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Why Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism is so enduring

The writer would have been 91 years old today.

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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Gabriel García Márquez, whose 91st birthday is the subject of today’s Google Doodle, was an undisputed giant of 20th century literature. He gave the world 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. He won a Nobel Prize, and after his death in 2014, the president of García Márquez’s native Colombia called him “the greatest Colombian who ever lived.” Part of what makes García Márquez so important and so beloved is the work he did to popularize magical realism.

Magical realism is a literary genre that’s grounded in reality but in which miraculous and magical things may happen at any moment. In a García Márquez book, a dead man’s blood may run across multiple streets and up and down staircases, into a house — “hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs” — through a pantry and into the kitchen where the dead man’s mother is cooking. There can be flying carpets and ghosts who grow old, and all of it will feel perfectly natural and real.

During his life, García Márquez said he wrote magical realism because that’s just how life was in Latin America. “In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets,” he told the Atlantic in 1973. “Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” He explained what he meant:

About two weeks before he talked, a newsman had called to ask García for his reaction to an occurrence in a rural Colombian town. About ten in the morning at a small school, two men pulled up in a truck and said, “We came for the furniture.” Nobody knew anything about them, but the schoolmaster nodded, the furniture was loaded onto the truck and driven off, and only much later was it understood that the truckmen were thieves.

“Normal,” says García.

Some writers influenced by García Márquez, like Salman Rushdie, argue that magical realism is a specifically postcolonial literary technique and that it works to its fullest effect in interaction with countries that have been colonized. García Márquez’s magical realism, wrote Rushdie in 1982, “expresses a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness. It deals with what [V.S.] Naipaul has called ‘half-made’ societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called ‘North’, where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what’s really going on.”

For García Márquez, what made magical realism both novel and effective was the interaction between its two halves: the way the magical flows seamlessly into the real, heightening the effect of both. He was influenced, he said, by the way his grandmother told stories:

“She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. … What was most important was the expression she had on her face.

She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories, and everyone was surprised. In previous attempts to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.”

It’s the brick face next to the flying carpet — the real next to the magical — that makes García Márquez’s work so vivid and affecting, more emotionally true than the most sternly accurate piece of literary realism.

Or, as García Márquez put it: “In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.”

Correction: A previous version of this post referred to García Márquez’s last name as Marquez only. We regret the error.

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