Understanding Genre Forms

Magic Realism

Guest Article by,

Bruce B Taylor

“(Third Law:) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” --Arthur C. Clarke (1)

Wherein lies the line between sorcery and science? It is only a matter of terminology, my friend.” --Alan Dean Foster (2)

“Magic Realism developed seemingly alongside particle physics that ends up with Quantum Physics and multiple universes; this is how modern physics describes reality and it’s no different than how Magic Realism describes reality: Magic Realism is Literature’s Quantum Physics.” --Bruce Taylor (3)

Some twenty years ago, I became familiar with a term called “Magic Realism”. Through much of my adult writing life, I had been writing in a mode called, for lack of a better term at the time, “Surrealism”. The term never felt quite right because in much of my work, the fantastic co-exists with reality and is simply accepted as a part of that reality; sometimes an obnoxious part, but nonetheless a part of it. I had always equated “surrealism” with the bizarre or the incomprehensible leer, at best equated with the painter Salvador Dali or Magritte. But somehow that form of “surrealism” didn’t seem to me even close to what I was writing and publishing.

Perhaps it was ignorance on my part, but it seemed something intriguing had happened in US. publishing in the mid-l980’s—the blossoming of the alternative “small press” and its coming into co-existence with the literary/academic presses. The small press took an interest in what I was doing and many of the stories that I wrote in the seventies and early eighties—most of which had never been published, though Lord knows how many editors had seen them, and, while certainly respecting them, didn’t know what to do with them—but suddenly these stories began to sell; many were published and are being published now. And when this was first happening, I picked up the book, Eye of the Heart edited by Barbara Howes which had been sitting on my bookshelf for ages, unread. It was during the summer of l987 or l988 and, upon finally reading it, I was astounded. These writers were writing, or had been writing, work very similar to what I was writing. And so many of these stories, mine and those in the book, had that unmistakable common thread: the fantastic or the strange being accepted as reality or equally co-existing with (consensual) reality with little attention paid to the strangeness of the duality, much like one having a lucid dream with the weirdness said dreams can have when we look back on them, but while we are having them, for the most part, we take them as making perfect sense or not out of the ordinary

It was also about this time that I began to hear not only people talking about Magic Realism, but that I had been identified by several editors as one of the major writers of It. I also began to see references in the small press about Magic Realism and before I knew it, I was on panels at science fiction conventions talking about the subject. I was struck by how few people knew about the history of Magic Realism—and though embarking on a crash course in learning as much as I could about it, there was much that I didn’t know and in my first attempts to gain more information, I headed off to one of the local libraries to find more information. I found two references, and one reference was a style of painting.

Over the next several years, I assumed that it was a style of writing that was evolving, having yet to reach its zenith and that Magic Realism was simply too new for there to be much of any critical analysis of the form. How exciting to be a part of a movement of literature in the making!

Wrong! Just to make sure that I had done enough research on the subject, I went with a friend and former librarian to the University of Washington library, to see if I could glean any more of what I was sure was still scant information about the subject and came home with ten books containing substantial material on Magic Realism—but what was most interesting about the research was that while some books were published in the l980’s, most were published since 1991. It appears that, while the “form” and “concept” have been around for a time, much of the interest and accessible information about Magic Realism was very recent. Probably some of the best information appeared in an excellent essay on Magic Realism, (“Magic Realism: Definitions”, Magic Realism:, vol. 5.1, Winter l995/96,) by Brian Evenson in which he said:

“Magic Realism first appeared as a term for the visual arts, introduced in the l920’s by Frans Roh, a German art critic. It identified a kind of art that claimed to be a return to realism, but which nonetheless tried to approach objects in new ways, as if seeing them for the first time. It was an attempt to uncover a magic found in ordinary objects but hidden by too long a familiarity with those objects.

“When Roh’s book was translated into Spanish in the late l920’s, then Magic Realism began to be bandied abut in South America, soon becoming away of speaking not only about art but about literature, usually European literature.”

(A more recent and excellent resource is Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism, Tamara Sellman, editor. This author also has information on Magic Realism as well which can be found at: www.pantarbe.com/MRWIN (Magic Realist Writers International Network).

Books that are probably most identified with Magic Realism and may have provided the initial flood on interest, are Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquirel, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who won the Nobel Prize in l982. Since then, other Spanish writers who are associated with Magic Realism have also won the prize; in l998, Jose Saramago, Portuguese and Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, in 2010). Other writers who are identified with writing Magic Realism are Carols Fuentes, and Isabel Allende, just to name a few.

Probably the works of Marquez, particularly One Hundred Years of Solitude and Cortazar’s Hopscotch are regarded by some as the best and earliest examples as well as wider recognition of Magic Realism. While this may be so, in terms of strucrture, theme, content and the interchanging of myth, reality and fantastic elements regarded as commonplace (for example, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, a lowly mechanic is forever surrounded by butterflies), is Magic Realism just the attention to the co-existence of reality and the “unreal” or the strange? Or is it calling attention to the syntheses of that which is empirical and that which is known only to the heart?

The term “Magic Realism” is a derivation of the term “lo real maravilloso” (or Latin America’s “Marvelous Reality”, a term coined in 1949 by Alejo Carpentier (l904-l980), an outstanding Cuban cultural historian of Latin America, particularly of the Spanish-speaking and French Caribbean populations. Carpentier came up with the term in his introduction to The Kingdom of the World. This manifesto of Magic Realism provided the rationale for the vital central phase of the New Latin American Novel, which was born in the late l940’s and reached a pinnacle with One Hundred Years of Solitude which was published in l970. Later, in l993, with the release of the film, Like Water for Chocolate, based on the novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel, North American audiences en masse received a powerful dose of Magic Realism. Until the release of the Italian movie, Il Postino, in l996, Like Water for Chocolate was the highest grossing foreign film of all time and indeed, since the release of said film, Magic Realism has done quite well at the box office (although instead of saying Magic Realism, Hollywood refers to such films as “visually stylized”). One only has to look at such films that have won critical acclaim since Like Water for Chocolate : What Dreams May Come, Pleasantville, The Big Fish, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?, Finding Neverland, Men Who Stare at Goats and, early on, in television, many episodes of the Twilight Zone, particularly the outstanding, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. All are superb examples of Magic Realism.

While Literary Magic Realism may give much credit for its definition to Alejo Carpentier, its form is recognizable: for example, the multi-generational scope of One Hundred Years of Solitude owes its form to Faulkner; Hopscotch owes much to Ulysses by James Joyce, for they had greatly influenced the writers of Carpentier’s time, notably Asturias, Borges and Carpentier—the ABC’s of the literature of South America in the l920’s and early l930’s. These authors found that the work of Faulkner and Joyce proved the best way towards understanding the dualist societies of South America—countries that, by European and North American reckoning, were forty years behind in providing a milieu stable enough for the conditions under which realistic fiction could flourish. However, there was another major factor involved and that was this: South America was and is continually fractured by regional wars, border conflicts, internal disputes, regimes of various political persuasions; a vast tropical continent in constant turmoil and, on top of that, the South American Indian heritage seemingly co-existing at the same time. It is a land where dualities and dichotomies are the rule, not the exception; the urbane and the Indian, the spiritual and the superstitious, the civilized and the rustic, the city and the jungle, the mundane and the exotic, the continental homogenous thread, pulled by Simon Bolivar, was never enough to knit the fabric of the totally alien continent with twenty nation states, each one seeing the other as more different than similar, never a chance to pull the land into a unified consensual reality.

While this was going on, the “realistic novel” (whose ancestor was Flaubert, author of what is regarded by many to be the finest novel ever written, Madame Bovary as it was known in Europe and the United States, never did as well against the Empirical Tradition of Great Britain and the United States. But due to the superimposition of the European heritage, particularly Spanish heritage, on the lands of culture, particular to South America, other European writers did find the fertile soil that they did not find or find nearly as much in Europe and the United States. Ultimately, according to Gerald Martin, author of Journey Through the Labyrinth, the ancestors of Magic Realism are Marcel Proust and—Franz Kafka

Given all of this, what exactly do the authors of this anthology of which I have found myself editing, along with the most erudite and fine fellow traveler, Elton Elliott, have to say about all this? I believe the theme of these stories reflect the understanding that Science Fiction can be so much greater, With such giants in our midst such as, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, J. R. R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin and C. S, Lewis, to name just a few, it appears we have done well. Well indeed. But—are we resting on our laurels? Why do that if—there is so much more to explore? I believe, along with Mr. Elliott, that there is--so much more.

While I have been writing in this form for many years, I never had to worry about paying my rent by my writing. Having a job as a therapist on an inpatient locked psychiatric floor at the major trauma center in Seattle gave me insights into the human condition and not to mention, my own. Coming home from work, fascinated by what I saw, and given my love of fantastic literature, I wrote, not for money, but out of fascination. And when I discovered Magic Realism, I discovered metaphor and given all the amazing concepts of science fiction—and exploring the wonderful work of such luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Lewis Carroll, Karel Capek as well as Franz Kafka and the fine writers in The Eye of the Heart, I began to play, and the stories that I wrote came out as a result. It had to happen. The symbolic structure and iconology of science fiction—a vast, an infinite playground of –-metaphor.

Magic Realist writers came about because of the South American juxtaposition and paradoxing of the real and the strange, the commonplace and the exotic. We science fiction writers—hey, WE have the entire universe as our “South America”!

What are we waiting for? As E. E. Comings said in his poem, “pity this busy monster, manunkind”—listen: there’s a hell of a universe next door; let’s go!”

(1) Arthur C. Clark, ”Clark’s Third Law on UFO’s” (letter) Science, January 19, (1968)

(2) Cyber Way (l990)

(3) Bruce Taylor, “13 Miles to Paradise”, Alembical, edited by Lawrence M. Schoen, Arthur Dorrance, Paper Golem, LLC. 2008

The author would like to thank Steve Carper, contributing editor to The Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, for his advice regarding the reprint and updating of this article which originally appeared in the Winter, 2001 edition of The Bulletin (of the SFWA), David Truesdale, editor.

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