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11 questions you're too embarrassed to ask about magical realism

Gabriel Garcia Marquez claps during a celebration for Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes' 80th birthday in Mexico City, on November 17, 2008.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez claps during a celebration for Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes' 80th birthday in Mexico City, on November 17, 2008.
RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty

While the public has adored fantasy novels for centuries, it wasn't until well into the twentieth century that novels containing fantastical elements started to receive literary acclaim. And no one author was more responsible for that change than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died this past Thursday, April 17. Marquez is considered one of the greatest Latin American authors to ever live, and one of the fathers of the literary genre magical realism.

So what is magical realism, exactly?

1. What is Realism?

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The Gleaners. A realist painting by Jean-Francois Millet.

Before we get into magical realism, let's talk about realism, the movement it was playing off of.

Realism began as an artistic movement in the 19th century around the work of visual artist Gustave Courbet. Before Courbet, artists of the Romantic period had produced work that idealized reality. Landscapes were more beautiful, emotions exaggerated, and bodies perfected.

After the 1848 revolution in France, artists began to reject this romanticization of life in favor of exact representations of reality. The poor were no longer cleaned up in paintings, and if the fruit in the painters basket rotted on the table, it was shown rotting on the canvas. This movement grew with the invention of photography, because artists were able to look at reality in a split moment of time and base paintings off of that instead of posed models. In literary realism, authors began trying to represent contemporary lives as they were, a prime example being George Eliot's Middlemarch, because the characters speak in the vernacular of the day and Eliot details all of their activities, including the banal ones.

2. What is Magical Realism?

Just as realism was a response to romanticism, magical realism was a reaction to realism. The term magical realism was introduced by Franz Roh, a German art critic in 1925. When Roh coined the term he meant it to create an art category that strayed from the strict guidelines of realism, but the term did not name an artistic movement until the 1940s in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Magical realism is most often used to describe the literary subgenre popularized by Latin American writers in the 1950s such as Jose Martí and Ruben Darío. Though every work of literature in this genre varies in its content and style, there are some characteristics that appear over and over again. The story must be set in a realistic environment with magical elements. Part of the draw of magical realism is that it blurs the line between realistic fiction and fantasy by adding in elements like the presence of dead characters in Toni Morrison's Beloved, fluidity of time in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, and telepathy in Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife.

Unlike in fantasy novels, authors in the magical realism genre deliberately withhold information about the magic in their created world in order to present the magical events as ordinary occurrences, and to present the incredible as normal, every-day life.

3. Can you give me an example of magical realism?

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Screenshot from the film adaption of Toni Morrison's Beloved

The following paragraph is from the very beginning of Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize winning novel, Beloved, which uses the techniques of magical realism to tell the story of Sethe and her family as they are haunted by a daughter that Sethe killed on her flight out of slavery.

"124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old-as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the door-sill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, the months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once-the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time."

4. When was magical realism popular?

There have been three major surges in magical realist literature. The first, began gaining recognition in the 1920s and 30s in Europe with writers like Franz Kafka and the German movement called "Neue Sachlichkeit." The movement became popular at this time because of Franz Roh's definition in 1923. He was a famous art critic at the time and his study of the magical realist movement can be credited with jumpstarting its production. This genre, however, focused heavily on philosophical critiques and was not nearly as popular the next magical realist surge.

The second existed in the 1940s and 50s in Latin America. These writers combined Roh's original theories of magical realism with French surrealist concepts of the marvelous, and their own indigenous mythologies.

Magical realism became popular worldwide during the "Boom Period" of 1962-1967 when Latin American literature took off internationally. During the 1960s and 70s, Latin America was in a period of political turmoil because of diplomatic strategies created by the Cold War. Writers in the region became unified around a common desire for nationalization after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when the eyes of the world turned to Latin America. One of the hallmarks of the Latin American boom and the popularity of the novels within this time period was the use of magical realism. Since then, many authors from around the world have used magical realism in their writings, but the most popular works of the genre continue to be from the Latin American boom.

5. What are some of the critical debates around magical realism?

Magical

graphic by Kelsey McKinney

From the beginning, magical realism has been a consistently debated topic. Initially, much of the criticism around magical realism has centered around the history and usage of the term itself, instead of the actual movement. Some believed the art movement should get the name, others the literary movement. It was hotly contested whether the literary movement should be called ‘magic realism' or ‘magical realism' because it did not directly descend from Roh's original definition.

Because the line between magical realism and fantasy, realism, "the marvelous," and surrealism is so fuzzy, many critics like Angel Flores at Queens college, have argued over whether or not certain writers can be considered magical realists. For example, even though Alejo Carpentier was the first to bring the term "magical realism" into Latin American literature, critics like Howard M. Fraser at the University of North Carolina have argued over whether or not his work can be classified as magical realism instead of simply fantastical. Many of these debates center around whether a given work should be recognized as literature as opposed to entertainment. Unlike fantasy and commercial fiction, magical realism is considered literary fiction instead of genre fiction, making it more reputable in the academic landscape, and more likely to win awards. In the case of Alejo Carpentier, because he wrote before the rise of magical realism, his work does not neatly fit into the genre.

Additionally, there have been cultural debates raised by Wendy B. Faris of the University of Texas at Arlington over magical realism and whether non-Latin American writers have appropriated it. Latin American writers want to claim their movement as the origin, the home, and the only true birthplace of magical realism. Because magical realism was popularized in countries that had been colonized, scholars like Brahim Barhoun of the University of Madrid see the adoption of magical realism into mainstream literature by commercial writers as cultural appropriation.

Western scholars like Eastern Illinois University's Gary Aylesworth want to group the magical realists in with Western postmodernist writers. Many writers could be considered both postmodernist and magical realist, but because much of the foundational national literary identity of Latin America hinges on magical realism, the controversy takes on significant social import, given the historical tendency of the literary establishment to ignore or belittle the work of non-Western writers. scholars of African American art like Izabela Penier have also claimed that magical realism functions as a voice for the oppressed and therefore cannot be lumped in with a larger movement.

But then again, Maria Takolander of Deakin University argues that the whole movement relies on "fakery" by presenting the lives of Latin Americans in fantastical terms and playing the fantasy off as somehow truer to their lives. Takolander notes that this isn't necessarily a criticism of magical realism so much as those who attempt to use it to understand real Latin American cultures.

6. Is magical realism political?

It can be. When magical realism made the transition from a word in a book in Europe to a literary genre in South and Central America, it also made a transition from a visually responsive genre to politically charged literature. Many, like Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, argued that magical realism was a natural fit for the Americas because indigenous communities there often did not draw as fixed of a line between the natural and the supernatural as their European counterparts. "Surrealism," Gabriel Garcia Marquez later said, "comes from the reality of Latin America."

In this quote Marquez sums up several of the major political issues that stem out of magical realism, the first being that fantasy has always been a part of the Latin American perspective, and that magical realism is not a colonial idea from Europe. It also proclaims a nationalistic sentiment: that Latin America has a culture, a life, and a purpose outside of being a colony. In the 1960's, as the world was beginning to nationalize, this was a statement for Latin American independence in the height of Cold War politics.

Magical realism in Latin America was often used by writers like Garcia Marquez to tell the stories of those on the fringes of society, which inherently became a critique of political power and influential people. Magical realism implicitly critiques society, and particularly critiques the elite because magical realism often tells the stories of people without wealth instead of focusing on the royalty of a region.. As a genre, magical realism has been used to critique politics from anti-imperialist, Marxist, feminist, and a combination of all three perspectives. What unites these writes politically is that they wrote from the margins of society, outside of the dominant power structures and central cultural centers.

7 . Was Gabriel Garcia Marquez a magical realist?

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Image by Ulf Andersen/Getty

Like most writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote in many different styles and genre throughout the breadth of his career. Many of his novels, novellas, and short stories use magical realism, and he is considered one of the fathers of the genre.

Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude was the first celebrated text that used magical realism, even though several great writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Alejo Carpentier, had written several novels (short stories in the case of Borges) in the style before him. Garcia Marquez's work became internationally famous, among other reasons, because — unlike many other Latin American writers — he did not write lengthy, multi-volume historical novels. He wrote rapidly paced novels in a simple and approachable style.

8. How has it influenced literature since?

Influenced

from left to right, Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea

After Marquez's famous 100 Years of Solitude, magical realism began to be used by writers outside of South and Central America. Salman Rushdie used fantastical elements to tell India's origin story in Midnight's Children. Toni Morrison used added touches of the supernatural to write about the horrors of slavery in America in Beloved.

A case could be made that magical realism and the Latin American "Boom" also paved the way for later literary movements by underrepresented groups like the postcolonial literature, and writers like Jean Rhys, Margaret Atwood, and Naguib Mahfouz who all wrote about finding a national and personal identity in the aftermath of colonial occupation.

9. Does magical realism exist in any other mediums?

Though the literary genre is certainly the most famous art form, magical realism also exists in fine art and film. In visual art, the genre existed before Franz Roh's definition in 1925. Because of the popularity of the literary genre, however, visual art in the magical realist style is often referred to as two different camps: new objectivity, or post-expressionism. Both groups hoped to show the natural world in a new light by manipulation, but they went about it in very different ways. Post-Expressionism (which is also called magical realism) rejected the abstract nature of Expressionism in favor of a return to realism with a touch of gravity. The New Objectivists took this theory a step farther by attempting to ignore the facts and specifics of reality in order to show its tempo. The three major commonalities between the genre are that they each sought to show ordinary subjects, in minute detail, with a sense of depth.

Magical realism is not considered an official genre in film, but many films contain elements of magical realism such as the presence of dead people and fantastical discoveries. In film, magical realism is often shown through gaps in the plot, and the heightening of cinematic color during the magical scene. Some examples include Like Water for Chocolate, The Green Mile, Amélie, and Midnight in Paris.

The comic book series Love and Rockets, by brothers Gilbert, Jaime, and Mario Hernandez, features stories by Gilbert set in a fictional Mexican town known as Palomar, which employ touches of magical realism.

10. Can I see some examples?

Here is a new objectivist painting by George Grosz entitled "The Poet Max Herrmann-Neise." In this piece Grosz presents a realistic scene: a man sits in his chair with a drink and a cigarette nearby, but the coloring and lack of exact perspective places makes Grosz a New Objectivist.

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Image courtesy of the New York MOMA

Here is a post-expressionist painting by Antoni Donghi titled "Due Canarini in Gabbia". Notice how Donghi presents what is a normal still life, but by creating a clean composition and using sharp lines creates a sense of stillness and gravity.

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Image courtesy of Scuola Romana

And here is the trailer for Amélie. The film requires a willingness to stretch the concepts of reality, and to accept unlikely coincidences. For example, the main plot of the film hinges on Amelie dropping a glass perfume bottle onto a tile floor upon hearing of Princess Diana's death only to discover beneath the tile a box of childhood memorabilia for a boy she determines to find.

11. I want to read some magical realism books. Do you have any recommendations?

Of course. Here are a few great books to start you off:

Ficcones by Jorge Luis Borges
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor

Also, read these 6 short works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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