Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Magical Realism

I think I’ve discovered why I love Magical Realism so much.

Magical realism as a term describing a genre of literature was initially coined by a Venezuelan critic in the 1960s and was used to apply to a specific type of Latin American literature. The expression gained currency after Nobel Prize winner Miguel Angel Asturias used the it to describe the style of his novels and it has since been widely applied among Latin American novelists – Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and many more. (It isn’t limited to Latin American authors however; the works of Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri among others have also been labelled magical realism.)

One article I found online here claims that magical realism is “a literary mode rather than a distinguishable genre” and “aims to seize the paradox of the union of opposites”. In the works of Allende, this is often manifested in her juxtaposition of the supernatural alongside the earthly, or in Gárcia Márquez simply by incorporating elements of the fantastic, almost surreal, into plausible stories grounded in reality. In Latin America in the 1940s, “magical realism was a way to express the realistic American mentality and create an autonomous style of literature” and I believe this statement still holds true today. One of my favourite aspects of literature is how it can be used to effect social change or to embody a collective cultural passion or goal and I suppose I’m drawn to works of magical realism partly because the works of Latin American authors in particular are very distinctive and disparate from most other genres or movements in literature I’ve encountered and partly because I believe in magic and spirits and relish the fact that in much magical realism these aspects of life are brought to the fore and accepted as part of the natural order of things. I’d far rather magical realism than gritty realism!

Besides these aspects there is another factor which keeps me returning to magical realism, and I only identified it recently while reading one of the earliest works of magical realism to emerge from Latin America – The Obscene Bird of Night by Chilean author José Donoso. It is certainly the most challenging novel I’ve read in the last six months and maybe longer than that. I’m still not quite sure what is real in the story and what is not, or even who is real and who is not. I am sure that everyone in the novel is insane to varying degrees. The key story is that a son of one of the oldest aristocratic families in the country is born a hideously deformed monster. In shame, his father hides him from the world, but out of love and pity for his child, but also reflecting his aristocratic heritage and outlook, sets the monster up in a fantasy world populated by freaks gathered from around the continent. The world is entirely enclosed and self sufficient, and the aristocratic monster is bought up as king and groomed to believe he is the epitome of physical perfection. A normal human being seems unbelievably deformed and ugly to him. One day he manages to escape his fantasy world and spends some days in the outside world where his notions of reality and social order are destroyed as he is taunted and called a freak in a world that seems to him to be populated with freaks. In his misery he returns to his fake kingdom and plots to destroy his father and erase his memories of his new knowledge through a lobotomy. This whole story is narrated by Humberto, his father’s servant who inhabits the world of freaks and reports back to the monster’s father. Humberto appears to be severely delusional whether on purpose or not, and narrates several different realities at once changing names and places and events until nothing is certain.

There is much more to the novel and several more storylines, but I couldn’t relate them properly even if I wanted to. The main point I’m trying to get to is that this book was so much more extreme than anything else I have read in the magical realist mode that it prompted me to consciously and consistently analyse everything I read and led me to examine my own position as a reader. I had to make choices on how to read the book; Humberto’s stream-of-consciousness narrative pulled me into the story and made me question everything from what and who was real, what was symbolism, the nature of truth and reality, whether as reader I should judge Humberto or any of the other characters, whether the techniques the author was using were effective and how I was being provoked into thinking one thing by the narrator but after the next comma being told something different. The novel made me look at myself and my beliefs and how I see the world and threw it back at me to be questioned again. I felt like I was finally finding my feet as a reader and gaining some kind of understanding of what it means to read with awareness.


Dorothy W. said...

I enjoyed your discussion of magical realism -- I like the idea that it can include parts of human experience that "gritty realism" avoids.

Stefanie said...

I really enjoy magical realism which to me, a person who likes to read in the fantasy genre, seems a combination of realism and fantasy, a sort of middle ground between the two. I know some readers have a hard time with it. I was in a book group once and we read Like Water for Chocolate and many in the group had a hard time with it.

Danielle said...

I went through a big phase where I read lots of books writing in Magical Realism. I think I read most of Allende's earlier work and several books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I should try reading some non-Latin American authors writing in this style, too.