Tuesday, 30 April 2013
F is for FANTASTIC REALISM
I’ve written about intent before. As this A-Z enters its twilight I thought I’d address the subject again. Those who prefer to think of Afrika Reich as a ‘straight’ thriller might want to look away now...
Prior to Afrika Reich, I wrote four unpublished novels on subjects as diverse as
pirates and literary forgery. The one common thread was the mode of writing:
FANTASTIC REALISM, something I continued in my tale of Nazi Africa.
So what is fantastic realism? It’s a rather amorphous term and unlike its better known cousin – magic realism – evades definition. Personally, I feel it employs realistic conventions but mixes them with elements of the fantastic, grotesque, comic and horrific. Perhaps it’s easier to explain with an example and so once again I reach for Sergio Leone, a great practitioner of fantastic realism. Here’s an image from his film, Giù la Testa:
It shows Sean, an IRA terrorist, having dinner with Juan, a bandit (off screen), in the Mexican desert. This combination of unexpected characters meeting in a realistic setting is already taking us into the realms of fantastic realism but the clincher is the details. They are sitting down to eat in the wilderness but are dining off porcelain plates with all the finery (the wingback chairs, the decanters of vinegar and oil) of a lord’s banqueting hall. I particularly like the crêpe suzette pan. It is a combination of unlikely elements – though crucially there is nothing supernatural about the scene.
My book begins its fusion of reality with the fantastical on page one with opening epigraphs that combine the real (Hitler’s quote) and the imagined/fantastic (Hochburg’s). Elsewhere we see two arch enemies overlooking a square paved with human skulls discussing Himmler’s constitution. Or Patrick tortured within a cement factory where the main production material is not mineral-based but a trough of human bodies. Sometimes it’s simply in the small details – the SS guards with their pink ladies parasols (a direct reference to Leone). Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No.
Alternative history has always struck me as something of a fantastic genre – it posits an unknowable reality – so I felt it was an ideal match for fantastic realism. However, due to the success of books like Fatherland, and more recently Dominion, a naturalism seems to be creeping into the genre: the idea that a writer can accurately describe a speculative world that never existed. It certainly seems the mindset some people have tried to read my book in – no wonder they’ve been confused! But that is to miss the point. It’s not my book wasn’t thoroughly researched or employs real, historical details – it’s that I’m not a slave to verisimilitude. Indeed the notion of verisimilitude in alternative history must, by definition, be a contradiction.
What interests me most, what excites me enough to want to spend several years writing a book, is the point where reality and the fantastic meet – and the friction the two generate. That is what Afrika Reich is about: something a little more subversive than reality.