This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Thinking about Cairo’s morgue and the final indignity suffered by the bereaved whose only comfort left is in burying their dead, I came across a review of The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez in the New York Times. Vasquez is a Columbian novelist who benefited from and seeks to distance himself from his fellow countryman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The issue is Marquez’s magical realism:
I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics. Let me be clear about this. . . . I can say that reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ . . . in my adolescence may have contributed much to my literary calling, but I believe that magic realism is the least interesting part of this novel. I suggest reading ‘One Hundred Years’ as a distorted version of Colombian history.
Instead, Vasquez focuses on the underbelly of Colombian life as the reality of our lives. Like those loved ones who come to the Cairo morgue, reality is often brutal and beyond our control. We are left to pick up the pieces – if we can:
No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions. Those long processes that end up running into our life — sometimes to give it the shove it needed, sometimes to blow to smithereens our most splendid plans — tend to be hidden like subterranean currents, like tiny shifts of tectonic plates, and when the earthquake finally comes we invoke the words we’ve learned to calm ourselves, accident, fluke and sometimes fate.
Obviously many of those who lie now in Cairo’s morgue had agency – they chose to protest the brutal martial law which once again defines Egypt. Others were innocent bystanders murdered by government- sponsored or freelance thugs. Either way, they were caught up in a world beyond their control.
The bereaved have now entered another world controlled by others, especially the vigilantes who determine what bodies are claimed and how the murdered died. When the bereaved are forced to sign the murdered as suicides – the only way to secure the body’s release – Vasquez’s accident, fluke and fate take on another level of meaning. Or is the more appropriate word, meaninglessness?
Egypt’s “revolution” was an exercise in magical realism. It was a distorted view of Egyptian history. But casting the net globally isn’t that almost always the case with revolution?
Those with banners held high should acknowledge the costs and the risks of plunging headlong into a future that is impossible to determine in advance.
Does this mean that the demands for social change should be held in abeyance because the future might be more of the same? Not at all. It means that progressives who align themselves with the repressive forces of society, in Egypt’s case, the military, commit a mistake of epic proportions.
Once that mistake is made there’s no going back.
Magical realism is a distorted view of reality – always. It’s comfort food for the affluent and the powerful. Like religion served on political platter, it’s a matter of belief disguised as truth.
What is the ultimate result of magical realism unraveled? We need to dig deep, then deeper still, until we find the place and cause where life is more than accident, fluke or fate.