Literary Devotional: Magic Realism

Magic realism has a long tradition in both Western and non-Western literature. Still, only in the twentieth century has it come to be considered as a discrete genre. Although the term magic realism is often associated exclusively with Latin American literature—perhaps because it was first popularized in a literary context by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier—it can be found in works of authors from other regions as well.

German artist Franz Roh first used the term magic realism in 1925, to describe an emerging visual art movement that depicted the world realistically but had surreal or dreamlike qualities at the same time. The term has roughly the same meaning when used in reference to literature: Literary works of magic realism depict the world in detailed, authentic fashion but weave supernatural or magical events and situations seamlessly into these otherwise realistic narratives. An important characteristic of the genre is the fact that the characters do not perceive these supernatural events as unusual or out of the ordinary; rather, they witness them dispassionately, without amazement or awe.

The author most responsible for bringing magic realism to worldwide notice is Columbia novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) exemplify the genre, mixing vivid, carnal, and often bloody supernatural events into the characters’ everyday lives. Often, these otherworldly events are steeped in elements of local folklore. Many come in the form of signs from nature, such as a torrential flood that occurs on the day of a character’s funeral.

Other prominent works of Latin American magic realism include Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982), Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (1989), and Jorge Amado’s The War of the Saints (1988), along with Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories. But many authors outside Latin America have displayed elements of magic realism in their stories and novels, from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995).

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale

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