Lorna Scott Fox
- A Trip to the Light Fantastic: Travels with a Mexican circus by Katie Hickman
HarperCollins, 301 pp, £16.99, October 1993, ISBN 0 00 215927 9
Here are three strangely similar book openings:
Many years later, in front of the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to recall that distant afternoon when his father took him to see ice.
Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy. She was already in the habit of writing down important matters, and afterward, when she was mute ...
Karina’s first memory is of Niña.
Niña was pink. Not a dull, fleshy hue, as you might have expected, but a brilliant, quixotic pink, the colour of a fuschia.
They might be by the same, increasingly arthritic hand: the time loop, with its emphasis on memory and the simultaneity of past and future; the anchor of childhood, and the element of sneakily quotidian ‘magic’. They represent three generations of magical realism. The old man’s poignant flashback in the face of death has become a classic, but then, Gabriel García Márquez spent 17 years preparing for this sentence. One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to launch not only the concept but a thousand whimsical imitations, such as Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. The third passage, by now highly self-conscious, is the beginning of Katie Hickman’s A Trip to the Light Fantastic. Niña turns out to be a boa, and despite appearances this is not a novel but a travel book, running after magic in the reality of Mexico.
Hickman’s excuse for this reversal of literature and life is a perception that her favourite M/R writing was only documentary reportage after all. As she explains to a puzzled Mundo Bell’s (the apostrophe is part of the name), owner of the circus to which she and husband Tom are hoping to attach themselves: ‘Then I discovered something. The writers of these books hate this expression “magic realism”... Your novelists write this way because this is their truest expression of what life is like. This is real. This is your reality.’
Such a statement might have aroused hostility: Mundo Bell’s graciously invites the pair along, without ever pointing out the shortage of magical realism in Mexican literature, most of which explores the rather different terrain of naturalism and fantasy. But the greatest problem is Hickman’s application of a stateless aesthetic to a specific complex of history, places and people. This is not the first time that Mexico has been the bewildered but flattered object of an operation of this kind. In 1939, like one handing out free membership to a no longer fashionable club, André Breton proclaimed the whole country to be surrealist. More recently the cultural critic Serge Gruzinski has argued for its essentially peripheral, hybrid and thus Post-Modern nature. Here, the paradoxes of making a book about how someone’s reality is like a book – of a genre questionably assumed to reproduce reality – erupt on the first page, with that facsimile of some unmistakable, if dog-eared, ‘magical realist’ atmosphere that exists only in literature.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 16 No. 8 · 28 April 1994
Lorna Scott Fox’s ridicule of my premise that much of Latin American magic realism is not necessarily ‘magical’ in the Western sense of the word, but rather an accurate expression of what life is often like, seems based on the assumption that it is my opinion alone (LRB, 24 March). If she had been better informed on the subject, she would have known that it is one I share with many writers of the genre, most famously – and vociferously – Gabriel García Márquez himself.
At the end of her review she concedes that my book is ‘a skilful and entertaining travel book’, and yet the tone of the preceding two thousand-odd words is of such studied insult, both to me personally and to my work, as to entirely negate this statement.
As a reviewer she is, of course, entitled to her opinions, however sour and muddle-headed they may be. She is not, however, entitled to the kind of defamatory innuendo which she uses so liberally throughout. She says that I have ‘a knack for drawing people out about their lives’, and yet almost immediately goes on to imply that, because of the length and accuracy of the stories of the circus people which I recount, I must either have made it all up, or else resorted to dishonest means to get the material. For the record, these ‘long chunks of verbatim’ were recorded on tape, not with a ‘hidden’ cassette, as she libellously suggests, but with the full, prior consent of each interviewee. This, incidentally, includes the first few paragraphs of the book, blithely dismissed by Scott Fox as having the kind of ‘dog-eared, “magical realist” atmosphere that exists only in literature’.
The book fails, she says, partly because of her constant sense that I will not ‘countenance risk or change to myself’, a line of argument which she illustrates with the monstrous suggestion that when offered ‘the chance’ to give myself ‘in the most fundamental way’ to one of the trapeze artists, I should have availed myself of the offer. (The fact that my husband was with me at the time is, of course, far too middle-class and English to be a consideration.) Moral issues aside, anyone who knows anything at all about Mexico or the Mexicans – Scott Fox apparently lives in Mexico City – must realise the many serious, and only too real, implications that such behaviour could have. I am not just a character in my own story. As I recounted at some length in the book, the last woman to ‘give’ herself in this way was subsequently brutally gang-raped. Can anyone, most especially another woman, really suppose that I should have incurred such a risk?
In another review in the same issue, Jonathan Coe writes that he pities young writers in Britain for having to work with the galling knowledge of the mini-literary-Renaissances springing up all around us amongst our English-speaking neighbours, ‘as supportive networks of publishers, small presses, magazines, young writers and editors foster the emergence of new and confident national literatures’. Can I suggest, on behalf of all British writers who seem to be expected to suffer, usually without recourse, ill-informed and spiteful reviews such as this one, that part of the reason for the ‘moribund’ nature of British writing today lies not with the writers, but with the abysmal standard of many reviewers.
What possible value can gutter-level reviews such as Scott Fox’s possibly have, either to the writer, your readers or to literature in general? Surely a good review should act as a midwife to creativity, not as its abortionist.
c/o HarperCollins, London W6
Vol. 16 No. 9 · 12 May 1994
Katie Hickman’s melodramatic outrage betrays once more the superficial traveller, unable to accept criticism of her failure to penetrate the Mexican mask (Letters, 28 April). In this she is no worse, as I implied in my review, than the hundreds of voyagers and writers (the only exception is B. Traven) who have exploited a similarly prejudiced, exotic view of this country. Her originality resides in the simple-minded application of magical realism.
Since she invokes Márquez himself let me clarify that while he has described himself as a journalist, this is only in order to demarcate himself from fantasy, a mode he detests. In The Fragrance of Guava (1982), he says that although deeply impressed as a child by his grandmother’s cold narrative style in recounting her visions as fact, it was not this but ‘Metamorphosis’ that first decided him to write. For Kafka (a literary inventor, surely) ‘told things the same way as my grandmother did’.
The fact that magic obviously represents more than conjuror’s tricks, or whatever the ‘Western sense’ might be, is no reason for twisting Mexican reality into bookishness. Hickman is mistaken to think that I do not believe in the pink boa of the first paragraphs; my point had to do with a trick of style. Márquez succeeds in knitting reality, alongside history and myth, into great literature; Hickman can only make reality pseudo-literary, by presenting formal interviews as spontaneous chats, among other devices. Her journalist’s objection to my calling her ‘creative’ ironically highlights this confusion of genres and goals. As for not being a character in her own story, having made everyone else into one … I consider this to be a most revealing admission.
Lorna Scott Fox