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The recent death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez reminded me of this Cognitive Mapping piece I wrote for Vector 191 (January-February 1997). I’d probably view magic realism somewhat differently if I were to write this column now. But then, I’d probably do all of these columns very differently.

When they woke up, with the sun already high in the sky, they were speechless with fascination. Before them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and powdery in the silent morning light, was an enormous Spanish galleon. Tilted slightly to the starboard, it had hanging from its intact masts the dirty rags of its sails in the midst of its rigging, which was adorned with orchids. The hull, covered with an armour of petrified barnacles and soft moss, was firmly fastened into a surface of stones. The whole structure seemed to occupy its own space, one of solitude and oblivion, protected from the vices of time and the habits of the birds. Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a thick forest of flowers.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Años de Soledad, 1967)
Gabriel García Márquez

He came around to cap-pistol noises, to a sky that was a hallucinatory blur of colour. Reds, blues, yellows. He couldn’t figure it out. Something odd lurched past, turning, staggering. Mingolla sat up, watched the thing reeling through the clearing. Matted with delicate wings, man shaped, yet too thick and bulky to be a man. It screamed, tearing at the clotted wings tripling the size of its head, pulling off wads of butterflies, and then the scream was sheared away as if the hole had been plugged. Butterflies poured down in a funnel to thicken it further, and it slumped, mounded, its surface in constant motion, making it appear to be breathing shallowly. It continued to build, accumulating more and more butterflies, the sky emptying and the mound growing with the disconnected swiftness of time-lapse photography, until it had become a multicoloured pyramid towering thirty feet above, like a temple buried beneath a million lovely flowers.
Life During Wartime (1987)
Lucius Shepard


The term ‘Magic Realism’ was coined in 1924 by the critic Franz Roh to describe German paintings of the post-First World War school known as Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. It wasn’t until the late-1940s that the term was appropriated by Alejo Carpentier to apply to the literature that was starting to come out of Latin America. Even then the term was ill-defined, and by the 1970s, when Jorge Luis Borges was being acclaimed as the founding father of Magic Realism, it was clear that the term was simply being applied to any Latin American writer whose work was not strictly realistic.

In fact, Borges is about as far from Magic Realism as it is possible to get. His brief ficciones disguised as essays were elaborate literary games played with our usual notions of time and identity and reality; his work revolved endlessly around notions of otherness, and there were always parallel worlds glimpsed through cracked mirrors. Magic Realism also involves other worlds, but they are worlds co-eval with our own, worlds glimpsed through a magnifying glass which elaborates details normally missed. Like Liberation Theology, the branch of Catholicism that has thrived in Central America by blending aspects of local belief and inspiration with European religious teachings, Magic Realism is a blend of European literature and indigenous folktales and traditions. The strangeness, the supernatural element within their world, was a natural part of it and treated just as realistically – though it must be remembered that even the real was treated in a heightened, enriched prose, as if that, too, belonged to a world of magic and mystery.

With that in mind, it is clear that rather than Borges, whose analytical fictions owe more to Stevenson, Kipling and Wells than to anything indigenously magical, the true precursors of Magic Realism are writers like Carpentier, Adolpho Bioy Casares, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar. But it was with Gabriel García Márquez, and particularly with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude that Magic Realism achieved its identifiable form. The story of the remote village of Macondo, and of the Buendía family, is the exemplar for everything that has been classified as Magic Realism ever since. The extract quoted, for instance, could as easily be from a mainstream, realist work: it tells of an expedition from Macondo that gets lost in the swamps and jungles that separate the village from the coast, and there they discover a old galleon that has somehow been enclosed within the jungle. But it is told in a rich style – the galleon is “white and powdery in the silent morning light” – that heightens the mood so that it is made to seem less rather than more realistic. And when extraordinary details are added – the interior being “a thick forest of flowers”, for instance – the sense of magic tipping the balance away from realism is complete.

Magic Realism has continued to be a significantly Latin American form of fantasy, notably in the novels of Isabel Allende whose first novel, The House of the Spirits [1982], used ghosts and other supernatural incursions to tell a moving and disturbing family saga that acted as an oblique commentary on the overthrow of the Marxist government of Chile that was led by her uncle, Salvador Allende. However, the appearance of One Hundred Years of Solitude also turned Magic Realism into a world literature, and writers as varied as Peter Carey (Illywhacker, 1985) and Angela Carter (Nights at the Circus, 1984) used the freedom to move between realism and fantasy to great effect.

The influence and effects of Magic Realism are, inevitably, seen most clearly in the literary fantastic, but its influence reaches into science fiction through those writers who can be seen to occupy that curious hinterland between the genres. M. John Harrison, for instance, in The Course of the Heart [1992] uses a studiedly realistic voice reminiscent of his mainstream novel Climbers [1989] while allowing the fantastic to intrude as if it had been among his other factual observations. John M. Ford uses the richness of exaggerated observation, of over-emphasised detail, in stories such as “Chain Home, Low” [1996], whose variation on a theme by Neil Gaiman indicates how much an awareness of Magic Realism went into the complex literary mix that was The Sandman [1988-96]. Magic Realism seems as close to a description of John Crowley’s indefinable Aegypt [1987] and Love and Sleep [1994], which brings the theories of myth and fantasy of John Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Robert Graves and others into play in closely observed and richly detailed sequence in which it is impossible to tell reality ends and fantasy begins.

However, the writer who has most vividly and most effectively married Magic Realism and science fiction is Lucius Shepard. The passage quoted, which tells of a horrific but magical killing by a swarm of butterflies, could almost have come from the work of Márquez or Allende with its dense descriptive richness, its sense of a reality that could be our reality if only we could see it in sufficient detail. Yet this lush jungle of prose also contains within it the mechanistic prose of a hi-tech war, of helicopter pilots rendered inhuman by the head-up displays on the opaque visors of their helmets, of soldiers dehumanised by drugs.

Life During Wartime is a shrewd conflation of cyberpunk and Magic Realism, the two modes representing the two sides in the war in Central America that acts as an analogue for the Vietnam War. The forces of the United States, with their designer drugs and military toys are science fictional, glittering and impersonal, but the more the hero, David Mingolla, finds himself caught up with the other side, and particularly the more he finds himself unravelling the endless war between two families which starts in a novel but which eventually comes to be the underlying truth about the war, then the more the tone of the novel becomes Magic Realism. Just as Márquez reveals the truth the more he allows emotions, dreams and irrationality to enfold and enrich his portrait of family and village life, so Shepard reveals that the truth is more readily understood the more it moves away from a strict, rational recital of the facts.

Magic Realism and science fiction are complementary strands of the fantastic which find patterns and meanings outside any strictly factual portrayal of the world.