A Review of Mariana Leky’s “What You Can See from Here”
Magic realism is a genre that is most often associated with Latin America. For instance, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude may immediately spring to mind when you think of magic realism works. However, this type of fiction — where the real and magical blend, often with no explanation (or at least one that you might find in a more conventional fantasy novel) — is a worldwide phenomenon. You can look to Great Britain and a writer such as Salman Rushdie, who combines the genre with historical fiction. Or you could turn your gaze to Japan and see the work that Haruki Murakami sometimes offers. However, magic realism’s roots are in Germany, to a painting style that was in vogue in the 1920s. This is à propos because my latest book for review is by a German writer named Mariana Leky, whose third novel, What You Can See from Here, which was originally published in German in 2017 and now has an English translation, has a light magic realism touch to it. It’s certainly a quirky novel, one that is sometimes weird for the sake of being weird but is beguiling in doses. It’s a light and breezy read that paradoxically demands that you pay close attention to it and there are some rewards for doing so.
The novel is set in the former West Germany and spans a period of about 20 years beginning in April 1983. Luise is a 10-year-old girl when we first meet her and her grandmother Selma is quite the character. Whenever Selma dreams of an okapi — a real-life creature that is a cross between a zebra and a giraffe (and other mammals) that was unknown to the Western world until the 20th century (thanks, Wikipedia!) — someone in the village that the pair lives in will die within a roughly 24-hour time span. So the novel opens with the fact that Selma has had one of her okapi dreams and word about it has spread rapidly through the village. People turn to superstitions to help them prevent being the one who meets an untimely demise. I’m not going to spoil who bites the dust, but it is a little shocking when you find out. In any event, the book is mostly a coming-of-age story as Luise grows up beyond the initial 24-hour deathwatch (which shouldn’t be a spoiler because the novel is narrated from her point of view) and falls in love with a Buddhist monk who is visiting from Japan. A subplot involves a character known as “the optician” (though we do find out his real name eventually), who is pining for Selma but can never articulate his love for her.
In a sense, What You Can See from Here is a novel about love and missed opportunities. Luise and the monk make for star-crossed lovers who come and go from each other’s lives due to the long-distant nature of their relationship. But the volume is also a sopping love letter to German small towns and the oddball and eccentric characters who populate them. For instance, there is a character named Marlies who is a bit of an Eeyore-esque sad sack who mopes around her house wearing nothing but a sweater and panties. A beehive has made its home under the mailbox at the end of her drive, signifying that this is a potentially dangerous and unhinged character. There’s additionally a book-store owner that Luise winds up working for who has squirreled away all sorts of obsolete electronics at his store, indicating that this is a character who clings to the past. For all of this, What You Can See from Here is a rich story loaded with hidden meanings that you have to read without a wandering mind. And be sure that you’re paying attention because things are mentioned at the front of the book that come back in importance towards its conclusion.
However, one of the problems with What You Can See from Here is that, although the translation from German is written in layman’s prose, I found that the characters were so weird to an extent that it was hard to get invested in their plights. My thoughts would occasionally drift to other things, only to discover that, say, an imp had somehow landed on the shoulder of one of the characters and you had to backpedal a few pages to understand how it got there or what it even was. A lot of the description is off-the-cuff, matter-of-fact and muted, which is, yes, in keeping with the stylistic tics of magic realism where nothing about the magic is explained (it just exists) so you have to linger over sentences and have a good memory to keep track of what’s going on in the narrative.
The other problem with the book is that the character who dies not long after the outset of the book has little bearing on what happens in the rest of the plot. You could have easily excised the whole “dreams of an okapi will result in death” angle and the book would be no worse for it. The death is hardly referenced in the second and third acts of the novel, so one wonders why it is even there to begin with. Ultimately, that makes What You Can See from Here a recommended library read, not a book that you should purchase first — you should browse it to see if you like it, and, if so, only then (if you think you’re going to re-read it again at some point, maybe to catch references you might have missed) buy a copy.
Obviously, Leky is a talented writer and you can see why she has won literary awards in her native Germany as she certainly has her soft style of storytelling down pat (if that’s not also the work of the translator doing a good job). The romance angles are additionally very compelling. It’s simply a bit disappointing that the novel as a whole doesn’t quite gel as it should. Also, given the setting and time of the novel, during the period of German reunification, one might expect a more political read but that’s not the case — which seems like a missed opportunity. Still, if you’re curious and have a library card, What You Can See from Here is, pardon the expression, worth a glance. It’s certainly a different book, but your opinion of it will probably be shaped by how much magic realism you read. It deals with a heavy subject matter (death) with a light touch (love), and readers of a certain stripe just might be won over by this kind of thing. Try, don’t buy, it first, and, well, see for yourself if there’s any fuss to be had here.
Mariana Leky’s What You Can See from Here will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on June 22, 2021.
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