Monday, May 12, 2008

Discovering Magical Realism

I love it when a book is not only enjoyable, but brings me to a new understanding about myself, or of something I had not known, or been aware of before.

Dreaming In Cuban by Cristina García introduced me to a genre of which I knew little. The term magical realism would come up repeatedly when I read other reviews of this book. It is a term and concept I had not given much thought to previously, but as I continued reading, I could hardly keep it out of my mind.

According to García, this book began as a poem that quickly grew into a something else:
Dreaming in Cuban actually started out as a poem and slowly grew. After about a hundred pages, I realized that what I was working on was a novel. Nobody was more surprised than I.
Her initial efforts are evident by the beautiful language used when developing her settings and characters:
At the far end of the sky, where daylight begins, a dense radiance like a shooting star breaks forth. It weakens as it advances, as its outline takes shape in the ether. Her husband emerges from the light and comes toward her, taller than the palms, walking on water in this white summer suit and Panama hat.
However, there was much more to what was being said and described by the author. I wanted to understand so I could better appreciate her words and story. Thus I took it upon myself to do some research and find out what this genre was and its impact on literature. It was then that I discovered an essay written by John Christie titled Magical Realism (The Magic in the Real). In it he gave an excellent definition:
…put simply, [it] refers to when an artist blends the fantastic with the real, or mixes the bizarre with the logical and plausible.
I cannot tell you how much this helped when reading García’s novel.

On its surface, Dreaming In Cuban is the story of three generations of women who are dealing with the physical and emotional challenges to their identities as well as their relationships. The story spans eighteen years and takes place in Cuba, New York City, and Florida. Yes the principal characters are Cuban, and this does have a strong influence upon what takes place between them. However, I found the following within the book, and it seemed to me the most accurate way to describe what I was reading:
I’ve been reading the plays of Molière and wondering what separates suffering from imagination. Do you know?
I feel that the author actually succeeds in integrating suffering with imagination. Her beautiful prose shows this in the characterization of Celia del Pino:
Celia cannot decide which is worse, separation or death. Separation is familiar, but Celia is uncertain she can reconcile it with permanence.
and
Death was alluring, seductive, and Celia longed to die in the thrill of it over and over again.
This book touches a lot upon the suffering of its main characters, but not in a way that makes this a depressing book. Somehow, the struggles of each woman, swirls in and around their imaginations, feelings, and memories in a way that makes this a much more interesting read.

The author said it best when asked about what kind of role memory plays in the novel:
Memory is more a point of departure than a repository of facts. It’s a product of both necessity and imagination, of my characters’ needs to reinvent themselves and invest themselves in narratives of their own devising. Each of them needs to be a heroine, to believe she is doing the right thing, choosing the only path to a kind of personal redemption.
This statement, as much as any, speaks of what I liked about this book. However, it is not for everyone, as some readers may not be comfortable with the surrealistic quality of many of the passages.

I can honestly say that as much as I enjoyed it, it was not one I could, or would read voraciously in one sitting. There is too much about it, and within it, that deserves that its reader spends more time enjoying it.

Cross posted here

1 comment:

stefanie said...

Interesting bit about the book starting off as a poem! I can see that, there are many poetic-type details in the story.