agical realism does not reside in or belong to the countries in which the writers who have created it work.  Rather, magical realism--whatever it is, and it's different each time--belongs to the new geographies these writers, and their words, have imagined.  These are countries without names, but whose maps are our maps.  That is to say, we recognize something.  They are places we imagine superimposed on places we live, giving to our lives, through this literature, a dimensionality that--once recognized--is immediately evident.  Though many of the conclusions drawn may be contrary to the laws of nature as we know them, this writing--magical realism--shows us a new science, a literary science, an understanding of those parts of the world and of life which take into account the personal.  Science may not work this way, but on a given day in a given place and to a given person, this thing--whatever it is--happened.  This is finally the science of the impossible.

        When we have just one word for one thing, the moment is one dimensional--flat.  The work of labeling or describing something is apparently done.  But when we have two words for one thing, or two cultural frameworks trying to claim that thing, then we have some dimensionality, in that the two words have a space between them--after all, they are not the same.  They indicate a lack of agreement, and are, therefore, a dialogue, and even a debate.  They are not simple agreement on what a thing is at all.

        The two words for a same thing evidence a struggle, rather than a complacency, with what they are trying to define.  That distance from certainty gives the moment--the word, the thing, the idea--dimensionality, a physical space, into which we can wander, and sometimes very far.  That dimensionality, that space, for which we have no vocabulary: It's what the words mean to represent, but for which they provide only, in fact, a cursory label.  In this way, when we encounter a word, we must understand that we are in fact face to face with the experience that a word only attempts to contain--but we must not assume that the word has done by itself the entire work.  We must be complicit in our understanding of the world.

        Magical realism resides in that space between words for the same thing.  It often dispenses with the words, and goes to what they are.  This is at the same time both poetic and pragmatic, and here is the beginning of understanding magical realism.  It is poetic in that the narrative becomes expressive, and not simply defined; it is pragmatic in that the words that might simply define it do not, and so something else must be found--similes, metaphors, objective correlatives, and even whole stories, sometimes.  Both impulses drive the narrative to the same place, if for different reasons: to the events themselves.

        For example, in
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez, at one point in his narrative, describes the return of an errant son, José Arcadio II, who, before returning to his mother Ursula's house, stops for a drink on the other side of town.  While there, however, he is mysteriously murdered.  García Márquez offers the following subsequent action:

                A trickle of [his] blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Ursula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.
                        "Holy Mother of God!" Ursula shouted.

        In this scene, the writer could just as easily talked about intuition, or a woman's intuition, or a mother's intuition, and left it at that.  But the idea of being related, of the bloodline, is instead fully and physically realized, and the moment is played out.  The two characters are related by blood, and so this is how the mother knows her son is dead.

        Sometimes, accepting this approach, which is more than simple patience, after all, may be cultural.  I am reminded, for example, of a small example used in every Spanish class about a central cultural difference between English-speakers and Spanish-speakers.  In English, one says
I dropped the glass, should such a thing happen.  It is an "I" centered instance, rugged individualism in its smallest moment.  I did it.  In Spanish, one says "se me cayó el vaso," which means, "the glass, it fell from me"--we were both there, we were both complicit in the act.  This is a different world view, a way of adapting to the world, of living with it instead of changing it.

        Which is the better view is not the point, but I do think that our notions of the United States as representing rugged individualism may, in fact, be faulty.  One language, one culture, one science, one medicine: There's a messy middle, something in between.  I think that's the language this literature is trying to show us, if it has any didactic purpose.  It's a rugged pluralism.

Se me cayó el vaso.  This phrase speaks to the life in things.  This glass and I, we are partners to each other in this event.  This animistic sensibility multiplies by thousands the cast of available characters in any given moment.  In this country, cartoons have best recognized this possibility since their inception, and anything we face that does not "make sense" we treat as child-like.  The glass is alive?  This makes the notion of magical realism difficult to take seriously, and we treat it, and its writers, perhaps as amusements.

        Pluralistic views of science and medicine, especially, may be hard to accept, of course.  But, as just a simple example, there are illnesses in Latin America that do not exist in this country--I am thinking of
empache, which is a kind of stomach blockage, mollera caída, which is a bad case of a fallen fontanel in a baby, and which must be cured by someone who is a twin, and mal ojo, which is the bad or evil eye.  In this country, we laugh at these things, of course.  But we laugh by ourselves.

        In science, to use a large example, but my favorite, scientists have been able to explain to us the phenomenon of water going down the drain in one direction in the northern hemisphere, and going down the drain in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere.  Scientists explain this curiosity--which is actually a function of what is called the Coriolis effect--in a discussion of gravity, one of the four main forces.

        But they explain it only in that way, stopping short of a discussion of what this means to people.  If one of the four major forces affects some people one way, and some people in an opposite way--is it true that there is no effect?  Technically, scientifically, I'm sure the answer has been
no.  So what do I know.  Except this: Science may be our best way of understanding the world, but it may not be our best way of living in it.

        We will, finally, find magical realism in words.  And it's not magical at all.  The phrase simply gives to us this added caveat about our easy and tired use of language: we must instead treat each word as the suitcase it is, and every time open it up as we encounter it, to find what there is inside, no matter what the consequence.


Alberto Ríos
Department of English
Box 870302
Arizona State University
Tempe AZ 85287-0302
(480) 965-3800
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Date last modified:
Friday, May 24, 2002