Magic(al) realism

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Magic(al) realism

Magic(al) realism: In literature, a mode or genre in prose fiction often associated with postmodernism and characterized by a mixture of realistic and fantastic elements. Works of magic realism are set in the real world and treat the magical or supernatural as an inherent, even mundane part of reality requiring no explanation. They typically feature complex, tangled plots; abrupt chronological shifts and distortions of time; and a wealth of images, symbols, and emotional and sensory details. Dreamlike sequences are common, as is incorporation of the carnivalesque, folklore, and myths. Many magic realist works also address cultural hybridity and postcolonial themes, exploring the intersection of colonizers and the colonized, rural and urban folk, Western and indigenous peoples. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) (1967), which proclaims in the first paragraph “[t]he world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point,” is often said to be the prototypical magic realist text.

The phrase magic realism, a translation of the German magischer Realismus, was first used with regard to visual art — and with a different meaning. German art critic Franz Roh coined it in his essay “Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism” (1925) to describe the work of certain German and other European painters of the time, which featured hyperrealistic representations of figures, objects, and scenes that he viewed as revealing the magic inherent in the everyday. As Roh explained, “[i]t seems to us that this fantastic dreamscape [expressionism] has completely vanished and that our real world re-emerges before our eyes — bathed in the clarity of a new day”; the “new style … is thoroughly of this world… . It employs new techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning,” with “the magic of being.”

While the phrase quickly entered literary circles, it came to be associated particularly with Latin-American literature beginning in the late 1940s. Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri, whose novel Las lanzas coloradas (The Red Lances) (1931) is sometimes considered an early example of magic realism, first applied it to Latin-American literature in Letras y hombres de Venezuela (Venezuelan Men and Letters) (1948); subsequently, Puerto Rican literary critic Ángel Flores treated magic realism as an “authentic” Latin-American form in his essay “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” (1955), writing that the “novelty … consisted in the amalgamation of realism and fantasy.” Much Latin-American magic realism is also marked by the peoples and practices of indigenous cultures and by the enormous economic, political, and social turmoil in the region.

At the same time, Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier introduced a parallel concept, lo maravilloso real (the marvelous real), in the prologue to his novel El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World) (1949), which he explained in “Lo barroco y lo real maravilloso” (“The Baroque and the Marvelous Real”) (1975) as follows: “The marvelous real that I defend and that is our own marvelous real is encountered in its raw state, latent and omnipresent, in all that is Latin American. Here the strange is commonplace and always was commonplace.” Some critics equated Carpentier’s concept with magic realism; others, however, following Carpentier’s own lead, distinguished between the two. For instance, in Carpentier’s Baroque Fiction: Returning Medusa’s Gaze (2004), Steve Wakefield argued that the marvelous real reflected an interest “in depicting the reality of his native continent as inherently marvellous, without recourse to the supernatural.”

Primarily associated with Latin America, magic realism has gained popularity worldwide. Major Latin American practitioners aside from Márquez include Chilean writer Isabel Allende, Guatemalan novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias, and the Argentine writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Noted practitioners outside the region include Italo Calvino (Italian), John Fowles (English), Günter Grass (German), Haruki Murakami (Japanese), Toni Morrison (American), Ben Okri (Nigerian), and Salman Rushdie (British-Indian).

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977); Joyce Carol Oates’s Bellefleur (1980); Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981); Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984); Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) (1989); Okri’s The Famished Road (1991); Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001); and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (2015), which blends Gothic and fantasy fiction with magic realism. The protagonist of Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday (2005), a London neurosurgeon, takes a critical view of “the so-called magical realists,” whose works he views as “irksome confections … written for adults, not children,” musing:

What were these authors of reputation doing — grown men and women of the twentieth century — granting supernatural powers to their characters? … In more than one, heroes and heroines were born with or sprouted wings… . Others were granted a magical sense of smell, or tumbled unharmed out of high-flying aircraft. One visionary saw through a pub window his parents as they had been some weeks after his conception, discussing the possibility of aborting him.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), set in Paris, is imbued with magic realism, incorporating talking lamps, paintings, and photographs as well as a winking statue. Other contemporary examples of magic realism in film include Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh (1996), Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999), Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014).