Magical Realism by Zoe Harrington

Magical Realism, a term first coined by the art historian Franz Roh in 1925, describes a style of representation in art and literature which attempts “to portray the strange, the uncanny, the eerie, and the dreamlike – but not the fantastic – aspects of everyday reality.” It pervades the works of the political dissident author, Ma Jian, particularly in Stick Out Your Tongue, a controversial collection of stories based on the author’s own ‘spiritual’ journey through Tibet.

The Final Initiation, the last instalment in the aforementioned series, represents the ultimate stage of Jian’s journey. It recounts the story of a young, female bodhisattva, Sangsang Tashi who endures an initiation rite which culminates in her freezing to death while meditating on a frozen river. The brutality experienced by the young girl, the violence enacted on her body by the Bodhisattva Vajrapani, a much older man, during an episode of ceremonial tantric sex, and her exposure to the extreme cold is tempered by poetic images, such as the following which describes her at her death:

“Cool rays of sun bathed her in a soft light. Everyone stared at the organs floating in her transparent body. A fish that had somehow gnawed its way into her corpse was swimming back and forth through her intestines.”

The image conveys the degree of suffering by suggesting that Sangsang’s body has mutated, becoming as transparent as the ice around her. Although horrible, the hyperbolic description creates the illusion that the girl has transcended our world. By representing the spiritual societies of Tibet as atemporal worlds, “the author cleverly avoids being held politically or ethnically responsible for what happens there.”

The most pivotal works in Chinese about Tibet were produced in the 1990s as short stories or novels by Ma Yuan, Ma Jian, Alai and Tashi Dawa. These authors all wrote in Chinese and in a style they developed from the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borge and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The use of Magical Realism here therefore keeps the author safe from persecution for his obviously critical tone whilst also preserving the holy status of these bodhisattvas. However, Jian abruptly returns from these ‘magical’ moments back to the ‘real world’:

“The cup carved from Sangsang Tashi’s skull is now sitting on my desk. The man who sold it to me said that he’d inherited it from his great- grandfather who had studied sorcery at Manrimba Medical College.”

The sudden brutal naturalism of this paragraph seems to undermine any reverence for Tibetan spiritualism extant in the previous scene. Sangsang has become a memento for a tourist at a discounted price. However, the effect is merely to present Sangsang as human. Although this suggests that Jian is critical of Tibetan culture, in the Afterward to the collection of stories, he defended his work, saying:

“Westerners idealise Tibetans as gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed. But in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and brutal as the rest of us. To idealise them is to deny them their humanity.”

This however was interpreted by Chinese and Tibetan society as grossly disrespectful and the work was banned. The editor, Liu Xinwu, lost his job, while the work was criticized as “pornographic, obsessive, filthy and shameful.” Immediate banning of the book caused a leap in the price of the journal on the black market. Ma Jian was also forced to move to Hong Kong, from where he would immigrate to Germany. The collection of stories has enjoyed much success, perhaps owing in part to the lure of the blacklisted novelist.

Moments of Magical Realism are most pronounced in the scenes of Meditation in Jian’s story and represent an escape by Sangsang into another world:

“She quickly banished these visions from her mind and returned to her meditation, reciting the Sakyamuni Mantra. As she concentrated on the life-supporting wind flowing through her heart, three dakinis appeared before her…”

Although in the reader’s reality, there is no “life-supporting wind flowing through” their hearts, and an apparition would be perceived rather as a worrying hallucination, within this world created by Jian, we do not question the possibility of this occurrence. Magical Realism shows us a reality that is a mixture of ‘magic and logic’:

“It yanks us out of the comfortable complacency that assesses the real as an either-or kind of argument, placing us in an alternative intellectual landscape, one where real is neither stable nor static nor subject to rigorous determination and measurement.”

In Jian’s story, Tibet is an ‘alternative landscape’ whilst also being part of the real (modern) world. The fantasy of the ‘spiritual’, although artificial is ingrained in their culture:

“In Tibet, religion permeates every grain of earth. Man and God are inseparable, myth and legend are intertwined.”

The scenes depicting ‘visions’ manifested through the act of meditating are plausible within the structure of this story. The suspension of disbelief is sustained by the Tibetan culture. However, even this fails Sangsang as in reality a body cannot survive in freezing temperatures:

She had tried to recite an invocation to summon fire into her body, which had proved so effective in the past, but it failed to protect her from the freezing temperatures.

This method of imbuing an experience with a dream- like quality creates a sense of naivety that is immensely emotionally evocative. However, it also displays the author’s overwhelming disappointment at his own inability to achieve spiritual enlightenment, as he says:

“My hope of gaining some religious revelation also came to nothing. Tibet was a land whose spiritual heart had been ripped out.”

The protagonist (the author) is never part of the scenes marked by Magical Realism but is condemned to be part of reality. He will always be an outsider. He is not heartbroken by Sangsang’s story, but rather at not finding his way into this world. This is clearest in the final paragraphs describing the skull cup which is said to have once been, ‘Tenpa Monastery’s most prized ritual object.’  It is not the Tibetans but the protagonist, the tourist who has sacked the country of its mystery. If the character were sincere in his devotion to the search for spiritual enlightenment and his love of Tibetan culture, then he would not so callously offer to sell it:

“If anyone would like to buy it from me, just get in touch. I’ll accept any offer, as long as it covers the cost of my travels to the north- east.”

Perhaps this also reflects the reader’s experience as we are tethered to reality. We cannot be inducted into Tibetan culture or the magical world of the novel but are condemned to be tourists.



Ma Jian, translated from Chinese by Flora Drew, ‘The Final Initiation’, Stick Out Your Tongue, published by Vintage 2007

Isabel Hilton, Review: Stick Out Your Tongue, The Guardian, Jan 2006

Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change edited by Lauran R. Hartley, Patricia Schiaffini-Vedani Durham : Duke University Press, 2008.

Fatima Wu, Banned Book Review, World Literature Today, Vol. 80, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 2006), p. 65, Published by: Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma

David Scrase, Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 281-283 Published by: Penn State University Press

Aga Skrodzka , Magic Realist Cinema in East Central Europe, Edinburgh University Press. (2012)

SEYMOUR MENTON. Magic Realism Rediscovered. 1918-1981. East Brunswick, N.J., London and Toronto: Associ- ated University Presses, 1983. 119 pp.

Robert Barnett, Lhasa: Streets with Memories, Columbia University Press, 2006

Lysik, Marta. 2011. Amerikastudien / American Studies 56 (2). Universitätsverlag WINTER Gmbh: 269–71.



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Zoe Harrington is a poet, screenwriter and writer of short fiction. She has worked on animated television productions, such as Spongo, Fuzz and Jalapeña, Vicky the Vikingand Blinky Bill. The episodes Zoe wrote for the animated series, Tashiwere included in the submission for the Logie Awards, where the production received a nomination for Most Outstanding Children’s Program. She has also just completed a Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney and is a member of the Australian Writer’s Guild.



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