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From Climate Crises to Crises of Language: Redefining Magical Realism in the Anthropocene. Ben Holgate. Climate and Crises: Magical Realism as Environmental Discourse. New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 236. ISBN: 9781138553484. (Eugene L. Arva)

From Climate Crises to Crises of Language: Redefining Magical Realism in the Anthropocene

Ben Holgate. Climate and Crises: Magical Realism as Environmental Discourse. New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 236. ISBN: 9781138553484.

Eugene L. Arva

genearva@gmail.com

Independent Scholar (Germany)

Interdisciplinarity analyses require, besides accurate insights into each individual field of study, mastery of specific discourses, a critical eye for nexuses and commonalities, as well as a keen sense of the permeability of borders. In his monograph Climate and Crises: Magical Realism as Environmental Discourse (2019), Ben Holgate ventures into the exploration of a narrative mode that has been around, at least nominally, for about a century – magical realism –, a relatively recent genre of writing that attempts to document the human impact on the environment and the current climate crises – environmental literature –, and the growing theoretical field of ecocriticism. Amidst the expanding reach of magical realist scholarship, historically, geographically, and disciplinarily (postcolonial studies, psychology, trauma theory, clinical practice, etc.), Holgate’s work directs its critical focus onto a timely topic, the rapid and irreversible degradation of the planet’s ecosystems as a result of unbridled human intervention, and the literature that paints the picture of pre-industrial societies living in harmony with nature and its non-human coinhabitants, and fighting back against economic and political forces out of bounds. The challenges of the task, concedes Holgate, were mitigated to some extent by the fact that magical realism has “porous borders, constantly changing boundaries that make it inherently unstable ←179 | 180→as a generic kind,” so that “each new work changes the nature of the narrative mode” (230). Adhering to a minimalist definition of the term allows for its application across a wide range of texts from different cultures and historical periods. Thus, Holgate settles on the working definition of magical realism as “literature that represents the magical or supernatural in a quotidian manner and which is embedded within literary realism” (230).

In the introduction, the author eases his way into the magical realism – environmental literature nexus by mentioning Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) as an early example of magical realist fiction “overlapping” with environmental literature, which unavoidably begs the question whether two concepts belonging to different theoretical categories, form and content, can be said to overlap. However, pedantry set aside, it is noteworthy that the critic establishes several connections between magical realist fiction and environmental literature by laying out four characteristics that the narrative mode shares with ecocritical fiction: a postcolonial perspective in contrast with colonial legacies; the development of new worldviews and forms of expression in opposition to the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment; a biocentric perspective based on the interconnectedness of all things in the universe; and a “transgressive nature that dismantles binaries, such as human and non-human, and animate and inanimate” (2–3). Holgate attributes the apparent lack of scholarship on environmental literature using magical realist techniques to historical factors: magical realist criticism and theory started about a century ago (in 1925, when Franz Roh coined the term), whereas environmental criticism began around four decades ago (in 1978, with the introduction of William Rueckert’s term “ecocriticism”). The author also emphasizes that the book is about not only “how magical realism is a natural ally of environmental literature but also why magical realism is a dynamic, constantly evolving narrative mode that can address the challenges of imagination posed by the crisis of climate change” (8–9). The main goal of the study is to provide new insights into both the narrative mode and environmental studies, similarly to other twenty-first-century scholarly works examining magical realist fiction in light of the Holocaust, historical violence, and cosmopolitanism (10), a helpful backdrop aimed at contextualizing the following analyses.

Over several pages, the book offers a brief survey of the concept of magical realism, a particularly thoughtful choice meant to present an audience only tangentially acquainted with magical realist theory with ←180 | 181→a quite helpful mise en situation. After touching on the theoretical contributions to the definition of the term by Franz Roh, Massimo Bontempelli, Arturo Uslar Pietri, Angel Flores, and, following the “internationalization” of magical realist fiction in the 1980s and 1990s, by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, who describe the narrative mode as “literature that presents the supernatural as an ordinary everyday occurrence” (13–15), Holgate settles for a minimalist working definition, “a minimalist approach to the narrative mode that is flexible and able to accommodate markedly different literatures from around the globe that are incessantly changing and evolving” (18). Besides magical realism and ecocriticism, another important thread in Holgate’s theory is postcolonialism, given that postcolonial literature has often been analyzed in a causal relationship with the magical realist writing mode in extant scholarship. According to the critic, the texts discussed in the monograph challenge the prevalent, binary, conceptions of postcoloniality. Specifically, Holgate targets Stephen Slemon’s theory of magical realism as postcolonial discourse by using the example of Alexis Wright’s novels, which represent “three oppositional systems [rather than the usual two]: the Indigenous colonized, the white-‘settler’ colonizer, and global economic forces that help perpetuate the ongoing colonization” (19). With regard to the origins of magical realist fiction, the critic proposes the term “polygenesis,” meaning that “the narrative mode did not originate in any particular country, or culture, or at any particular moment in history, but rather emerges in a multitude of literatures from different countries, different cultures, and at different times in history (25), a viewpoint that negates the largely accepted notion of magical realism as a postmodern literary phenomenon, the only exceptions being the works of writers that employ magical realism avant la lettre: Nikolai Gogol, Thomas Mann, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry James (25) – as well as Franz Kafka and Guy de Maupassant, I would add.

Magical realist fiction with environmental themes generally directs its focus on the cultural and spiritual aspects of individuals and societies, and a depiction of how they both interact with, and depend on, the local environment (28). Because different environments, human experiences, and ideologies are not static, this type of environmental literature “suits the fluidity of magical realism as a narrative mode” (29). Holgate aims to demonstrate how writers of magical realism utilize the narrative mode to invert, destabilize, and challenge accepted notions of the environment. The first two novels discussed are Carpentaria (2006) and The Swan ←181 | 182→Book (2013), by Indigenous Australian writer Alexis Wright. Wright’s fiction draws on the Indigenous Australian Dreamtime, “a philosophy and spiritual framework that is inextricably connected to the Australian landscape, but which is substantially different from Western philosophies” (42). The writer employs magical realist techniques as a postcolonial strategy, and conveys Dreamtime in a written literary form, building on traditional storytelling. Holgate points out the logical equivalency of the magical thinking of pre-colonial Indigenous Australian society with the scientific thinking of modernity. He draws on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s view on magical thought, which the anthropologist considered to form, in premodern societies, a system just as valid as modern scientific thought (44–45). Magic, as a legitimate form of knowledge, links an Indigenous Australian environmental unconscious (Lawrence Buell’s concept) with traditional spirituality. Wright’s fiction also employs magical realist techniques in order to represent historical events of extreme violence – “such as massacres, genocide, or natural disasters,” specifies Holgate (57) – and their traumatic memories. However, the infliction of collective trauma on both the human and the non-human, as an irreversible and long-lasting consequence of the slow and steady destruction of the environment and of the resulting climate crisis, constitutes a topic that may have deserved more ample treatment, and would have certainly benefitted the book’s environmental criticism. Particularly Meera Atkinson’s The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma (2017), for example, might have been a valuable reference for the discussion of Wright’s novels. In her analyses of Carpentaria (2006) and The Swan Book (2013), Atkinson points out that human trauma transmissions may impact not only the environment but also other sentient beings, and emphasizes the urgency of saving nonhumans in jeopardy of becoming extinct at a faster rate than ever before in recorded planetary history. The latency of trauma and its transgenerational transmission play too important a role in shaping the present relationships – still laden with tension – between the former colonized and their western masters to be ignored in modern democratic societies.

The following novels, Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide (1994) and Gould’s Book of Fish (2001), portray an empathetic bonding between Indigenous Australians and the British convicts in Tasmania during the colonial era. Flanagan’s magical realism is intertwined with a biocentric view of the world, in which humanity is but one element of the universe, and not the center of it. According to Holgate, the dismantling ←182 | 183→of the human-animal binary is part of the writer’s subversion of European colonialism. “By dissolving the boundaries between human and animal, Gould’s Book of Fish dismantles what may be termed a ‘species boundary,’ in the sense of ‘a strict dividing line’ between what is human and what is animal” (86). The underlying themes “are the loss of food and the destruction of the natural environment, the memory of that loss, and the shift in conceptual paradigms from the land, as a public collective source of knowledge, to a private individual’s source of materialist riches” (82).

New Zealand Māori writer Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Whale Rider (1987) utilizes magical realism as postcolonial strategy in order to reassert the primacy of Māori culture and tradition. Ihimaera uses “mythopoeia to portray an alternative, indigenous version of reality that challenges the empirical rationalist philosophy imposed by British colonists” (95). In his novel, he endows whales with consciousness, intelligence, and the ability to communicate across species, which, according to Holgate, “exhibits a metaphysics of biocentrism that contrasts with the anthropocentric and humanistic approach of much postcolonial fiction” (103). It is in the myth of the whale rider, the merging of the human and the non-human, that magical realism and environmental literature intersect, or, in other words, where the stark realism of the text undergoes a magical “intervention.” The whales’ self-awareness, empathy, memory, and rational thought drive the novel “beyond basic ecocriticism to zoocriticism, which is concerned with the rights and representation of animals” (103). Ihimaera’s fellow-Māori writer, Keri Hulme, employs magical realism in an environmental context to “disrupt the conventional binary of colonizer / colonized in order to reflect the complexities of contemporary New Zealand as a multicultural society” (117). Her only novel, The Bone People (1984), is a subversion of colonial discourse. Holgate updates Fredric Jameson’s point, made about thirty years ago in his seminal essay “On Magic Realism and Film,” that the anthropological view of magical realism highlights the contrast between a primordial past and industrial modernity: “Modernity, or the materialism and spiritual vacuity associated with capitalism, strips premodern societies of their cultural heart” (118). However, according to Holgate, Jameson’s viewpoint does not hold up with much postcolonial magical realist fiction, which is often set in the late-capitalist phase.

Moving its geo-cultural focus to the Indian subcontinent, the analysis engages three novels by Amitav Ghosh: The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), a piece of “historiographic metafiction that foregrounds the artificial construction of fiction and history”; The Circle of Reason (1986), a ←183 | 184→juxtaposition of “police fiction” with elements of magical realism; and Sea of Poppies (2008), whose magical realism, contends Holgate, has so far gone unnoticed by scholars. Even though the author admits that Ghosh employs magical realism in a relatively small portion of his work, the chapter treats the Indian writer’s work at quite some length. The supernatural, magical element in the novel is the discovery by an Indian laboratory assistant of a “weird strain” of malaria that can transfer human personality traits from one individual to another. Thus, Ghosh challenges the British colonial version of the nineteenth century, according to which Sir Ronald Ross was the discoverer of the cause of malaria, and rewrites history through a fictionalized recovery of Indian science. The end product of this artistic process, infers Holgate, is an example of historiographic metafiction. Intertextuality plays a central role in Ghosh’s endeavor: he writes “against the grain of colonial history by constructing a counter-narrative, by reinterpreting various colonial texts, such as memoirs, diaries, letters, notebooks, histories, both actual and fictional, and by reimagining the spaces in between those texts” (135). The merits of this analysis notwithstanding, the argument for the integration of Ghosh’s text into the central topic of the monograph reads somewhat constrained rather than complementary to the other chapters: “The Calcutta Chromosome features the environment in biological terms. […] The transmission of malaria by mosquitoes serves as a constant reminder that the health of humans is entirely dependent on the natural world, including tiny organisms like flying insects” (137). Even though the following subchapters treat other relevant aspects of Ghosh’s text in a clear, articulate, and soundly argued manner, they fail to address the proposed thesis and themes of the study – an inconsistency that may be due to the inclusion of admittedly previously published work by the author.

The chapter treating Chinese writer Mo Yan’s work amounts to a remarkably thorough and well-researched analysis covering Chinese history and philosophy, social and economic themes, as well as the locus of magical realism in Chinese literature and its relation to classical Chinese fiction. However, as Holgate accurately remarks, “Mo Yan is a writer who presents a quandary for scholars of magical realism” (196), and yet, the chapter dedicated to his work (more than twice the lengths of all the other chapters in the monograph) leads to the dilution of the analytical focus (as in the Amitav Ghosh chapter). Lengthy analogical references to Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles (2013), a “prime magical realist ←184 | 185→example” in Chinese literature (178), while theoretically sound and convincingly argued, constitute yet another disruptive tangent in the flow of the argument. Multiple pages treat the presence of magical realist elements – the supernatural, the grotesque, and the fantastic – in classical Chinese fiction; the use of the narrative mode in a post-communist society; the author’s biography against the sociopolitical background of the time; and Chinese beliefs and customs – all in all, an informative, well-researched, and carefully articulated exposition. The only novel by the 2012 Nobel-Prize winning writer that falls into the category of environmental literature and supports Holgate’s thesis is Red Sorghum (1987), Mo Yan’s debut novel, in which nature and the “magical” inform one another in a reciprocal relationship. The sorghum plant is both a metaphor for Chinese spiritual purity and the backdrop of the narrative; the sorghum fields also carry a “life-affirming symbolism: [they] provide people with both nutrition and spirituality” (168) as well as a sanctuary, allowing the Chinese villagers to ambush the invading Japanese, and a refuge in which to escape the Japanese colonizers (170). The sorghum is also attributed human emotions, which suggests that the plants represent ancestral spirits (171). The analysis of The Garlic Ballads (1988) foregrounds the writer’s use of the supernatural in order to reimagine an alternative historiography that challenges the official version of Chinese history, and the other novel included in the chapter, The Republic of Wine (1992), satirizes corruption and the commodification of society in a post-Mao, market-oriented Chinese economy while dwelling on the literary trope of cannibalism “as a satirical vehicle,” which, as justly pointed out by Holgate, “creates a grotesqueness that is typical of much magical realist fiction” (160).

The last analytical chapter discusses Taiwanese author Wu Ming-yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes (2011), a novel that aims to convey a global focus on environmental concerns, rather than a solely regional one, and to address the ecological crisis of the past half-century. Holgate reiterates his argument that the aesthetics of such texts reflects the increasing “internationalization” of much magical realist fiction “as writers adapt the narrative mode to portray domestic issues and events within the broader context of global political, economic, and cultural forces” (208). He draws on Ursula Heise’s concept of “eco-cosmopolitanism,” which underscores the need for contemporary environmental fiction to represent a “planetary consciousness as a form of resistance” (209). The title character, the man with the compound eyes, serves as a metaphor ←185 | 186→for a “holistic, environmental and multispecies perspective, one that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all things in the universe and their interdependence upon one another” (210). Thanks to his eyes resembling an insect’s, with tens of thousands of “ommatidia” (the optical units in a compound eye, for those who skipped biology class), he sees everything in the natural world, and emphasizes the importance of the memories of non-human organisms, which are indispensable for survival (213). As magical realist fiction and environmental discourse, Wu’s novel “literally gives voice to nature,” in other words, to the voiceless and the marginalized environment (214).

In the conclusion, Holgate briefly discusses Japanese-American writer Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990), an environmental magical-realist work that, similarly to Wu’s novel, takes a planetary perspective. Without dedicating an entire chapter to it – because the geographical setting of the narrative, the Amazon rainforest, lies outside the geo-cultural purview of the monograph, the critic acknowledges its originality in foregrounding the agency of nature: “Yamashita’s book complicates the concept of the Anthropocene […] because it suggests that nature remains an active geological agent, and that humans may not actually be the primary geological agent, even after the inception of industrialization” (226). Before concluding his monograph, Holgate suggests a few topics for further exploration of magical realism as environmental discourse. Among them, bringing into the fold of magical realist scholarship the ubiquitous medium of our times, film, would be a valuable contribution to analyses of magical realism. Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider and Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum have already been adapted for film, as was Salman Rushdie’s magical realist novel Midnight’s Children (and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, and many others, I would add). In this context, it would be worth mentioning E. Ann Kaplan’s study Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction (2015), which, along many others recently published, might be a good starting point for applying magical realism and trauma theory to environmental criticism in cinematic narratives.

Building on Amitav Ghosh’s statement that “the crisis of climate change is essentially a crisis of the imagination” (231), cited in the introduction, Holgate caps his study by stating that “[w]hat is needed is a reimagining of how best to live within and in harmony with the natural world.” Coincidentally, scientists, writers, and scholars from ←186 | 187→multiple disciplines have recently pointed out that clinging on to the old way of thinking, founded on the possibility of turning back the clock of environmental degradation and on the primacy of human agency, is no longer tenable: hence the necessity to “reimagine” future courses of action. In his essay “What If We Stopped Pretending?” published last year in The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen urges against looking through rose-colored glasses at the reversibility of climate change and global warming:

[…] A false hope of salvation can be actively harmful. If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.

(Franzen n.p.)

While arguably more optimistic in tone, Holgate’s final sentence aligns, in fact, with Franzen’s cautiously hopeful viewpoint: accepting the dire reality of the point of no return necessarily entails an act of reimagining humanity’s relationship with nature. Even though the irreversible damage done to the environment might foreclose any idealistic idea of starting over with a clean slate, a united humanity will need to reset its self-destructive habits as soon as possible (that is, to start over with an unclean slate, as it were), and to shift from the old, anthropocentric worldview to a biocentric one, based on the recognition of a shared agency between humans, nature, and non-humans, if it wants to survive the current climate crises.

More than just a narrative mode, magical realism is a complex mode of perception of reality and a multifaceted way of thinking, in which the explainable and the unexplainable coexist not in a conflictual but in a symbiotic relationship. Discarding the latter (the mystery of reality) and relying exclusively on the former (its empirical side) would lead to a Cartesian fallacy, to a division of the subject and object of knowledge in an arbitrary and potentially harmful fashion. As represented or suggested in most of the works discussed in Climate and Crises, precolonial cultures have something to teach industrial and post-industrial societies: that refusing to acknowledge the agency of the non-human and the environment, as well as their interdependence, will come at the West’s ←187 | 188→own peril. Magical realism, concludes Holgate, “can play a critical role in enabling writers to offer alternative visions of how humans may live in the world in order to limit, if not reverse, environmental degradation. This is possible by the conjunction of the magical and the real, allowing a reimagining of the world, possibilities of what may be, rather than what is or has been” (229; my emphases). His study, Climate and Crises: Magical Realism as Environmental Discourse, is built on solid theoretical grounds building up to a complex and intriguing argument. The strength of the book lies both in the novelty of its theoretical and thematic approaches to magical realism and in the geo-cultural range of the literatures discussed – India, China, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand – the latter trait bringing a welcome shift in scholarly focus from the Americas and Europe to Southeast Asia and the southern hemisphere. If some points occasionally come across as strained or veering off topic, the scholarly depth remains intact and appealing to literati and students alike.

Works Cited

Atkinson, Meera. The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Franzen, Jonathan. “What If We Stopped Pretending?” The New Yorker (Sept. 8, 2019). https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-if-we-stopped-pretending Accessed: Nov. 13, 2019.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015.

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