When The Navidad Incident hits the bookstore shelves next month, you might notice a peculiar blurb on the back from Ben Loory, one of the most exciting new writers. (If anyone else has had short stories published in both The New Yorker and the in long-running semi-pro magazine Space and Time and then reprinted both stories in a major collection, I ain’t met him.) He says of the novel:
Breezy and fun, yet tranquil and mysterious…like a Japanese meeting of Kapuściński’s The Emperor and a surrealist A House for Mr Biswas. An entire world.
Interesting, eh? Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor is a work of non-fiction about the Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie. A House for Mr Biswas is the famed novel by V. S. Naipaul, and is based on the life of Naipaul’s own father. It’s a realist novel, with perhaps the slightest hint of magic in that early on someone makes a prediction about Biswas’s life that comes true to a certain extent. Non-fiction and realist fiction—interesting choices to describe a fantasy novel. But is The Navidad Incident fantasy? Or is it magical realism?
In other words, is the bus sinking or is the poor thing actually drowning?
As a phrase, magical realism seems oxymoronic. Indeed, in genre circles, plenty of people dismiss magical realism by saying, “Magical realism was invented by academicians who don’t want to use the ‘F’ word” or “Magical Realism is Fantasy written in Spanish”—claims that to some seem to smack of both jealousy and a little racism. Not too many fantasists have won the Nobel Prize, but a few magical realists have, after all.
Then there are the magical realists themselves. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said of Kafka, and of his own work, “That’s how my grandmother used to tell stories, the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice.” That is, his grandmother and her social circle actually believed in the ghosts, devils, prophetic dreams, and spirits encounters with which she described when telling stories about her life. They weren’t fantastical to her. Writer and translator Marcial Souto, who is also well-versed in science fiction and fantasy, once explained magical realism by saying, “It is not magic. Those countries are just like that…Colombia works like that.”
But then again, Latin America doesn’t really have more angels and devils and basements that contain the entire universe than the rest of the world, does it?
The Navidad Incident also works like that. If there are ghosts, then contacting said ghost is about as fantastical as making a telephone call. If a missing bus talks about the weather, spreads a disease to humans called “busitis”, and takes Holy Communion, well that’s just how mass transit in the Republic of Navidad works. Right?
At the same time, author Natsuki Ikezawa isn’t drawing from his own social and cultural background overmuch. I think it’s fairly safe to presume that he doesn’t believe in chatty buses, and that his grandmother didn’t either. He might be said to be writing a fantasy after all, though one in a magical realist mode.
So, what do you think of fantasy, and magical realism? Is there a difference? Does it matter? Give me an answer in the comments, and the four I like best will win a free copy of The Navidad Incident! Be sure to leave your comment by Friday at noon Pacific time, when we will select the best answers. And remember, we ship anywhere, and we take answers in the form of essays, poetry, and dirty limericks. If you would like to answer our question in English, Spanish, Japanese, German, or Greek, that would be fine too!