Feinting Spells

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By promising a synthesis of rationality and magic, the term “magical realism” only reiterates the distinction between them

Mia Couto’s Tuner of Silences is a “magical realist” text, in the most simple and unhelpful sense. Things happen in it which are “magical,” by the standards of a rationalist understanding of the universe, and yet the book is also, basically, “realistic”: It is set in a real place (Mozambique), takes place against the backdrop of a real set of events (the long civil war that lasted from 1976 to 1992 and its aftermath), and a character in the book is a veteran of successive wars who carries a bullet from each war in his body. But this character is also able to remove the metal from beneath his skin whenever he wants to show off, and after he’s done displaying his souvenirs, he can put the bullets back into the scars where they came from. There is no tension between these very different narrative registers, and this absence of friction makes the term applicable: It is both at once.

Calling Couto’s novels “magical realist,” though, accomplishes very little. At this point, the term is little more than a marketing phrase that publishers and critics use to indicate some kind of broadly construed tropical exoticism. Surrealism sought to challenge the very basis of enlightenment thinking — denying that “reality” was even real — while fantasy just ignores the whole question and makes up its own reality. Magical realism, popularly conceived, evokes the dream of a place where the West’s rational order might break down without actually contradicting our daytime reality after the last page of the dream is turned. It is the Eat, Pray, Love of literature: an escapist interlude into pleasurable exception, a vacation from the workaday reality of serious literary fiction. Take, for example, the Oprah’s Book Club definition, which divides the genre by national origins: “The writers of Latin America may have popularized magical realism, but it’s written and appreciated throughout the world. Check out the following list of well-known titles; it’s merely a snapshot of the larger world of magical realism.”

This is fine, as far as it goes. It’s not wrong to observe that while the Anglo-American literary tradition has been, until very recently, almost totally monopolized by Serious Realist Fiction, “magical realism” came into vogue in the late 60s and 70s, when the West’s monopoly on the literary started facing serious competition, around the time a Colombian writer named Gabriel García Márquez wrote the most interesting book anyone had read in a very long time. The globalization of “Literature” — in other words, the discovery by the West that other people wrote books too — has also meant the epistemology we associate with the Enlightenment coming face to face with epistemologies not oriented on old familiar names like Newton and Descartes. When Amos Tutuola wrote The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), he believed in the fantastic tales he told of ghosts, juju men, and magic, at least in the same way that Christians believe in the fantastic tale of the son of god who rose from the dead. And when Alejo Carpentier coined the term “lo real maravilloso,” his argument was that reality in the Americas was marvelous and strange — so much so as to defy belief. Take Ben Okri’s argument that the term is pure laziness on the part of critics:

“It’s like saying about a horse that it has four legs and a tale. That doesn’t describe it. Or that it runs fast. It doesn’t describe it. One is trying to express something so complex and so simple at the same time that any one label doesn’t describe it…It comes down to the fact that you either see that there’s more in life than is apparent to the eye or not. That aspect is there in the African tradition, I have an affinity with it. I see it. Also because I grew up with kids seeing spirits. That was normal. It was only surprising to me later on, when I discovered other people thought that that was strange.”

This is the problem with calling a book like The Tuner of Silences “magical realism.” It’s not untrue. But it doesn’t describe it.

* * *

I go into all of this because you can’t pick up any of Couto’s novels without getting magical realism all over your hands. On the back of all of Couto’s English translations, for example, you’ll find the same blurb from Henning Mankell, who declares that “by meshing the richness of African beliefs…into the Western framework of the novel, [Couto] creates a mysterious and surreal epic.” And sure, why not? This account of Couto is not even wrong, as they say; if there is anything “Western” about Couto’s novel form, it’s in a lineage of Westernness that stretches back to experimental Brazilian writers like Jorge Amado, Guimarães Rosa, and Mário de Andrade, the Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira, and perhaps even the rural modernism of William Faulkner. Moreover, Mia Couto is not “African” in the sense that people usually mean by the term: He has lived his entire life in Mozambique, but he is white, of Portuguese descent. Which is to say: It’s true that he’s both African and Western, but it’s no less true that he’s neither.

To understand what makes António “Mia” Emílio Leite Couto special — even extraordinary — we have to loosen our grip on the binary that distinguishes between “the West” and “Africa.” By promising a synthesis, after all, by offering to bring together the best of both worlds, magical realism reiterates the distinction, implicitly suggesting that we need the non-West to bring romance to the Enlightenment potluck, while African magic needs the firm form of Western rationality. But while the idea that the West had the form and the non-West the content might have made a certain sense to négritude poets like Léopold Sédar Senghor, 80 years ago, these days it’s more of a crutch than anything else.

As Senghor wrote in “Prayer to Masks,” “May we answer present at the world’s rebirth; Like the yeast white flour needs; For who would teach rhythm to a dead world of cannons and machines? Who would give the shout of joy at dawn to wake the dead and orphaned? Tell me, who would restore the memory of life to men whose hopes are disemboweled?”
And both Couto and Mozambique are quite poorly understood if we think of them through these kinds of rigid racial and geographic alignments, if we see white, Western, and the novel on one side, and black, African, and fantasy on the other.

It’s maybe the first interesting thing about Mia Couto that he is “white” without not being African, or that as an “African” writer he’s one of the most important figures in a global Lusophone literature that stretches across three continents. This is true in a way that’s not true of J.M. Coetzee, for example, whose novels belong in a tradition that has always excluded “Africa” (the way South Africans sometimes refer to Africa as if they don’t belong to it). If Coetzee has had a great deal to say and write about that exclusion — and his most interesting novels are built out of it — his bestselling popularity in the U.S. and Europe is at least partly product of South Africa’s exceptional cultural status, just as white South Africans have always had the privilege of being honorary Europeans. People in the West read Coetzee instead of “African” novels.

And if Coetzee is easy to plot within the Western Canon by his engagement with figures like Kafka, Milton, and Defoe, Couto has to be charted by reference to names with which Anglophone readers are largely unfamiliar. But if we read him expecting to be absorbed in fantastic tales of insomnia plagues and old men with enormous wings, we will be unsatisfied there too: By “Colombian” standards, his magic is thin and flat, uncompelling. Where we might expect his prose to sparkle, it tends, instead, towards a cold opacity. In fact, I may frankly say that while I have read and reread García Márquez — and I’m always enchanted and absorbed — I feel about Couto’s writing the way I feel about reading Kafka: always transformed by the experience, rarely rushing to repeat it (albeit feeling like I should).

The problem is that comparisons are unhelpful, as such; Couto has maintained a singular narrative voice throughout his career, and the best writer to compare him to is probably himself. Which is, I guess, my real beef with the idea of magical realism: While adjectives like “Kafkaesque” remind us that Kafka is a Major Author — and insinuate that if you haven’t read him, you can’t take part in the conversation — the category of “magical realism” becomes a way to enfold an entire world of texts into a single category, as if Okri, Rushdie, and García Márquez are all part of a single genre. But they really aren’t, are they? Blending them together doesn’t only simplify the profound heterogeneity within the class, it also obscures the very parochial nature of Anglo-American literature itself: Western “realism” forms the exception, not the rule.

* * *

Let me begin again, then, by comparing Mia Couto to himself. His most celebrated book is his first, the novel Sleepwalking Land (1992), followed by the short story collections Voices Made Night (1986) and Every Man is a Race (1994) both of which were translated into English, lapsed out of print, and were then reprinted last year as The Blind Fisherman. In Couto’s prose from the 1980s and 1990s we find the writer who most resembles the one that Mankell was talking about in that blurb, an author deeply interested in the clash between different sensibilities, who tended to represent that clash by sewing the “magical” to the “realistic.” When a young boy watches a cow get hit by lightning and explode into bloody coins, for example, or sees a beached whale vomit soldiers and weapons onto shore, Couto’s “realistic” reader appreciates the innocent’s naive misapprehension of land mines and troop transports as a kind of animist magic, a childish (mis)apprehension of reality. In these earlier books the distinction between magical and realistic is more or less clear: The more knowledgeable reader knows the truth, knows what the child does not.

Sleepwalking Land was made into a film in 2007, and a synopsis of the film gives you a sense of how Couto’s early writings confirmed the expectation that narrative magic would heal and revitalize a grim reality: “In the midst of Mozambique’s devastating civil war, Muidinga, an orphaned refugee, wanders the countryside in search of his mother. His only companion is an elderly storyteller, and the only guide to finding his mother is a dead man’s diary. Together, the storyteller and diary lead him on a magical, and sometimes macabre, journey across war-torn landscapes to find the family he lost. Based on Mia Couto’s acclaimed Portuguese novel of the same name, Teresa Prata’s transporting drama underscores the power of imagination in surviving, and ultimately overcoming, the catastrophe of war.”

Still, there was an uncanniness to Couto’s magic. Instead of feeling like you had entered a new world, a beautiful fantasy, there was always, also, the sense that you were seeing the hidden underbelly of the real world, sliced painfully open by a surrealist blade (or blown apart by a land mine). It could be beautiful, yes, but that beauty could also be a trap. Just as often it wasn’t beautiful, but the nightmare of a reality from which you wanted to awake. For if the García Márquez type of writer has often tended to celebrate the solitudes of rural isolation, Couto has been increasingly interested in the howling and terrible tedium of the excluded and forgotten, the violence of silence and isolation. Sometimes hallucinations are the product of solitary confinement.

In the last decade or so, he’s pried this wound open in a series of novels about outsiders of one kind or another. The characters’ efforts to understand and explore are repeatedly deferred, denied, and subverted, and reveal the inner strangeness of a reality which can sometimes only be perceived by those who are estranged from it. Detectives and inspectors “from the capital” are common figures, well-meaning protagonists who come to find the truth but find at once much more and much less than what they thought they were looking for.

“To put it crudely and rudely, here’s what happened: a severed penis was found right there on the trunk road just outside Tizangara. A large organ on the loose. The locals stood thunderstruck at their discovery.”
In The Last Flight of the Flamingo (2000), for example, a UN officer is sent to rural Mozambique to determine how exactly a blue helmet and a penis ended up in a tree, both presumably originating on the person of a missing UN soldier; he solves the mystery and finds the solution to be barely worth knowing. Something similar occurs in Couto’s first novel to be translated into English, Under the Frangipani (published 1996, translated 2001), a detective story narrated by a ghost in which everybody confesses to the murder, and everybody is lying; at a certain point, the only worthwhile truth is the one which can be told by lying about it. And in A River Called Time (2009), an educated grandson is summoned home from his university studies to bury an ancestor in his ancestral village, but in laying a ghost, he cannot help but exhume the traumas of the past.

All of these books, however, pick away at an underlying distinction between real and fantastic without quite transcending it. In one sense, they’re antidetective stories: They’re all built around a central mystery, an unrevealed secret whose revelation in the final act not only changes everything, but calls into question the mystery itself. In Under the Frangipani, for example, the protagonist is a detective, literally, but what he discovers, in the end, is that the identity of the murder is the most uninteresting information there could be. He tries to reorient himself towards a different kind of knowledge, but this reorientation still involves detection, still assumes a discovery. It’s a mutation of the form in that the crime he thought he was investigating was the wrong crime, but, as such, hardly a unique mutation:  A great many detective novels are structured by a narrative progress from ignorance to knowledge. They begin with a set of incoherent facts and impressions that have to be made sense of, the achievement of which produces a final sense of narrative closure. The conclusion may revise some of the initial assumptions that we begin the novel with; it might end by solving a different crime. But the underlying structure of Under the Frangipani still remains firmly within the narrative constraints of the detection story — only with ghosts.

* * *

In one sense, The Tuner of Silences is an instantly recognizable part of this oeuvre. The protagonist is a young boy — with an alienation from reality that is perhaps peculiar to the very young — but he’s also a kind of detective, searching out the truth of his mother’s life, and her death. He knows there’s something to know that he doesn’t know, and it turns out he’s right. We have the usual intergenerational mystery — in this case, the problem of what young Mwanito’s father isn’t telling him. As always, Mozambique’s civil war is the unavoidable backdrop, the apocalyptic violence that renders “reality” unreal (and most of the novel’s surrealist touches flow from war’s distortions of the fabric of legible social life). And as with Frangipani, Flamingo, and River, the contrast between “the capital” and the rural is the central conflict of the novel: At some point in Mwanito’s forgotten infancy, his father took his two children and fled the rest of human society, living in an abandoned game-park among the animals and the silences.

In all of these ways, the book is more or less exactly what one expects from a Mia Couto novel.

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: “Silence itself — the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers — is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.”
There’s even a requisite “magical realist” touch at the center of it. For his father, Mwanito is an opportunity to quiet the past, and so, as we are told in the first few pages, the boy is the eponymous “tuner of silences”:

Some are born to sing, others to dance, others are born merely to be someone else. I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence. It was my father who explained this to me: I have an inclination to remain speechless, a talent for perfecting silences. I’ve written that deliberately, silences in the plural. Yes, because there isn’t one sole silence. Every silence contains music in a state of gestation.

This is nice poetry, and the idea that one could “tune” silence is exactly the kind of delightful oxymoron that magical realists love to spool out. But this time, the paradox is an illusion. There is nothing magical here, because it will turn out that there is no such thing as a tuner of silences: Mwanito’s father is simply lodged in a deep and pathological state of denial, a deep pit of silence for which his son has become the vessel: Since Mwanito is too young to remember his mother, he becomes a way for his father to forget the things that his son has never known, a shelter from memory and speech. Commanding his son to forget the world and the past, we discover, is a way for him to forget his own, to pretend that the world has come to an end in a literal sense (rather than the metaphoric way his own life has collapsed).

Over the course of the novel, we find out what it is that Mwanito helps his father forget, and, as is often the case with Couto, the “realistic” truth is a bit of an anticlimax. I won’t tell you what it is, but not to preserve the suspense. When you read the novel, you won’t need me to keep its secrets; one of the most depressing aspects of the novel is the way one knows exactly what happened to Mwanito’s mother, long before it’s spelled out. It turns out to be worse than you probably expect, but I don’t think you can read this book and not be aware of what’s coming, long before it does: Certain kinds of crimes have such tangible, palpable, suffocating walls of silence built around them that the silence itself becomes eloquent, and this is one of the times when we hear it. The moment of revelation, in this novel, arrives as the confirmation of something we already knew but didn’t want to admit knowing. Which is exactly the point, right?

This silence — this will to not-know — is the real subject of the book. In an interview with a Portuguese newspaper, Couto explained that he started writing the novel when he read a newspaper article describing exactly the kind of incident that befell Mwanito’s mother. He has written a novel that feints towards magical realism and then veers away from it: Instead of beginning with the detective who tries to rationally comprehend reality — and who steadily fails as reality becomes ever more fantastic — we get almost the reverse. We begin with the magic, with fantasy, with the impossible, and we steadily discover, in the end, that it never really was, that it always was what we were trying to pretend it wasn’t. There is no magic. There is only reality.