Friday, August 20, 2010
Is it Magical Realism or Fantasy?
Magical Realism is a term first used by a German art critic, and over time, it evolved into a literary term. Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) is usually the writer most referenced when discussing Magical Realism, but other authors have employed his techniques, and now there are several whose work is held up as an example of the style of writing.
Sometimes, as authors, we use the term to describe a genre, but the elements of Magical Realism can be found in several genres. There are, however, similar threads that run through stories generally recognized as being Magical Realism.
Erroneously, Magical Realism is often described as fantasy, or science fiction. It is neither of these. Fantasy is speculative, allowing us to wonder, “What if vampires were real?” or “What if there were werewolves?” Magical realism, on the other hand, is always serious, and never escapist. It tries to convey the reality of a world view that exists, or did exist.
Magical Realism tells a story from the perspective of people who live in our world and experience a different reality. It shows the world through others’ eyes. In Magical Realism, unreal elements are very real. It invites the reader to see the world like fellow humans might see it. Elements of story portray the ordinary as astonishing, and the astonishing as ordinary.
Perhaps it is best explained by saying the reader of Magical Realism remains grounded in the real world, while experiencing a scene as another might see it. Fantasy, on the other hand, is not grounded in reality, but rather in the unreal.
Only by reading authors like Marquez, or a book like Leslie Silko’s Ceremony, can we fully understand what Magical Realism is. When well done, levitation and flying carpets, such as Marquez used in One Hundred Years of Solitude, leave us sorting through the experience long after the book is finished, trying to return to what we see as objective reality. As an example, read an excerpt from one of Marquez’ short stories. It opens with this:
“On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs
inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard
and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a
temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench.
The world had been a sad thing since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a
single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March
nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud
and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when
Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the
crabs, it was hard to see what it was that was moving and groaning
in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it
was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who,
in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his
The writing and scene is grounded in the real world, where an old man with wings lies on the ground.
Leave a comment and let me know if you've read any of Marquez’ books. Authors, do you use Magical Realism in telling your stories?