Saturday, September 28, 2013

magic realism

Magic Realism in Art and Fiction
It has been a couple of months since I last posted.  Sorry to disappoint anyone who has been following my blog, but when it came time for a monthly installment in July, I was pressed for time and considered perhaps I ought to put the blog aside as a regular commitment.  In fact, I thought maybe the six years I've been posting it had been enough, and I might put aside sharing of ideas on the writing craft and focus more on my own creative writing.  I decided to continue posting a while longer and see how things go as we move into the quieter rainy season in my coastal area.

I recently read The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker, and wondered how the publishing world might categorize this story.  Some of the magic realism of Latin American authors come to mind, as well as a few North American writers, but Wecker's story is a bit different.  Her characters are not ordinary humans who supernaturally appear out of a past time and place and animate a work of fiction set in a later time and place.

Wecker's golem and jinni are no ordinary humans, but they are not exactly the usual stuff of fantasy or science fiction novels, either.  The golem is a human-like creature, but is fashioned from clay, and imbued with an immense strength, through employing Kabbalistic formulae derived from a mystical interpretation of the Bible.  In Jewish folklore, golems have been created to protect the community at times of great external danger.  So, by authenticating our character with a religious underpinning, where supernatural forces provide a working rationale for such a strange creature, the story can have a solid, built-in basis for the "suspension of disbelief," so necessary to the reader's enjoyment of compelling fiction.  That is, we have the prior legends of golems, with the semi-religious imprimatur, and so are perhaps ready to go along with this new one.

The jinni is a little more problematic.  Here we have a human-like, male figure who has been imprisoned in a metal flask for perhaps a thousand years, and is released when a metalsmith in a Syrian immigrant neighborhood in New York City is repairing the flask.  Of course, there is some precedent for this sort of fable too, notably in the old, Arabian Nights stories, with Aladdin and the genie imprisoned in his lamp.  However the jinni myth doesn't quite have the same level of historical credentials; we just need to believe in the magic.  Wecker's jinni, unlike Aladdin's, doesn't grant wishes, but he has various powers, some of which have been diminished by a losing battle with a wizard who imprisoned him in the flask about a thousand years earlier.  Though human in form, our jinni's essential nature is fire, and even to walk in a downpour of rain can be life-threatening to him.

The golem and the jinni both arrive in NYC from foreign shores, Poland and Syria, respectively, in the year 1899.  With these sorts of bizarre natures, we are intrigued as to how Wecker will navigate such characters through the teeming immigrant communities of the city.  Throw in an evil, failed rabbi, who created the golem and has followed her to the New World in search of the secret of eternal life for himself, and we, as writers, are anxious to see whether Wecker is going to be able to tie it all together into a satisfying bundle.  From the beginning, one suspects these two unusual creatures will have to eventually meet, but many trials take place beforehand.  Moreover, what is Wecker going to do for any romantic encounter between a creature essentially composed of clay and one of fire?  Does she pull all the disparate elements together for a satisfying conclusion?  You may or may not think so, but it's a fairly good read, and a useful experience for a writer in constructing and tracking an intricate plot with plenty of mysterious elements.

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