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Where’s the wonder in magic realism? July 21, 2008

Posted by sensawunda in Books.
Tags: , ,

I have just finished the seminal work of magic realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez (tr. Gregory Rabassa). Of course it’s a brilliant novel, and I’m not just saying that because it’s made all the lists of the top 100 novels of the 20th century and Márquez has a Nobel Prize for Literature. My tastes aren’t THAT easily swayed. 😉

In the context of a blog on sensawunda, though, the remarkable thing about magic realism is how the characters in a magic realism story don’t seem to realize anything wondrous is happening. The supernatural is as much a part of their lives as the natural.

 The edition I bought has an appendix that quotes Márquez explaining the effect he was striving for.

The tone… was based on the way my grandmother used to tell stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness…. What was most important was the expression she had on her face. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories…. In previous attempts to write, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.

It’s a far cry from the way most fantasy uses wonder. Usually the wonder is signalled with elevated language and a rarefied atmosphere, or in movies with a swell of music, unusual lighting, special effects. Or if nothing else, at least some gosh-wow behavior on the part of the characters.

[It occurs to me that this might be part of the reason for disappointment in the Star Wars prequels. The original trilogy had traditional wonder, as Luke discovered the Force and found himself able to do magical things. The prequels were more like magic realism, with the Jedi at their peak (or a little past it), everyone just taking the Force for granted. And yet, that could have worked…. I think the main reason it works for Márquez is that the novel is so well-written regardless.]

Many of the supernatural events are so completely outrageous that perhaps the only way to get away with them at all is to tell them with a “brick face.” He had already discovered that telling the story as if it were a “tall tale” didn’t work. Telling it, instead, as if it were dry history seems to strike the right note.

So where’s the wonder? If it’s not in the tone, or the atmosphere, or the language, or the characters, where is it? The wonder is in the reader.

In a way, the “brick face” delivery and the matter-of-fact demeanor of the characters add to the reader’s wonder. Tiny snippets of wonder emerge and flutter around your head, one after another, like the tiny yellow butterflies that always seem to appear when one character meets with her lover.

No doubt it’s a real trick for a writer to pull off. But Márquez makes you believe.



1. annie - July 22, 2008

great essay!

2. sensawunda - July 22, 2008

Wow, thanks! That’s high praise coming from you.

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