Thursday, August 7, 2014

Magic Realism Bloghop: Labyrinths.

I was first introduced to magic realism in the Spanish-language literature class I took during my first semester in college. One of the books we were assigned was a collection of short stories by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Borges quickly became one of my favorite writers -- partly because I had to work so hard to understand his stories in the first place, but also because of the elements of the fantastic that he wove into his work. One of those elements is the labyrinth.

Among the stories we read that semester was "La casa de AsteriĆ³n" -- "The House of Asterion." In the story, which you can read for free at the link, Asterion begins his story by refuting the gossip about him:

I know they accuse me of arrogance, perhaps also of misanthropy, perhaps madness too. Such accusations (which I shall castigate in due course) are laughable.

(I'm reminded of the opening line of another of my favorite short stories, Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart": "True! -- nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" Poe was writing horror, of course, but the reader gets the same feeling that we're about to hear from a narrator who is not altogether reliable.)

Asterion goes on to explain that he is a prince, but that people are so frightened of him that he never leaves his great, rambling house. "Each part of the house repeats many times," he says; "any particular place is another place." His house, in other words, is a labyrinth. In fact, it is the labyrinth -- the one built by Daedalus to imprison the Minotaur. We only learn that Asterion is himself the Minotaur after Theseus has slain him. But Borges has another surprise for us, for unlike the Minotaur of legend, Asterion goes to his death without a fight. It makes one wonder whether Theseus changed his story to make the Minotaur more of a monster and the ending more dramatic -- to make him seem to be more heroic. It is true, after all, that history is written by the victor.

The labyrinth as plot device turns up again in Guillermo del Toro's movie "Pan's Labyrinth." Set in Spain during the early years of the Franco regime, it's the tale of Ofelia, a girl on the cusp of puberty. She and her pregnant mother have been brought by her new stepfather, who's a military officer, to his forested estate. A stick insect leads Ofelia to a labyrinth on the property, where she meets a host of fantastical creatures, including a faun who convinces her that she is the reincarnation of a fairy princess. Her adventures amongst these odd beings play out against a backdrop of the government's brutal crackdown on anti-Franco rebels.

With its host of fantastical creatures and its mysterious and potentially unreliable narrator, "Pan's Labyrinth" could almost be seen as a descendant of "The House of Asterion." And in fact, del Toro has said that Borges' stories were among his inspirations for his screenplay.

Over the past few years, it has become fashionable to use labyrinths as a meditation aid. Those who walk the single, spiraling path into the center and out again have been known to experience a spiritual epiphany. I wonder whether that feeling is akin to the sense of wonder a reader feels in reaching the center of one of Borges' stories.

I'm thinking of tackling magic realism for my next writing project. Maybe I'll incorporate a labyrinth of my own.

Thanks for stopping by hearth/myth on this year's Magic Realism Bloghop. I hope you come back and visit again. And don't forget to check out the other blogs participating in the hop.

These moments of labyrinthine blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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