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Magic Realism: Carol Birch

The term magic realism was originally applied to French and German surrealist artists in the 1920s. The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier was the first to use it in relation to fiction, in the prologue to The Kingdom of This World (1949), his novel about the Haitian Revolution. In this, Carpentier fused realism with Afro-Caribbean folk traditions to convey a history of oppression and slavery, a world in which reason appears to have broken down. Carpentier's novel made time fluid, synchronous, and looping rather than linear. Magic realism was, he claimed, ‘exclusive to the Americas’, arising from the singular history of the New World, the only sane response in the face of overwhelming insanity being to spin off into the dream-sense of wild imaginings and make of it something profound and uplifting.

Granted, magic realism has seen a remarkable flowering in Latin America, but when we look at its typical elements—myth, dream, religion, the fantastic and absurd—it's clear that the thing itself is as old as time and as widespread as story-telling. What distinguishes magic realism from straightforward fantasy is that its roots are firmly in this world. The great otherworlds—Narnia, Gormenghast, Ringworld—are pure fantasy. Magic realism builds an alternative reality upon recognizable foundations—Moscow, London, India—but strangely moulds and bends them, affording the magical elements the same status as the mundane. Elements of magic realism turn up in writers from Dickens to Steinbeck. It thrives on chaos. For this reason it has lent itself readily as the voice of the colonized, the uprooted, and oppressed. Fractured realities, however, can take any number of forms.

Franz Kafka's The Trial (1925) is magic realism. A true classic of alienation with its famous opening: ‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning,’ The Trial is always sinister and often nightmarish. K. is never told what he's supposed to have done but is guilty by dint of his very existence. Human life is an insoluble enigma, the world absurd and menacing, existence pointless. K.'s story is told in sharp, measured prose, as is The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), by another Czech writer, Milan Kundera. Though set in Prague just after the Soviet invasion, this derives its power less from politics than philosophical sophistication. Taking as its starting-point Nietzsche's theory of eternal return, it unfolds the erotic, gently meandering tale of Tomas and Tereza, a philandering surgeon and his wife. Kundera confronts the nihilism of Kafka and pushes through to the weightlessness of acceptance.

The same techniques, of dislocation and the endless recurrence of events in a version of time that is whole and round rather than fixed and linear, can be used in an aptly unlimited number of ways. Take The Master and Margarita, in which the Devil, a man called Woland, appears in Moscow with his familiars, a monstrous cat and a naked girl. All hell breaks loose, literally. Inexplicably, in the midst of the madness Woland takes under his wing the Master and Margarita, a writer in an asylum and the woman he loves. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote this under Stalinist oppression between 1928 and 1938. It was not published till thirty years after his death. The symbolism is clear when one learns that Stalin for some reason protected Bulgakov at a time when writers were being persecuted. Chaotic, garish, and violent, The Master and Margarita is a dazzling nightmare.

Similarly unrestrained and energetic is Salman Rushdie, who uses magic realist techniques to express the mingling of east and west. Saleem Sinai, in Midnight's Children (1981) epitomizes the post-colonial voice. One of the thousand and one children born at midnight on the dawn of India's independence, Saleem tells stories which teem and multiply in an anarchic cocktail of history, myth, and popular culture. As a liberating device for the writer, magic realism is wonderfully efficient; any law can be broken. A master law-breaker is Gabriel García Márquez. Like Rushdie a born story-teller, García Márquez is humorous, gentle, and humane. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) relates the history of the mythical Colombian shanty town of Macondo, home of the mystical Buendia family, for whom ghosts are real and time exists as in dreams, obeying no laws.

Chilean writer Isabel Allende is often compared to García Márquez. The House of the Spirits (1985) tells the Trueba family saga up to the period after the Chilean coup in 1973, in which Allende's own uncle was assassinated. Patriarchy here is represented by the conservative Esteban Trueba, spirit and intuition by his telepathic wife Clara. Allende's perspective is staunchly feminist and deeply romantic, qualities found with darker, more sinister tones in Angela Carter's work. Carter loved fairy-tales and retold them lushly and brilliantly in The Bloody Chamber (1979). Melanie, the orphaned adolescent heroine of The Magic Toyshop (1967) is also in a fairy-tale, though it masquerades as ‘melancholy, down-on-its-luck South London’. Sent from the country to live in the house of her frightening Uncle Philip and his bullied family, dumb Aunt Margaret and two red-haired Irish brothers, Melanie's sexual awakening takes place in a quaint, nightmarish world, rich in Gothic and Freudian tints. Eroticism is well served by magic realism. Leopold Bloom's sado-masochistic fantasies in Ulysses (1922) are essentially magic realism, as is the scene that concludes Carlos Fuentes' Terra Nostra (1975), in which the sex act becomes a startlingly literal fusion of two bodies, and exaggeration overflows into an image of cosmic procreation that sends us spinning back to Genesis.

In fact, if you are at all interested in magic realism, Terra Nostra is crucial reading. It is a vast erudite book, rich, poetic, and mystical. Here time has thrown off all constraints. History is scrambled: Philip II of Spain marries Elizabeth Tudor, a boy falls into the Seine and is washed up on a beach in the past, the past invades the present, and all stages of history coexist.

Not surprisingly, given the vivid fairy lore and troubled history of Ireland, a dose of magic realism seems to run through its writers' veins. Joyce certainly has it, as do James Stephens, and Samuel Beckett of course; but perhaps one of the most sublime pieces ever is Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, completed in 1940 but, in a scenario familiar from Bulgakov, not published for another twenty-seven years and then only after the writer's death. Quite unlike anything else, The Third Policeman is a comic nightmare set in a recognizable rural Ireland, in which such banal entities as bumbling village policemen are keepers of the secrets of infinity, watchers at the gates of a cosily familiar but skewed hell. O'Brien had already tampered with time in At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), in which a rag-bag of characters from Irish folklore, Hollywood, and the Dublin pub scene set off together on a hilarious ramble. This is the book in which the narrator's own characters turn upon him and demand autonomy.

O'Brien and others strike at the very foundations of fiction, the distinction between the creator and the creation; they assume the right of the created to fight back, the creator to appear as a character and participate in the action, much as the Word became flesh. Other writers who have played this game are John Fowles and Paul Auster, but the Italian writer Italo Calvino took a sideways step with the conceit in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979). From the first line he involves the reader as a participant along with himself: ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel.’ It is a book about You, the reader of books. Intrigued, you follow into a chilly possible spy story which dumps you abruptly, as the fictional You, the Reader, finds that his book is defective and returns it to the shop. There the Reader meets Ludmilla, who also has a defective copy of the book If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. The plot thickens as you follow the obviously attracted but circumspect pair on a quest through the repeatedly frustrated beginnings of ten separate novels, the first lines of which, when put together, make Zen-like sense.

Calvino's sophistication anticipates the short fictions of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Magic realism readily combines the scientific and the spiritual, and Borges is the prime example of this. He can appear dry at first, mathematically measured and academic in style, formidably intellectual in tone. Closer attention, however, reveals a liberated imagination, a gently ironic eye, and a profound spirituality. Borges is ideal for browsing. Dip in and come up with a delicate alchemical gem such as The Rose of Paracelsus (in Shakespeare's Memory, 1983), or a disorienting theological riddle like Three Versions of Judas (in Labyrinths, 1953). Borges presents life as a labyrinth, a fermentation of endless conundrums, unknowable but ineffably beautiful. If magic realism is story-telling freed to be as playful and profound as it likes, then Borges is its ultimate practitioner.

But it's a broad church and this is only a little of what's out there. Try also Luisa Valenzuela, Mario Vargas Llosa, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Emma Tennant, Juan Rulfo, Peter Carey, Günter Grass … the list goes on.


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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionAuthors on Fiction