Magical Realism In 6 Minutes: Literary Fantasy or Fantastic Literature? 📚

Magical realism is an interesting word combination that is used often, but usually with little understanding. If you’ve seen the Netflix series, Narcos, you might recognize this quote: 

“Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.” 

While it sounds very profound, there’s not much truth to it. Most sources would tell you that magical realism was born in Germany. It came to prominence thanks to Franz Roh, an art critic who coined the term in 1925 to describe modern realist paintings with fantasy or dream-like subjects. 

So, what is magical realism? Isn’t this term a contradiction? Is magical realism just a variation of the fantasy genre? Let’s investigate!

The roots of magical realism go back much further than Franz Roh. See, for example, Nikolay Gogol’s short story, The Nose, originally published in 1836. In the story, the main character loses his nose, that nose becomes a man, that man walks the streets of St. Petersburg, and that fact doesn’t shock a single character.

Among a multitude of sources and definitions, magical realism fits closely with the vision of Alejo Carpentier, a Cuban novelist who became obsessed with “the marvelous real.” Carpentier describes magical realism as “an unexpected alteration of reality, an unaccustomed insight that is singularly favored by the unexpected richness of reality or an amplification of the scale and categories of reality.” To paraphrase, it is a style of writing fiction that is deeply rooted in reality, describing it in such detail that the overwhelmed readers don’t question supernatural things that casually enter the mix.

So, what is required of magical realism? Let’s break it down to its core elements:

1. It has to be rooted in reality

You’ve got to keep it real — sorry, JK Rowling (and nothing to do with your Twitter activity), but you wouldn’t be let into the magical realism club with Harry Potter. You created an entire world for that book (not that we wouldn’t want to live in that world as long as You Know Who remains out of it). The term Magical realism puts strong stress on the word realism, which means that, first and foremost, fictional events of the narrative should take place in a very ordinary world. This will provide a ‘credibility’ loan to use towards the next important characteristic of the genre:

2. Nonchalantly introduced supernatural elements

This is where the magic kicks in. The material could be borrowed from folk stories, myths, or completely novel ideas. Some ghosts or witches might make an appearance, although not to perform things typically expected from them. They might ride an occasional broomstick, like Bulgakov’s Margarita, but that would just be a means to an end, say to attend an important social event hosted by the Devil. 

In contrast with fantasy novels, there is no structure or explanation of the magical oddities offered to the reader. This helps to blur the line between fiction and fantasy. The characters themselves react emotionally (if at all) instead of questioning how it all works. This resembles a kind of narrative we create in our dreams, which often does not make any rational sense, and yet is never questioned. 

3 Social commentary

The reason why magical realism has no problem winning Pulitzers and other awards is that it uses the magical factor to bring forward progressive ideas and political commentary. Commitment to reality makes it a powerful tool for commenting on such grave subjects as fascism, racism, and colonialism. As a result, Latin American writers have often played an important role in the popularisation and development of the genre.

During the 1960s and 70s, Latin America experienced a state of political turmoil because of the diplomatic strategies of the Cold War. The Cuban revolution of 1959 turned the world’s attention to Latin America, which certainly influenced the ‘Boom Period’ of Latin American literature at the time.

There is a book that Narcos’s Pablo Escobar probably had in mind when he claimed the birth of magical realism as Colombian (although we now know that is not true). It is Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” a novel that tells the story of the Buendia family and of Macondo, the town they built. Seamlessly blending Colombian political reality with magical realism, the novel, which The New York Times called “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history,” achieved sales of approximately 50 million worldwide, was published in 44 languages, and is the most translated Spanish-language book after Don Quixote. A landmark work of magical realism, it is a story where, according to critic Harold Bloom, “everything conceivable and inconceivable is happening at once.”

Of course, there are many other well-known Latin American writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, whose work could also be categorized as magical realism. However, neither do all Latin American writers work in the magical realism genre, nor does the genre limit itself to one place or time. Many wonderful works of magical realism have been written since the mid-20th century, including: 

  • ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison,
  • ‘Midnight’s Children’ by Salman Rushdie
  • ‘Kafka on the Shore’ by Haruki Murakami
  • ‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid, and
  • ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ by Ahmed Saadawi

Now that you’ve heard it all, what do you think about magical realism? Do you agree with the notion that it could be understood as a post-colonial move to resist European realism? Have you read any of the books mentioned and, if so, what did you think?  

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