Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Around the Horn before the mast

Just as steam took over the world’s seaways, a last flowering of sail gave us some of the most beautiful vessels ever built. They did not last for long. But they left their mark on literature

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On March 17 1894, Scientific American had its usual varied diet for the curious and intelligent. There was a report on a cablecar service over the Tennessee River in Knoxville.  Figurines in Oriental dress had been unearthed in Mexico’s Oaxaca state. The number of immigrants landing in New York had been down in 1893 (the largest group was Italian, at nearly 70,000). Tucked away in an inside page, however, was maybe the biggest story. The Arthur Sewell & Co. yard at Bath, Maine, had launched the first steel sailing ship to be built in the USA. The article reported that she was 330ft overall, of 45ft beam, and was to carry 4,500 dwt in cargo. “The vessel is rigged as a four-masted ship ... and will spread about 13, 000 yards of canvas. In the early spring she will be fitted for sea and will load at pier 19, East River, New York, for San Francisco, Cal.”

The Beatrice (Allan C. Green/State Library of Victoria)
Westward round the Horn, then, against the prevailing wind; a baptism of fire.  But this was an important ship. Eugene Chamberlain, the USA’s Commissioner of Navigation, clearly thought so. Patricia M. Higgins, in her Hidden History of Midcoast Maine, quotes him as saying that the Dirigo’s construction represented “the beginning of a new industry in this country. The ship of the future is to be of steel, and the introduction of that material is necessary to the maintenance of for foreign trade of a fleet of large sailing vessels.” But neither the Scientific American nor, probably, Chamberlain fully grasped that the iron or steel-hulled sailing ship, or windjammer, was not a new era for sail. It was its brilliant apotheosis.

The windjammer era was brief. Today we celebrate them as “tall ships”, and those still at sea are usually training vessels. In their heyday, they were hard ships on which to sail. Usually four-masted barques with steel hulls, their era started sometime in the late 19th century. They are not to be confused with the clippers, which were smaller but carried far bigger crews, enabling them to be driven hard in poor weather, and were therefore much faster; their time was already really over when the Dirigo was launched.  The windjammer’s purpose was not to fly to Tilbury with the first of the year’s tea. It was to carry non-perishable bulk cargo such as coal, grain and nitrates at lower cost than the new steamships, by using the prevailing winds, and taking as long as they needed on the journey. When the windjammer era began, steamers still needed frequent stops for water and bunkering, and were often quite slow.

By the 1920s, much had changed – and in time the motorship appeared, cleaner, more economical and easier to run. The windjammers fought harder and harder to compete; costs were slashed, crews were small – sometimes almost too small to work the vessel – and the conditions on board were basic. Yet they represented the last flowering of a technology that had evolved from the time humans had gone to sea. They were also romantic; and they have left their mark on literature as no containership will ever do.


The Dirigo played its part in this. In March 1911 Jack London and his second wife, Charmian Kitteredge London, boarded her in Baltimore, bound westward round the Horn to Seattle. The voyage would provide the backdrop for for one of London’s last novels. Published in 1914, only two years before his death, The Mutiny of the Elsinore isn’t his most famous book and it’s not seen as his best. It is still memorable.

The book’s plot (without spoilers) is as follows: It is March 1913 and a successful but world-weary young playwright, John Pathurst, seeks refreshment and inspiration by going round the Horn as a passenger on a windjammer from Baltimore to Seattle. He knows the Elsinore may take months over the voyage, but that’s fine. He has paid highly for his passage, and is accompanied by his manservant; he intends to be comfortable. But the rounding of the Horn is drawn-out and dangerous, and the ship is nearly lost. Moreover the regime aboard the Elsinore is harsh, and the crew are a bunch of no-good lowlifes who will eventually mutiny against it. Pathurst’s luxury passage will turn into a nightmare. The long voyage south-east towards West Africa and then south-west to the Horn is used to build up character and tension, so that by the time the Elsinore gets stuck in westerlies off the Horn, you know there’s a disaster waiting to happen.

It helps that London does a fair job of evoking what life in a windjammer must have been like. He can do this because this book was drawn, at least in part, from life.  London and Kitteredge boarded in Baltimore very much as Pathurst does in the book, and Kitteredge later described the voyage in a memoir of London that she published a few years after his death. The Elsinore is clearly the Dirigo and the novel includes a number of incidents that that are in Kitteredge’s account. Most are trivial (London/Pathurst’s fox terrier, Possum; an attack of hives; the chickens in the hut amidships). One or two are major. For example, in the novel, the captain dies on passage off the Horn. On the Londons’ real voyage he did fall sick there, and died shortly after the ship reached Seattle.The captain and mate in the book also seem to match those of the Dirigo. The captain, according to Kitteredge, was: “The fast disappearing type of lean New England aristocrat, who always presented himself on deck immaculately attired... The calm kingliness of his character was in cool contrast to that of the Mate, Fred Mortimer, hot-hearted, determined ... driver of a crew that was composed ...of landlubbers and weaklings.”

Aboard the C.B. Pedersen (State Library of Victoria)
London takes these two officers and exaggerates their characteristics, and those of the crew too. As the latter board in Baltimore: “ ...I encountered a few laggards who had not yet gone into the forecastle. These were the worse for liquor, and a more wretched, miserable, disgusting group of men I had never seen in any slum. Their clothes were rags. Their faces were bloated, bloody, and dirty. I won’t say they were villainous. They were merely filthy and vile. They were vile of appearance, of speech, and action.”  And later: “I ...wondered where such a mass of human wreckage could have been obtained. There was something wrong with all of them. Their bodies were twisted, their faces distorted, and almost without exception they were under-sized.”
Long before the mutiny of the title, life on the Elsinore becomes a struggle of two worlds – the gracious, comfortable world of the officers and crew in the poop, dining pleasantly every night, the Mate, Pike, playing classical gramophone records with enthusiasm; and the forecastle, full of degenerate wretches that Pike controls with an iron fist and great savagery. Bit by bit the Elsinore seems to appear a microcosm of a divided, unfair society. Is this what Jack London was trying to say in this book?

Or is there something more sinister being said? Pathurst is the narrator, and his sense of superiority expresses itself in a belief that the Captain and the Mate are superior beings, and the crew scum. His class is thus destined to dominate. Moreover a number of the crew meet with nasty ends even before the mutiny. During it, two die quite horribly, torn apart by giant albatrosses: “A great screeching and squawking arose from the winged things of prey as they strove for the living meat. And yet, somehow, I was not very profoundly shocked. These were the men whom I had seen eviscerate [a] shark and toss it overboard, and shout with joy as they watched it devoured alive by its brethren. They had played a violent, cruel game with the things of life, and the things of life now played upon them the same violent, cruel game.”

Oh dear. Men born to rule over their inferiors, and nature red in tooth and claw. It’s the narrator’s voice, but London seems to use it with great enthusiasm (with references to the captain as a Samurai warrior, and occasional references to Nietzche). It’s just a little too genuine, and Pathurst’s views are not discredited by the way the book ends. Jack London was a socialist all his life, but was there also a whiff of fascism about him?

George Orwell thought so. Writing in 1940 about an earlier London book, The Iron Heel, he commented that London was “temperamentally ...very different from the majority of Marxists. With his love of violence and physical strength, his belief in ‘natural aristocracy’, his animal-worship and exaltation of the primitive, he had in him what one might fairly call a Fascist strain." In The Mutiny of the Elsinore, we see this; it’s also evident in his earlier and greater book, The Sea Wolf. However, Orwell didn’t say London was a fascist. Rather, he thought these traits made London better able to understand the nature of the ruling class, and that far from espousing fascism, he understood its dangers before it existed (The Iron Heel, published in 1908, describes a fascistic dystopia). It is more likely that London is using Pathurst to warn how the ruling class really think. Still, the earliest Nazis appealed to a certain type on the left as well as the right. Reading The Mutiny of the Elsinore, you do wonder whether, had London lived into the Fascist era, he might have been swept up in it all.

That apart, The Mutiny of the Elsinore is quite a read. The description of the ship as it fights to round the Horn is also excellent, bringing forth a picture of a great steel ship, its sides streaked with rust, burdened by a cargo of thousands of tons of coal, wallowing in the huge seas as the sun comes and goes behind fast-moving, hostile clouds. The crew are also well-drawn. Now and then they do get close to caricature, but most work well. In particular, there is a frail man with a twisted spine who radiates malevolence; he is also very well-read, and it is easy to see where his hatred comes from as he compares Pathurst’s luck with his own. Several of the crew are clearly “bad lots” and there is a reign of terror in the forecastle, from which the officers mostly dissociate themselves. By the time the ship reaches the Le Maire (or Lemaire) Strait at the southern extremity of Argentina, several of the crew have gone mad, or killed themselves or someone else.

Perhaps London exaggerates somewhat (he’s writing a novel, after all). But life on a windjammer was indeed hard. To compete with steam, they sailed on small margins; the crew were paid little, the food was bad and the ships were sometimes worked with too few men. London does not exaggerate the difficulty of rounding the Horn from the Atlantic side, either. Now and then a skipper just gave up, turned round and sailed east around the world instead.  The Mutiny of the Elsinore is a striking account of how it must have been. Maybe it says how London saw his fellow-man. Maybe it doesn’t. In any case, London is not the only person whose attitudes now look suspect because of events they pre-dated, and would not have condoned.  The Mutiny of the Elsinore might not be the greatest book that London wrote, but it is enthralling nonetheless. It is also a vibrant picture of a world that has passed.


That world would endure a little longer. On January 19 1928, 17 years after London’s voyage, two four-masted barques loaded with grain left Port Lincoln in South Australia, bound for Falmouth. One was the Beatrice, an elderly 2,000-ton iron ship built on the Clyde in 1881, and now owned in Sweden. The other was the steel barque Herzogin [Duchess] Cecilie, built in Germany in 1902, and now Finnish-owned – by the world’s largest remaining sailship operator, Gustaf Erikson of Mariehamn in the Åland Islands. The two skippers knew each other, and both intended to reach Falmouth first. There they would await orders as to where they would discharge their cargos.

Herzogin Cecilie (Allan C. Green/State Library of Victoria)
On board the Finnish ship was the Australian writer and seaman, Alan Villiers. At the time he was only 24 (though he had already written two books). He had shipped on the Herzogin Cecilie as an able seaman, but it was understood that he would write of the voyage.  Falmouth for Orders, his account of the voyage, was the result. It is an odd book, part travelogue, partly an account of the then state of sail.

The post-war slump of 1921 had caused freight rates to collapse. By 1927, according to Villiers, there were about 30 such ships remaining, of which perhaps 15 were actively trading. Those that were, were mostly either German vessels carrying nitrates around the Horn from Chile to Germany; or they were Erikson’s, working the grain trade. They would sail, usually in ballast, from Europe around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, load in South Australia and return either the same way or eastward round the Horn. The skipper might not decide which way round to go until he was at sea.

Villiers describes the trade, and the fates of individual ships, in great detail. It is all a bit geeky, and the book would have been the better with less of it. When he writes of the voyage itself, he is more interesting. There’s a charming glimpse of life in Port Lincoln, where both ships host parties for the locals on board:  “The [Herzogin Cecilie’s] own orchestra, in the shape of four of her boys supplied the music, and ...a real Scandinavian supper was provided. ...The presence of two uninvited guests, in the shape of two rats who made their presence known in the middle of a waltz, added considerably both to the noise and the excitement.”  No-one seems to take much notice of a young woman who visits the ships in port, and keeps stating her determination to sail in a ship like this. On the second day out she appears on deck, dressed as a boy, having got a fisherman to bring her to the ship by pretending to be a seaman who’s been on a bender. She hides in the hold and emerges only when she thinks the ship will no longer want to put about. “It was Petrén who saw her first,” writes Villiers. “He got such a shock that he nearly fell out of the jigger rigging.” The woman was not welcome on board, but became so as the voyage progressed, making herself useful and minding her behaviour. Villiers does not give her name, at least in this book, but it seems to have been Jeanne Day or Jennie Day (another source says Jean Jeinnie). She was 23 and from Adelaide, where she had apparently been a teacher in the Methodist Ladies’ College. She stays with the ship to England, where she is said to have died only a few years ago.

The captain, reconciled to his stowaway, decides on an eastward passage; he will go round the Horn. The Beatrice  fades from sight (in fact, she has gone via the Cape). The Cecilie’s progress is slow at first; some on board blame this on the presence of a woman on board. But eventually they pass south of New Zealand, and the pace picks up.  The same is true of the story, but only up to a point. Villiers diverts too often into discussions of the dying industry, and there are long lists of ships and their voyages. His description of the passage across the Southern Ocean, one of the most challenging places on earth, is not really resonant, although the ship has gone a very long way south and there is a smell of ice in the air. Rounding the Horn seems easy enough, though it can never really have been (it is true that westbound ships had it much worse).

The later chapters are better. The ship is caught in the Doldrums and does not move for days. Villiers and others take the opportunity to circle the ship in a launch, and he is struck by its beauty; he takes a photograph, which shows the Herzogin Cecilie perfectly reflected in the flat calm. Later, a mystery ship is spotted that could be the Beatrice; overhauled, the turns out to be the Swedish-owned C.B. Pedersen, built in Italy in 1891. They exchange visits, complete with bands and feasting, and a good time is had by all. The meeting is a major event for the crew of both ships, for it is not unusual for a windjammer to sail from South Australia to Famouth or Queenstown without seeing another ship, or land; on this voyage the Cecilie had sighted land just once, a brief glimpse of Staten Island off the southernmost tip of Argentina.

Then on towards England, and the Cecilie runs into a bad North Atlantic storm:

At a little after 4 o’clock in the morning ...we had the most vivid thunderstorm ...With appalling suddenness the sky seemed to burst into a sheet of flame that lit up the whole ocean and instantly dispelled what there has been of fog; there was a roar as if all the stars ..had been throwing gelignite at each other ... The thunder boomed and crashed and roared, until we feared that ...there wouldn’t be any sky left; the lightning flashed and crackled and burst, lighting up the blackness of the sea and the gleaming wet of the driving ship’s decks with strange effect. ...Queer blue lights danced about the steel rigging and on all the steel yardarms. ...And we had to lay aloft and set the royals fast in the midst of those blue lights.

But the Herzogin Cecilie makes Falmouth in 96 days – a fast voyage even for her. She had beaten the Beatrice, which has had a dreadful voyage, by many days.

Although parts of this book read well, others don’t. The lists of long-dead ships and voyages were more important at the time, but even then they must have dragged for some readers. Also, there is a slight Boy’s Own air to some of the writing; splendid tanned seamen, adventure, beautiful ships. It is all just a little too jolly given that conditions on these ships were hard, and could also be very dangerous. Villiers was well aware of the danger; at one point he lists some of the accidents and deaths that have occurred off the Horn. Yet somehow the book’s tone does not convey the hazards and hardship the way it might have done. Villiers was to become a distinguished figure, and would go on writing about the sea for another half-century. I remember being enthralled, as a young boy, by his account of the Battle of Trafalgar. He also wrote more about the last days of sail, and took wonderful photographs of this voyage and others (many now held by the National Maritime Museum, which has exhibited them). Falmouth for Orders is probably not his best book. But for those who love ships and the sea, there is much to enjoy.


The Herzogin Cecilie continued to trade. In April 1936, after an even faster passage, she again arrived off Falmouth, and was ordered to Ipswich. On her way she ran aground off South Devon; despite attempts to salvage her, she eventually sank off the mouth of the Kingsbridge Estuary. She lay in shallow water and one could (and still can) swim over and view the wreck. Two years later the 18-year-old Eric Newby did just that.

Herzogin Cecilie aground off Devon, April 1936 (State Library of Queensland)
In 1938 he was a bored 18-year-old working in a London advertising agency. When it lost an account, many of his colleagues were sacked. To his disgust, he wasn’t. Apparently he was not important enough to sack. After the holiday on which he swam over the Cecilie, he left anyway and signed on as an apprentice on the windjammer Moshulu for a round-the-world voyage. The Last Grain Race is the story of that voyage. Published nearly 20 years later, it was the first book from one of the best-loved of British travel writers.

In 1934, two years before the Herzogin Cecilie ran aground, her owner, Gustaf Erikson, had bought the 30-year-old Moshulu, one of the largest and best windjammers left afloat. He paid just $12,000. It was not much. But freight rates were still collapsing, especially in the grain trade, for there was a slump in wheat prices in the 1930s. Erikson must have thought hard about this, even at the price. But he was not the sort of man who leaves a record of his thoughts.  In any case, Newby joined her at Belfast in September 1938. As usual, she would sail in ballast via the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean to South Australia, where she would load several thousand tons of grain; then she would return via the Southern Ocean and around the Horn. The journey would take from September until the following summer. Moreover Newby was indentured; his father had paid £50, no small sum in 1938, and would forfeit it if Newby failed to discharge the terms of his apprenticeship. If he was killed, his father would of course get it back. This would look likely on several occasions.

Boarding at Belfast (with a Louis Vuitton trunk), Newby he is sent straight up the rigging, in unsuitable shoes. It is a good move because he does not seem to have felt such terror again. He will have more trouble in the forecastle, where he is the only Englishman in a bunch of a very hardboiled Scandinavians. He is not popular. Eventually he finds a turd in his cigarette-tin. He takes on the perpetrator in a fist-fight; it is a close contest but Newby prevails, hurting his opponent badly, only to be told later that the turd has actually been left by someone else. But that isn’t the point.

Life in the forecastle would be rough anyway. In bad weather the water sloshes around inside and nothing is ever dry. Work is hard, a constant battle against changing winds, decaying ropes and rust. In the high (e.g. low) latitudes of the Southern Ocean, bound for the Horn, they are thrust into a force 10 gale that lasts for days. On one occasion Newby is thrown from the rigging and is lucky to be caught in a cradle of ropes some five feet down. Yet throughout this he never loses his sense of adventure, or his eye for the beauty. You do need patience with this book now and then. It’s full of Swedish and Finnish jargon. There is also a great mass of top-gallants, buntlines, clewlines, crojacks and more. But it is worth it. The Last Grain Race is an achievement, and is a reminder that the greatest travel books transport us across more than one dimension. To read this book is to be dumped right in the middle of a world that is gone forever.

It would vanish sooner than Newby imagined. Soon after the Moshulu returned to Belfast, the war broke out and the windjammer grain trade – the last in which they were profitable – came to an end. It never really re-started after the war, and Erikson himself died in 1947. The ships too have gone. The Herzogin Cecilie’s fate we know. Dirigo is not far from her; she was stopped by a German submarine in 1917 while on passage from New York to Le Havre, and sunk with explosives six miles south-west of the Eddystone Rock lighthouse (the position of the wreck is known). The Beatrice was broken up in Stavanger in 1932, not long after her hard-lost race with the Cecilie.

The C.B. Pedersen (State Library of Victoria)
The C.B. Pedersen, the ship Villiers encountered in mid-Atlantic, survived until April 1937. In that month, about 600 miles southwest of the Azores, she collided with a Scottish steamer, the Chagres.  Everyone aboard the C.B. Pedersen was saved, though the skipper of the Chagres died of a heart attack. The Sydney Morning Herald  for April 27 reported her loss and recalled that on her last voyage to Australia, she had been unable to find a cargo; she had loaded passengers instead and made for Europe via the Torres Strait, a difficult passage for a windjammer. The voyage, says the Herald, had been “enlivened by several exciting incidents. Three days after the vessel put to sea a girl stowaway was found on board, and later, one of the apprentices in the crew deserted by fitting an outrigger to the captain's wooden bath, and sailing it to an island – a voyage which occupied six days.” Further details are lacking.

Newby’s ship, however, has survived. The Moshulu was dismasted during the war and spent most of the next 30 years as a floating grain store. Yet for her, at least, it was not the end. Fitted with dummy masts and rigging, she was brought to Philadelphia, where today she is a floating restaurant. The owners clearly respect the ship’s history, which is recounted in some detail on the restaurant’s website.

The food seems to have improved. That served in the forecastle, according to Newby, was terrible. Early in the voyage they are served something very pungent that Newby thinks is fried herring. “Ees not fish,” says Newby’s enemy, Sedelquist. “Ees bacon, smelly like English girl.” It is, says Newby, “ghastly and apparently putrefying”. He throws it overboard. Later he learns never to waste even the worst food and to eat what he can get. Were he to visit the Moshulu today, he would be offered “Herb-rubbed Italian-style pork sandwich, Ciabatta Roll, Provolone, Pickled Eggplant & Hot Pepper Relish; House Cut Fries”. One wonders what Newby (or Sedelquist) would have thought of that.

But if dining on the Moshulu is a little different now, the books, at least, give a flavour of the past.  The Elsinore (or Dirigo) fighting for her life off the Horn. Sunsets of bright yellow as the light slants under dark grey clouds across a rough sea; great albatrosses swooping around the ship; the warmth as she turns north after rounding the Horn. Seas of blue, green and white washing across the deck of a rolling ship, smashing men sideways and into the scuppers or, if they are unlucky, over the side. A thunderstorm , with electric light flashing across the yards. Or a flat calm, the ship rolling a little on an oily swell, its shilhouette perfectly mirrored in the surface of the sea.

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Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Magic, or realism?

Do you ever suspect that people write magical realism because it’s easier than realism? (Plot a bit stuck? Stick in a flying pig. Character doesn’t quite work? Convert them into an angel). But now and then it just works. Some thoughts – and two recent books for the MR enthusiast

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Magical realism can be crudely defined as the introduction of fantastic or irrational elements into a rational context. I suppose I encountered it for the first time in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, and it remains the book that most exemplifies magical realism for me. It is a genre closely associated with Latin America. As a language student in Ecuador in 1991, I expressed an interest in this type of literature, and found that this interest was received with real enthusiasm. One teacher spent a week reading Gabriel García Márquez with me; the latter's 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was probably the book that “launched” magical realism for most Anglophone readers.

García Márquez: magical hat? (Creative Commons)
In fact, the genre goes farther back into the 20th century, and its roots are at least partly European. But it does owe its global popularity to García Márquez. In any case, my teachers in Quito clearly saw magical realism as a South American cultural achievement, and took pride in it. Indeed it was exemplified in a then-recent Ecuadorean film, La Tigra, based on a story by Ecuadorean writer José de la Cuadra (1903-1941).

Yet García Márquez himself did not even like the term magical realism. Hazel Marsh, a lecturer in Spanish at the University of East Anglia who researches Latin American culture and politics, tells me he saw it as a way of ‘othering’ Latin Americans. “He spoke a lot about how he wrote about the reality he knew, the things his elder relatives told him, and that was normal for him,” she says. “He lived in a geography that does rain fish and do things that Europeans see as magical, but to him that was a Eurocentric perspective, taking European reality as the norm. As a Venezuelan friend told me once, ‘It's not our reality that's magical, it's European reality that’s bland’.”  

Dr Marsh cites García Márquez on the subject in a 1998 book by Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez. The problem with Europeans, García Márquez said, was that “their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn’t limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs. Everyday life in Latin America proves that reality is full of the most extraordinary things. To make this point I usually cite the case of the American explorer ... who made an incredible journey through the Amazon jungle at the end of the last century and saw, among other things, a river with boiling water. ... After I'd written One Hundred Years of Solitude, a boy turned up in Barranquilla claiming to have a pig's tail. ...I know very ordinary people who've read One Hundred Years of Solitude carefully and with a lot of pleasure, but with no surprise at all because ...I'm telling them nothing that hasn't happened in their own lives.”

Well, OK. But I wonder if everything written as magical realism could really substantiate that claim, even in Latin America. Magical realism is a genre I don’t dislike but have probably read enough of. Not everyone is Gabriel García Márquez, or José de la Cuadra, or Isabel Allende. You start to suspect that people write magical realism because it’s easier than realism (plot a bit stuck? Stick in a flying pig. Character doesn’t quite work? Convert them into an angel). In any case, I’m a rationalist, and I am quite sure I can envisage more than the price of an egg. And I do not regard the rational world, European or not, as bland.

Still, I’ve recently read two books that I’d call magical realism, and which were very good – good enough, in fact, to make a case for the genre. In one case, Dana Mazur’s Almaty-Transit, the book works because of the writer’s outrageous imagination. In the other, Daniel Clausen’s The Ghosts of Nagasaki, the ghosts aren’t a plot device; their presence in the rational world is integral to the book. Whether or not the authors themselves would classify their books as magical realism is unclear, but it doesn't matter; if it’s defined as the fantastic in collision with, or present in, the rational world, then these two books fit it to a T.

First, to Nagasaki.

A young American financial analyst returns to his Tokyo flat one evening and begins, for no obvious reason, to write.

He starts with his arrival in Japan, four years earlier, at the age of 22, to work as an English teacher in Nagasaki. We’re in a noisy group of heavy-drinking young expat teachers, and our narrator is as smashed as the rest of them. But there is something a little more reflective about him. As he recounts his life as it was in Nagasaki, we learn that he had a childhood and youth back in the USA that he’s never really come to terms with; life in foster-homes, causing trouble as a child, and eventually a foster-parent who did love him, but who he lost. He is, in a sense, dead inside.

And then he starts to see ghosts – the ghosts of Nagasaki and its past. Why are they following him? Are they real, are they in his imagination, do they want to hurt him, or do they want to help him overcome his past? It slowly becomes apparent that some of them, at least, want to help. But it might be too late.

Daniel Clausen’s The Ghosts of Nagasaki exemplifies the eruption of the irrational and uncanny into the rational world. But in this book, magic realism isn’t self-indulgence; Clausen’s ghosts aren’t arbitrary. They’re products of Nagasaki’s history. What that history did to them, and to their characters, is what ties them to the main character’s own spiritual journey. This gives the book a certain depth, and a genuine narrative cohesion.

Clausen’s ghosts are inspired by two events. One is the atom bomb explosion in Nagasaki in 1945. However, two or three of these ghosts come from the classic 1966 novel Silence by Shusaku Endo. This concerned itself with the suffering of Christians persecuted in Nagasaki in the 1630s, and the silence of God in the face of a profound moral dilemma. Clausen goes so far as to adapt the character of Kichijiro, an untrustworthy apostate who plays a key role in Silence, and to have him come to life in the present. There is an unspoken link with the narrator’s own inner moral struggles.

Although the book’s themes are quite heavy, the book itself isn’t. Clausen’s brand of magical realism has a nice touch of the absurd. The narrator tries to soothe, if not salve, Kichijiro’s conscience by taking him to bars to meet the other students. The besuited Regional Manager of the language school turns into a samurai. There is even an imaginary iguana called Mr Sparkles (with that one, the author does nearly go too far).  Moreover Clausen’s characters are strong. In particular, as someone who’s worked abroad a lot, I think he’s good at capturing the atmosphere that surrounds hard-drinking young expat English teachers. Younger development volunteers can be much the same. They’ve thrown off the constraints of home and are out in the world, and are often pretty anarchic. The boozing is only part of this; it’s a way of thinking. Clausen gets this quite well with the narrator’s British flatmate. You also sense an innate feeling for the rhythms of life in Japan and the way they contrast with the narrator’s own.

The Ghosts of Nagasaki isn’t perfect. Clausen leaves the odd plotline hanging. Here and there he piques our interest in a character and then abandons it. Also, though it’s mostly well-paced, it can slow down a bit now and then, especially in the first half. Besides, to really convince me as a writer, Clausen would have to produce a book that tells a story as good as this without the magic and the ghosts. But I suspect he’d be well able to do so. The Ghosts of Nagasaki is an original and intelligent book that demonstrates how fantastical elements, far from being self-indulgent, can be central to a plot.

The second of these books, Dana Mazur’s Almaty-Transit, opens not in Kazakhstan but in California, where struggling, self-centred jazz producer Merry is trying to get the cash for a special microphone for a recording that she believes could be The One. Meanwhile her family deal with the mess that she is always making of things. Her Kazakh husband Aidar, a marine biology graduate, waits tables. To pay for the mic, their child Sultan must give up the money his Kazakh grandmother has sent him for a new bike.

Over the next two or three chapters, we see Merry interact with her family, and with musicians, and with the dodgy people she meets in her work. Far away in Almaty, we meet Aidar’s mother Alma, deeply saddened because her youngest son has married what she sees as some American tramp; she has never met Sultan. 

So far so good. All the characters, both American and Kazakh, are extremely well-drawn. Merry in particular is extremely credible. It seems we’re going to get a good modern novel about selfishness, dislocation, possessiveness, migration and family. And so in a sense we do, but not in the way we expect. Because Aidar dies in a bizarre accident. But he is dead and not dead, in a half-life in which he can interact with others. That half-life is in Kazakhstan, and he is desperate to see his wife and child in California. The rest of the book revolves in part on his attempts to win that right although the underworld is not likely to permit it; Aidar is from Kazakhstan and the norm of this half-life is that he must live it there.

This switch to the supernatural could have gone badly. It doesn’t, because Mazur is a true queen of the weird. In the course of what is not a long book, we’re hit with pig-faced children, stuffed and mounted humans, anthropomorphic apples and more besides. A chauffeur with a jackal head called Nube (a contraction of Anubis) ferries people between one world and the other. There is a lesbian savant called the Black Shaman. Much of this imagery is bizarre. Some of it is actually disturbing. Moreover it is intertwined with banal scenes from Merry’s life in suburban California as she tries, and fails, to get her life together, and then realizes almost too late that she may lose her son.

Good though it is, I found myself wondering where the hell this book was going. Magical realism, OK; but to what end? What does Mazur want us to take away from all this? Every reader will have to guess. For what it’s worth, I thought the alienation of migration was one theme; but much of the book seems to be about the passage – transit – of souls between one plane of existence and another, and whether that can ever be a two-way process.

It seemed, in fact, to be about who is and is not truly alive, and what defines life over death. I found myself thinking about a very different book (J.B. Priestley’s excellent Bright Day), in which the hero’s friend has a very strange sister, who communicates with the dead and perceives other worlds –the book’s set at a time (1913) when spiritualism was in vogue. One night she remarks vaguely that: “It’s all... quite different ... from what you imagine ... Like the dead and the living ... some people you think are alive are really dead ... and others you think are dead are really alive. ...”. Later Priestley’s narrator considers a cynical businessman of his acquaintance and concludes that he never truly enjoyed anything; was, in fact, never really alive. Bright Day and Almaty-Transit could not be more different, and are set a century apart, but there is an oddly similar theme – do you have soul, and do you belong with the living or the dead? The journey that Merry makes in the book suggests that Mazur is thinking of something similar. If so, there is a parallel with The Ghosts of Nagasaki, in which the narrator’s heart is dying. But Almaty-Transit is not the sort of book that serves up its message on a plate.

In any case, Almaty-Transit has plenty to hold the reader whether there’s a message or not. Mazur isn’t writing magical realism because it’s easy (it isn’t if it’s done well, anyway). She is a good writer. The characterization is excellent; I found Merry and Aidar and Alma very real indeed. The people from the jazz club are well done too. The imagery from the half-life is sometimes gripping (though very creepy; this is not a book for people prone to nightmares). The reader might or might not figure out what Mazur really wants to say, but they’ll have a good time trying.

These two books present two very different types of magical realism. Whether Mazur has a message or not, her vibrant if sometimes gruesome imagery may, for some readers, be the central point of the book. In Clausen’s it isn’t. In The Ghosts of Nagasaki, the ghosts of Nagasaki have a job to do, a role that is central to the story Clausen’s narrator has to tell. Yet both books fit the definition of magical realism: the introduction of fantastic or irrational elements into a rational context. It may be that no further definition of the genre is possible, or needed. If so, debates as to whether it belongs to South America, or whether Europeans are bland, are moot. And the fact that a boy in Barranquilla had a pig's tail is neither here nor there.

Dr Hazel Marsh’s book Hugo Chávez, Alí Primera and Venezuela: The Politics of Music in Latin America will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.

Mike Robbins’s own book, The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail, 2014), was inspired by his journey to South America. It is rational but not bland and is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). Enquiries (including requests for review copies) should be sent to

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