After being recommended to me by a friend, I just finished reading Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled (Black Cat Press, 2005). Checking out the reviews online, though, there seems to be contention as to whether it fits the standard definition of “magical realism” or (something I’ve only now discovered) “irrealism.” Of course, a distinction like this means nothing to most readers, but it’s the difference between Calvino and Kafka. Both engage in fantasy, but Calvino allows the reader to attach themselves to the story according to an internal logic; Kafka allows as much only to undermine it. The short stories of Tokyo Cancelled drift between both.
Made up of thirteen tales, the book is named for the frame story that holds them together. The premise is that, in a nondescript airport, a connecting flight to Tokyo is cancelled due to extreme weather. Unable to make accommodations at nearby hotels, thirteen gather and decide to entertain one another through stories. Called a modern Arabian Nights, Dasgupta’s work is contemporary and global yet draws upon the tropes of folktales and myth. Here a trapped sailor coughs up a dove that wanders off to inform his waiting maiden, an old man in quarantined Paris has a garden growing inside of him, poking through his flesh. Magical oreos turn a woman into a clothing boutique that threatens the local Chinese cartel. These stories are weird, but they’re also (surprisingly) moving.
Searching for interviews with Dasgupta, I came across the following from The Guardian (published when the book came out). His explanation on why he staged his story in a common airport with common people is thoughtful and worth sharing.
… “I think it stages the production of “literature” as something that normal people do. If it seems fantastical that a collection of travellers might tell such stories then this raises the question of why it is so much easier to stomach the idea that Chaucerian illiterates might do so. One reason is the creeping institutionalisation of culture: only “writers” write, only “artists” make art, and everyone else can only consume. These stories aren’t presented as non-negotiable outpourings from on high, but in a setting of people who are both artists and audience. By embedding them in life, by leading readers into a world that is rather like our own but where everyone tells stories, the book issues a challenge: for more storytelling.”
Additionally, here’s his defense of merging folktales and fantasy with the every-day and modern. Perhaps this is how we all ought to engage with reality. (I see here glimmers of Adorno and Horkheimer’s “disenchantment of nature”).
“The infantilisation of folktales is a recent thing, contemporary with the emergence of modern ideas of childhood,” he points out. “Now, children get their quick fix of everything that is uncanny, irrational and enchanted then cast it off in favour of a ‘rational’ adult self. How is such an astonishing division sustained? One commentator said about Disney World that its patent unreality helps us to believe that what we step into when we leave is ‘reality’ – yet sometimes we find ourselves glimpsing something in this outside world that is remarkably similar to the inside. When Alan Greenspan pronounces on the future of the US economy and sends people scuttling to prepare themselves for ill times, don’t we also remember the witch doctor, the shaman, the prophet who descends from solemn communion and tells the masses that the harvest will be bad? I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Tokyo Cancelled isn’t about ‘updating’ old stories – it’s about a search for a language to describe my own reality. In the process of this search, folktales jumped out at me.”
If you’re looking for a good book the next time you’re stranded in the airport, pick up Tokyo Cancelled. Either do that, or tell stories.