Out of this world: magic realism in Irish fiction
A Dublin Book Festival event celebrated magic realism and fantasy in Irish literature. But why do most Irish writers shy away from the fantastic? Roisín O’Donnell inquires
Roisín O’Donnell: Ireland, with its healthy litany of superstitions, myths and often illogical way of doing things, would seem like the ideal climate in which to cultivate a culture of what many simply refer to as “Strange Fiction”. Photograph: Daithi Taylor.
On Capel Street, between the sex shops, sushi bars, Korean hairdressers and hardware stores, there is a 7D Cinema. Whenever I pass, it makes me smile, wondering what the seven dimensions could possibly be. After sight and sound, I’m told on good authority that the dimensions include blasts of perfume, wind machines and a variety of fluids sprayed at unexpected moments. It would certainly make for an unorthodox first date.
But when you stop to think about it, seven dimensions is no stretch of the imagination. After all, reality is multi-sensory, and in this regard it could be said that naturalist writing holds itself up against impossible standards; 2D words on a 2D page can never fully capture the 7D experience of life. But there is another style of writing which manages to dodge this problem. It does so by never claiming to be realistic in the first place, enabling the writer to reach straight to the heart of the human experience. This is magical realism.
First used in the 1920s by German art critic Franz Roh, magical realism originally referred to a style of painting in which naturalistic still lives were imbued with a “sense of unreality” through odd lighting and bizarre juxtapositions. Most commonly used to refer to the Latin American renaissance of the 1960s, the term has since spilled across continents and borders into a truly global phenomenon. In magical realist fiction, characters and their lives are given the same realistic treatment as Franz Roh’s still lives, but their stories are interwoven with elements of magic, fable, allegory and the supernatural.
Think of a town where no one can sleep because of the smell of roses (The Sea of Lost Time, Gabriel Garcia Marquez); a boy who finds tiny holes in his belly, prompting his realisation that he is disintegrating (Malcom Orange Disappears, Jan Carson); or a murder case in which the efforts of the authorities are hampered by the fact that every single one of the suspects claims to be guilty (Under the Frangipani, Mia Couto). These are but a few of the treasures in the magical realist trove.
Ireland, with its healthy litany of bread-crusts-make-your-hair-go-curly superstitions, along with its hand-me-down myths and often illogical way of doing things, would seem like the ideal climate in which to cultivate a culture of what many simply refer to as “Strange Fiction”. And yet, for much of the past century, Irish fiction, and in particular the Irish short story, has been tightly wedded with naturalism. There have of course been exceptions, such as the magical elements in the novels of Brian Moore, and some of the stories of Kevin Barry, but for many years naturalism has held sway over the Irish literary canon.
“I’ve always found this trend quite strange,” says Jan Carson, whose 2016 short story collection Children’s Children uses elements of the surreal to weave masterful tales of family, ancestry and identity. “To me Irish culture is so steeped in legend and mystery,” Carson notes, “and the Irish people are so rich in imagination, I could never understand why most of our literature seems bent towards the realist.”
Carson’s words ring true. Indeed, one of the thrills of my childhood was having the wits scared out of me by the stories told by my parents and my granddad. A monster living under the stairs, fairy rings spotted in the fields, trolls under the bridge; like many Irish children, I grew up in that exciting realm between reality and magic. So why has magical realism been so absent from our literature?
“Perhaps,” Carson suggests, “our writers are reluctant to fuse the two concepts, preferring to write straight realism or pure fantasy, but I firmly believe that in Ireland most every ordinary experience is infused with a sense of the mystic, while even our most transcendent moments feel rooted in the brick and dirt realism of everyday life.”
Carson is one of several Irish writers whose voices have emerged in recent years, who use elements of the supernatural in their writing to wonderful effect. This style is often labelled as new or experimental, and yet it’s a style with deep roots in Irish culture. We need only think of changelings, selkies and banshees to realise that Irish story-telling has employed elements of the supernatural dating back many centuries.
In the nineteenth century, the gothic flourished in Ireland, with Sheridan Le Fanu writing superbly creepy tales, influencing later writers such as Bram Stoker, and lesser-known luminaries such as Rosa Mulholland. During the Irish Revival, Yeats and his contemporaries turned to Irish folklore to “forge a sense of Irishness” by resurrecting forgotten legends.
“Mythology and magic are far older literary techniques than realism,” observes Oisín Fagan, whose debut story collection Hostages was published earlier this year. Fagan notes that elements of the fantastic have “burst out in Latin America in a more modern form and, since then, they have been widely employed in parts of Africa and Asia. I think this is key because the form has always been twinned with nations engaged in telling and retelling their own history.”
Fagan’s insights made me think of my story The Seventh Man, which appears in The Glass Shore, a new anthology of stories by women from the North of Ireland. A 21st-century twist on an ancient Celtic ghost story, on some levels The Seventh Man is a female disruption of male-authored history (it’s also a story about what happens when the Hag of Beara goes on Tinder.) Writing this story, I found that magical realist elements provided tools with which I could challenge received stories and deconstruct established myths.
This element of telling and re-telling is evident in many of Fagan’s stories, such as Costellos. Charting the history of a family from 1574 to 2111, this story reminded me of the epic sweep of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, seen by many as the godfather of the magical realist genre. There’s a playfulness in Fagan’s work; a sense of a writer being unleashed from the chains of the naturalist mode. “It’s a very active and liberating form,” Fagan says, “not only in terms of composition, but in terms of position, in its disdain for the bourgeois.”
Magical realism can also prove a highly liberating experience for the reader, in that it invites us to invent our own interpretations of the text. A great example of this is Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover, the chilling opening story in The Long Gaze Back. In the story, Mrs Kathleen Drover discovers a note from her dead fiancé, one of the lost soldiers of the first World War. The tale which unfolds can be read as a simple ghost story, but it can also be interpreted as a study in paranoia, with the note and its writer existing only in the disturbed mind of the protagonist. This ambiguity and deep underlying symbolism has a way of speaking to the triumphs and tragedies of being human in ways that can be deeply affecting. Toni Morison’s Beloved is perhaps the most poignant example of magical realism being used to speak to the unspeakable parts of the human mind.
From quirky and playful to dark and unexpected, in my experience, the surreal is often an instinctive impulse, rather than a deliberate writing choice. Yet stepping away from realism and into the realm of the surreal can be a difficult thing to get right. As Jan Carson notes, “all good magic realist writing must be grounded in an ability to write well about the everyday ordinary.”
The search for masters of this form has often led Irish writers away from the literature of this country, to explore global voices. Carson cites Aimee Bender, Karen Russell and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum as major influences. Some of my favourite magical realists include Ben Okri and Mozambique author Mia Couto. It seems magical realism lends itself to intertextuality, with writers employing a blend of intercultural influences that speak to the new-found global Irishness of the twenty-first century.
With a wave of new voices breaking forth in recent years, from RB Kelly’s futuristic thriller Edge of Heaven to work aimed at younger audiences such as Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Sarah Maria Griffith’s Spare and Found Parts to name but a few, there’s never been a better time to introduce a touch of fantasy, sci-fi, magical realism or Strange Fiction into your reading or writing life. It might not be a 7D cinema, but unexpected twists are guaranteed. As Tolkien said, “the realm of the fairy story is wide and deep and filled with many things …in that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered.”
Roisín O’Donnell’s debut collection of short stories, Wild Quiet, is published by New Island Books