“Magical realism gives a voice to the soul, a language to the heart.”
Time is a fickle mistress. Even scientists and philosophers can’t figure her out. Some days, there’s too much of her, other days there’s not enough. Either way, time’s metaphorical teeth seem to always be snapping at our bottoms. As Shakespeare wrote in Othello, “There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered.” Our world today:Pandemic. Economic collapse. Social polarization. Natural disasters. Political corruption. Riots. News and social media deliver half-baked truths through grids of clickbait, hard-core branding, and trolling. I need a reality check, an escape from time. That is why I turn to magical realism.
Since the emergence of Covid, many of us feel locked into a linear sense of time. Days seem to inch forward with painful slowness. Pages of the calendar are left blank as weeks lapse into months. That can make us feel trapped. It is little comfort when governments are collapsing around the world, social order is deteriorating, and the Earth itself appears to be falling apart. We are losing a shared sense of reality. Certainly, social media, TV, cell phones, and virtual reality—designed to fill our time without due context—cannot mediate our experience of what all this feels like. Technology withholds the bread and tells us to eat cake.
In her 2018 Nobel Lecture, Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk, said, “Literature is one of the few spheres that try to keep us close to the hard facts of the world.” Perhaps that explains why I am clinging to magical realism, in particular, more now than ever. To be sure, there are other forms of fiction that explore history, chronologies, and timelines, but what magical realism does is stop the clock, turn so-called reality on its side, shake out the missing ingredients, and present a new “normal. ”The reordering of time, the deconstruction of time, gives me a better grip on reality.
As a teenage introvert with a wild imagination, I never could have survived the pressures of growing up in an overpopulated Catholic hothouse without the benefit of magical realism. When I first read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, it was like stepping out of time and finding a new home. It epitomized the adolescent experience of being afraid and alone, uncomfortable in my own skin. “I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself,” says the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, when he wakes up one morning transformed into a bug. In a public statement, Max Brod, author and journalist, referred to Kafka’s prose as “a spiritual act of unusual dimensions.” For me, this liberation meant freedom from a material sense of self circumscribed by age or time. And it had the immediate effect of alleviating feelings of fear and separation.
Today, the pandemic epitomizes discomfort, fear, and separation. I am not sure how others are dealing with it, but again I find inner strength through magical realism. Recently I re-read Laurus, published in 2012 by Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin. It opens in plague-ridden 15th-century Russia. When the protagonist, Arseny, a gifted herbalist, faith healer, and prophet, falls for young Ustina, he reveals himself to be a possessive lover. While giving birth to their child, complications arise. Arseny’s pride prevents him from calling a midwife or allowing Ustina to go to confession. Ustina and the child die and he bears the responsibility. Filled with remorse and guilt, he adopts ascetism and sets out on a pilgrimage that spans several centuries.
In my humble opinion, the triumphant feature in this story is Vodolazkin’s audacious, seamless, rollicking manner of time-tweaking. Translator Lisa C. Hayden writes in the introduction that Laurus seems to occur outside of “expected times and locations.” Illogical events “feel natural and almost comforting, rather than contradictory or peculiar.” In that same fashion, Laurus can provide comfort right now.
As he barrels through the narrative, Arseny’s experiences are not timebound. His ability to foretell the future, and to enter and exit different centuries, seems normal to him. He dips in and out of time while gaining both practical and esoteric wisdom, the latter of which can be inconsistent or illogical. Though he dispenses herbal remedies, he believes that faith and prayer are what actually bring about miracles. His grandfather tries to teach him a more orthodox version of reality, insisting that the body itself is timebound, though the soul survives it. Whatever else it is, orthodox religion puts the body into a linear trajectory with a terminal destination. Arseny refuses to be bound by religion and embodies a magical realist viewpoint that allows for never-ending cycles of being.
Traipsing across a plague-riddled landscape does have its problems. Death surrounds Arseny. What starts with losing Ustina and the baby stalks him to the end. For a spell, he loses a sense of divine connection. “Get used to separation,” said Death, “it is painful, even if it is only temporary.” In the face of death, Arseny grapples with a limited sense of time, with what is rational, but experience gradually causes him to depend more on that which is considered irrational.
Time-tripping is a fairly young literary device. Through magical realism it becomes a normal aspect of reality. Adolfo Bioy Cesares is cited for introducing it in his novella, The Invention of Morel (1940). It is the story of a fugitive of the law who escapes to an island. There, scenes are re-enacted, two suns inhabit the sky, objects and people disappear and reappear. Time and reality are presented as constructs of a hallucinatory mind.
In 1967, Gabriel García Márquez stormed onto the world stage with One Hundred Years of Solitude. It is set in the realistic but fictitious town of Macondo where no one has ever died. Though the narrator speaks at a rapid-fire pace, time seems to stand still. The ghost of Jose Arcadío Buendia speaks to this idea when he wonders if God did not wish for anyone to know “for certain where the limits of reality lay.”
A similar method of manipulating time follows in Angela Carter’s novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972). In the narrative, she makes a direct reference to time and how humans are compelled to reorder it. In the story, a city’s inhabitants succumb to a nightmarish plague of suicide. The mastermind behind it all, Doctor Hoffman, creates monstrous machines that crack the surface of time and space, and plunge civilization into chaos. The hero of the story, Desiderio, says, “I must gather together all that confusion of experience and arrange it in order.”
In 1985, Gabo, as García Márquez came to be known, again deconstructed time in Love in the Time of Cholera. The chapters progress chronologically while relying on flashbacks for context. The narrator rehashes certain events in duplicate, connecting seams between the experiences of multiple protagonists. The story does not rely on dates or history and people cannot remember the past with any consistency. At times the future is as easy to recall as the past. There is no consensus of reality.
Herein lies the rub: reality is not rational.
How do magical realism and time-tweaking relate to second millennium calamities?
The coronavirus is a strange, irrational thing, a shapeshifter, a bully, one so dumb that it sometimes kills its own host. We are told that it infects some and not others. It can be caught and then caught again. It kills one person, while barely announcing symptoms in another. The fear of it, and its mutations, keeps us bound inside our homes, masking our faces, obsessing over germs. Many have lost jobs and homes and loved ones because of it. We are terrified of the air that sustains us. To look at this little demon under a microscope, you’d think it stepped right out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
In Laurus, humans are infected by plague as well as by grotesque mutations of character. Religious interpretation might suggest that the latter came first, that mutations of character incited the plague as divine punishment. But Vodolazkin does not go there. When young Arseny’s grandfather speaks of a former patient, Yeleazar the Wind blower, a disabled stutterer who “suffered from excess gases,” he says the Lord remembers him “with love.” A wise monk speaks of a God who recognizes individuals through their heartfelt expressions, and not according to judgment that mediates across time and space. In this manner, magical realism can offer a voice for the soul, a language of the heart, outside the dictates of time, as well as orthodoxy and religion.
When Arseny first encounters strange tormenters, greedy, bloated, unwieldy humans, he reacts by throwing mud clods at them to dislodge their demons. Later he simply prays for them. When he is accosted, lynched, and nearly drowned, he repeatedly withdraws from external activities and circles back to his own internal logic, a childlike faith. His chronology spirals around this theme. With each incarnation, Arseny further sheds layers of pride, and the strange creatures are less able to provoke him. If anything, their debasement nudges him toward greater healing acts, which seem to occur outside of time.
In the same measure, there appear to be strange new beasts in our midst today, creatures who hoard supplies, who drive like banshees, who fight over parking places, who partake in violent protests, and who exercise brutality in the name of righteousness. In Laurus, the monk explains to young Arseny that there are all kinds of creatures, “and androgyns,” “satyrs,” and “sciapods,” beasts born with dog heads, and no heads, with teeth on the chest, eyes on the elbows, and so on. “Someone had lodged that self into another’s body,” he says. Arseny asks what is their purpose? The monk says they have none, God “lets everyone live as their hearts desire.” He says the future will depend “on the strength of your love” and “on the strength of your prayers.” And as Arseny’s love and faith grow along the way, he proves that neither beast nor plague can destroy him. In a delicious subversion of religious hierarchy, the concept of time is all that threatens Arseny’s experience of the eternal.
Vodolazkin’s Areseny, and his Italian companion, Ambrolio, live without reference to clocks or calendars. Existing outside a space/time continuum, they view past, present, and future all at once. Ambrogio refers to time as a sensory device that keeps people from getting “mixed up,” a necessary illusion. When Arseny begins to fear death, his grandfather assures him that everyone takes “Adam’s journey,” and the “joy of liberation” awaits all. In Laurus, Arseny has all the time—three hundred years—he needs to accomplish that liberation. It is not time, but experiential ticks and thematic tocks that mark the signature of his evolutionary bloom.
Toward the end of Laurus, Arseny loses track of linear reality. The words one day become a sort of mantra that help him “overcome the curse of time.” After he dies, after he is liberated from time, he seems to reap the full benefits of experience. Miracles take place at his burial site. Through others’ memory of him, he transcends time. A shining irony gleams off the surface of this idea: time and reality are viewed as unstable and what is irrational becomes the stabilizer. A mythical or esoteric reality seem utterly natural.
No question, 2020 gave birth to a generation of heroes. Tireless firefighters, health care personnel, and disaster relief workers performed magnificently and continue to do so. On the other hand, apart from the coronavirus, the year also spawned an epidemic of controversy and divisiveness that is still disrupting the world. The storming of the US Capitol on January 6th shattered our expectations for resolution. Magical realism helps us to accept that sometimes in life there are no concrete answers; and insisting on them can make things worse.
Magical realism takes fiction beyond the fixed Proustian model that insists that the past shapes the present, and memory selects its version of the future. In order to process an all-inclusive reality, magical realism offers freedom from temporal constructs. It liberates us from the concepts of a selfhood, a life, or a power apart from unbound consciousness. We cannot control external events, but we can certainly control our responses to them. Once we get a glimpse of this timeless nature of being, we can be at peace amidst the chaos. Magical realism lends us a perch from which to view a reality that is alive with paradox and uncertainty.
About the Author
Robin Gregory is a screenwriter and award-winning author of début The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman. She contributes non-fiction articles to Modern Literature and Ginosko Literary Journal. Her website is: www.robingregory.net