Magical Realism in What the Tapster Saw

Magical Realism in What the Tapster Saw

Q. How does Ben Okri incorporate elements of magical realism into the narrative structure of ‘What the Tapster Saw’?

Magical realism is a genre of literature that blends realistic, everyday details with elements of fantasy or magic. What the Tapster Saw” is a short story that exemplifies the genre of magical realism.

Written by Ben Okri, a renowned Nigerian author, the narrative seamlessly blends fantastical elements with the ordinary. The story creates a rich tapestry of imagination and reality.

“What the Tapster Saw” demonstrates magical realism in the following ways:

Seamless Integration of the Magical into the Real

The story embodies this characteristic of magical realism through instances such as the tapster’s dream-like state after he falls from the tree. The narrative reads,

He wakes in a dream and is surprised that he feels no pain. He finds himself light and airy.

​Despite being in a state where he is presumed dead, the tapster continues to interact with his environment, a magical element that is presented as a natural occurrence.

Similarly, when he encounters the signboard that reads,

Delta Oil Company: Trespassers will be persecuted.

He goes through a series of strange experiences, including seeing earth mounds, gravestones, and a single palm tree, where he makes a mark that becomes a chafed wound. The tapster’s reality seamlessly integrates these magical experiences.

Another instance is when the tapster sees three turtles, one with the face of his friend Tabasco and a multi-coloured snake. This anthropomorphization of animals is a classic example of magical realism, where fantastical elements are presented as a normal part of the world. The text reads,

On the edge of the borehole, he sees three turtles; one of them has Tabasco’s face​.

These examples from the text highlight the seamless integration of magical or fantastical elements into the tapster’s everyday reality, a key feature of magical realism.

The Presence of the Supernatural

The narrative casually accepts the supernatural, contributing to the story’s magical realism. For instance, the tapster hears voices from nowhere. The narrative states,

One day he hears a voice that says: ‘Everything in your world has endless counterparts in other worlds. There is no shape, no madness, no ecstasy or revolution which does not have its shadow somewhere else.

This is a clear instance of the supernatural being presented as a natural part of the tapster’s experience.

Similarly, the tapster is attacked by unseen entities throughout his journey, feeling the physical impacts of their blows. The text reads,

The tapster laughs and a heavy object hits him from behind. He turns around abruptly but finds nothing. The tapster laughs again and this time receives even a harder blow.

The tapster’s interactions with these invisible entities further exemplify the acceptance of the supernatural within the story’s realistic setting.

Finally, the tapster also encounters anthropomorphic animals, another example of supernatural elements within the narrative. For instance, one of the turtles he encounters has the face of his friend Tabasco and engages in human-like behaviours, such as urinating in his direction and laughing.

These instances highlight the presence and acceptance of the supernatural within the story, a key characteristic of magical realism.

Symbolism and Allegory

The magical elements in the story serve as symbols and allegories that touch on broader themes and societal commentary. For instance, we can perceive the tapster’s diet in his dream-like state as a metaphor for the hardships of life or the struggle for survival. The narrative states,

Whenever he feels hungry or thirsty he is given a mess of pulped chameleons and millipedes to eat and leaking calabash of liquid green to drink.

This weird and unusual food could symbolize the problematic situations people go through every day.

The creature that smells of agapanthus and leaves grotesque eggs could be an allegory for the corruption and decay of nature. This creature is described as such:

The worst of it is that a creature smelling of agapanthus comes and creeps above him, copulated with him, and leaves him the grotesque eggs.

This may symbolize the exploitation and destruction of the natural world, a critical commentary on humanity’s impact on the environment.

We can interpret the man reading the Bible upside-down in a fire without smoke as an inversion of religious norms or a critique of religious hypocrisy. The text reads,

There he also sees a man who has died in a sitting position while reading a bible upside-down. Everything in the borehole is on fire but there is no smoke.

This could symbolize the subversion of religious norms and the distortion of faith, possibly suggesting a critique of religious institutions.

These examples highlight how the story uses magical realism to convey deeper meanings and social commentary through symbolism and allegory.

Ambiguity and Multiple Realities

Magical realism often involves an ambiguity between reality and illusion, creating a sense of multiple realities. The tapster’s journey after falling from the tree encounters the turtles and the snake, and the voices tell him that he’s been dead for several days. It all contributes to this sense of ambiguity.

The story’s portrayal of time as fluid and relative highlights magical realism. Further, it challenges our understanding of what is real.

Changing the Usual Ideas of Time and Space

The story ‘What the Tapster Saw’ embodies the genre of magical realism by presenting time and space in a flexible and fluid manner, a characteristic often seen in works of magical realism.

One example is the seeming eternity the tapster experiences in his dream-like state. The narrative reads,

One day he hears a voice that says: ‘Everything in your world has endless counterparts in other worlds. There is no shape, no madness, no ecstasy or revolution which does not have its shadow somewhere else. I couldn’t tell you stories that would drive you mad. You, humans, are so slow-you walk two thousand years behind yourselves.

The story, What the Tapster Saw, emphasizes magical realism by portraying time as fluid and relative.

Further, the tapster’s movements in a dream-like state demonstrate this. He moves seamlessly from one location to another, encountering unusual and surreal landscapes.

The tapster sees earth mounds, gravestones, a single palm tree, and a borehole near a river. These spatial transitions are not logical in the traditional sense, further enhancing the magical realism of the story.

Another instance of temporal distortion is when someone tells the tapster several times that he has been dead for a different number of days. For instance, at one point, a voice tells him,

You have been dead for three days and later, You have been dead for six days.

This fluctuation in time perception further emphasizes the magical realism element of the story.


“What the Tapster Saw” masterfully encapsulates the essence of magical realism through its seamless integration of the magical into the real and the acceptance of the supernatural.

Ben Okri offers a lens through magical realism to explore deeper meanings, societal commentary, and philosophical reflections.

The story’s magical elements serve as metaphors for real-world issues and invite readers to ponder the complexities of existence. “What the Tapster Saw” invites us to contemplate the mysteries of life, the fluidity of reality, and the power of storytelling to transcend the ordinary.

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