Thursday, May 16, 2013

What is Magical Realism?

When I tell people I came to Spain to study literature (among other reasons, but that's the academic reason), they look at me funny, as though my freckles have turned purple.  Not many English majors venture to Spain; most American students go to the U.K. to study literature, which makes a lot of sense.  But the U.K. is a little chilly for my tastes, so here I am.  Plus, I really like Spanish and Latin American literature, probably even more than I like Brit Lit.

Márquez, considered the master of
magical realism.
For decades, Latin American literature has been linked with magical realism, though technically, the genre hails from France.  But as my professor told us, "Americans do it better."

Gabriel García Márquez.  'Nuff said.

But what is magical realism?  For some reason, it's a genre that we have a lot of trouble defining.  Often I'll look at a book that's described as magical realism, but really it's urban fantasy (or even just fantasy). Recently my professor gave us a good definition, which I figured I'd share:

Magical realism is exactly what the name suggests:  magical events happen in the normal world, but what separates it from genres like urban fantasy is that the events are told as though they're completely ordinary.  There is no sense of awe.  No wonder.  The characters show little to no reaction, and if they do, it's something like, "Hmm, that's interesting," and then they continue on with their lives.  They don't dwell on it, and neither does the narrator.  Magic is almost an aside:  "By the way, he was levitating.  No biggie."

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, a character starts to levitate.  Why?  Because he drank hot chocolate.  It's passed off as totally normal.  Nothing special.  Happens all the time.

So say a character discovers that her next door neighbor is a witch.  If she freaks out (because who ever heard of witches actually existing?) then most likely that's urban fantasy.  If it's mentioned in passing, such as, "As Natasha walked to school, she waved to her next door neighbor, Mrs. Andrews, who happened to be a witch," then most likely it's magical realism.

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