We find out that the real hell exists on earth in the forms of war, death and destruction.
One must give infinite thanks to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His greatest work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is chock full of magic realism -- the blood of a son makes its way through the streets until it reaches the house of his mother; the death of a girl is re-enacted as levitation, and there is a matriarch who outlives everyone in her family for generations to come. Patricia Schonstein's A Time of Angels recalls the weighty influence of Garcia Marquez, the lush devotion to food as in Like Water for Chocolate, and deals with magical realism in a tragically beautiful way.
The witty novel tells the story of Primo Verona, Pasquale Benevuto and the woman caught between the two men, Beatrice. When the story opens, we find out that Beatrice has left Primo for Pasquale. As a form of revenge, Primo puts a spell on Pasquale that Pasquale never quite realizes is a spell; the fact that Pasquale's shoelaces always become undone only appears to be an inconvenience for him and nothing more. As the story unfolds, we discover that Primo and Pasquale have been friends since childhood, and served together in the Angolan war, and that Beatrice and Pasquale had once been childhood sweethearts turned lovers. It was Primo who stepped in and disrupted the relationship when he asked Beatrice to marry him. Upset by the truth of Pasquale's womanizing ways, Beatrice agrees to marry Primo.
After years of marriage to Primo, Beatrice returns to Pasquale. It is when Primo finds out about the affair that he casts several spells on Pasquale, two of which he puts on hold. The spells that are on hold prove to be the most damaging: Pasquale owns a delicatessen and bar, which serves some of the best cuisine in Cape Town. Just as in Like Water for Chocolate, Pasquale's culinary techniques have been passed down from the previous generation and people marvel at how delicious his food is. Primo's suggested spells threaten to ruin Pasquale's culinary reputation. Instead, what it actually does is summons Lucifer to town.
Suddenly, good and evil become intricately entwined in the novel. The elements of magical realism allow this to happen - Lucifer steps out of a painting in Primo's home to interact with Primo, for example. In Schonstein's tale of good and evil (or maybe good versus evil), war is the metaphor. World War II and the Angolan war are the subjects, in particular. While many people would like to make classifications about hell (the underworld, purgatory, whatever name one would like to call it), we find out that the real hell exists on earth in the forms of war, death and destruction.
However, even war (and evil) cannot be seen as cut and dried. One scene in particular illustrates this point: As Pasquale and Primo march with their fellow soldiers through an Angolan town, Primo suddenly becomes disillusioned when he witnesses the soldiers in his group killing unarmed elderly men, women and children. While Pasquale has no problems joining in, Primo decides then to remove the bullets from his gun; he wants no part of the war. This act comments on the nature of evil. The point seems to be that evil does not think that it is evil; in other words, it can be justified. This idea seems particularly relevant to the time in which we currently live. The recent war on terrorism has been boiled down to two ideas - good versus evil, and the notion that there are only ever two sides. In reading Schonstein's novel, one gathers that in life there are never only two sides, there is always a blurry middle.
In addition to this story of benevolence and malevolence is a story of love, passion and heartache (in which good and evil also make an appearance). Pasquale, Beatrice and Primo form a romantic triangle in which Beatrice is the woman the two men want, and is ostensibly the reason why, without meaning to, Primo has invited Lucifer to town. Whereas the other tales in the novel are all believable within the realm of magical realism, the story of the love triangle falls flat. We are not given much insight into Beatrice and why both men desire her so. What is so appealing about her (aside from the fact that she's meant to replicate Dante's obsession with his own Beatrice centuries ago)? We find out many things about Pasqaule and Primo yet the third most important person in the triangle remains undeveloped.
Aside from this point, A Time of Angels is a novel that attempts to answer large questions and dips its hand into the cauldron of magical realism to do so. It is done beautifully.