Magical Realism

D.A.N. Jones

  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, translated by Magda Bogin
    Cape, 368 pp, £8.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 224 02231 8
  • Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor
    Hodder, 304 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 340 36033 X
  • Careful with the Sharks by Constantine Phipps
    Cape, 216 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 224 02308 X

It is obvious that Isabel Allende’s novel about Chile, The House of the Spirits, has something about it that appeals to women readers: but I cannot imagine what that something is. ‘Magical realism’ is the vogue-word: but this seems to me a farrago of fantasy-triggers. I was astonished when Marina Warner asserted on television that the book ‘gives you an astonishing understanding of a political situation’. On the same day, Marilyn Butler was equally effusive on Radio 3 and Hermione Lee assured us in the Observer that the author has ‘impeccably heroic socialist and feminist credentials’. My daughter-in-law brought home Cosmopolitan with a long extract, prettily illustrated, and an astounding comment from Emma Dally: ‘Although it is not a “women’s novel”, the strength of the female characters is quite astounding.’ Isabel Allende herself on television has described these figments as ‘strong women who are somehow opposite to violence and torture, all this male world’. They had struck me as rather ineffectual ladies.

The grandmother, mother and daughter in this ninety-years-long family chronicle are called Clara, Blanca and Alba – names which, Isabel Allende explains, stand for whiteness and purity. Their principal man is Esteban, the grandfather, a landowner and Conservative senator, with his own peculiar regard for whiteness: he is made to say, during Chile’s democratic period, that his nation can ‘set an example for this continent of Indians and Negroes who spend their time making revolutions. Here the Conservative Party wins cleanly and openly ... ’ But when a Socialist candidate approaches, the old fool wants the other landowners to gang up and, literally, ‘make mincemeat of him’, on the grounds that ‘you can’t expect the weak to have the same as those of us who’ve worked from sunup to sundown and know how to invest our money ...’ This boringly stupid and vicious man is treated with great tolerance by the author and by the ladies of his house, as if sighing sweetly: ‘You know what men are!’

Esteban spends much of his time brutally raping the daughters of his peons; sometimes he goes to brothels instead, to be coddled by lovable whores. The ladies of his house don’t seem to mind. Esteban might plead in mitigation that his wife, the pure Clara, no longer sleeps with him, preferring to cuddle up with his sister. Clara is an unusual sort of woman: she is a clairvoyant, surrounded by female spiritualists, and she made her mark as a little girl by shouting ‘fucked’ in church, during the priest’s sermon. She once had a sister with beautiful green hair and Esteban wanted to marry her, but she was unfortunately poisoned by a politician and he had to marry Clara instead. Hard luck, Esteban. After witnessing an autopsy on the green-haired corpse, Clara refuses to speak for nine years, despite the efforts of her dear old nanny, who dresses up in bogey-man costumes to frighten her into loosening her tongue. Clara’s magical powers enable her to locate the severed head of her mother (Nivea, another symbol of purity) lost in the woods after a car-smash: this head goes into the hat-box in the basement. Clara is too pure to concern herself with her sons or with any domestic duties: after all, she has servants and Esteban pays them when he is not raping their daughters. Clara prefers dealing with the ghosts in her house, including those of some old South American mummies, almost the only local product: everything else seems to have been imported.

Clara’s magical powers are strengthened by books left her by her uncle Marcos, an intrepid explorer who used to fly about in a vintage airplane shaped like a bird with flapping wings. This magically unrealistic uncle also left her a horrid dog, caked with excrement and urine, which grew to be as big as a horse: this dog could carry a bitch around town, ‘impaled on his immense masculinity’, until the pair were hosed down by the servants, whereupon the poor bitch was left to die in the courtyard. The ladies of the house couldn’t care less. Clara’s daughter, Blanca, has a blank marriage with an effeminate Frenchman who reads Sade in bed and enjoys erotic murals in his private room. So Blanca’s daughter, Alba, is fathered by another man, a political activist whose left-wing aspirations are expressed by singing a song about hens ganging up on a fox. Esteban wants to kill this left-winger and is guided to his hide-out by his illegitimate grandson: but the old fool only manages to cut the chap’s fingers off. Later, Esteban makes his grandson into a policeman, hoping he will use his authority for the benefit of the Conservative Party: but this plan goes awry when Pinochet seizes power in 1973, for the young policeman decides to arrest Esteban’s legitimate granddaughter, and she is raped and tortured most horridly, in the style we expect from Pinochet’s men ...

Pinochet? But he’s real. What is he doing in this farrago of feminist ‘magical realism’? A plain man’s irritation must be expressed. Before 1973 Chile was unaccustomed to dictatorships and military coups. It was not like Bolivia or Paraguay. De Gaulle said that Chile was ‘the pilot country of Latin America’. John Gunther wrote in 1967 that Chile was ‘one of the most civilised countries in the world’, and that the general line of government was ‘roughly that of the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt or even the British Labour Party’. There is not a hint of such humdrum worthiness in the ninety years of The House of the Spirits. Isabel Allende presents her novel as ‘a portrait of Latin America, not only Chile’ – and that means the same old Hollywood film-set, populating an enormous continent with ferocious rapists on horseback and lovely ladies in black lace dresses with big red roses in their hair. The hair is green nowadays, to accord with the feminist aspect of magical realism. The trouble with this book’s political stance is that it gives the impression that nothing can be done about Chile’s notorious government – you know what South Americans are like, ha ha! – and that Pinochet’s regime is no worse than its predecessors. This is surely untrue.

From a more literary point of view, we might complain that the book, though ‘packed with incident’, is not well packed. The bizarre little fantasies come sputtering out with an inconsequential brevity, like ideas thrown up at a script conference for a Latin American soap opera or horror film. Some of the ideas, if properly developed, might make a film story: directors could introduce a sense of place and actors could put some flesh on the bones of the characters. But it would be as well to keep real-life politics out of it.

After this humourless, over-hyped bestseller, we might be tempted to overpraise the wit, skill and seriousness of Gloria Naylor in a novel that perhaps truly deserves that odd label, ‘magical realism’. Linden Hills is a plausible and informative account of an expensive, exclusive suburb peopled by rather snobbish black Americans: but it is imbued with a sense of the supernatural, sometimes eerily Gothic, sometimes religious. The first chapter tells the history of the place, founded by Luther Nedeed in the 1820s. The Nedeeds were black people, come north from Tupelo, Mississippi, and the most desirable street in this smart area is Tupelo Drive, down at the bottom of the hill, near Luther’s old moated house and the cemetery from which the Nedeeds made their money. The uppish want to move down in Linden Hills.

There is something impressively sinister about the Nedeeds: the first of them is said to have been a slave-trader, and they ran guns for the Southern rebels during the Civil War. Each generation of Nedeeds has a Luther (the Christian name suggests Lucifer, rather than Martin Luther King) and he is always in charge of wedding and funeral arrangements, a solemn and forbidding master of ceremonies. The well-paced, ironic narrative, cleverly modulating into the bemused, commonsensical natter of white neighbours watching the black suburb enlarge itself, has the effect of a growing cycle of legends. The Luther Nedeed of our own day is a grave and rational man, it appears, consciously offering ‘role-models’ to black bourgeois, but he is also a man deeply disturbed by his atheism and his sense of void. And what has happened to his wife and son?

In the last sentence of this introductory chapter, Willie Mason and Lester Tilson come bouncing in, as if to pull us out of the Nedeed legend into an everyday world. These two young lads are spending the week before Christmas doing odd jobs in Linden Hills, clearing out garages and sweeping snow, closely observing the problems and agonies of their temporary employers. The boys seem annoying at first, with their perkily butch mannerisms, but before long we will find them as agreeable as (and brighter than) Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Like almost everyone else in the novel they are ‘black’, but Gloria Naylor is skilful with the precise notation of skin-colour. Lester is lumbered with a horrible nickname foisted on him by a school bully who did not think him black enough. Willie, on the other hand, is nicknamed ‘White’, because he is so black that if he got a shade darker he would have to turn white, the way coal turns to ash: when he was a little boy Willie half-believed this and he wore a broad-brimmed hat and long-sleeved shirt in the summer, for if he turned white ‘none of the really fine sisters would let him kiss them.’

Each chapter represents a day in the boys’ Christmas week and each of them, with a little trimming, could be printed and admired as a short story. But they are genuinely linked, and they lead up to a climax, the downfall of Luther Nedeed on Christmas Eve. The most touching is the story of Laurel Dumont, the Berkeley graduate, and her sweet grandmother who taught her to swim – and now has to see Laurel die in a swimming-pool, because Luther Nedeed is easing her out of Tupelo Drive. Laurel’s husband has left her, and Nedeed’s lease demands properly married people on his estate.

Then there is the clever clergyman with a drink problem. He is suddenly inspired to preach with an old-fashioned, low-class sincerity at a funeral. The boys see Nedeed call the troubled congregation to order – deadly, conventional order – with a grandly formal eulogy of the dead woman; and then they spy him doing something very odd over the open coffin. Nedeed is also present at the wedding of a young man who had always been suspected (quite correctly) of being homosexual, not suitable for Linden Hills. The best man recites a verse during his congratulatory speech. It is by Walt Whitman – ‘Whoever you are, holding me now in hand ...’ – and the best man has changed ‘he’ to ‘she’ throughout. Only young Willie recognises that the bridegroom is being tormented by his ex-lover. Nedeed makes a conventional speech, expressing ‘warmest regards to the nuptial union’. Lester comments: ‘Yup, straight out of a gothic novel. He spoke at my high school graduation and you know what he called black folks. “We denizens of a darker hue”. Made it sound like a disease. That nigger’s unreal.’

The boys help out at a grand party, and Lester is furious to see that his sister’s boy-friend has turned up with a white girl. Lester has been quarrelling with his sister, but he cannot bear to see her dishonoured in this way. ‘That mother!’ snaps the young poet, less articulate than usual. ‘He told Roxanne he wasn’t invited to this shit and now he shows up with that pink job. I oughta go out there and smash him in his face.’ The boys are distracted, though, by the beauty of the black women: ‘the clothes on those sisters, the way those black women floated into the banquet hall like glittering birds of paradise spelled sable to him, sable beauty.’ Later, they begin to feel an inverted snobbery against these rich people. ‘The soft strains of a slow waltz drifted through the doors and Willie made a mental bet that they’d dance to nothing more exciting than that the entire afternoon. These niggers would be afraid to sweat.’ Lester tells Willie about his own experience with a white girl. ‘They’re easier. They don’t put you through the rain dance that the sisters do.’

Running through this wry comedy, interrupting the narrative, are deliberately mysterious passages written (and printed, sans-serif) in quite a different style: these are the reflections of a deeply troubled woman, imprisoned somewhere, reading the reminiscences of other troubled women. These passages are not fully explained until the fiery climax of the final chapter, when the boys are dressing Luther Nedeed’s great Christmas tree with his old and treasured ornaments. Readers of this clever, subtle book must keep their wits about them. It might be argued that Gloria Naylor has woven too many complications into her story, but I would not complain.

The narrator of Careful with the Sharks, Herman Newton, has an upbringing to help him with his hermeneutic interpretations of the world. He travelled widely as a child, with his father being a diplomat, and his cosmopolitan isolation was intensified when he was discovered to be an infant prodigy at mathematics, needing special lessons from Dr Fitzer in Paris. As a young adult, rather a young fogey, he is in demand as an inventor of bugs for spying: this novel is partly a comedy of surveillance, like Nicholas Salaman’s Dangerous Pursuits. Herman is employed by a man from the Ministry of Defence, a seemingly boring and snobbish officer called Major Shark. The reader is constantly provoked into wishing to warn the narrator: ‘Careful, Herman. This Shark is a man-eater.’

The major has a daughter called Doris Shark. She is a typist at Fashion Magazine, very close to her daddy, extremely beautiful in hideous, modern ‘high-tec’ clothes, and very dim. Herman puts it mildly when he remarks that for a woman of 25 she seems unusually girlish. ‘I’m amazingly psychic,’ she tells Herman. ‘I can always tell someone’s personality the first time I meet them. I write it in my diary and it always turns out right. It’s outrageous. I’m studying tarot too, and I Ching. I have an occult teacher. But Daddy doesn’t like him. He’s in a Group!’ she squeals triumphantly. ‘Don’t be cross, Daddy!’ When Herman is discussing bugging with Major Shark, he hears from Doris’s room the steady rustle of chocs, the flick of tarot cards, the same record, ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ (most appropriately) in a punk version made by Doris’s boyfriend and his group, their only recording, never released.

One of Herman’s follies is a scientific theory about love: he does not want a crude aphrodisiac but a means to ‘isolate the electro-chemical mechanism in the brain which corresponds to our falling in love. I believe such a mechanism exists and was identified by the ancients as Aphrodite’s Girdle.’ A Russian sexologist comments: ‘S’amouracher, plutôt que bander. Very interesting.’ This project is connected with Herman’s desire to be freed from the impotence that has troubled him since his wife left him for another woman. The novel’s epigraph is taken from Petronius’s Satyricon (‘Then for the first time I scorned my lost love, Doris’) and its bawdiest section closely follows Petronius’s account of his hero’s attempt to regain sexual potency, sometimes with literal translation from the Latin, sounding oddly contemporary.

Another folly stems from Herman’s childhood desire to become a British spy, a master of languages and disguise. When this desire comes upon him, his graceful style becomes cockily Edwardian: he writes like Baden-Powell in Adventures of a Spy, even sometimes like Mr Pooter. He reads Sir Richard Burton a good deal and studies a more modern book in which the secrets of the CIA are revealed for 15 bucks. In this mood he feels very clever, easily able to outwit Major Shark from whom he can keep secret the brilliance of his bugs. ‘Sometimes I am astonished by how out of touch the older generation of British spies are. No wonder they were all so easily fooled by Philby and company.’

Knowing of Herman’s follies and determined to get his new bugs, Major Shark tells him that there is a Sex Institute in Barcelona (run, curiously enough by his old maths teacher, Dr Fitzer) which has made secret discoveries in the sexual-potency field – and Britain needs the place thoroughly bugged by a true British spy. Herman makes the expedition and is enabled to fiddle with his passport and wear a false beard ... The moral of this amusing tale is that Major Shark has total power in Britain: if he wants you to marry his daughter, smile and say thank-you, because otherwise he might give you a One-Way Ticket.