Magic Realism

one hundred years of solitude

Magic realism is an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. The story explains these magical elements as real occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the ‘real’ and the ‘fantastic’ in the same stream of thought. One example, is when a character in the story continues to be alive beyond the normal length of life and this is subtly depicted by the character being present throughout many generations.

On the surface the story has no clear magical attributes and everything is conveyed in a real setting, but such a character breaks the rules of our real world. The author may give precise details of the real world such as the date of birth of a reference character and the army recruitment age, but such facts help to define an age for the fantastic character of the story that would turn out to be an abnormal occurrence like someone living for two hundred years.

The term is broadly descriptive rather than critically rigorous: author Matthew Strecher defines magic realism as ‘…what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.’ This critical perspective towards magical realism stems from the Western reader’s disassociation with mythology, a root of magical realism more easily understood by non-Western cultures. Western confusion regarding magical realism is due to the ‘…conception of the real’ created in a magical realist text: rather than explain reality using natural or physical laws, as in typical Western texts, magical realist texts create a reality ‘…in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality.’

While the term ‘magical realism’ in its modern sense first appeared in 1955, the German art critic Franz Roh first used the phrase in 1925, to refer to a painterly style also known as Neue Sachlichkeit (the New Objectivity), an alternative championed by fellow German museum director Gustav Hartlaub. Roh believed magic realism is related to, but distinctive from, surrealism, due to magic realism’s focus on the material object and the actual existence of things in the world, as opposed to the more cerebral, psychological, and subconscious reality that the surrealists explored. Magic realism was later used to describe the uncanny realism by American painters such as Ivan Albright, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, and other artists during the 1940s and 1950s. However, in contrast with its use in literature, magical realist art does not often include overtly fantastic or magical content, but rather looks at the mundane, the every day, through a hyper-realistic and often mysterious lens.

Roh’s magic realism’s theoretical implications greatly influenced European and Latin American literature. Italian Massimo Bontempelli, for instance, considered the first magic realist creative writer, sought to present the ‘…mysterious and fantastic quality of reality.’ He claimed that literature could be a means to create a collective consciousness by ‘…opening new mythical and magical perspectives on reality,’ and used his writings to inspire an Italian nation governed by Fascism. Venezuelan Arturo Uslar-Pietri was closely associated with Roh’s form of magic realism and knew Bontempelli in Paris. Rather than follow Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s developing versions of ‘the (Latin) American marvelous real,’ Uslar-Pietri’s writings emphasize ‘…the mystery of human living amongst the reality of life.’ He believed magic realism was ‘…a continuation of the vanguardia [or Avant-garde] modernist experimental writings of Latin America.’

Literary magic realism originated in Latin America. Writers often traveled between their home country and European cultural hubs, such as Paris or Berlin, and were influenced by the art movement of the time. Carpentier and Uslar-Pietri, for example, were strongly influenced by European artistic movements, such as Surrealism, during their stays in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. One major event that linked painterly and literary magic realisms was the translation and publication of Roh’s book into Spanish by Spain’s ‘Revista de Occidente’ in 1927, headed by major literary figure José Ortega y Gasset. ‘Within a year, Magic Realism was being applied to the prose of European authors in the literary circles of Buenos Aires.’ Jorge Luis Borges inspired and encouraged other Latin American writers in the development of magical realism – particularly with his first magical realist publication, ‘Historia universal de la infamia’ in 1935. Between 1940 and 1950, magical realism in Latin America reached its peak, with prominent writers appearing mainly in Argentina.

As recently as 2008, magical realism in literature has been defined as ‘…a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the ‘reliable’ tone of objective realistic report, designating a tendency of the modern novel to reach beyond the confines of realism and draw upon the energies of fable, folk tale, and myth while maintaining a strong contemporary social relevance. The fantastic attributes given to characters in such novels—levitation, flight, telepathy, telekinesis—are among the means that magic realism adopts in order to encompass the often phantasmagorical political realities of the 20th century.’

In an essay entitled ‘The Baroque and the Marvelous Real’ the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier championed the idea that the baroque is defined by a lack of emptiness, a departure from structure or rules, and an ‘extraordinary’ plenitude of disorienting detail (citing Mondrian as its polar opposite). From this angle, Carpentier views the baroque as a layering of elements, which translates easily into the post-colonial or transcultural Latin American atmosphere that Carpentier emphasizes in The Kingdom of this World. “America, a continent of symbiosis, mutations…mestizaje, engenders the baroque,’ made explicit by elaborate Aztec temples and associative Nahuatl poetry. These mixing ethnicities grow together with the American baroque; the space in between is where the ‘marvelous real’ is seen. Marvelous: not meaning beautiful and pleasant, but extraordinary, strange, excellent. Such a complex system of layering—encompassed in the Latin American ‘boom’ novel, such as ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’—has as its aim ‘…translating the scope of America.’

Magical realism plot lines characteristically employ hybrid multiple planes of reality that take place in ‘…inharmonious arenas of such opposites as urban and rural, and Western and indigenous.’ For example, as seen in Julio Cortázar’s ‘La noche boca arriba’ (‘The Night Face Up’) an individual experiences two realistic situations simultaneously in the same place but during two different time periods, centuries apart. His dreamlike state connects these two realities; this small bit of magic makes these multiple planes of reality possible. Overall, they establish ‘…a more deep and true reality than conventional realist techniques would illustrate.’

Metafiction is common in magic realis; this trait centers on the reader’s role in literature. With its multiple realities and specific reference to the reader’s world, it explores the impact fiction has on reality, reality on fiction and the reader’s role in between; as such, it is well suited for drawing attention to social or political criticism. Furthermore, it is the tool paramount in the execution of a related and major magic realist phenomenon: textualization (the act writing down an idea). This term defines two conditions—first, where a fictitious reader enters the story within a story while reading it, making us self-conscious of our status as readers—and secondly, where the textual world enters into the reader’s (our) world. Good sense would negate this process but ‘magic’ is the flexible topos (line of argument) that allows it.

Authorial reticence is the ‘…deliberate withholding of information and explanations about the disconcerting fictitious world.’ The narrator does not provide explanations about the accuracy or credibility of events described or views expressed by characters in the text. Further, the narrator is indifferent, a characteristic enhanced by this absence of explanation of fantastic events; the story proceeds with ‘logical precision’ as if nothing extraordinary took place. In this, explaining the supernatural world would immediately reduce its legitimacy relative to the natural world. The reader would consequently disregard the supernatural as false testimony.

Something that most critics agree on is a sense of mystery as a major theme. Magic realist literature tends to read at an intensified level. Taking the seminal work of the style, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel García Márquez, the reader must let go of preexisting ties to conventional exposition, plot advancement, linear time structure, scientific reason, etc., to strive for a state of heightened awareness of life’s connectedness or hidden meanings. Carpentier articulates this feeling as ‘…to seize the mystery that breathes behind things,’ and supports the claim by saying a writer must heighten his senses to the point of ‘estado limite’ [translated as ‘limit state’ or ‘extreme’] in order to realize all levels of reality, most importantly that of mystery.

The Mexican critic Luis Leal has said, ‘Without thinking of the concept of magical realism, each writer gives expression to a reality he observes in the people. To me, magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world,’ or toward nature. He adds, ‘If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.’

Magic realism contains an ‘…implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite.’ Especially with regard to Latin America, the style breaks from the inarguable discourse of ‘…privileged centers of literature.’ This is a mode primarily about and for ‘ex-centrics’: the geographically, socially, and economically marginalized. Therefore, magic realism’s ‘alternative world’ works to correct the reality of established viewpoints (like realism, naturalism, modernism). Magic realist texts, under this logic, are subversive texts, revolutionary against socially dominant forces. Alternatively, the socially dominant may implement magical realism to disassociate themselves from their ‘power discourse.’ Theo D’haen titles this change in perspective, ‘decentering.’ Upon consideration, Latin America is the ideal locale and starting place for such literary subversions to a dominant power, from the colonizers to the dictators.

Guatemalan author William Spindler’s article, ‘Magic realism: a typology,’ suggests that there are three kinds of magic realism, which however are by no means incompatible: European ‘metaphysical’ magic realism, with its sense of estrangement and the uncanny, exemplified by Kafka’s fiction; ‘ontological’ magical realism, characterized by ‘matter-of-factness’ in relating ‘inexplicable’ events; and ‘anthropological’ magical realism, where a Native worldview is set side by side with the Western rational worldview. Spindler’s typology of magic realism has been criticized as ‘…an act of categorization which seeks to define Magic Realism as a culturally specific project, by identifying for his readers those (non-modern) societies where myth and magic persist and where Magic Realism might be expected to occur. There are objections to this analysis. Western rationalism models may not actually describe Western modes of thinking and it is possible to conceive of instances where both orders of knowledge are simultaneously possible.’

Alejo Carpentier originated the term ‘lo real maravilloso’ (roughly the ‘marvelous reality’) in the prologue to his novel ‘The Kingdom of this World’ (1949); however, some debate whether he is truly a magical realist writer, or simply a precursor and source of inspiration. Maggie Bowers claims he is widely acknowledged as the originator of Latin American magical realism (as both a novelist and critic); she describes Carpentier’s conception as a kind of heightened reality where elements of the miraculous can appear while seeming natural and unforced. She suggests that by disassociating himself and his writings from Roh’s painterly magic realism, Carpentier aimed to show how—by virtue of Latin America’s varied history, geography, demography, politics, myths, and beliefs—improbable and marvelous things are made possible. Furthermore, Carpentier’s meaning is that Latin America is a land filled with marvels, and that ‘writing about this land automatically produces a literature of marvelous reality.’

‘The marvelous’ may be easily confused with magical realism, as both modes introduce supernatural events without surprising the implied author. In both, these magical events are expected and accepted as everyday occurrences. However, the marvelous world is a unidimensional world. The implied author believes that anything can happen here, as the entire world is filled with supernatural beings and situations to begin with. Fairy tales are a good example of marvelous literature. The important idea in defining the marvelous is that readers understand that this fictional world is different from the world where they live. The ‘marvelous’ one-dimensional world differs from the bidimensional world of magical realism, as in the latter, the supernatural realm blends with the natural, familiar world (arriving at the combination of two layers of reality: bidimensional). While some use the terms ‘magical realism’ and ‘lo real maravilloso’ interchangeably, the key difference lies in the focus.

Taking into account that, theoretically, magical realism was born in the 20th century, connecting it to postmodernism is a logical step. To further connect the two concepts, there are descriptive commonalities between the two that Belgian critic Theo D’haen addresses in his essay, ‘Magical Realism and Postmodernism.’ Authors Günter Grass, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Italo Calvino, John Fowles, Angela Carter, John Banville, Michel Tournier, Giannina Braschi, Willem Brakman, and Louis Ferron are widely considered postmodernist, but might ‘just as easily be categorized…magic realist.’ A list has been compiled of characteristics one might typically attribute to postmodernism, but which also could describe literary magic realism: ‘…self-reflexiveness, metafiction, eclecticism, redundancy, multiplicity, discontinuity, intertextuality, parody, the dissolution of character and narrative instance, the erasure of boundaries, and the destabilization of the reader.’ To further connect the two, magical realism and postmodernism share the themes of post-colonial discourse, in which jumps in time and focus cannot really be explained with scientific but rather with magical reasoning.

Concerning attitude toward audience, the two have a lot in common. Magical realist works do not seek to primarily satisfy a popular audience, but instead, a sophisticated audience that must be attuned to noticing textual ‘subtleties.’ While the postmodern writer condemns escapist literature (like fantasy, crime, ghost fiction), he/she is inextricably related to it concerning readership. There are two modes in postmodern literature: one, commercially successful pop fiction, and the other, philosophy, better suited to intellectuals. A singular reading of the first mode will render a distorted or reductive understanding of the text. The fictitious reader—such as Aureliano from ‘100 Years of Solitude’—is the hostage used to express the writer’s anxiety on this issue of who is reading the work and to what ends, and of how the writer is forever reliant upon the needs and desires of readers (the market). The magic realist writer with difficulty must reach a balance between saleability and intellectual integrity. Wendy Faris, talking about magic realism as a contemporary phenomenon that leaves modernism for postmodernism, says, ‘Magic realist fictions do seem more youthful and popular than their modernist predecessors, in that they often (though not always) cater with unidirectional story lines to our basic desire to hear what happens next. Thus they may be more clearly designed for the entertainment of readers.’

When attempting to define what something is, it is often helpful to define what something is not. It is also important to note that many literary critics attempt to classify novels and literary works in only one genre, such as ‘romantic’ or ‘naturalist,’ not always taking into account that many works fall into multiple categories. Much discussion is cited from Maggie Ann Bowers’ book ‘Magic(al) Realism,’ wherein she attempts to delimit the terms magic and magical realism by examining the relationships with other genres such as realism, surrealism, fantastic literature, and science fiction.

Surrealism is often confused with magical realism as they both explore illogical or non-realist aspects of humanity and existence. There is a strong historical connection between Franz Roh’s concept of magic realism and surrealism, as well as the resulting influence on Carpentier’s marvelous reality; however, important differences remain. Surrealism ‘is most distanced from magical realism [in that] the aspects that it explores are associated not with material reality but with the imagination and the mind, and in particular it attempts to express the ‘inner life’ and psychology of humans through art.’ It seeks to express the sub-conscious, unconscious, the repressed, and inexpressible. Magical realism, on the other hand, rarely presents the extraordinary in the form of a dream or a psychological experience. ‘To do so,’ Bowers writes, ‘takes the magic of recognizable material reality and places it into the little understood world of the imagination. The ordinariness of magical realism’s magic relies on its accepted and unquestioned position in tangible and material reality.’

Prominent English-language fantasy writers have said that ‘magic realism’ is only another name for fantasy fiction. Gene Wolfe said, ‘magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish,’ and Terry Pratchett said magic realism ‘is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.’ However, Amaryll Beatrice Chanady distinguishes magical realist literature from fantasy literature (‘the fantastic’) based on differences between three shared dimensions: the use of antinomy (the simultaneous presence of two conflicting codes), the inclusion of events that cannot be integrated into a logical framework, and the use of authorial reticence (deliberate withholding of information). In fantasy, the presence of the supernatural code is perceived as problematic, something that draws special attention—where in magical realism, the presence of the supernatural is accepted. In fantasy, authorial reticence creates a disturbing effect on the reader, it works to integrate the supernatural into the natural framework in magical realism. This integration is made possible in magical realism as the author presents the supernatural as being equally valid to the natural. There is no hierarchy between the two codes. The ghost of Melquíades in Márquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ or the baby ghost in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ who visit or haunt the inhabitants of their previous residence are both presented by the narrator as ordinary occurrences; the reader, therefore, accepts the marvelous as normal and common.

To Dr. Clark Zlotchew, the differentiating factor between the fantastic and magical realism is that in fantastic literature, such as Kafka’s story ‘The Metamorphosis,’ there is a hesitation experienced by the protagonist, implied author or reader in deciding whether to attribute natural or supernatural causes to an unsettling event, or between rational or irrational explanations. Fantastic literature has also been defined as a piece of narrative in which there is a constant faltering between belief and non-belief in the supernatural or extraordinary event.

García Márquez confessed: ‘my most important problem was destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic.’ Isabel Allende was the first Latin America woman writer recognized outside the continent. Her most well-known novel, ‘The House of the Spirits,’ is arguably similar to García Márquez’s style of magical realist writing. Another notable novelist is Laura Esquivel, whose ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ tells the story of the domestic life of women living on the margins of their families and society. The novel’s protagonist, Tita, is kept from happiness and marriage by her mother. Her unrequited love and ostracism from the family lead her to harness her extraordinary powers of imbuing her emotions to the food she makes. In turn, people who eat her food enact her emotions for her. For example, after eating a wedding cake Tita made while suffering from a forbidden love, the guests all suffer from a wave of longing.

In the English speaking world, major authors include British Indian writer Salman Rushdie, African American novelist Toni Morrison, English author Louis de Bernières, and English feminist writer Angela Carter. Perhaps the best known is Rushdie, whose ‘…language form of magical realism straddles both the surrealist tradition of magic realism as it developed in Europe and the mythic tradition of magical realism as it developed in Latin America.’


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