Spells & Counterspells
By Anna Aslanyan
The problem with magical realism is that it often is either too magical or too realist. Not that the genre does not have a readership, but it could find more admirers if the balance wasn’t constantly tipped in favour of one or the other. A physicist friend who started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, presumably without bothering to look at the blurb, was fuming with sarcasm at some point: “So she’s gone and ascended, eh? Well, I thought she was only doing the laundry, not washing someone’s feet”, eventually consigning the book to the rubble pile of fantasy. If Márquez can be too heavy on magic, other writers conventionally bundled into the same category are at times going too far the other way. Much as I admire Angela Carter, I believe her inventions could do with smaller doses of what we habitually recognise as reality – a subjective definition, of course, and one contingent on time and place. Another example is Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, whose parables had to be subtitled ‘Scary Fairy Tales’ and classified as fantasy before being presented to the English-language audience; in her native Russia very few would think of her works as magical realism – rather, it’s realism unbounded, which leaves many unimpressed.
Luckily, one doesn’t have to come up with a label every time one picks up a book; but if we are to accept the analogies between Michael Crummey’s Galore and, say, Márquez’s masterpieces (one of the epigraphs is taken from him) and agree they belong to the same genre, it doesn’t half explain the success of the former. For what Crummey manages especially well is to counter-balance reality and myth without trying to define where one ends and the other begins. His novel, set in Newfoundland, spanning over one hundred years of hardship, struggle and revelations, bringing us to the First World War, can’t be called historical (that librarian’s reflex again), nor is it a fairy tale. Most importantly, it doesn’t seek a clear distinction between real and imaginary events because perceived reality itself is subjective.
What Crummey’s skilfully depicted characters experience is real to them, a result of their beliefs or imagination, and the author neither doubts nor justifies it – that would be completely beside the point. The trick works remarkably well on the reader, possibly because the setting is so different from what most of us are used to, or it may be simply a case of striking the right chord. The novel opens with a whale beached by the shore of Paradise Deep, and the local population goes at it with axes, finding in its gut a naked body of a man: “Entrance and exit. Which should have been the end of the story but somehow was not.” The two creatures, one butchered, the other resurrected, are there to set the tone for the whole narrative.
Similarly, when we learn of other kinds of magic, no matter black or white, happening on the island, it doesn’t come across as something seen through our 21st Century eyes, but as part of the characters’ existence, and as such requires no further clarification. Examples are, erm, galore. Mr Gallery, dead for many years, keeps wandering about the place consumed by guilt, which nothing can assuage, not even watching his wife make love with another man. There is no shortage of witch spells and miraculous recoveries: the latter are, perhaps, the only excessive use of magic in the book, but then again each of them serves a purpose. What we are reading is, of course, a highly allegorical text, and we understand it as well as the fact that the characters don’t. The pull of the book is strong enough for us to be convinced by the story, to be reminded that the truth – both in literature and in life – is never objective and any attempt to understand it should be made with an open mind, not a fixed repertoire of ideas, religious, cultural or scientific.
Crummey’s characters are fully responsible for this credibility: they are painted economically, with few brushstrokes, and are all the more vivid for that. Again, the harsh surroundings and the hard lives they live, fishing, building, giving birth, caring for and attacking each other, copulating, probably help their features stick in the reader’s mind. Female characters are especially impressive – they are drawn with the same gusto as their menfolk, and just as meticulously, but, being “the second sex”, rather steal the show. One of them, known only as Devine’s Widow, is an omnipotent matriarch well versed in witchcraft, or so everyone believes. The earliest we see of her is an episode where she is proposed to by a wealthy suitor who, like most men around her, “is so ignorant of his own motives.” When she retorts, “You need to take a wife, is it? […] And I need to take a piss, Master Sellers. Is that for or against we two getting married?” – we know already she is going to regret her words, but they seem to be the only reaction possible. Widow’s descendants by the spindle side are worthy of her, usually tougher than their brothers and husbands; it is tempting to use another label here, and I do so without hesitation: Galore is a feminist novel, in the best sense of the term.
This is not to say that Crummey’s men are one-dimensional or bland; they have their ambitions, some are married to their jobs, others immerse themselves in books. Amorous pursuits are not always high on their agenda, but when they do get round to making love, it – like many other things in this aptly named book – often takes biblical proportions, “an erection […] described as a decade in the making” being nothing out of the ordinary. And there is, of course, Judah, the creature delivered from the whale’s gut, with his unnaturally pale skin and white hair, who “seemed to stands apart from time altogether” – another allegory for us, if not for his fellow characters. Among outsiders who come to Paradise Deep and stay there, assimilated into its life, is Nigger Ralph, a negative of Judah’s, the first black person seen in these parts. After initial attempts to wash off his colour fail, people accept him as he is and name a place after him, Nigger Ralph’s Pond. An English lady new to local customs may be shocked – “the name, she felt, was a black mark on the shore” – but her protest is never taken seriously.
At times the book becomes a real page-turner, making you slow down your pace so as not to spoil the overall impression, allowing the weight of many generations on Newfoundlanders to settle on your shoulders evenly. Like most sagas, it is not without longueurs, and when you read that a character’s “flirtations with death began to feel orchestrated, designed to pull them along in the youngster’s wake”, you start suspecting that some orchestration on the author’s part is at work here, too: there are recurrences that don’t seem to add much to the plot, redundant at first sight. But then you realise that this, essentially, is life: you are born, you live like many did before you, you die. The ending of Galore is certainly intended to stress the cyclic nature of the story told, of most human stories, in fact.
Did Michael Crummey deliberately set out to write a book which would combine magical and realistic elements in equal measure? In the brief afterword he mentions a number of sources, “community histories, journals and memoirs, academic studies, websites, archival documents, collections of songs, tales and folklore behind the geography, incidents and characters in Galore” (the one that caught my eye is titled Making Witches: Newfoundland Traditions of Spells and Counterspells). Has this research helped to achieve the delicate equilibrium? Be it as it may, it is great to see, at last, a novel where each spell of the irrational is offset by a counterspell without the two cancelling each other out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 10th, 2011.