maharashtra sweets, gifts and reading of Diwali Special Number are embodied in the celebration of festival of lights. Since, Shreepad gave me a clue, our group sought an article from a well-known poet-critic in Marathi, Prof. Vasant Aabaji Dahake. We asked him to introduce Marquez to the Marathi reader. He wrote a nice piece on the Spanish master’s two novellas — Chronicle of a Death Foretold and No One Writes to the Colonel. I went around in bookshops in Mumbai but could not find any of Marquez’s book. I had to buy a pirated copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude from the pavements of the central business district.
I settled down in Mocambo, a modest restaurant in the busy Fort area and ordered a bottle of mild beer. I started reading the book completely forgetting the divine golden drink on the table. Since then, I have been reading Marquez.
Kishor Kadam, an intelligent actor on the Marathi stage, who has also worked with noted film directors like Shyam Benegal, met me accidentally in a dingy bar located on the outskirts of the island city. Our group was discussing some Marquez story and voices went up.
Kishor took it as an invitation and joined us. Later, Kishor told me that Hindi novelist Uday Prakash is deeply influenced by Marquez, particularly his magical realism. Kishor also said that he was to stage Tirichh, a short story by Uday Prakash. I read some of the stories of Uday Prakash. I found him quite interesting. He might have derived some inspiration from Marquez but anti-colonialism seems to be his major concern.
Harish Nambiar and Sunil K Poolani are my two journalist friends. They are from Kerala. Harish understands Malayalam but can’t read and write. Sunil can read and write in his mother tongue but his medium of expression is English. Both of them told me that magical realism was invented much before Marquez in Malayalam literature. They referred to the Malayalam novelist and cartoonist late O V Vijayan. Maybe, I said, as I don’t understand that language.
Recently, Ashok Shahane, one of the founders of the Little Magazine Movement in Marathi literature in the sixties, said in informal chats with me over a cup of strong coffee that considering the rich treasure of mythology, some Indians should have had discovered magical realism. Ashok has to his credit prognosis of the changing literary sensitivity in the sixties and also publications of select Marathi titles, particularly the works of Arun Kolatkar. Still, I could not agree with him.
The word Magical Realism appeared in Marathi criticism in the seventies. Vilas Sarang, a noted novelist and critic told the Marathi readers (Sisyphus AaniBelaqua) that the term was first used in Europe to explain  Kafka’s Metomorphsis, the short story that inspired Marquez. It appeared to me that Kafka’s magical realism has sprung up from the necessity to depict the repressive system vis-à-vis the individual.
In the European civilization, individual is almost at the centre since the rebellion of Martin Luther I and the Emergence of Protestant Ethics, although the tradition can be traced from Immanuel Kant’s writing. Milan Kundera’s Joke is all about the repressive system that fails to understand a simple joke and results in the sufferings of an individual, the protagonist.
In the case of Marquez it’s the other way round. He has employed Magical Realism to underline the solidarity of an individual with the society. Solitude is a recurrent theme in Marquez’s works only to emphasis that individual, when isolates himself from the society (for variety of reasons), can’t escape the sufferings.
The last sentence of the Solitude… proclaims that “races [the Buendias] condemn to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.” Obviously, Marquez has distanced himself from the classical European cultural tradition. “…imagination is just an instrument for producing reality,” says Marquez while discounting fantasy.
Still most of his admirers get carried away by his ‘fantasy’. Indians are no exception. Particularly, in Marathi literature where Bhalchandra Nemade, the noted novelist, critic and poet, held sway connoisseurs crib about the Nemade style realism-nativism for they believe that it had stagnated the novel. Their apprehensions though justifiable should not entail that India with unfathomable treasure of mythology should have rediscovered the magical realism. In fact this burden of the past does not allow Indian writers to explore their own mythical past.
In India mythology is so well defined that it does not allow the individual to explore his own mythical past. Indians are so certain about their identity that they don’t need to discover it in every generation. The continuation of culture is the uniqueness of India and is also the hindrance for the writers from successfully employing magical realism in Indian context.
Vinod Kumar Shukla’s Hindi novel, Diwar me Khidki Hoti Thee, has successfully employed the imagination to liberate the Indian novel from the influence of nativism-realism cocktail. Interestingly, the technique invented by Shukla does not resemble to Marquez or any other Latin American writer. Shukla creates his own space that lifts him and his readers from the wretched reality. His magic reinforces the traditional Indian faith in co-existence not only with humans but also with nature that includes the flora and the fauna. He does not talk of solidarity but of integrity with the nature and other human beings without getting into the mythical past.
Naresh Dadhich, a scientist of repute who heads the Inter-Universities Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, is a Rajsthani by birth and is fluent in Hindi, Marathi and English. He contended that magical realism is an universal trend born out of a dominant idea of the time. A good creative artist of any discipline does need a free space of its own in which he is the supreme creator. It’s the use of this free space which really determines the strength and greatness of the artist. The only guide he has in this space is his historical/mythological anchoring.
According to Naresh, Saul Bellow uses this space wonderfully to uplift oneself from the wretchedness of the immediate reality — exactly in the sense of Bhakti and Sufism where one focusus on something beyond the immediate reality and tend to believe that is the real reality.

(I wrote this piece in June 2006 at the insistence of Sunil Poolani. He posted it on the blog of Frog Books. I discovered this article when Uday Prakash posted it on his Facebook Wall. This is the edited version of that article) 


  1. ‎''In fact this burden of the past does not allow Indian writers to explore their own mythical past.'' ही नोंद फार महत्त्वाची वाटते. विलास सारंग मराठी साहित्य व्यापून उरणारे वाटतात...
    उदय प्रकाश हा फार मोठा लेखक आहे, साहित्य अकादमीने जेव्हा त्यांना पुरस्कार द्यायचा निर्णय घेतला जो सुक्षण!

  2. Sunil,

    With due respect, this is lazy blogging... buying time by putting very dated material without updating.

    Incidentally, I read Malayalam.

    This is particularly true of impressionistic pieces like this. I know you have advanced far more in regard to Marquez's own works, and deepened your understanding of it in relation to the history of the novel itself.

    Just plucking something from the past, and throwing it to a captive audience suggests a kind of mild disrespect to your readers at the least and lack of inellectual worst!!!!


  3. Thanks Harish for the forthright criticism as always.
    Your point is well taken; however, the objective was to archive my blog posts floating around in the cyber space.
    One of the captive readers suggested that I should post some of my select articles which have been published in various newspapers and magazines. But I refrained. Uday Prakash, noted Hindi novelist posted this particular piece on his wall and therefore, I thought of sharing this with the captive audience and also with non-Marathi friends.


  4. It takes courage to own up what one has written in the past. I wish you expand and re-write some part of this blog in Marathi. The times of ‘Charvaak’ are worth documenting.

    The blog in the current form is way to sketchy and over simplified, though it has arguments that could be expanded. It also suffers from the investment in the romantic idea of names-dropping and superlative adjectives. Who knew Sunil Tambe too was prone to that game once upon a time ? :)

    Having said that I would say that you have connected Kafka and Marquez via Sarang very well. And there lies a seed that is worth expanding. I don't think Sarang grasps the depths of the magical though. .

    Magical in Americas is rooted in their own relational cosmos shaped by Mayan and Incan past and the dark shadows of Andes. A comparison of European critique of modernity and Latin American take on it is valuable. I remember reading Walter Miognolo’s ‘Darker side of renaissance’. You might like to take a look at his ‘The idea of Latin America’.


  5. Sunil

    Thanks for being a gracious author as ever. I do agree that the Uday Prakash link and request/wishes of readers have their place and need their indulgence.

    However, like Dnyanada also noted, I thought a little updating and some quality addition would have enhanced the value for old readers like me.

    A clearly old and dated piece can be linked easily with the relevant preface.

    And yes, there is little to add regarding the gap about Sarang's easy tracing of magic realism to Kafka. Again, like DD points out, the magic realism of Latin America is more closely tied to their animistic past and the people's relationship with nature and the rituals that tried to evoke or merge with the buiorhythm of the cosmos.

    Incidentally, in a biography of Sartre he similarly traces Kafka to another older, 18th century French work.

    I was also suprised that Knut Hanson is seen as a forerunner of Kafka and other modernists/posts etc.

    In regard to Indian mythology being an obvious or fertile seedbed for magic realism to have been spwned in India...while it is sounds a bit like loser's grouse. Technically, I'd like to think Hinduism is the longest continuous strain of natureworshipping in the world, but the connect to nature has been weakening for centuries, even while its metaphysics endures.

    By the same token, Greeks and Romans too should have discovered MR since they too have a rich mythology full of magical characters.


  6. I think it requires a long debate. I believe that hindi literature is heavily burdened by the colonial influence, in both form and content. Magical realism too has crept in via this route. i am extremely sorry to say that it has no root in the Indian soil. that is the reason most of the hindi writers of today are surviving through some kind of patronage; they do not have any mass support. Many of them even prefer to abandon their ideological adherences to fulfill their middle class ambitions. Had the modern forms of Hindi literature-existentialism, surrealism, magical realism- been properly rooted in Indiaan soil, it would have survived without any patronage. Writers like Premcahnd and Renu could survive on mass support, others could not. And, magic of patronage is known to all of us. It is that magic which does not allow suicides of farmers to become an issue for a nation wide revolt. We must congratulate Uday Prakash on his success in getting Sahitya Akadmi award!
    -----Anil Sinha

  7. Harish,

    Your argument is interesting. Hinduism- or (as to borrow the word from Prof. Balu,) ‘South Asian Modality’ represents a relational cosmos. In this relational cosmos there is a presupposition of ‘freedom/ mukti/ moksha/fana/baka.’ Karl Potter’s 'Presupposition of Indian Philosophy' actually builds from this basic premise of South Asian philosophy (Hindu/Sufi/Shramana/). Imho, that presupposition alters the way in which animism becomes a part of our consciousness. Animism is the part of the game but it is not the only game. Unlike the natives of Americas. Magic there is the way of fathoming the causal chains. Magic is the other real. The notion of time is neither circular or linear. Its like a mesh, allowing a very different mythologies and mythical beings to emerge. The web of those relationships is amazing, attractive and yet can't be duplicated in India.

    Bhakti poets, as Sunil has mentioned, start with the magical but travel the road to the abstract abode. I am sorry if I am jumping too many hoops in one leap, but it reminds me of Jiddu K’s distinction between truth and actuality. Saint Poets in India indulge in actuality and truth methinks. The reality of Americas thus is interesting but yet a bit different. This is what I think..It is a hypothesis, ofcourse.

    ‘Katha Saritsagar’ or ‘Jataka’ are great mythologies from our past as they play around the core cultural question of rebirth. And that’s the beauty in 'Warren Hastings ka Sand'- by Uday Prakash. Along with the politics , he cuts the Indian mythical nerve quite close in that story.

    (PS: forgive me for the typos and clumsy language use. Thats the karma I have inherited :))


  8. Thanks Pranav, Anil, Dnyanada and Harish.

    The term Magical Realism was coined to decipher the device used by Kafka in Metamorphosis. Kafka makes readers to accept that a man can be transformed into a huge insect over night because the author wants to highlight the sordid reality of human existence. Kafka used creative imagination that does not talk about the magic but certainly used magic as device to underscore the reality.
    Gabriel Garcia Marquez used this device in his earlier stories while studying in the university in Bogota. Although, he later disowned them, they did give him identity as a writer and also a job of journalist in local newspaper. He later distanced from those stories which were more Kafkasque, e.g. Eva is in her cat. They linger more about death and fear.
    He discovered the magic of Latin American mythological past much later. Magical Realism also became a great equalizer particularly after publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967 as for the Latin American readers it was not magic but reality, pointed out one psychologist (Lee Anderson’s account published in New Yorker).
    Several modern writers in various languages later used this device—magic and supernatural to sharpen the perception or knowledge of reality. I tried, informally to trace different versions of Magical Realism, rooted in their respective cultural landscape.
    Thanks for the lively and enlightening debate.

  9. I think west has evolved a tool which analyzes every thing in a linear way. This linear way of looking at things has another significant attibute,concept of evolution. This thinking process does not allow you to be a part of myth making process of the non-western world . Every society has its own myth making tools and uses its own symbols. I am not that much aware of the literary history of Europe, but it does not seem to be proper to link Kafka with the tradition of magical realism used by Latin American writers. He is a product of industrial Europe. Though he has expressed its brutality with all intensity and depth, his context and literary tradition are deeply entrenched in European traditions. I just wanted to point out that stories of Uaday Prakash can not become a part of indigenous myth making. It can delight only those who have acquired western tool of looking at things. Katha Sarit Sagar or Jatak Katha hardly helps you in getting much deeper into the mythical world of India. You need to connect with the folktales and the religious myths, in all its diversity. Vijaydan Detha’s stories can help a lot in connecting with the Indian way of story telling. I am afraid I am vague!
    20 hours ago · LikeUnlike