Image by margolove via FlickrMagic realism in literature is a literary genre that combines fantastic or dreamlike elements with realism. It differs from pure fantasy —which involves outlandish universes— in the fact that it is set in a normal, quotidian contemporary world, a world of authentic human-like characters and objects.
The genre has taken hold in fiction, both in short stories and novels. Readers must be on their guard and not to trust the narrators who —in the magic realism genre— find a fertile ground for planting the seeds of hallucinating trickery, dream sequences, and often plain distortion and bending of what we accept as the real natural world.
What makes magic realism a serious literary genre is the effort the authors make to have their fiction reach beyond the confines of realism, drawing upon the often forgotten native fables, folk tales, fairy tales, and myths while at the same time making the narrated events relevant to the reader.
The Gothic roots
While in the traditional novel readers look for key events that may provided openings to logical or psychological explanation, in the magical realist novel it is impossible no keys are provided.
Ann Radcliffe in her gothic novels The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian thrilled readers with dungeons, dark castles, ghostly apparitions, fainting heroines, and unnatural events which in the end were (as explained) but simple natural events. In addition, gothic novels were fraught with horror, as we can read in Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
But in magic realist novels, the fabulous, the marvelous, the enchanting, and the magic of events evoked require neither psychology nor logic, nor science.
It seems as if the authors delight in showing the obverse of objects: the negative of a picture rather than the positive, the other side of the carpet, the reverse of the leaf—hoping to find the spirit, the energy that animates things. What delights the reader isn’t what they find in the predictable, nor in the familiar, or in the common— but in what lurks beyond the orbit of the real.
European magic realism
Beginning with Knight Errantry tales —which are laden with fabulous events— Eastern European novels have a tradition of magic realism. But it wasn’t until post II War World authors such as Milan Kundera, Günter Grass, and Italo Calvino that the genre took hold. In another article I wrote: “It is hard to imagine magic realism without Günter Grass’s prototype: Oskar Matzerath, the boy who willed himself to stop growing.”
Latin American magic realism
In keeping with post-modern theorists —in particular Derrida’s Deconstruction movement— magic realism aims to seize the paradox of the union of opposites. It challenges polar opposites in which one pole is favored over the other: life and death, pre-colonial past versus the post-industrial present,
In magical realism we find the transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesome and the stunning and unreal.
Most of the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges’ stories are of a fabulous nature: “The Secret Miracle,” “The Aleph,” “The South,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and others. While philosophers such as David Hume and Bishop Berkeley attempted to deny reality with logical arguments, Borges denied causality with his stories. Furthermore, Borges suggested that the unreal world can be manifested (in literature) by including a work of art within a work of art, by contaminating reality with dreams, by altering time, and by doubles and labyrinths.
With Gabriel Garcia Marquez magic realism comes to full maturity. His novel One Hundred Years of Solitude and his short stories, the genre reaches the summit of magical invention. Garcia Marquez stated: “My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic.” To him realism offers too static and poor a vision of reality, suggesting that the magic text is —paradoxically— more realistic and richer than the realist text.
But to be fair, both Borges and Garcia Marquez are the heirs of a long tradition of Latin American fabulists such as the Peruvian Ricardo Palma and the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga. But in particular, he is the heir of the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier who coined term “marvelous reality” in the prologue to his novel, The Kingdom of this World.
Latin American women novelists have also come to dominate the genre. Contemporary novelist Isabel Allende continues the cultivation of magic realism with her fantastic novel The House of the Spirits. Laura Esquivel with Like Water for Chocolate, immerses the reader in a fabulous world where the unusual becomes accepted and acted on as if it were normal. Having read Like Water a few times, I feel compelled to share one of my favorite passages:
“As they crossed the hallway, Tita saw her mother, motionless beside the door to the dining room, throwing her a furious look. She was petrified. Pulque began to bark at Mama Elena, who was walking toward Tita threateningly. The fur on the dog’s back was sticking straight up from the fear and he was backing away on the defensive.”
At this point in the story, we know that Tita’s mother (Mama Elena) is dead. Yet Tita and the dog Pulque see her. And instead of relying on what a human-character sees, the narrator lets the dog’s action carry the vision of such unnatural apparition.
Indian magic realism
Though far from being a total work in social and magic realism alone, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, contains a great deal of parody and satire of India—but all done with artistry. Given to paradox and the absurd, the exotic, and the strange, it is hard at times to tell the serious from the comic and both from the unreal. All in all we can say that humor prevails. And when we are in doubt we accept that the author means well and we read his humorous antics with goodwill—much as we do with Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
As readers, we are forced to keep track of time; a task that is easier said than done. Time in the Midnight’s Children is circular, fragmented, mythical, and cyclical—never linear. I cannot help thinking that all this is deliberate not only to simulate the chaotic societies that form the Indian nation, but also to add to the magical dimension that surrounds the characters as well as the readers.
American magic realism
Although the genre hasn’t quite bloomed in the United States, American fiction has a rich tradition of magical narration. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, John Cheever, Toni Morrison and William Kennedy have written many stories that could qualify for inclusion in the magic realism genre. But this is a matter for a separate article.
The writing techniques I use in this article are all explained in Mary Duffy's writing manual--an indispensable guide: