"My most important problem was destroying the lines of
demarcation that separates what seems real from
what seems fantastic." - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A DEFINITION OF MAGICAL REALISM
Many critics have had trouble coming up with a precise definition of Magical Realism (MR), and some have even expressed a desire to eschew the term completely. Certainly it seems to be a polymorphous concept, evoking different meanings for different people. For example, some posit that the term should apply only to works by artists from Latin America or Third World countries, while others feel it has become a global movement. (More on this below.) Below, though, is a very broad definition:
Magical Realism is a storytelling strategy in which the language and style of realism are interwoven with elements of fable, fantasy and magic.
On the one hand, MR showcases events contrary to the laws of science, e.g., the appearance of spirits, acts of levitation or communing with telepaths. On the other, the Magical Realist tale is set within a realistic, believable framework. In addition, people within this kind of narrative (including the narrator if there is one, and there often is) express no surprise when supernatural events occur; indeed, they are deemed normative. Writer Angel Flores has stated that those who practice MR hold on to reality "as if to prevent their myth from flying off, as in fairy tales, to supernatural realism". Thus, MR can be viewed as a hybridization, as it fuses two broad-based, diametrically opposed perspectives: one entrenched in a rational view of reality, and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as an integral part of everyday existence.
According to some
critics, MR differs from fantasy or science fiction primarily because it does
not include creatures such as unicorns, witches or aliens, nor does it deal with time
travel; instead, it is set in a normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans
and society. Flores, writing in 1955, claimed that MR involves the fusion of
reality -- based on natural or physical laws of science -- and the remarkable, or as he
claims, "an amalgamation of realism and fantasy" (Bahri). It conjures up
enchanted worlds where the usual Western notions of modernity, progress and rationality
are challenged by magical believes, religious faith, mysticism, dreams, oral storytelling
traditions, and folk tales. In addition, Magical Realism also plays up our link to nature.
Since tradition tends to associate nature with females (i.e., Mother Nature, the Wicca
religion, etc.), so Magical Realist works tend to feature central characters who are
MAGICAL REALISM AND THE VOICE OF THE OTHER
Many Magical Realist writers either live in or have roots in postcolonial countries, i.e., locales that are so-called "primitive" or "underdeveloped," mostly in the Caribbean, Africa, Latin American and India, where Westerners have tried "civilize," i.e., impose their own values on, natives.* These Magical Realist writers, who use allegory and metaphor to reflect social, political and cultural undertones, thus imbue their works with a sense of tension between the collision of cultures. Magical Realisms mystical roots tend to subvert the established norms of mainstream society by supplying a world view that challenges Western norms. This means that Magical Realist stories often give expression to what are normally considered marginal forces in our lives, including the voices on the fringes of society the world over people who are oppressed by language, political or religious beliefs, race, gender, caste, sexual preference, etc. Also, inherent in Magical Realisms revolt against the status quo is the way it criticizes mainstream society, particularly the upper class. Thus, Magical Realism honors the rich diversity that exists among people all over the globe.
As a corollary, many
Magical Realist texts dwell on borders (Sleman, 13), and push for their destabilization
or even their dissolution, à la the lyrics in John Lennons song
"Imagine": "Imagine theres no countries..." But in addition to
doing away with
geographical demarcations, MR also propounds the erasure of other
"borders" social borders which separate characters, such as hierarchies
of class or caste; rural and urban; indigenous vs. colonization or Westernization; the
real and the supernatural; the past and the present; fact and fiction; and, the
inexplicable and the empirical (Sellman). (NOTE: This preoccupation with borders is a
noticeable trait of MR films Like Water for Chocolate and Men With Guns.)
MAGICAL REALIST LITERARY WORKS
Among the best-known literary works of MR are the 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, written by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but Garcia Marquez did not invent magical realism. Even Alejo Carpentier, who in the 1940s coined the term lo real maravilloso, or "the marvelous in the real," did not initiate the original working definition of Magical Realism. In fact, the movement became linked with the moniker "Magical Realism" only in the past few decades, fueled by works from Latin and South America. However, MR is considerably older, as evinced in centuries-old literary works.
Such works include The Thousand And One Arabian Nights. Then theres Miguel de Cervantes, whom some have dubbed a seminal figure in MR, thanks to his 1605 novel Don Quixote. Metamorphosis, a 1915 story from Czech writer Franz Kafka, is a classic example of 20th-century, European-based MR, as is Virginia Woolfs 1928 novella Orlando: A Biography, about a young aristocrat who lives for more than 300 years and changes into a female about half-way through the story. More recently, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Louise Erdichs The Beet Queen, and New Zealand writer Keri Hulme's The Bone People have proffered various degrees of MR. Gunther Grasse, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel The Tin Drum (which was adapted into a much lauded motion picture), also imbues that work about a young German boy who is so aghast at what is happening in Germany under the Nazis rule that he wills himself not to grow with elements of MR. Thus, the movement is not unique to Latin and South America but is an international phenomenon with a long history.
MAGICAL REALISM IN THE CINEMA
The hallmarks of MR have lent themselves to stunning cinematic interpretation. Both filmic adaptations of great works of literature and in original films, touches of magical realism have shown up, often to great effect, as in the examples listed below:
The Red Violin
Le Mur (The Wall)
Being John Malkovich
*Thus, Native and African Americans in the United States and Australia’s indigenous peoples, although living in Western countries, have become Magical Realists.
Bahri, Deepika. <http://www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/MagicalRealism.html>
Flores, Angel. "Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction."
Magical Realism. Theory, History, Community. Lois Parkinson Zamora & Wendy B. Faris, Eds. Durkham, N.C: Duke University Press. 1995.
Kim, Sun Mi. "Exploring Magical Realism." Interview with Tamara Kaye Sellman. <http://www.iamvalley.com/story_display/story_display.html>
Slemon, Stephen. "Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse." Canadian Literature 116 (1988): 9 - 24.
On Line Links of Interest:
Read an on-line student paper outlining the important facets of MR