Trivialization and laziness victimize magic realism

The Argument

The purpose of this rich literary device is to use fantasy to explore reality -- not to tap dance.

August 29, 1999|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Magic realism has become so commonplace, so trivialized, that its future as a mirror of deeper truth is being compromised. The technique has begun to lose its usefulness as a literary device.

The literary device called "magic realism" combines fantasy with raw physical reality. It allows a writer to search for meaning beyond the everyday for hidden wisdom. The premise of magic realism is the startling irony that truth can emerge only through the conjunction of the untrue and the made-up and the mundane and factual.

Unfamiliar readers can be taken aback by the intrusion of sudden fantastic moments. Dogs read the newspapers to memorize the faces of their future victims. Parrots act out of spite. A country is punished for its politics by the sea disappearing.

In the hands of masters of the technique like Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the reader is not long left in the dark. The author's intentions quickly become clear.

A major and fundamental misunderstanding has complicated the problem. Magic realism grows out of the soil of the beleaguered South American continent. It utilizes for its raw material that region's religion, culture and unique political grievances and history. Alas that critics misleadingly, and perilously for young authors, have applied the term, arbitrarily, to any example of the unreal.

"Magical Realist Fiction" (Longman Inc., 519 pages, $22.75), an anthology published in 1984 , insists that the technique is found in a slew of writers. Henry James and Leo Tolstoy, Eudora Welty in her ghost stories and John Cheever in his satire "The Enormous Radio" are all huddled under the umbrella of "magic realism." These works have little in common. Another recent anthology offers "Things Invisible to See: Gay and Lesbian Tales of Magic Realism" (Circlet Press, 192 pages, $12.95). Yet another is devoted to "Tales of Magic Realism by Women: Dreams in a Minor Key." Magic realism becomes a technique empty of itself and available to be enlisted in any variety of causes.

Worse are the authors who have splashed magic realism into their work lazily. Myrlin A. Hermes, in "Careful What You Wish For" (Simon and Schuster, 224 pages, $23), assigns magical powers toward no thematic end to a mulatto character. Its aim is simply to attest to Natalie's value as a human being without any obligation on the part of the author to dramatize her superior integrity.

A "yellow-eyed girl," Natalie has a particular smell. Unlike everyone else she doesn't sweat, no matter how hot it is. Her very presence makes roses turn yellow. And until she departs, the flowers in her room remain alive. Lest the reader not catch on, the author states that whenever Natalie appears, "the very air seemed thick with magic, with possibility." Magic realism becomes an infection rather than a literary technique with a particular function.

Historically, the technique of "magic" or "magical realism" (the terms are interchangeable) derives from surrealism. Flourishing in France in the 1920s and described by Andre Breton, surrealism is characterized by the depiction of the unconscious in mundane images. Magic realism also resembles the fantasy of fairy tales, fictional realms defying the physics of everyday life. Yet magic or magical realism is neither of these.

In the 1920s, Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier called it lo real-maravilloso, "the marvelous real," or the real in the marvelous. It can be found in his work, as well as in the fictional experiments of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Magic realism flowered and reached its culmination in the novels and stories of Garcia Marquez, a 1982 Nobel Laureate.

Garcia Marquez knew he would be a writer only after reading Franz Kafka's novel "Metamorphosis" where, in the first line, the main character, Gregor Samsa, discovers that he has turned into a gigantic insect. Yet the magic realism he would develop moved far beyond Kafka's use of the fantastic -- which derived from the agonies of the unconscious.

Carpentier concluded that the marvelous or magic realism "was the natural patrimony of America." Magic realism flows out of the continent of South America, with its melange of cultures. It is populated by its unique birds and flowers and animals. It mingles with the descriptions of people living, as Garcia Marquez might put it, awash in nostalgia, in solitude and in isolation from the industrial urban sprawl of Europe and North America.

In Garcia Marquez's masterpiece, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" (1967), a woman named Remedios the Beauty ascends to heaven clutching the bedsheets she had been folding at the time -- an image the author chooses to establish that such purity and beauty cannot survive in this blemished world. A priest levitates upon drinking hot chocolate -- an event pointing to the incomprehensible closeness of man to God.

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