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.

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