A week or so ago, I wrote a post about the less than stellar “Snow White & the Huntsman,” and Hollywood’s failure to bring us a well done film about Snow White. However, I was thinking today about a marvelous book that translated surprisingly well to a film, because it was a book about scent-a theme as difficult to translate into visuals as it is to translate to words. This book, if you haven’t read it, is one of the few I’ve ever read that has stayed with me. It is an incredible, beautiful, lush, macabre, dark, sensuous book. (Am I gushing?) And that is sensuous in the sensory sense of the word, not the sexy sense-which is MUCH harder to do. That anyone successfully made a film, and not only a film, but a film that captured a world as thickly layered and eerie as the book is a minor miracle. The poster is a good preview for the beauty of the film.
I teach ESL, and we are currently doing a unit on the five senses-which is always a favorite for me. It is probably what made me think of Perfume. I read it a decade ago as an undergrad student in a class on magical realism. And of all the classes I have taken, this was about my favorite. It introduced me to the genre that made South American literature popular internationally, and really, I think, made fairy tales for adults mainstream. If you remember Like Water for Chocolate or Casa de Espiritus, you know what I’m talking about. I was fascinated by these books (not so much the movies), in part because they represent a departure from the cynicism of our post modern culture. Chocolate, although not by a South American author, is another marvelous version of the genre you likely know, and was made into a beautiful film that conjures flavor the way Perfume does scent. My first exposure to one of the great writers of this genre, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was reading his short story “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” When discussing Garcia Marquez and his work , friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza once made the comment that:
“The way you treat reality in your books…has been called magical realism. I have the feeling your European readers (and we can add, North Americans) are usually aware of the magic of your stories but fail to see the reality behind it…’ ‘This is surely because their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn’t limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs. (Wikipedia, as cited in Mendoza & Marquez, 1983) “
We are currently living in a moment that values fantasy- vampires and fairy tales being in vogue. But the fantasy that is currently popular has zero realism-it is escapism. Magical Realism is a different kind of fantasy, and I think takes on a different meaning for North Americans than South Americans. I live on South America and cynicism is not in vogue here; there is room for wonder. I ride everyday past an old man I suspect to be 150, who sits on a corner wearing 8 layers of clothing in an armchair that I swear has grown roots. If he had enormous wings under all those layers, I wouldn’t be terribly amazed. Homelessness is not a novelty anywhere, but to see it so firmly planted in the middle of daily life, and almost whimsical, is something that belongs to this continent. People here live closer to life. There is no air conditioning or life insurance. There are small fridges and broken streets, and time for tea. People hang out in the cemetery like we hang out in Starbucks, visiting their loved ones. If you go to the open air market, you will see babies laying all day in grocery carts like they’re play pens, and dogs in places where you couldn’t go without a shirt in the US. There are fewer codes here. Sleep all day, stay up all night, eat nothing but bread or nothing but butter, and no one blinks an eye. The air is less sanitized. There is more of a margin for magic.
Marquez himself said that “I feel Latin American from whatever country, but I have never renounced the nostalgia of my homeland: Aracataca, to which I returned one day and discovered that between reality and nostalgia was the raw material for my work”, (on a billboard that marks his childhood home of Aracataca). I think this is the magic of magical realism. It reminds us of the “ordinary miracles” that we often fail to notice in our daily lives, and nothing is more magical than nostalgia. It is why fairy tales will continue to resurge in popularity with the constancy of fashion trends. Fairy tales, like perfume, are vials of our childhood, of all the possibilities we once believed in. And magical realism is one way of returning as adults to remember. It is what inspired me to write a series of books, revisiting fairy tales but couching them with more realistic details. When I think about Snow White, I want to know why she ran away with Prince Charming. I want a story I can believe, not (necessarily) on a rational level, but on an emotional level. This is what Perfume did so well. We are introduced to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a psycopath, but not a monster. Because we can understand him and his motives, and almost believe in his ability to extract perfume from people. This is the power of the genre, and what makes it better than a fairy tale. It opens the door to a world where we can imagine the impossible as possible.
Apuleyo Mendoza, Plinio; García Márquez, Gabriel (1983), p. 35. The Fragrance of Guava, London: Verso,ISBN [[Special:BookSources/0-86091-965-2|0-86091-965-2]]