Back to List
This book by a South African expatriate, due to be published in the US shortly, suggests that the critic Fredric Jameson may not have been so far wrong when he put forward that magic realism has become the literary language of the emergent post-colonial world. The Devil's Chimney by Anne Landsman (Soho Press, New York) belongs exuberantly within a burgeoning new kind of writing which has begun to displace the novel of realism and commitment that marked the dark years of political oppression in South Africa; and those skeptical souls who once wondered whether there would still be literature after apartheid must now be ducking for cover.
"Magic realism" is a term that started in Europe, back in the twenties, and over the years it has played the umbrella to a multitude of sins. Used more or less loosely, it tended for a long time to suggest a more holistic view of the world, an attempt to recognise and celebrate the repressed magical forces of the natural world threatened by increasing capitalism and industrialism. After the Second World War it became a password for some of the most exciting writing from Europe and the United States, ranging from Gunter Grass's outrageously inventive The Tin Drum to John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy or Chimera to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children or The Satanic Verses.
But it was Latin America which turned the term into common coin—although there still seems to be much confusion about what it "really" means. In the hands of a Jorge Luis Borges, a Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Mario Vargas Llosa, a Jose Donoso, a Carlos Fuentes, an Isabel AIIende, and many others, all following in the wake of the great Cuban Alejo Carpentier, magic realism became the hallmark of literature built on the conviction that a nation needed stories in order to define its identity. No political, or social, or economic programmes aimed at constructing a new society could hope to succeed, these literatures show us, unless they were inspired by that leap of the imagination which expresses itself in the telling and inventing of stories.
Not just any stories: but stories that transform time and space into magical and elastic concepts in which time present and time past co-exist unproblematically with time future; stories that restore a sense of wholeness to the world, covering breathtaking tracts of history in one leap, embracing genesis and apocalypse in a single gesture, charging the here and now with the fiery breath of symbol and allegory, discovering the universe in a grain of sand and the long story of a country in the generations of a single family. There is nothing mystical about this narrative world; it is rooted in the tangible shapes of the real, the reality of this morning's newspaper or tonight's weather forecast, the curse of a toothless fisherwoman, the lovemaking of a young couple in a telephone booth. But this real is transformed into the miraculous by infusing it with the unexpected and with a joyful acknowledgement of the deeper, darker, creative forces of the natural world which refuse to be explained or contained by science and technology and even religion. This makes reality magical: the kind of magic Chagall evoked when he made his lovers take flight in a passionately blue sky, far beyond the Eiffel Tower and the rooftops of Paris; or the magic Klee conjured up by allowing fishes to swim through cityscapes or stars to twinkle in the bellies of ordinary men. Above all, the magical is presented as a function of language itself, this amazing tool of our everyday use which at the same time has the power of constituting whatever in a given context we choose to call "real".
Below the play and the sleight of hand there is a deep seriousness: if it appeals to the untamed child in us, what it offers is not nonsense. What it presents is relevant as much to the hard-nosed businessman as the political activist—for rather than an opting out of reality, it invests reality with the whole gamut of its own possibilities, realised and unrealised. It reinvents history by revealing the canon itself as myth. But its concern is not myth and history as such: rather, as the critic Gerald Martin suggests, it reveals the urge in each to masquerade as the other, and interrogates why at any given moment of its history a people should feel the need to invent certain myths and not others. In the process, it offers alternative views to the dominant, rectilinear patterns of conventional history; and this invites readers to compare this version with the others they already know, in order to ponder the possibilities, and to make a choice, assuming all the risk and responsibility of such a choice.
In the course of these processes of storytelling, Western notions were amplified by visions from Central Europe (no wonder that writers like the Czech Bohumil Hrabal became such key figures in magic realism); and in America they were enriched by the cosmologies of the original inhabitants of the two continents. This means that cultures and communities, traditionally regarded as merely marginal to the West, came to play a major part in helping the West to discover its own repressed soul.
It comes as no surprise then that Africa, too, should prove fallow ground for magic realism. Africa has an ancient tradition of oral storytelling, which suspends linear time and turns cause and effect inside out, while the dead and the living interact freely and commerce with the ancestors is a necessary ingredient of social intercourse. This tradition has in due course inspired the wonderful free-flights of the imagination in Amos Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts or The Palm-wine Drinkard, and more recently the prize-wining fiction of Ben Okri which has taken the metropolis by storm; it has also flowered in the exhilarating allegorical touches Ngugi wa Thiong'o brought to Matigari, and many of the lighter moments in the work of Wole Soyinka or Ayi Kwei Armah. This lightness is no mere accident, as magic realism lends itself to bright excesses of humour in which all conventional rationality is exploded, a carnival of exuberance where the sacred cows of society can be sacrificially slaughtered.
In South Africa we are fortunate in being able to draw on at least two indigenous traditions of magic realism in our storytelling, now that the stern realities of apartheid are shot through with the light of new insights. These are the rich oral narratives of the indigenous peoples; but also an old tradition of Afrikaner narrative originating on the farms of the deep interior during our own hundred years of solitude when storytelling was one of life's only diversions; or around the camp fires of trekkers, itinerant traders, migrant farmers in search of grazing, and other lonely souls beneath the stars, on dark nights when ghosts and the inexplicable forces and powers of the world seemed closer and more real than a wagon wheel, an ox chewing the cud, or a dog licking its balls. Such stories, transmitted by writers like Leipoldt, Langenhoven, Bosman and others, are now being rediscovered for their full potential of evoking a different kind of reality in a different kind of way.
A great stride towards magic realism in the more recent sense of the term was given—even though it was not recognised at the time (or even now?)—in Bessie Head's remarkable novel Maru, published in 1971: the reader is beguiled by the way in which good and evil mingle and exchange positions, the encapsulation of a nation's history within a quadrangular love story, above all, the manner in which private dreams spill into public knowledge and the consciousness of one individual crosses the boundaries of another. Another ground-breaking text was JM Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country (1977), in which it becomes impossible (and unnecessary) to disentangle flights of the imagination from a report of the real: everything here is equally real, and equally magical. And it is significant that this novel quite evidently was a direct source of inspiration to Anne Landsman in the writing of The Devil's Chimney.
As apartheid entered its last convulsions, during the eighties and early nineties, our local form of magic realism, acknowledging ever more openly its roots in Africa, staked out its own unmistakable territory: in the taken-for-granted interaction between the living and the dead in Etienne van Heerden's Toorberg (1986), translated as Ancestral Voices; in the wonderful mix of the fantastic and the ordinary in Joël Matlou's Life at Home (1991); in the sly interplay of different levels of reality and different frames of time, in Zakes Mda's Ways of Dying (1995); in Mike Nicol's inspired inventions, most brilliantly in The Powers That Be (1989), in which a small isolated West Coast community, in many respects reminiscent of the Macondo of Marquez, experiences an apocalypse under the rule of the evil representative of an alien Law-and-Order, Captain Nunes. Every incident can be read as a fusion of the natural and the supernatural, from the descent from heaven of the preacher Augustin Shoote (alternatively: his landing by parachute) to the spontaneous combustion of Captain Nunes (alternatively: his death by fire at the hands of his abused daughter).
Perhaps most dazzling to date have been Ivan Vladislavic's virtuoso demonstrations of various brands of magic realism: in the form of virtual history in stories from Missing Persons (1989)—in "The Day They Killed the Prime Minister", Verwoerd's funeral is transformed into a whole alternative vision of "what might have happened"; or in the construction of an imaginary mansion in The Folly (1993), which turns out to be just as real, and just as fantasmagorical, and just as grimly farcical, as apartheid.
This is the context in which Anne Landsman's The Devil's Chimney can be placed. If it is by no means "the first time" South Africa is seen "through the lens of magic realism" as JM Coetzee curiously asserts on the cover, it does contribute to an already well established genre characteristic of a young society in a stage of transition and in search of a new identity.
Two stories run parallel in the novel, one embedded in the other—but as in a Moebius strip, it isn't always evident where the outside of the first becomes the inside of the second. The narrator is a middle-aged alcoholic woman trapped in a violent relationship with a weak and abusive man and troubled by the demands of a deaf sister; ostensibly to escape from her harsh world she tells, or invents, the story of Miss Beatrice and the three men in her life during the final days of the ostrich-feather boom in the district of Oudtshoorn. The men are her ineffectual but increasingly dominating husband Mr. Henry; the Jewish neighbour Mr. Jacobs with whom she has a brief, passionate relationship; and the farm labourer September, husband of the domestic help (a clear echo from Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country). The crisis of the story is triggered when Miss Beatrice falls pregnant, not knowing which of the three men will turn out to be the father of the unborn child; and more and more her life becomes intertwined with that of the black woman Nomsa.
But the narrator is as much shaped by the story she tells as the story is by her—and through the loss of her own baby she and Miss Beatrice become two sides of the same coin. (It should be added, however, that the narrator as a character is also one of the least successful and most awkwardly contrived aspects of the novel.)
Apparently inspired by an incident in which a young coloured girl got lost in the Cango Caves, the story reaches not only into the subconscious of the narrator, but into the repressed historical and racial memories of South Africa, bringing to light submerged passions and raptures, terrors and haunting guilt-feelings—a veritable devil's chimney of the unconscious. The world of dreams becomes as real (more real, in fact) than that of everyday events; imagined lust, agony and fulfilment rage more violently than their banal parallels; and the story of our past, with its tensions of race and gender, its extremes of power and submission, of wealth and poverty, its stark divisions between male and female, good and evil, black and white, is told with a verve of invention often stunning in a first novel.
It takes a while to "warm up"; and passages of sustained inspiration are interspersed with pages of lame and strained prose; the novel goes on for a trifle too long, losing some of its cumulative effect through an attempt, towards the end, to cram too much into it, to hammer away at moral messages. But on the whole it is a truly remarkable debut, written with an intensity of imagination that lights up the dark places behind the world and the history we thought we knew. One can only hope that The Devil's Chimney will also find a British and/or a local publisher, because it should be avidly read by a home public.
Andre Brink is an award-winning South African author and professor of English Literature at the University of Cape Town.