An old man with enormous wings appears in a Colombian village; a girl of unearthly beauty ascends to heaven while hanging out her sister-in-law's sheets; it rains for four years, seven months and eleven days until boredom turns to apocalypse and a biblical hurricane sweeps the town away. In fiction described by the term "magical realism," miracles, myths, and monsters mix with the mundane, and fantastical events are narrated as if they were everyday occurrences.
What is Real?
These are all events from Gabriel García Márquez's fiction—which is considered to be the defining example of magical realism, despite the author's refusal of the label. He protests that he is not a magical realist but a realist, and that there isn't a single thing in his fiction that hasn't really happened to him or someone he knows.
The Colombian author's point is well taken: the question of what is real is at the heart of magical realism. García Márquez implies that our notions of reality are too limited—that reality includes magic, miracles and monsters, and that we don't need to go around inventing special terms to describe it. By making things happen in his fictional world of Macondo that do not happen in most novels (or in most readers' experiences either), the author asks us to question our assumptions about our world, and to examine our certainties about ourselves and our community. Because the magical events in Macondo are presented matter-of-factly, our own sense of what is possible is amplified and enriched. Ordinary objects and events are enchanted. As the gypsy Melquíades says in the first paragraph of the novel, "Things have a life of their own. It's simply a question of waking up their souls."
Bridging the Cultural Divide
García Márquez also suggests that cultures and countries differ in what they call "real." It is here that magical realism serves its most important function, because it facilitates the inclusion of alternative belief systems. It is no coincidence that magical realism is flourishing in cultures such as Mexico and Colombia, where European and indigenous cultures have mixed, with the result that ancient myths are often just beneath the surface of modernity.
It's not just in Latin America where Western and non-Western cultures have converged. Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate alongside García Márquez, writes novels that depend upon African cultural sources to describe American settings. American writers Leslie Silko and Louise Erdrich incorporate Pueblo and Ojibway cultural traditions.
As these examples suggest, women's fiction may be especially attuned to the "magic" in real places and people. The Chilean writer Isabel Allende proposes the wonderful world of clairvoyant women in her magical realist novel The House of the Spirits, and the Mexican writer Laura Esquivel makes the kitchen the site of magic in Like Water for Chocolate. To enter into the fictional worlds of these women writers is to enter into "real" worlds like García Márquez's Macondo, where magic comes naturally, as a simple, everyday occurrence.
Turning Proof on its Ear
Magical realism engages belief systems that defy rational, empirical (scientific) proof. So, too, do science fiction and fantasy and gothic romance. But the crucial difference is that magical realism sets magical events in realistic contexts, thus requiring us to question what is "real," and how we can tell. Magical realism undermines our certainties, and we eventually accept (often without authorial explanation) the fusion, or co-existence, of contradictory worlds—worlds that would be irreconcilable in other modes of fiction. Magical realist fiction is not "either/or" but "both at once."
Published on January 20, 2004