Visual Magic Realism

by | Nov 6, 2018 | IBBYLink Summer 2018

Jardins pp.26–27. Copyright © Roger Mello.

Roger Mello

Magic realism does have a strong equivalent in illustration. If magic realism is the possibility of inter-penetration between reality and fiction, or the interaction between a so-called fiction approximated to reality, and another, let’s say, ‘sobrenatural’, then images and words are equally inter-penetrable.

This ambivalent terrain is a natural construct in Latin America, since the experimental narrators of the continent do exploit edges without ‘warning’ the reader-listener when they will cross the boundaries between the one and the other. In Brazil, Dias Gomes and Murilo Rubião are the representatives in what would be related respectively to the fantastic realism of a more rural or natural atmosphere on the one hand, and the urban, on the other; a parallel like Garcia Marquez in Colombia and Cortazar or Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina. In his own words, Gabriel Garcia Marquez would write as if listening to his grandmother’s stories, forging those myriad sceneries of his. Another Borges, the Brazilian engraver, publishes his own books using xylography, an example of a traditional and borderless dialogue between fiction and ‘sobrenatural‘ in his dense limitless black and white imagery.
Imagery, image, let’s take a closer look at the verb to imagine. In Portuguese, Spanish or English, it doesn’t matter, the word ‘imagine’ comes from ‘image’. Writers of such magical realism have used and abused this imagery reference to create their own landscapes. Not all literary art will use the visual composition of scenarios and characters so strongly. They seem to build it from the outside to reach the inside, but this approach to developing the shape of their composition in this way does not suppress the content. The inside reveals itself to be bigger than this, because, contrary to what is said here and there, it is possible and desirable to choose a book by the cover. Cover and design are constitutive elements of the book, and the chance for a well-crafted book with paper specifically and whimsically chosen, increases the chances of the book’s content being as unique as its shape. The book is an object and artists like Carybé, Santa Rosa, Luís Jardim, Poty, Calazans Neto were experimenters of this resource. Sometimes when this emerges in an almost ‘anthropological’ drawing, or as an extension of neo-neo realism, depicting the day-to-day life of the corners of Brazil, they are very close to the ‘visualities’ captured by the lenses of those experimenters, the photographers. This is the case of Carybé (Argentinean from Bahia) and the French anthropologist and photographer Pierre Vergé, rebaptised in Bahia State as Pierre Fatumbi Vergé, with whom he created visually or literally. This very specific dialogue is also seen with the music of Dorival Caymmi, who was himself an illustrator.

[Dorival Caymmi, the well-known composer of É doce morrer no mar, and many anthologised songs of Carmen Miranda wanted to be a professional illustrator, but one publisher in Rio de Janeiro told him: just forget it, in this country only soccer players or musicians have a future.]

Carvoeirinhospp. 4–5. Copyright © Roger Mello.
Take the case of The Gato Malhado and Andorinha Sinhá, by Jorge Amado and Carybé; Gato Malhado, the tabby cat and Andorinha Sinhá, the swallow, an impossible love? In one of the last watercolour images in the book, the cat decides to deliver his own body to a snake that will swallow him because his love for the swallow is impossible. It is a unique moment taking one beyond the written text of Jorge Amado. Again, in the illustration depicting Mauricio Babilônia, Carybé’s version for A Hundred Years of Solitude, the character is not merely surrounded by butterflies as the words of Garcia Marquez genially suggest, he is at the same time the bunch of butterflies in their flock form, but pulverised like a human made out of these separate parts. The sexual act encompasses him and the woman in an encounter even more intense than the embrace, than the sexual act itself. There are at least five more layers of reading through the visual approach of such illustrators, all of them lovers of philosophy and, let’s name it this way, lovers of a limitless interaction of all arts. When Burle Marx drew his gardens or paintings he was also experimenting with this space, an ‘in between’ that leads us to another peripatetic quest; through the unsafe, experimental, open, inconclusive gardens of his mind.

I was born in the middle of such a diverse ambience, and those experimental artists are still making it possible for me to be surprised. Growing up in a Brasilia planned by some of these artist’s companions, I got to read more through their wordless visual poetry, more from these artists’ images in books or in the outside world, than through the words themselves. Throughout the extended shadow of the dictatorial military regime from the 1970s on, this was also the only possible voice for me as a narrative author. It made me slowly chart my own ways, plot my own shapes and my own palette, incorporating ferocious neon colours to expand the dialogue with such references. This added contemporaneity and danger to their background and also, let’s say, to a kind of forgotten visual past, an ancestral past, from long before the time of the arrival of Europeans in this continent. On the other hand, depicting an extreme, wild, naturally based and boldly saturated coloured Brazil, with lower-class day-to-day people’s life would seem to some snobbish artists or critics, too naïf or ‘folkloric’. Meaning what? Meaning nothing, I might say; it would be like a body without organs, pretending to privilege the content instead of the shape.

Joao Por Um Fio. Copyright © Roger Mello
Magical reality is not, of course what it was at the very beginning, in its Caribbean origins. It’s not anymore a question of digging for an identity, since the 5,000 year old archaeological city of Caral in the Supe valley shows us that Peruvian culture is even older. It’s not the ‘aleph’ vortex from Jorge Luiz Borges or the ‘designed plot’ of Cortazar, Ernesto Sabato, Byores Casais, Rubião. But that experimentalism still persists in the work of both visual and verbal narrators in South America. From Chilean Brazilian Andres Sandoval to Isa Watanabe, Dipacho, Isol, Roger Ycasa, Manu Mercado, Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador, to make a list is always to make it incomplete, realistically, magically.
Roger Mello was born in Brasilia in 1965. Winner of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award, given by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), and considered for the Nobel Prize for Children’s and Youth Literature, he is an author-illustrator of international renown. He has illustrated over 100 books, 25 of which he has authored himself and has received inumerable awards world wide, including the Most Beautiful Book of the Year award from China for The Feather written by Cao WenXuan, also a Hans Christan Andersen winner.