Magic realism, or magical realism, is an aesthetic style in which magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even “normal” setting. It has been widely used in relation to literature, art, and film.
As used today the term is broadly descriptive rather than critically rigorous: Matthew Strecher has defined magic realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something ‘too strange to believe’. The term was initially used by German art critic Franz Roh to describe painting which demonstrated an altered reality, but was later used by the Venezuelan Arturo Uslar-Pietri to describe the work of certain Latin American writers. Today, there are many writers whose work falls under the category of magical realism.
The term magic realism was first used in 1925 by the German art critic Franz Roh to refer to a painterly style also known as Neue Sachlichkeit (the New Objectivity). It was later used to describe the unusual realism by American painters such as Ivan Albright, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker and other artists during the 1940s and 1950s. However, in contrast to its use in literature, when used to describe visual art, the term refers to paintings that do not include anything fantastic or magical, but are rather extremely realistic and often mundane.
The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier used the term “lo real maravilloso” (roughly “marvelous reality”) in the prologue to his novel The Kingdom of this World (1949). Carpentier’s conception was of a kind of heightened reality in which elements of the miraculous could appear while seeming natural and unforced. Early work by Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges and Juan Rulfo influenced the Latin American “boom” that emerged in the 1960s.
That said, perhaps the seminal work in the genre is Pedro Paramo (1955) by Juan Rulfo. Jorge Luis Borges once stated that Pedro Páramo is one of the best novels in Hispanic literature, or any literature.
Two of the major critical and commercial successes of Magic Realism are The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende; and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, both bestsellers. One Hundred Years of Solitude is widely considered the master work of the genre and perhaps the novel that has most shaped world literature over the past 25 years. Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel Laureate and author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, confessed, “My most important problem was destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic.”
Wendy Faris in her article “Scheherezade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction” examines how postmodernist examples of magical realism are frequently more accessible than their modernist predecessors: “Magic realist fictions do seem more youthful and popular than their modernist predecessors, in that they often (though not always) cater with unidirectional story lines to our basic desire to hear what happens next. Thus they may be more clearly designed for the entertainment of readers.”
The Mexican critic Luis Leal has said, “Without thinking of the concept of magical realism, each writer gives expression to a reality he observes in the people. To me, magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world,” or toward nature. He adds, “If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.
Although the term was first applied to literature of Latin America, it has become popular among English language writers as well. As recently as 2008, magical realism in literature has been defined as “a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the ‘reliable’ tone of objective realistic report. Designating a tendency of the modern novel to reach beyond the confines of realism and draw upon the energies of fable, folk tale, and myth while maintaining a strong contemporary social relevance. The fantastic attributes given to characters in such novels—levitation, flight, telepathy, telekinesis—are among the means that magic realism adopts in order to encompass the often phantasmagoric political realities of the 20th century.
Prominent English-language fantasy writers have stated that “magic realism” is only another name for fantasy fiction. Gene Wolfe said, “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”.
In Leal’s view, magical realism has a tropical (or llano [plains] or desert) context, but he says that the fiction of Julio Cortázar contains only “the fantastic”, not magical realism. He distinguished as follows: “In fantastic literature—in Borges, for example—the writer creates new worlds, perhaps new planets. By contrast, writers like García Márquez, who use magical realism, don’t create new worlds, but suggest the magical in our world.” But for him, even Cortázar’s short story “Casa Tomada”, about a brother and sister whose house is taken over by someone or something mysterious, is an example of the fantastic, not magical realism.
According to Naomi Lindstrom’s Twentieth-Century Spanish American Literature, magic realism is “A narrative technique that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. It is characterized by an equal acceptance of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Magic realism fuses (1) lyrical and, at times, fantastic writing with (2) an examination of the character of human existence and (3) an implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite.” The Venezuelan essayist and fiction writer Arturo Uslar-Pietri was especially eager to promote this literary mixture as an exceptional feature of Latin American literature. It was Arturo Uslar-Pietri who applied to Latin American writing a term taken from German art criticism, magical realism. By the 1960s this phrase was being taken up not only by critics but by ordinary readers for whom it summarized a quality they had been noticing in recent fiction. In the broadest terms, the phenomenon that seemed to be spreading through a sector of Spanish American writing was the co- occurrence of realism with fantastic, mythic, and magical. A secondary trait was the characteristic attitude of narrators toward the subject matter: they frequently appeared to accept events contrary to the usual operating laws of the universe as natural, even unremarkable. Though the tellers of astonishing tales, they themselves expressed little or no surprise. It is worth noting that Arturo Uslar-Pietri, in presenting his term for this literary tendency, always kept its definition open by means of a language more lyrical and evocative than strictly critical, as in this 1948 statement: “What came to dominate the story and to leave a lasting impression was the view of man as a mystery surrounded by realistic data. A poetic divination or denial of reality. Something that for lack of a better word could be called magical realism.” When academic critics attempted to define magical realism with scholarly exactitude, they discovered that it was more powerful than precise. Critics frustrated by their inability to pin down the term’s meaning have, in disgust, urged its complete abandonment. Yet in Arturo Uslar-Pietri’s vague, ample usage magical realism was wildly successful in summarizing for many readers their perception of much Spanish American fiction; this fact suggests that the term has its uses, so long as it is not expected to function with the precision expected of technical, scholarly terminology.”
Emory University’s “Introduction to Postcolonial Studies” defines the “characteristics of magical realism” as follows:
Hybridity—Magical realists incorporate many techniques that have been linked to post-colonialism, with hybridity being a primary feature. Specifically, magical realism is illustrated in the inharmonious arenas of such opposites as urban and rural, and Western and indigenous. The plots of magical realist works involve issues of borders, mixing, and change. Authors establish these plots to reveal a crucial purpose of magical realism: a more deep and true reality than conventional realist techniques would illustrate.
Irony Regarding Author’s Perspective—The writer must have ironic distance from the magical world view for the realism not to be compromised. Simultaneously, the writer must strongly respect the magic, or else the magic dissolves into simple folk belief or complete fantasy, split from the real instead of synchronized with it. The term “magic” relates to the fact that the point of view that the text depicts explicitly is not adopted according to the implied world view of the author. As Gonzales Echevarria expresses, the act of distancing oneself from the beliefs held by a certain social group makes it impossible to be thought of as a representative of that society.
Authorial Reticence—Authorial reticence refers to the lack of clear opinions about the accuracy of events and the credibility of the world views expressed by the characters in the text. This technique promotes acceptance in magical realism. In magical realism, the simple act of explaining the supernatural would eradicate its position of equality regarding a person’s conventional view of reality. Because it would then be less valid, the supernatural world would be discarded as false testimony.The Supernatural and Natural—In magical realism, the supernatural is not displayed as questionable. While the reader realizes that the rational and irrational are opposite and conflicting polarities, they are not disconcerted because the supernatural is integrated within the norms of perception of the narrator and characters in the fictional world.
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