Magical Realism, also sometimes called fabulism, is a genre of fiction writing that is interested in imbuing the modern realistic world with magical, fantastical elements. It is a genre used to refer almost exclusively to the written word, (including drama).
The movement emerged in its strongest form from Latin America, where the works often commented on the political climate. Magical realism provides writers with the chance to show a world that is different than the one they know, changing and altering its structure to fit their needs. It’s easy to see why this would be appealing in a political climate rife with discontent. When it might be dangerous to comment on a government policy or governmental figure in a normal fiction or non-fiction work, a writer could imply critique though the unknowable world of magical realism.
What are the characteristics of magical realism?
Every literary movement has characteristics and techniques by which it can be identified. In the case of magical realism, the texts exhibit the following qualities: fantastical elements, real-world settings, authorial reticence, mystery, political critique, and plentitude. The first, fantastical elements, is the easiest to spot in a book, short story, or poem and the characteristic most commonly associated with this kind of writing.
Magical realism brings together elements of fables, myths and fantastical traits or skills. For example, characters might have powers beyond those of a normal human being, such as telepathy or the ability to fly. Alternatively, the elements of a character’s world might act fantastically, the rain might travel up rather than down, or buildings might appear in places they don’t belong.
The next characteristic on the list, a real-world setting, is also crucial to the movement. It is important that the fantasy elements listed above take place in a world that is recognizably our own. The characters will likely live in a real town, with a real name, (or at least real seeming) that for the most part, obeys normal rules.
Other Elements of Magical Realism
Authorial reticence refers to the deliberate withholding of information about the fantastical occurrences in a piece of writing. The reader is left in the dark, unsure or completely unaware of why or how these things are happening. The narrator has no interest in explaining them either, in fact, they probably treat them as completely normal, unremarkable events.
Plentitude, or abundance, can be found in most, at least long form, works of magical realism. The worlds and events the writer crafts are complex and rich in information. The details are numerous, and all-consuming. This helps make the fantastical elements more believable as they are so well incorporated with the rest of the narrative.
Mystery is an obvious part of the movement. It is important when reading this kind of writing to let go of one’s preconceived notions of what should be able to happen, when everything is happening, or for what reason. A reader is encouraged to embrace the strange and allow its richness to convey its own meaning.
Lastly, there is political critique. This was especially important in Latin America where the movement represented a break with traditional forms of writing. Latin American authors, such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez ,were interested in expressing political beliefs that could not be written about in other kinds of literature.
What are the most important written works of magical realism?
The most popular and well-known work of the magical realism genre is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. This novel tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family who hail from the fictitious town of Macondo in Colombia. It was first published in 1967 in Buenos Aires and has since been translated into thirty-seven languages. The major themes are inevitability and the repetition of history. It is Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece.
Isabel Allende was the first female Latin American writer well-know outside the continent. She published her most popular novel, The House of the Spirits in 1982. It tells the story of four generations of the Trueba family while following the various political ups and downs of Chile.
Readers will also be familiar with the book Beloved by Toni Morrison. It was published in 1987 and was the winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The book is based on the true story of an escaped slave, Margaret Garner, who sought refuge along with her husband and children in Ohio. Through a fantastical storyline, the book speaks on the legacy of slavery and the destruction it wrought.
As noted above, magical realism is most commonly associated with Latin America. Some of the most important writers of the movement are:
- Gabriel Garcia Márquez
- Miguel Angel Asturias
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Isabel Allende
- Juan Rulfo
- Elena Garro
In English literature, readers might be familiar with:
- Salman Rushdie
- Alice Hoffman
- Nick Joaquin
There is also a strong Bengali presence in this genre, including the writers:
- Shahidul Zahir
- Nabarun Bhattacharya
- Nasreen Jahan
- Hymayun Ahmed
One would be amiss not to mention the wonderfully popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami on this list as well.