magic realism (Writer)


Magic realism is a style of fiction writing that combines elements of fantasy and reality without any clear delineation between the two. Though elements of fantasy in literature can be found throughout history, it is the particular relationship between the fantastic and the real that characterizes magic realism’s unique flavor. Though it had some precedent in European literature, particularly in the work of Franz kafka, magic realism was primarily developed in post-World War II Latin America.

The Latin-American literary ancestor of magic realism was Jorge Luis borges, who used fantasy in his short stories as a means of exploring philosophical mysteries. In the 1960s, the generation after Borges—Gabriel garda mArquez, Carlos fuentes, Mario vargas llosa, and Alejo carpentier, all important contributors to the development of the magical-realist style—came to the world’s attention. It was clear there was a Latin-American renaissance in progress and that magic realism would make an important contribution to world literature.

Critical Analysis

Magic realism demonstrates the presence of a hidden layer of reality behind the appearance of the natural world and human society. This effect is achieved both by presenting the incredible in a straightforward manner and by describing the commonplace as mysterious. Both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Alejo Carpentier have said that magic realism is an effect that is based not in fantasy but in Latin-American reality.

A humorous example of this can be found in Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), in which a child is born with the tail of a pig. Garcia Marquez chose this particular “stigma” specifically because of its unreality. The episode reinforces the carefully balanced themes of what is real versus the absurd and fantastic. After the book was published, people from all over Latin America came forward, admitting to having been born with a pig’s tail. Having read One Hundred Years of Solitude, they realized that it was only natural and that they were no longer embarrassed to admit it. The outrageousness of the incident and the readers’ reactions to it force readers to consider the absurdity in everyday life and society.

Many of the Latin-American magic-realist writers spent time in Europe, particularly France, and were exposed to surrealism and its use of the absurd. Though the influence of surrealism on magic realism is unquestionable, it is magic realism’s relationship to truth that sets it apart. The surrealists used fantasy and absurdity to attack conventional ideas of reality; the magic realists created substitute ideas of reality in hope of coming closer to psychological and metaphysical truths.

In this way, the fantastic elements of magic realism take on the stature of myths. Myths, although not able to be proved by science or history, have a kind of accuracy about the nature and needs of humanity and the world. Because of their connection to some inner aspect of human consciousness, myths have a power beyond that of mere fantasy. Magic realism attempts to use this mythic force.

Another distinguishing feature of magic-realist novels is their relationship to history. Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, as well as Garcia Marquez and Carpentier, combine specific details of Latin-American history with fantastical elements in their works.

In Terra Nostra (1975), Fuentes uses magic realism as a means to recount and analyze the history of Spain and Latin America. The book is unquestionably about the history of the Hispanic world, but the use of the fantastic allows Fuentes to give the events a sense of universality.

Vargas Llosa, however, embellishes history with fantasy for the purpose of making an ideological critique in a dramatic and nondidactic way. To a lesser degree, this is also Garcia Marquez’s strategy in One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which he combines the actual events of Columbian history with a mythical story of the imaginary town Macondo to critique Latin-American politics and U.S. imperialism. Perhaps it is this perfect synthesis of the two powers of magic realism that makes One Hundred Years of Solitude the generally acknowledged masterpiece of the genre.

Isabel allende, though not one of the inventors of magic realism, adopted a style similar to Garda Marquez’s. In her novel The House of the Spirits (1982), Allende uses magic realism to convey a feminist perspective on Latin-American history and culture. Some readers have even seen in Allende’s novels a feminist critique of magic realism itself.

American writer Toni Morrison has also been called a magic realist. Her work, particularly her novel Beloved (1987), employs the characteristic use of the fantastic to reveal metaphysical truth and confront the historical injustice of slavery.

Magic realism, when it is most successful, goes beyond itself to penetrate into unrecognized truths. It engages history in a way that realism cannot. Realism, our sense of what is subjective and what is objective in reality, is, in a certain sense, determined by history. The extraordinary success of magic realism demonstrated, both in Latin America and throughout the world, that traditional realism, dominant into the 20th century, is no longer necessarily the best mode for expressing the drama of contemporary life.

Works about Magic Realism

Angulo, Maria-Elena. Magic Realism: Social Context and Discourse. New York: Garland, 1995.

Mellen, Joan. Magic Realism. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.

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