This essay sets out to show that Russian magical realism 1) exists and 2) has been largely ignored or misconstructed by literary criticism. The first chapter provides an overview of the crucial scholarly works on the genre, tracing mentions (as well as striking omissions) of Russian influence and comparing definitions. The second chapter discusses the few publications which deal with russophone magical realism, especially Haber’s The Myth of the Non-Russian: in my opinion, a disservice to the topic. The final chapter presents Viktor Pelevin (b. 1962), the author of dozens of magical realist texts, most of which have been published in English (some aspects of the translations by Andrew Bromfield are also discussed). Pelevin’s popularity1 has attracted much critical attention in Russia and some outside, but he is not discussed in terms of magical realism2, and Western specialists of the genre never deal with his work.
When quoting from Russian, I use the Library of Congress transliteration system. To differentiate between the titles of published English translations of Russian texts and my literal translations of Russian titles, I do not capitalize nouns in the latter.
Critique critique 1 – major works and their russian(less)ness
Franz Roh, widely regarded as the creator of the term magical realism3, describes not only the introduction of magical elements into realist painting, but also its mirror image: the estrangement of familiar objects, the ‘making what was formerly accepted as obvious into a “problem”’ (Roh 1995, 20). This phrasing from 1925 is strikingly reminiscent of an essay written in Russian seven years earlier, Isskustvo kak priem (Art as a Device): Shklovsky’s ostranenie is a means to experience anew in art what has been merely automatically recognised in life. In this essay, Shklovsky mainly deals with Tolstoy. Calling this writer a precursor of magic realism would mean overstretching the term, but the title character (and part-time narrator) in his Kholstomer, a horse who looks with wondrous eyes at human doings, illustrates a crucial aspect of Roh’s Magischer Realismus4: ‘reality’ – in the framework of this essay this is indeed a word ‘which mean[s] nothing without quotes’ (Nabokov5 2000, 312) – becoming ‘marvellous’, strange.
Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Pushkin and Vsevolod Ivanov are mentioned along with the painter Serov and the composers Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov within three pages of the author’s prologue (Carpentier 1995, 78-80) to The Kingdom of this World; the term lo real maravilloso originates from this foreword. Carpentier’s russophilia is no surprise: his mother was a Russian professor of languages (however, he seems to have read most or the aforementioned writers in translations). The similarities in Russian and Latin American landscape – ‘extension, limitlessness, repetition, the endless taiga exactly like that in our own jungles’ (Carpentier 1995, 78) – may be connected with (but are less important than) the conception of their own country as strange, wondrous, inexplicable (in comparison to the Western Europe and the US) which many Latin Americans share with many Russians. The rhetorical question which closes the preface: ‘what is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvellous real?’ (Carpentier 1995, 88) echoes a quatrain by Tyutchev known to every Russian schoolchild and endlessly quoted in discussions about the country’s ‘special fate’. Here are its first and its last line with a translation:
Umom Rossiiu ne poniat'
V Rossiiu6 mozhno tol’ko verit’.
Russia cannot be understood
Russia can only be believed in.
If this ‘collective faith’ really ‘produced a miracle’ (Carpentier 1995, 87), as Carpentier professes to believe it did during Mackandal’s execution in Haiti, this would be an example of the ‘true’ marvellous real to his liking. In his later essay The Baroque and the Marvelous Real he insists on ‘authenticity’, opposing the marvellous real as ‘encountered in its raw state, latent and omnipresent, in all that [is] Latin American’ (Carpentier 1995, 104) to art which is ‘premeditated and calculated to produce a sensation of strangeness’ (Carpentier 1995, 103), such as surrealism. His lo real maravilloso must not merely mingle the commonplace with the strange, but naturally transcend7 the boundary between the two. Carpentier professes to see his art as original and ‘manufactured mystery’ as a mere substitute; fortunately, ways to differentiate non-abusively between the forms in which magic can manifest itself in literature have been developed by scholars, e.g. by Todorov, Wilson, Echevarría and Weisgerber (cp. appendix).
Wendy B. Faris refers to the latter two in the canonical collection Magical Realism: Theory History, Community, when she ‘speculate[s] about the existence of a tropical lush and a northerly spare variety of this plant’, cautiously pointing out that ‘[g]eographical stylistics are problematic’ (Faris 1995, 165). By the time of writing several decades had passed since the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s; the genre has long become popular with the wider public and spread to other countries: to judge by the same collection of essays, Rushdie, a British Indian, came to be regarded as a prototypical magical realist by that time. If a genre represents a world-wide phenomenon on its way to become ‘perhaps the most important contemporary trend in international fiction’ (Faris 2004, preface), a study of regional varieties seems interesting, indeed. But as Faris confesses in her book Ordinary Enchantments (whose beginning is an only slightly reworked version of Scheherezade’s Children) she has ‘followed [her] own limitations and confined [her]self to texts from Europe, the United States, and Latin America’ despite her feeling that the study ‘could be extended into other literatures, especially in the Near and Far East’ (Faris 2004, 3). The Near East includes several post-Soviet countries such as Georgia (where one could expect ‘lush’ magic to blossom), but Russia (where a ‘northerly spare variety’ might grow) remains unmentioned even as field for further research.
However, Faris names a Russian writer of Ukrainian ethnicity as one of the precursors of magical realism: Gogol (Faris 1995, 167 and 2004, 2). She does not pursue this topic, but it is striking how Gogol’s 1836 story The Nose fits her definition of the genre as a combination of ‘realism and the fantastic [in which] the marvellous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the distinction between them’ (Faris 2004, 1 and similarly 1995, 163) and the five defining characteristics she proposes (Faris 2004, 7). ‘[T]he text contains an “irreducible element” of magic’: the nose disappears from a face, pretends to be a human being and finally returns. Nothing in the text points to a hallucination; the unproductivity of an allegorical reading is convincingly argued in The Fantastic (it also points out with surprise the combination of the inexplicable with ‘mundane details’, which most scholars now came to regards as a landmark of magical realism: ‘the world Gogol describes is not at all a world of the marvelous as we might have expected it would be’ (Todorov 1989, 72)). ‘A strong presence of the phenomenal world’ is evident in a story which starts with the smell of hot rolls and onions.
The remaining items on Faris’ list also apply to Gogol: ‘the reader may experience some unsettling doubts in the effort to reconcile two contradictory understanding of events, […] the narrative merges different realms; and, finally, magical realism disturbs received ideas about time, space, and identity’, but in my opinion these three elements follow from the primal two, so that it seems better to list them as sub-characteristics. Moreover, if an essay starts naming features which are not indispensable, but only ‘may’ (cp. cit.) be present, it could also mention humour, which often goes hand in hand with grotesque magical imagery (cp. noses in Rushdie and Gogol) and the lack of shock at magic events on the part of the protagonists8 (which Faris seems to imply, but never directly mentions). Still, the essay and its definition of the genre are very helpful and productive, especially in the earlier version9.
Appreciative nods to Gogol and Bulgakov exhaust the amount of references to Russian literature also in A Companion to Magical Realism, despite its inclusive view of the genre as ‘vacillation between the […] kingdoms’ of the real and the marvellous (Hart 2005, 3). This recent collection features a list of non-Hispanic magical realist works (Hart 2005, 5) and a list of languages in which magical realist text have been written (Ouyang 2005, 15). Neither enumeration contains Russian(s). The authors point out that they merely provide some examples, so this is by no means an error – but why do no Russian texts come to mind? Not because there are none. Most texts listed in the next chapter, for instance, have been translated into English10.
Critique critique 2 – the Miss of the non-Russian
Russian magical realism is largely ignored by the Anglophone critical discourse. In 2003, The Myth of the Non-Russian: Iskander and Aitmatov’s Magical Universe by Erika Haber was published. As the title emphasises, it deals with Non-Russian authors: Haber attempts to analyse the work of an Abkhaz and a Kyrgyz writer, contrasting their cultures to the Soviet-Russian one. Still, both Iskander and Aitmatov wrote mainly in Russian, and The Myth… remains, unfortunately, the only existing book-length study11 of russophone magical realism. Apart from it, JSTOR, MLA and Google Scholar provide next to no suitable hits for the keywords ‘magic(al) realism’ and either ‘Russia(n)’ or ‘(post-)Soviet’. There is a chapter promisingly entitled On Soviet Magic Realism in The Geopolitical Aesthetic, but it is neither about literature12 nor quite about the genre the title refers to, but about ‘sublated Science-Fiction […] abusively called magic realism for lack of a better characterization’ as the author self-critically points out (Jameson 1992, 89-90). The only13 essay which does deal with magical realism in Russian fiction, on the other hand, does not mention the genre in its title. Nevertheless, The city in Russian literature: Images past and present features a useful overview of predecessors and exponents (Porter 1999, 481 – 484).
Apart from Pelevin’s Omon Ra, it includes Moscow-Petushki by Venedikt Erofeev and Russian Beauty by his namesake Viktor Erofeev14, The Soul of a Patriot by Yevgeny Popov, The manhole by Vladimir Makanin and Forty years in Chanchzhoe by Dmitrii Lipskerov which ‘unashamedly owes something to Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude’ (Porter 1999, 483). Several works by female writers such as Tolstaya, Ulitskaya and Petrushevskaya could be added to the list, though in them elements of magical realism tend to be combined with dystopia, narration of madness and absurdism respectively. He concludes: ‘If magic realism came about in South America in the wake of the post-war processes of modernization and relative liberalization, then the appearance of such writing in the post-Soviet era is perfectly understandable’ (Porter 1999, 484). Whether this political background is really more significant than cultural influences and inner-literary developments, Porter is surely right about the existence of the phenomenon.
The author of The Myth of the Non-Russian, however, manages to ignore it. ‘Russian magical realism did not continue into the 1990s’ as due to the new liberty ‘pulp fiction, mysteries, romances and pornography flooded the market’ (Haber 2003, 149), she laments with dismay reminiscent of complaints about cultural decline in the Soviet press of the early perestroika period. This attitude fits her uncritical descriptions of ‘Soviet readers and critics, who has been searching for a means of […] celebrating the multinational Soviet state’ (Haber 2003, 21) and of ‘conservative literary critics’ taking offence at critical literature as a reason for the fact that ‘the regime clamped down again’ (Haber 2003, 24: as if the critics controlled the government, and not the other way around).
Why does Haber believe that Russian magical realism is no more? The most favourable explanation would be that she means only a narrow definition of the genre, roughly corresponding to lo real maravilloso15. But she does not. She is aware of the differentiations by Weisgerber and Echevarría (though her description of their positions (Haber 2003, 15) so closely resembles an earlier one (Faris 1995, 165) as to pose the question whether she had read these authors or was guided only by Faris’ account). While stating that Iskander and Aitmatov correspond to the folkloristic type (Haber 2003, 15), she recognises the ‘European version’ as another valid form. It remains to conclude that Haber either was not familiar with any recent magical realist works or suppressed her knowledge, because the intellectually playful, non-folkloristic texts by citizens of post-Soviet Russia (and not one of the small ‘colonised’ Soviet countries) did not fit her thesis that ‘[m]ost importantly, Russian magical realism promoted the myths, legends, traditions and customs of traditional cultures’ (Haber 2003, 32).
The Myth… is an astonishing collection of typing mistakes. Only about one in twenty Russian quotations has been copied correctly (or, rather, does not display obvious errors on first sight). Misquoting goes hand in hand with mistranslation, which is so densely planted that two impressive bloomers can be found on neighbouring pages. One is a list of artists – ‘Gofmanna, Dostoievskogo, Goii i Shagala’ – ending in ‘samogo sotsialisticheskogo realista Maiakovskogo’ (‘even the social realist Mayakovski’). The English text says: ‘Mayakovski – the most Socialist Realist of them all’ (Haber 2003, 50). In the accusative case sámogo can be translated as the most, while samogó means even; stress is not marked in the text – this must be difficult for a non-native speaker. But how can one assume that Hoffmann, Dostoyevsky, Goya and Chagall are being called socialist realists?
On the next page Haber mistranslates Shkolvsky’s The Art as a Device, a crucial text in literary studies, whose special importance for magical realism I have mentioned and whose published translations could have easily been consulted. Rendered correctly, Shklovsky wrote that ‘art is a way to live through the making of a thing, that which is made does not matter in art’16. In Haber’s translation art is ‘a means to experience the creation of things which have been made insignificant in art’ (Haber 2003, 51). This howler probably was not deliberately introduced in order to support the argument, but is based on genuine misunderstanding. Many typing mistakes in The Myth are so obvious not only to a native speaker, but even to a beginning student of Russian17, that – despite her being a teacher of Russian literature and language, an author of several Russian textbooks and dictionaries and a holder of a certificate of advanced study in translating and interpreting – Haber’s knowledge of Russian is highly questionable.
Based on such shaky ground, can her argument be sound? Stating that ‘Latin American magical realism arrived in the Soviet Union at a time when Village Prose was enjoying its greatest popularity’ (Haber 2003, 27) and that these genres shares an interest in folklore, she proposes to view Russian magical realism as a hybrid of the two. Coincidences in time and theme do not necessary point to a causal relation; whether they do in this case, can be best judged by the examples provided. Haber claims that Sandro of Chegem by Iskander is a magical realist novel. However, nothing supernatural happens in this ironic, picaresque, somewhat grotesque text. Its protagonists foster irrational beliefs (e.g. that a black goat’s urine is the best medicine), boast of supernatural achievements (e.g. to have unsaddled a rider with a loud shout) and tell fairy tales (e.g. about the month of March taking offence at the words of a shepherd) – but the reader never sees such miracles happen. Characters live to be 103 and 106 years old, but this is a believable number (especially as Abkhazia is famed for its centenarians). A chapter is told from the perspective of a mule, but this is a narrative device (very much like in Tolstoy’s Kholstomer) rather than an animal gaining the gift of speech.
Haber seems unsure herself as to why she considers this novel to belong to the genre. She cites Iskander’s admiration for Faulkner as an argument, but she is aware that Faulkner was at the most a precursor and that Iskander professed not to be interested in magical realism18 (Haber 2003, 72). She writes that Iskander has been called the García Márquez of Abkhazia by Carl Proffer on back cover of Sandro (Haber 2003, 73); but even if a blurb counts as an argument, is ‘Márquez = magical realism’ a valid equation? Sandro does share some features with Cien años de soledad (both novels deal with several generations in a remote town), but magic is not among these features. Haber cites an article by Briker and Dalgor which discusses Sandro in terms of magical realism (Haber 2003, 73), but this article is based on a definition which Haber herself recognises to be unhelpful. She claims that Iskander shows ‘the magic […] of Abkhazian culture’ (Haber 2003, 74), but he merely portrays the belief in it – never inviting the reader to share it.
As regards Aitmatov, I agree with a reviewer of The Myth… who cites his didacticism and the use of science-fiction as counter-arguments (here and further on in this paragraph: Peterson 2004, 643). Peterson is as polite as to call The Myth… ‘a convenient and concise compendium’, but she mentions the spelling mistakes (without questioning Haber’s general competence on this premise) and disagrees with the main thesis. Peterson’s main argument, however, is unconvincing: she criticises ‘the attempt to fit [Iskander and Aitmatov] into the Procrustean bed of a trend associated largely with a writer significantly different from them’. The writer she means is Márquez; in 2004, she seems to ignore the long-established internationality of the genre. She concludes: ‘if we agree with Haber that “magical realists” use elements of magic that “cannot be explained away rationally or dismissed as a dream or hallucination” […] then almost everybody in Russian literature, from Aleksandr Pushkin19 to Viktor Pelevin, could be considered a “magical realist” at one time or another’. Peterson makes this suggestion ironically, but I am convinced that the latter has indeed written magical realist texts.
Pelevin: death and dreams
As Pelevin’s novels, especially the post-2000 ones, seem like slightly diluted and ‘popified’ versions of his inventive and philosophical short stories and novelettes to me, I shall deal only with the latter here. They vary in genre from parable to parody with many shades in between. Magical realist texts, at least those of the intellectual European variety (as Pelevin’s are), are a form of the postmodern – and thus blurred and constantly shifting boundaries not only between the realistic and the supernatural within the texts, but also between this genre and others, are part of the game. Most short stories by Pelevin have elements of both the marvellous and the real (often in misbalance); at least seven out of the sixteen which are published in the two English collections published fit the term ‘magical realism’. These seven are Vera Pavlovna’s Ninth Dream (though within a dream, its events are still experienced as magical, as the dreaming 19th century heroine predicts exact details of Soviet and post-Soviet reality), Sleep, Prince of Gosplan, A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia20, News from Nepal, Mid-Game (here, boundaries between genders and social roles are as blurred as those between ‘reality’ and chess) and The Tambourine of the Upper World.
A possible argument against reading these as magical realist is the fact that – like almost all fiction by Pelevin – they are heavy with symbolism, sometimes unambiguously articulated by characters. When excluding texts which allow allegorical reading, Todorov (1989, 58-74) was defining not magical realism, but its close relatives. Almost any magical realist work can be read allegorically (e.g. Midnight's Children as representing events in India, or aspects of memory and the bi-cultural self). Still, to me the point seems valid, but in a weaker form: a magical realist text should not resist a coherent non-allegorical reading. Pelevin’s fiction fulfils this criterion. Sleep and News from Nepal, for instance, allude to the illusority of reality and, less prominently, to Russian society and politics. Both ontological doubts and political criticism are typical of magical realism; I would like to show that the magic involved in their expression can be perceived as an event, not only as a metaphor.
Pelevin tends to introduce magical elements gradually, increasing from the merely unusual to the inexplicable: the development is so skilfully arranged that Todorov might have called these stories fantastic-marvellous (Todorov 1989, 171) despite their allegorical properties. The protagonist of Sleep, Sonechkin21, notices that most other students sleep in lectures (on Marxist-Leninist philosophy, appropriately enough: unmentioned in the short story, but remembered by Russians who had to sit through ‘M-L-phil’, Lenin’s ideology is based on ‘the objective reality given us in our sensations’). He follows their example, and it becomes increasingly difficult to him to realize e.g. ‘that Comrade Lunacharsky’s visit to their institute on a carriage with three black horses […] was not part of the programme […] devoted to the 300th anniversary of the Russian balalaika’ (Pelevin 1998, 61), but a dream. The criticism of state propaganda (this is one of several political innuendos, some of which are lost in translation22) is only one aspect of a more general notion: the absurdity of being blurs boundaries between waking and sleeping.
Sonechkin goes on to discover that others are able to take notes and to tell jokes while asleep and learns this art himself, and when he realizes that nobody is ever awake, the reader (even if aware of metaphorical implications) sees it as an uncanny expansion of the reality given Sonechkin in his sensations. Having forgotten that he ever had been awake (while going on with his ‘outward’ life: working, marrying, having a child), he boards a train and reads the word ДА on the other side of the window. I have just quoted da in the Cyrillic capitals of the original text to show that, both letters being symmetrical, on Sonechkin’s side the word must have read AД (ad) – hell. Bromfield simply translates da as yes (Pelevin 1998, 75); something along the lines of a Shell station with a missing letter could have been attempted instead. Not as elegantly as in the original, this would at least denote the destination Sonechkin shares with the protagonists of News from Nepal.
In News from Nepal, elements which are more absurd than magical start appearing in a post-Soviet setting; gradually, an (under-)world is construed which makes readers suspend their disbelief even when events become supernatural. The following details appear amid detailed realistic23 descriptions:
1) a factory displays a sign rendered as ‘Abandon robes’ by Bromfield24 (Pelevin 1997, 4);
2) its director crosses himself looking at a picture of a trolleybus (this is believable: he might be distracted, myopic or insane; moreover, during the perestroika many sects filled the void created by obligatory atheism: why should a trolleybus not be an icon?);
3) two men in long nightgowns discuss death; one claims that the other merely dreams this dialogue (still, the reader can explain them away as runaways from a madhouse);
4) Workers use cups made from human skulls in their midday vodka-pause (such vessels are known to exist, but the workers’ matter-of-factly use of them is astonishing);
5-7) Flying animals the size of dogs (presumably bats), economists wearing grey sacks and holding candles in the cafeteria queue and clerks talking in verse and discussing questions of afterlife as an everyday matter are highly unusual, but not impossible.
Only as a divine or demonic creature (to judge from the title, Hindu or Buddhist – but Pelevin tends to mix mythologies) explains these mysterious happenings on the radio, stating that everybody has been dead by the beginning of the day (just like everybody is asleep in Sleep), truly magical events happen: all discover and try to repair the marks of death upon themselves – wounds, bullet holes, smashed bones. ‘Oh, the horrors of Soviet death!’ (Pelevin 1997, 21), – quoth the radio. This casts a new light not only upon earlier instances of the uncanny but also upon elements which might have seemed inconspicuous realistic details on first reading: the ‘invisible force’ (Pelevin 1997, 3) pressing the heroine against the trolleybus door denotes more than other passengers, a female guard whose ‘thumbs are circling around each other as though she was winding some invisible thread’ (Pelevin 1997, 4) becomes a Moira. As this afterworld consists of one day endlessly repeated, the last paragraph of the story repeats the first one, thus inviting re-reading: ‘invisible’ elements are so made visible – and magical.
The illusority of reality, manifested in the equation of life with sleep or death, is Pelevin’s main theme. Some sleep-centred stories are variations on earlier death-centred ones and vice versa; the two ways to manifest ontological doubts are closely connected and sometimes, it seems, interchangeable. Only rarely does sleep figure as a conventional metaphor for death. Awakening can equal dying: in The Tarzan Swing a sleep-walker almost falls into the abyss as he awakes (and his dialogue with a doppelganger-vision leaves no doubt of metaphorical implications). Falling asleep can mean being born: in Ivan Kublakhanov (the story is untranslated yet, though anglophone readers would appreciate the allusion to Coleridge’s opium-dream, less obvious in Cyrillic) the narrator describes his25 initial state of absolute waking as the absence of outside impressions, a sense of essence. Ivan – in the narrator’s view, his dream; in a conventional perspective, his ‘physical self’26 – is an embryo at this stage. When Ivan is ‘born’, the narrator fears to fall asleep forever, but (unlike Sonechkin) he does not: he merely requires calm to awake; agitation is a property of sleep. When Ivan ‘dies’, the narrator begins dreaming about another ‘self’. These two stories have less affinity with magical realism (in The Tarzan Swing, there is not enough magic, and in Ivan Kublakhanov not enough realism), but the difference is a matter of degree, and Pelevin’s treatment of his key theme spans genres from interview and essay to thought experiment and allegory to realism with or without magic.
The topic is eternal; the way Pelevin deals with it has been influenced by countless philosophical and literary sources. To name but two: Buddhism27 has provided the crucial ideas, Borges some methods for their treatment. Pelevin has paid tribute to the latter in the novel known in the UK as Clay Machine Gun and in the US as Buddha's Little Finger28, whose preface states that Sad raskhodiashchikhsia Petek has been considered as an alternative title. This abundance of sibilants29 refers to The Garden of Forking Paths (in Russian, Sad raskhodiashchikhsia tropok). Pelevin follows the paths of Borges’ genre of perfection: the philosophical – and often magical realist – short story. For the dream-and-death motive, however, another source is more important: the so-called strashilka (from strakh – fear). Children telling each other horror stories when they spend the night in one room are not a specifically Soviet phenomenon, but – maybe due the fact that in the late 1930s almost every child knew somebody who actually has disappeared as if by an evil spell – the genre was especially popular in the USSR. Its influence on Pelevin seems important to me as it borders on magical realism more closely than e.g. the similar gothic story, because its setting is emphatically everyday. Here, the haunted space is never a castle, but a school, a flat, an office.
After perestroika, this oral form has made its way into literature: in 1990, Petrushevskaya’s The black coat and in 1991, Pelevin’s The Blue Lantern were published. The latter is a meta-strashilka: in a summer camp, children tell stories of people who discover that they are asleep (cp. Sleep) or dead (cp. News from Nepal), a boy nicknamed Tolstoy pushing at the boundaries of the genre30. The combination of a colour-adjective and an everyday object is a standard strashilka title, but unlike Petrushevskaya’s coat, Pelevin’s title artefact is not obviously magical. Its ‘blue and lifeless’, ‘ghastly’ (Pelevin 1997, 151) light is only mentioned in the first and the last paragraphs. Does anything uncanny happen in The Blue Lantern? On first sight the answer seems negative: the boys finish their story-telling session and go to sleep. A closer look will show more to a russophone reader than to an anglophone one: apart from several cases of mistranslation31 in this story, Bromfield misses many subtle signals showing that in that sleep (of death?) such dreams may come which make the story’s ending ominous.
Tolstoy, having deconstructed definitions of life and death, provokes one of the other boys into admitting his inability to tell the difference between the two and comments ‘Nu vot i podumai, kto ty poluchaesh’sia’. The English version reads ‘Well now, just think for a moment about which you are’ (Pelevin 1997, 160). ‘Then figure which you turn out to be’ is a closer translation. In Russian, Tolstoy clearly implies ‘if you were alive, you would be able to tell the difference’ (the other boy’s aggressive reaction to this comment shows his understanding of the implication). In English, this meaning still could be extracted, but a reassuring reading (‘you know that you are alive, this must help to differentiate’) is also possible. More importantly, a single adverb added to the final sentence diminishes its menacing potential. The last strashilka – about children in a summer camp who fall asleep forever (dreaming that they awake and go on with their lives), because a black hare beats his drum – has been told; the children in the summer camp go to sleep while listening to the drumming sounds of the train outside. Bromfield reproduces this parallel, but the very last words in his translation are ‘didn’t even notice when I fell asleep’ (Pelevin 1997, 162). The original has no equivalent for ‘even’ – and rightly so: otherwise it loses the strashilka touch.
Though Roh’s magischer Realismus has features almost identical to Shklovsky’s contemporary idea of ostranenie, though Carpentier was interested in Russian culture (which shares a liking for the marvellous with the Latin American one), and though Gogol was one of the earliest writers to comply fully with Faris’ widely accepted definition of magical realism, the Russian influence on the genre failed to interest literary scholars. Russian magical realist writing is very rarely mentioned by Western critics. The only book-length study on the topic – Haber’s The Myth of the Non-Russian – is a miss of a non-Russian speaker: almost every Russian quotation is mistyped, mistranslated or both. Political naiveté is combined with a moralistic-prescriptive approach to literature; the texts analysed do not fit most definitions of magical realism. Haber states that since the 1990s there has been no russophone magic realism, apparently ignoring the existence of, for instance, Pelevin.
Most Pelevin’s short stories and novelettes deal with death and dreams, suggesting illusority of the ‘real’. In Sleep and News from Nepal, the treatment of these topics is connected to the oral horror form ‘strashilka’ which I regard as an important precursor genre of Russian magical realism. Pelevin’s novel The Sacred Book of the Werewolf has appeared in English on the 21st of February 2008. Maybe this ‘strange, frenetic and beguiling account of a Russia plagued by werewolves and vampires […], vertiginously imaginative, anarchic fable’ (Olivia Laing 2008, The Observer), this ‘sci-fi adventure, love story, literary in-joke and mystico-shamanic treatise on the nature of enlightenment’ (Tim Martin 2008, The Daily Telegraph) will come to be discussed in terms of magical realism?
Appendix: the varieties of magic
In 1970, a delicate balancing of the fantastic (fantastique) between the uncanny (étrange) and the marvellous (merveilleux) (Todorov 1989, esp. 41-57) has resulted in a description of several genres bordering on Carpentier’s lo real maravilloso, the closest being the exotic marvellous in which ‘supernatural events are reported without being presented as such’ (Todorov 1989, 55). Another form of magical fiction which features no surprise on the part of the characters is termed supernatural: the fantastic, here not disguised as the reality of a faraway country, ‘swallows up the entire world of the book’ (Todorov 1989, 174); Kafka’s Metamorphosis is cited as an example (Todorov 1989, 169). Other forms of the marvellous, including the fantastic-marvellous (in which the reader hesitates between a natural and a magical explanation before deciding in favour of the latter; the truly fantastic offers no decision) are also important for the discussion of magical realism, but differ from its now most widely accepted notion in so far as we are not ‘plunged into a world whose laws are totally different’ (Todorov 1989, 171), but steeped and fished out again and again.
In 1983, an attempt has been made to distinguish between Roh’s magischer Realismus and lo real maravilloso in philosophical terms (interestingly connecting the latter to surrealism of which Carpentier professed to disapprove): ‘realismo mágico, que surge del libro de Roh, es la fenomenológica’ and ‘lo real maravilloso, de ascendencia surrealista, la ontológica’ (Echevarría 1983, 152). In 1987, the European tendency ‘visant à élucider, […] a reconstuire artistiquement, intellectuellement, un monde considéré comme hypothéthetique’ was contrasted to lo real maravilloso which embraces ‘la gamme entière des experiences humaines’ (Weisgerber 1988, 27).
In 1995, a different principle was developed, which would yield two groups similar to Weisgerber’s, when applied. Its originator, however, insists that one of those (loosely corresponding to Weisgerber’s scholarly form) should not be termed magical realism, but fantasy (Wilson 1995, 218). The essay starts with a parable of two brothers inventing new worlds. The first, ‘assuming a single proposition that was contrary to reason’ (Wilson 1995, 211) and logically constructing a world from this premise, is linked to Borges32; the second, a creator of ‘a world in which things floated together [… and] called out meaningfully to each other, but did not cause one another’ (Wilson 1995, 212), represents Márquez (and fiction in his vein). But why should incest and magical misfortunes in Márquez, or a nose and magical talents in Rushdie, not be read as causally connected?
Dropping the parable, the essay proceeds to term ‘fictional worlds [with…] gamelike rules’ (Wilson 1995, 217) fantasy, including under this definition (apart from Borges’ stories) The Faerie Queene and Star Trek (Wilson 1995, 218-219). If such a ‘closed axiomatic world’ is combined with a mimetic impression of the extratextual world, magical realism is born. But if so, several stories by Borges fit into the genre: The Secret Miracle, for instance, is set not in an imaginary world, but in occupied Prague. Here we approach the essay’s principle weakness: it is not writers but works which might fit a genre. Some stories by Borges feature gauchos, beauties, bloody fights – and no magic; some are thought experiments bordering on treatises – not unlike Wilson’s own essay. The creative transgression of genres makes this article, to my mind, a piece of art. However, the distinction it makes seems to me less fruitful than (though very similar to) the dichotomy of ‘programmatic’ vs. ‘pervasive’ magic (Faris 1995, 165), which echoes Weisgerber’s differentiation. Apart from the problems listed above, Wilson’s fantasy is a term diffuse enough to accommodate both 16th century allegorical poetry and science-fiction, moreover one which has a more specific meaning in everyday speech (readers of Harry Potter would hardly agree that Borges belongs to the same genre), and thus seems of little use to me.