Magical realism: a crutch for an author

December 19, 2004|By Clare McHugh | Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

A Time of Angels

By Patricia Schonstein. William Morrow. 224 pages. $24.95.

Magical realism, a technique used so evocatively by Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, separates literary masters from the mere journeymen who attempt to employ it. While creating a world both fantastical and recognizable is a worthy enough goal, it requires a subtle gift to pull off successfully.

Done right, magical realism adds dimension and meaning to a story, but used inexpertly, it allows an author to take shortcuts, cheating readers out of the true parsing of experience and emotion they expect from a novel. Such is the case with Patricia Schonstein, author of A Time of Angels. She's writing about South Africa, where she lives, and perhaps she believes her country's complex history required particular illumination. But her novel never takes off, even when a winged creature plays a central role.

The setting, an Italian and Jewish immigrant neighborhood in Cape Town, lends itself to ecstatic depictions of food and eating -- something that Schonstein can do brilliantly. When she gets going about polpette (meatballs with herbs) and torta nera (a tart made of almonds, coffee, and cocoa), you may find yourself suddenly hungry and envious of the characters as they dine outdoors on balmy Cape Town evenings.

Schonstein's poetic descriptions of meals and of clothes, faces, and art make reading A Time of Angels a pleasant experience. And the gently wandering plot provides a frame on which she hangs many vivid scenes. Still, a novel needs more than that, especially one that purports to be about the struggle between good and evil, as this one does.

Schonstein tells the story of two friends, Primo Verona and Pasquale Benvenuto, who are both sons of European refugees. Their fathers, persecuted by the Nazis, bring with them to the Southern Hemisphere a keen appreciation of the dark side of humanity, and of the enduring power of myth. Their African-born children must take their own path to wisdom, and it leads through a woman, the beautiful Beatrice, who dates Pasquale, marries Primo, but ends up leaving her husband to take up with Pasquale once more.

Poor Beatrice! She's adrift. She loves Primo and she loves Pasquale, but her feelings and actions aren't under her control. This is the fate of characters trapped in clumsily executed novels with magical realism pretensions: they don't have internal struggles, they don't ponder the meaning of their deeds, they just find themselves overcome by large, indeterminate spiritual forces. It's hard to relate to such people.

When evil emerges, it doesn't spring from characters who come down on the bad side of the struggle between right and wrong. No, evil arrives in the person of the Devil, in the flesh, wearing handsome embroidered robes. Trotting out Satan in this way seems less like magical realism than an author saving herself from the hard work of exploring how good people can do not-so-good things.

Once the Devil appears, the action speeds up. Primo, who is a magician and soothsayer by profession, casts uncharacteristically nasty spells. Pasquale suffers for his sins, and turns to the Virgin Mary for solace, despite his Jewish background. In the end, all is put to right, although there is a murder along the way.

Closing A Time for Angels, one wishes there were a handbook to literature for aspiring writers. The chapter on magical realism would beat the warning: don't try this at home.

Clare McHugh is an editor at Time Inc.

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