The 'mythical realism' of Alexi Zentner

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First aired on The Next Chapter (23/4/12)

"It is impossible to tell myth from the truth."

These words are spoken by Stephen, an Anglican priest, early on in Alexi Zentner's novel Touch. Steven is returning to visit his dying mother in Sawgamet, the former Canadian boom town in Canada his grandfather had founded. In this multi-layered story, the past confronts the present as family stories are recalled and mystery and magic lurk in the woods. Myth and truth are very much at play in Sawgamet, and it's often hard to tell the difference between the two -- or even if a difference exists.

That was Zentner's intention. The debut novelist has always been fascinated by storytelling, and how myth and truth interact. He loved listening to his parents' tales in their Kitchener, Ontario, home. "One of the things I loved about them was trying to figure out what part of them were actually true," he told Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview on The Next Chapter. The evolution of how these stories moved from truth to myth -- how they "become these big fish stories" -- was a constant source of entertainment. "Usually something true is at the heart of them," he added. "It's interesting to me which of these family stories survive and why."


It was this idea that informed much of Touch, a story that Zentner calls "mythical realism." Zentner wanted magic and myth to be important elements in Stephen's story, but he also wanted to accomplish two things: he wanted the mythical to be truly Canadian and for it to be "really entwined throughout the lives of the characters," not a "parlour trick."

What, exactly, is mythical realism? According to Zentner, it's an offshoot of magical realism, but one that is very rooted in North American culture and traditions. Zentner argues that magical realism in contemporary literature draws largely from Central and South America and parts of Europe. He wanted Touch to have a distinctly Canadian feel, a book that celebrates what Canada is. He sees this country as more than just "not America." It's a place rich with aboriginal stories, with a vast and dangerous landscape, with iconography and language all its own. "There is no simple answer for what it means to be Canadian," he said. "There are a thousand answers that come together. But part of that is that there is a national mythology."

Some may scoff at this idea, but Zentner says we only need to look at everyday practices to see myth at play in our everyday lives. "It really wasn't very long ago that everybody believed, deeply believed, in some of these myths." Myth is hard to escape, even if you don't consider yourself religious or even spiritual. If you've ever knocked on wood, told a family story, prayed or even read your horoscope, Zentner argues that you're participating in something mythical.

Touch has turned Zentner into a literary star. The book was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, sold in nine countries and even reviewed in People magazine. But all this success won't go to Zentner's head. Not only does his family keep him humble -- his children are among his fiercest critics -- but he also recognizes how lucky he is to be able to participate in a long, rich tradition of Canadian literature. "I believe that art elevates humanity," he said. "I feel incredibly privileged to be part of that."

He's also grateful that he can make a living at it. "The worst day of writing is still better than the best day of telemarketing."

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