The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Shut the borders!

Posted on: January 31, 2008

Sometimes I find my brain annoying. First it went off on an Italian tangent which made me read an Albert Moravia novel when I hadn’t intended to try him for at least a few years, and now I’ve stumbled into a little nest of information about Tim Parks. First he popped up as a panelist in that Paris Review 2000 Como Conversazione: On Translation roundtable and then he popped in one or two of the litjournals I usually read. Then, what do you know, I raise my head from a water fountain in the library and my eyes land on his name gracing a few book spines.

To my astonishment one was called Understanding Tim Parks. Goodness! I thought to myself. His writing is as important as all that that we need a tour guide. That’s interesting. I picked up two of his novels — Home Thoughts and Europa which was shortlisted for a Booker Prize — and the guide book and settled down to see what’s what.

Apparently the guide book is one in a series called Understanding Contemporary British literature, aimed at students and “good nonacademic readers”. Not the bad ones, eh? It’s odd, you’d think they’d need it more than the good ones but who am I to bicker. I was told that “Uninitiated readers encounter difficulty in approaching works that depart from traditional forms and techniques of prose and poetry.” Hmmm. All right, but what has that to do with contemporary literature? I could be wrong but…well, let’s have a look at the other authors in the series. Kingsley Amis, Alan Bennett, Graham Greene, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro…yes, their writing is definitely known for departing from traditional prose in such a manner (or at all?) as to befuddle the uninitiated. They do have Pinter who strikes me as a justifiable inclusion not least because one is not used to reading scripts in general.

La! Time to browse chapter one. First sentence: “Tim Parks is a writer”. Yes. Yes, he is. From a bit more skimming it’s not bad so much as rather dull — I deliberately stopped after a few skims in case the book dissuaded me from taking a look at Parks’ fiction.

One result in a google search turned up an interview Parks had with 3:00 AM magazine. Parks espoused some intriguing points of view that I’d like you to take a look at since I know that many of you have probably read Gabriel García Márquez and/or José Saramago and are in a better position to assess his remarks. (I’ve left out the bold formatting from the original interview because I found it annoying.)

3:00 AM: Do you have any other examples of today’s false literature?

Tim Parks: Almost all of it. In different proportions. A great deal of what passes for literature is basically this kind of self-congratulation that we’re interested in, declaring injustice and changing all that. Look at the Nobel Prize for Saramango. Saramango is a writer of absolutely no importance. Maybe his book Blindness was a good book. The rest is socialism and magic realism.

Magical realism is a fascinating development in this department, because if you look at the magical realists, without exception, they are disappointed socialists. You’ve engaged in the belief that the world can be improved, and of course it can, to a certain extent, you can always improve things a bit, and then they’re disappointed, right. You don’t want to switch to a right-wing position and so what you do is move into this world where the creative and imaginative powers of the people are celebrated in this rather bizarre way and where your plot can work out more positively because you’re no longer obeying the dictates of realism, and realism is now presented as some kind of monster that prevents the world from being the way it should be.

It is interesting that almost all the magical realists celebrate the fact that the mind and the imagination are more than reality and claim to be unorthodox in this regard, but if you look at the politics of magical realism, they’re all totally orthodox left-wing politics. Marquez, Saramango, the whole lot of them, it’s all left-wing politics. I’ve got no argument with left-wing politics, but it’s fascinating that things that pretend to be unorthodox are in fact totally orthodox. It’s a provocative stance, but that’s how I feel about it: I can’t read magical realists, they’re utterly boring.

I came at magic realism from a different angle. It’s prominently associated with certain South American writers but my first books from the genre were written by Steve Stern and Murakami Haruki — hardly authors one would consider to write with any particular political agenda. Murakami led me to Borges but…well…I have not read all of his fiction but his work also doesn’t strike me as fitting into such politicised slots. I don’t see any theme in his writing about improving the world and what not. The other notable for me would be Mercé Rodoreda. Her writing certainly does include characters from the lower classes and their social situations do have something to bare on the stories but there’s no agenda behind it either or anything beyond literary goals that I can see.

So, does he have a point? Latin American literature has a strong sociological and political themes, as, I’d hazard, does most literature from any developing world, but it was certainly not something unique to the magic realists. All of the Spanish fiction I read for A-levels was realist to fault but fairly dismal, tragic and depressing, which is perhaps more Parks style? I’m being somewhat facetious, of course, Parks is asserting that the magic realist writers use the fantastical to generate cop outs that their stories did not earn. What say you?

7 Responses to "Shut the borders!"

I say Tim Parks is a just about a decent enough literary journalist. I very much enjoyed his recent collection The Fighter, it offers good overviews of a number of excellent looking books, and puts the work in a solid, biographical context, but it offers precious few real insights: if one can force a distinction, Parks is merely a decent journo, not a real critic like e.g. Josipovici, Erich Heller, Blanchot etc. Parks’ fiction, however, leaves me cold. But his view, quoted above, of magical realism (not something I enjoy myself, actually) is hugely reductive. And Saramoga is certainly a writer of some importance …

There are better and worse writers who use magical realism. But, to stick to the best, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” has a lot of politics – which Buendia witnesses a massacre that no one believes happened? In its way, this is just as fantastic as thw woman who is transplanted into heaven, except that it’s also “real”. Anyway, I agree, this isn’t a copout by Garcia-Marquez – this is his subject.

Is Rodoreda thought of as a magical realist? I just know “The Time of the Doves”, so I’m curious. “The Time of the Doves” is also quite political, indirectly – the heroine is the character who not only doesn’t understand political changes, but doesn’t even seem to notice them when they’re around her.

Anyway, interesting post. There are some real ideas in that Parks quote, but it’s hard to get past the intemperate language and exaggerations.

Mark that’s what I thought but I thought I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. I enjoyed his insights into the Italian publishing world and about translating in general, so I thought I’d see what his fiction’s about.

Some one could say something interesting about people who find certain styles of fiction fundamentally flawed but can’t seem to write great fiction themselves…

Amateur Reader I know her through her short stories. No idea what her novels are like but in her short stories she had witches, a girl who turned into a salamander, things like that. She does do “realism” too though.

Yes, I agree with you about the “real ideas” bit. They’re more clearly stated in the before and after parts of the interview but something about magic realism really gets on his nerves it seems.

I’ll really have to read Marquez some time.

I interviewed Parks a year or so back. Really lively intellect. Good interview. Opinionated about how useless awards are.

re his take on magical realism. I think he’s out to lunch. at least as far as 100 years of solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera are concerned. They’re more about love and memory and sex and death than anything else. Sure there’s the awful massacre by government officials of banana plantation workers, but this isn’t what sticks.

Marquez’s run-on sentences are sublime.

Here’s a link to the audio interview mentioned above in case you’re interested: http://nigelbeale.com/?p=377 and another http://nigelbeale.com/?p=378

Nigel Beale, ah, thanks for commenting and for the interview links. I’m now deeply interested in read that NYRB article he did on Rushdie and shall have to dig it up.

Your description of the Marquez books was more in line with my impressions until Parks gave the political slant. (The movie certainly stuck with that interpretation.)

My pleasure imani. Was the movie worth seeing??

It was a friend of mine who’s read the book that saw it and she reported back that, of course, they just couldn’t capture what made the novel beautiful. She rated as a rental for a rainy day.

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