Many readers know about fantasy fiction. Paranormal and supernatural tales are burning up the charts. Few people realize that there is a sister genre, nestled in the cracks of literature: Magical Realism.
Step into the Way-Back-Machine with me to my middle school. There, my Spanish teacher, a burly Brazilian bodybuilder, introduced me to the genre. It was no mistake, as the concept was born in Latin America. The concept of these stories is a perfectly normal, rational world, but with one magical element.
In magical realisms, the common and mundane are transformed into the amazing and unreal. It’s a genre of surprises. Time is fluid, pulling the reader into the unusual.
Need some examples? How about Like Water for Chocolate? The novel by Laura Esquivel shows the domestic life of women in a small town. Yet the protagonist, Tita, can’t achieve happiness because of her mother. She imbues her emotions into the food she makes. Those that partake of her delicacies, enact those emotions for her. For example, Tita suffers from forbidden love, and she infuses this emotion into a wedding cake. The guests to eat the cake, all suffer from severe longing.
Here’s a clip from Tita’s magical meal.
Another perfect example is Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1912). Here an office worker awakes one day to discover that he’s been transformed into a cockroach. His family must then deal with his new insect form.
A comic adaptation of Metamorphosis that I adore.
Many movies also fall into the magical realism arena, such as: Being John Malkovich, Big Fish, Black Swan, City of Angels, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Many fantasy writers scoff at the idea that this is a unique genre, saying that magical realism is simply another name for fantasy fiction.
Gene Wolfe stated, “magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish,” and Terry Pratchett said magic realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” Yet there are differences. Most notably the use of
antinomy, or the simultaneous presence of two conflicting codes. When you read fantasy, there’s an internal logic, rules, to the universe. In magical realism key events have no logical explanation. Why can Tita infuse food with emotion? There is no reason. She just can.
It’s this element that so fascinates me. In a world where every motivation needs to be explained and teased apart, it’s a relief to say it happened just because. Magical realism includes events that don’t fit into any world, anywhere.
Gabriel García Márquez, a Colombian writer, uses of magical realism to blend reality and fantasy so that the reader can’t tell the difference. In his story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, an angel falls to the Earth because of a violent rainstorm. The reality of the situation is never doubted. Although the angel is a magical being, he is treated in a realistic way. Here’s the start to the story.
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Children
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
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 sad 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 for him 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 enormous wings.
Frightened by that nightmare, Pelayo ran to get Elisenda, his wife, who was putting compresses on the sick child, and he took her to the rear of the courtyard. They both looked at the fallen body with a mute stupor. He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away and sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice. That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway from some foreign ship wrecked by the storm. And yet, they called in a neighbor woman who knew everything about life and death to see him, and all she needed was one look to show them their mistake.