Dark Underbellies

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.

Hickman is confessedly more interested in magic than in realism, unless the latter is weird enough to be reclassified as the former. A family circus (all Macondos rely on the notion of dynasty) seems just the place to trap the beast. Here are people whose very bread is the circus, whose reality is the commerce of illusion. When the intrepid couple have found the setup that perfectly corresponds to the one they had in mind, they acquire a windy Texan Pop-Up trailer to follow it in. Circo Bell’s, Hickman decides, ‘will be my focus, the eyes through which I will learn to see the whole of Mexico. Even those hidden parts – the magic places, if you like – which I cannot yet see.’

This deplorable proposition is undermined despite itself by Hickman’s more robust self as Oxbridge cynic. The writing veers mesmerisingly between the dreamy, deadpan marvels of magical-realist faith, and snappy dinner-party bathos. Hickman herself appears perplexed by this conflict: ‘In fact in the daytime, behind the scenes, Circo Bell’s was so ordinary a collection of people, I almost wondered if I had come to the right place after all.’ The two tones or perhaps cultures – one imaginary, one a real question of upbringing – bicker interestingly throughout, making of A Trip to the Light Fantastic a document of liberal-literary tourist experience, a caricature of both the longings and the limits of romantic ventures out of Englishness into Otherness and back again.

It’s an unequal contest. Hickman is unconvincing when she tries on, as if it were a coveted garment, the disingenuously casual tone so proper to sub-M/R. The chapter about black magic begins: ‘In Mexico I lost my faith in God. In Catemaco, to be precise, the witches capital. In Silvia’s town.’ (Silvia is the circus popcorn-seller, who also happens to be a witch.) English writers are not very good at this sort of voice, tending to confuse it with earnestness. She is much better in rueful or deflatory vein, in acute sketches of ghastly suburban parties where a proprietorial teenage monocyclist won’t allow her to drink or mingle: of strutting, scented machos, lugubrious historians, spaced-out Indians and cheerful circus nymphets. There is also, thankfully, a self-mockery that does not gloss over the times when Katie puts her foot in it. Thus registered in bouts of gush, slapstick and stage-whispering, made secure by a much drier spouse who doesn’t really go in for any of it, the journey begins: ubiquitous magic, dark underbellies, here we come.

The subtitle ‘Travels with a Mexican Circus’ is misleading. Apart from a hop to Toluca (surely the most depressing town in Mexico), the outfit does nothing more than squat down on a series of dingy wastelands around the frayed edges of the capital. This means that Hickman’s treatment of most classic buzz-topics, such as the Monarch butterfly sanctuary, Indians, witchcraft or Pancho Villa, derives from other journeys. During the months with Circo Bell’s – a puritanical environment which at night ‘pulsed with secret rendezvous’ – Hickman is promoted to riding the elephant as La Gringa Estrella. Her husband disappears for weeks on end, taking photographs for his own book. Alone, she is rapidly sucked into the rhythms of a camp life marked with all the dreariness and idiosyncrasy of closed worlds: ‘As my absorption grew, the world outside the circus receded ... On the very few occasions when we went to visit other friends in Mexico City, I found that I had increasing difficulty focusing on them.’ she learns the circus myths, revolving around one disastrous South American tour where Bell’s lost all of its animals and most of its status; develops an eye for a good high-wire act, and becomes entangled with the sprawling Bell’s family and other performers.

The intensity of this involvement yields some comic and moving portraits. Hickman has a knack for drawing people out about their lives, though the long chunks of verbatim give one a desire to know more about her hidden tape-recorder, or perhaps her creative memory. Predictably, everyone has a lick of magic or at least poetry about them. The most suspect example is Vicky, an elder Bell’s who ‘dreamt each of her children into being’, as well as expressing her moods and desires through food in what seems like a chip off the cute M/R blockbuster, Like Water for Hot Chocolate. Of course, to romanticise the developing world from a literary, rather than a social, perspective is a refreshing twist to the politics of the Gaze. One of Hickman’s real achievements in this book is an unlaboured avoidance of condescension.

More of these semi-fictional efforts bring us melancholy Yvonne, a tightrope-walker trying, and failing, to keep her balance alone with two kids; taciturn, slow Luis, the animal-lover from some inanimate Northern desert, so tall that ‘I imagined him, arms and legs spilling out through the windows and the door, wearing the caravan like a snail’s shell across his back.’ There are the shiny, expansive Bell’s brothers; bookish Olga, running away from an incestuous stepfather to be with Ilish, the reformed prizefighter who used to get smuggled out of jail to earn vast sums in an illicit ring: Ramón, who pimped at the age of ten. Their stories convey a powerful sense, especially where the young are concerned, of sad, exciting, pinball lives before each gravitates – for how long? – through luck or love, to an insular home in the circus network.

Over and above the plucky and tender aspect of these lives, Hickman is fascinated by what she intuits as the ‘dark’ face of Mexico, thus appropriating another literary tradition: that of Lawrence, Lowry and Greene. Mornings in Mexico or The Lawless Roads are a sobering read when it comes to panicky British fantasies about the fathomless Indian soul. Hickman’s nervous awe as she peers into the mysteries of violence can be equally irritating: never more so than in her brush with the circus villain, 19-year-old Ricky. We are given Ricky’s number from the start: ‘There was something deeply, unnervingly sexual in the aura of brutality which he projected.’ Later, a rumour circulates that he has either organised or perpetrated a rape on one of the swarthier and more unprotected girls. Hickman is plunged into an anguish of soul-searching. To judge or not to judge? ‘If I was going to live like one of them, I reasoned, if they were to be a true focus through which to see Mexico, then I had to learn to think like one of them too.’ She grills ‘them’ all. ‘But still I could not find it in me to ask Ricky. The truth was, I was afraid.’ I can’t imagine her apologising for this natural discretion in England.

Hickman courts several other situations which oblige with a thrill of fear, proudly recorded. She is not alone in paying for what she terms ‘English, liberal sensibilities’ with a sense of outsiderhood, of having been culturally thwarted of both magic and realism. Like many of us, she becomes unconsciously arrogant and inquisitorial in the urge to recover what is not a birthright, and when she corners some symptom of it, is unable to transcend her own idiom. Hickman is never more breathlessly, nicely English than when she tries to communicate darkness and difference. Here she is, pop-eyed after her black mass, underwear on inside-out as instructed by the witch: ‘To survive in Mexico a god would have to be a god of the old order. An Old Testament deity, the kind of red-blooded, snarling god who was not afraid to show his hand, who still knew how to fight and curse.’ she goes on to wonder, apparently for the first time, ‘if there could ever be such a thing as absolute good’. None of this does justice to its themes. Nor do her final, outsider’s conclusions about R and M. ‘The circus was real, more brutally real than anything I have ever experienced.’ And having failed to pin down magic, she flounders: ‘A way of thinking, poetic rather than logical. A sense of the sacred. God, even.’

If the book fails to deliver on its weightier promises, seldom rising above exotica, this may have to do with the constant sense we have that Hickman will not, after all, countenance risk or change to herself. Despite her blithely loopy ability to accommodate Mexican reality to the ready-made parameters of magical realism, she is far too sane for the delirium, the moral and imaginative excesses that have characterised experiential writing about the nature and fate of the New World Utopia, from Columbus onward. Here, each potential revelation seems neutralised at the moment of experience, patted into shapes likely to be intelligible to the pale folk back home. And when she is offered the chance to give herself in the most fundamental way (following that other Kate, who succumbed to the Plumed Serpent himself) by another flying, sinuous god, a gorgeous trapezist – we don’t think of doubting her reported renunciation.

Hickman is not, perhaps, a serious traveller, but this is still a skilful and entertaining travel book. There are memorable and disquieting portraits, and a mass of facts, readably and faultlessly deployed save for an odd perception of Mexico City’s colonial grid as a series of concentric circles, and an inability to spell the President’s name. Hickman’s previous book, Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon, was about a horseback journey through Bhutan. I can’t resist a question that is not foreign to her style: what ever will Katie do next?