Magic realism, Mark Williams

This House Has Three Walls
Lloyd Jones
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 321 6

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that during World War II some captured Japanese prisoners were taken by train from Auckland to the Wairarapa for internment. As they passed through the countryside one was seen to be very distressed and was asked through an interpreter what was the trouble. “These people are too clever,” he said. “We shall never defeat them. They have learned to hide all their cities.”

For much of this century New Zealand writers have sought ways of compensating for the pre-modern aspects of the society: the concentration of life in farms, small towns and suburbs, the lack of social range (Robert Chapman noted that there was little outside the equivalent of the English lower middle class), the absence of a developed intellectual culture (Janet Frame observed that New Zealanders lack an upper storey).

The problem has been how to make New Zealand interesting enough to write about. Katherine Mansfield solved the problem by leaving and returning mainly in nightmares in which she had misplaced her return ticket. Janet Frame solved it by staging an internal exile: she remained physically here but chose to set an imagined version of the place alongside the actual one. Keri Hulme solved the problem by inventing a spiritualised and indigenised version.

Less drastic solutions have been offered by a host of younger writers over the last 10 years, most of them graduates of Bill Manhire’s writing programme at Victoria University and most of them published by Victoria University Press. Emily Perkins, Damien Wilkins and Elizabeth Knox display neither boredom nor excitement, neither excessive satisfaction nor an outraged sense of disadvantage at having been born and raised in a country so far from the world’s metropolitan centres. They are interested in New Zealand because it constitutes the material to hand: particular and worthy of exploration, but not special by virtue of distance or dullness. They don’t expect to find anything here that doesn’t exist unspectacularly elsewhere. Cody in Perkin’s “Not her real name” reads international magazines and discovers: “There’s a whole bunch of American women out there writing about stuff she can relate to.”

Also published by VUP but somewhat older and unmarked by Manhire’s writing programme, Lloyd Jones has found a balanced and sane solution to the old problem. For Jones, our isolation is mythical not because of air travel and the availability of Buzz magazine but because, like everywhere else, New Zealand is as much an imagined as a real world. Realities that are “local and special” are invented, not discovered.

In “Amateur Nights”, the first part of Jones’s new triptych novel, the narrator introduces himself as a failed pulp novelist who decided to take his characters out into the world, performing their stories in pubs. He establishes a reputation as a professional fantasist who invests his fiction with commanding authenticity. He is approached at one of these performances by a man whose wife has “developed an alternative world for herself” in which she visits Russia. The problem is that in Russia she has fallen in love with another man. The world she has dreamed has taken over the world she inhabits:

Think of the sun staring at the earth, of it frowning through the clouds, alternating with periods of concentrated effort, day after day willing the seed to burst from the unseen world into the open. And you get an idea of how Judith’s Russia was able to flourish and take over the life she led with Neil in the Wairarapa.

The imagination can turn into a blunt instrument without something to react against. The imagination loves to be pandered to, loves attention.

Instead of treating this as a psychiatric problem to be cured by restoring the fantasist to reality, the narrator grants the reality of the woman’s other life and sets about gathering empirical and historical fact that might allow her husband to enter her fantasy. He sets about studying Russian folktales, maps, historical records. His object is to allow the woman’s husband access to this imaginary world. The method he adopts — using fact to pander to the imagination — restores him to his former role as author, here with his reader literally looking over his shoulder.

“Russia” in this story is not simply a means of escape for a bored woman from marital entrapment, tired lovemaking, an unimaginative husband; it is a device, as in Frame’s The Carpathians, which allows an imagined world to enter a seemingly real one and in the process to blur the distinctions between what we confidently call the real and the fantastic. Far from rescuing his wife, the husband finds that she brings Russia into their domestic lives. As in a surrealist painting, dream transforms fact.

This toying with invented realities is not new in New Zealand fiction. In Living in the Maniototo Frame’s Mavis Halleton reflects on the irruption of a magical reality into the real one: “Those creatures and worlds that we know only in sleep and dream and mythology … the magical technology, are emerging as usual reality in the new dimension of living and dying”. But it has a much wider provenance than merely local fiction, one with which Jones is well acquainted. It is a theme that may be traced back at least as far as Jorges Luis Borges, who writes in The Book of Imaginary Beings:

In those days the world of mirrors and the world of men were not, as they are now, cut off from each other. They were, besides, quite different; neither beings nor colours nor shapes were the same. Both kingdoms, the spectacular and the human, lived in harmony. You could come and go through mirrors. One night the mirror people invaded the earth.

It is a theme the forms the plot of Angela Carter’s Infernal Desire Machine of Dr Hoffmann.

Since Gilmore’s Dairy Jones has shown an experimental familiarity with magic realism. He is particularly adept at the method of mixing factual and fictional elements and narrating extravagant events in an understated, objective fashion. Yet he is no slavish imitator, staging his own coups with the method. In Biografi he managed to give so acute a sense of historical verisimilitude to an invented narrative that the discovery that the novel was not in fact a documentary caused a minor scandal. The effect was like that of a super-realist painting, in which the concealment of artistic invention served only to draw attention to its inescapable presence in all human activities, even ones as seemingly “real” as history or politics.

In his new novel Jones retains the spare narrative style of Biografi, reminiscent of the photographic documentary manner of Christopher Isherwood, not so much to suspend our disbelief as to oblige us to confront the uncomfortable circumstance that much of what we take to be normal everyday reality is as subject to the laws of manipulation and invention as is fiction. The House Has Three Walls is magic realist in the sense that it combines a cool objective narrative voice and fantastic events. Even where flagrantly unrealistic events are introduced they are slipped into the narrative in such deadpan, accepting voice that we do not immediately notice the deception: “He remembers that in the depths of winter a spoken word can quickly turn to ice inside one’s mouth.” This is offered as explanation of those Russian postcards in which we see corpses with their mouths wide open.

“The War in Sardinia” elaborates the method. Here a young boy growing up in Christchurch between the two world wars is caught up in the national paranoia (a delusion as extensive and more damaging than that of Judith in “Amateur Nights”) because he has a German name, Klinsmann. During World War II he is interned on Soames island. Again the narrative turns on the struggle between conflicting worlds, all of which claim sovereignty over reality. As the mad drummer (Gunter Grass’s metaphor for Hitler) strives to reduce the world to his fantasy, Klinsmann and his fellow internees (Samoans, Germans, Russians) set up their own small worlds on the island.

Jones achievement here is to use his spare, supple prose to introduce us progressively into a Kafka-like nightmare world which presents itself as simple common sense in the pugnacious complacencies of colloquial New Zealand English. The avuncular laconicisms of local officialdom gradually but effectively destroy the solid-seeming world: “Everything in the world which you took for granted as solid and immovable has shown itself to be made of less than reliable stuff”. Along with Klinsmann the reader is forced to acknowledge the conundrum of the “alien” who has tried to fit in: “With so little to admire or identify with in these New Zealanders you wonder why you have been trying so hard to claim membership in their ranks.”

Yet if the fantastic suspicions of official New Zealand breed madness and cruelty, other forms of fantasy are healthful and human. The alternative worlds of the internees who, “denied access to their own worlds … must invent another” are not all fascist in inspiration. The internment island becomes Sardinia, a Mediterranean country living alongside the actual New Zealand, an unrealised “multicultural” possibility waiting for the Italian immigrants who were never allowed to immigrate after the war.

In the final section, “Pimping for Heine”, an academic specialising in German romanticism remarks that the pressure to include New Zealand content in the teaching curriculum “was fast reaching a critical point”. The observation is not overtly mocking. Jones has clearly read his New Zealand literature carefully and drawn the lessons he requires. But he is distant from the primitive enthusiasms of cultural nationalism, those who demand quotas of books in schools and sound bites on the television. He writes about New Zealand as if he were from somewhere else, detached from its insatiable self-regard, uninterested in national self-definiton but attentive to its peculiarities, its myths and its self-deceptions. Like Frame, he makes New Zealand interesting and particular because he refuses to take seriously its claims to a distinctive and special isolation.

Mark Williams teaches English at Canterbury University. 

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