"Reality is more than the thing itself.  I look always for the super-reality.  Reality lies in how you see things.  A green parrot is also a green salad and a green parrot.  He who makes it only a parrot diminishes reality.  A painter who copies a tree blinds himself to the real tree.  I see things otherwise.  A palm tree can become a horse." (Pablo Picasso, A Palm Tree Becomes a Horse, 1950.)

  "In reality one works with few colors.  What gives the illusion of many is that they have been put in the right place."  (Pablo Picasso,
Pablo Picasso, conversations with Christian Zervos, Cahiers d'Art Magazine, nos. 3-5 (1932).

agical realism is a much quieter thing on the page than one might suspect, and much louder in the heart than one can predict.

There is no final definition of magical realism.  It is a felt sense of direction, not an act of manipulation or predetermination.  In this way it may often be reported, but rarely is it predicted or planned for--not successfully.

Magical realism inhabits the world of García Lorca's
duende.  You feel it.  But it has no name.  It does not comfortably inhabit the singularly narrow world of words, though it has by necessity found itself in their care.  This makes it precarious.

One begins to talk about and to understand magical realism just as well by not trying to define it; by looking at what it is not; by looking at what was before it, and what is companion to it, and what it might become. 

I don't mean to make magical realism an ephemeral thing; indeed, there are many moments of magical realism to which we can point in literature, and in others arts, and in life itself.  They taste like good apples, and the bite is sure.

Magical realism's crucial act, however, is its divestiture of words, if only metaphorically.  It moves from the words we use for things, from how we demean things, to what those words represent, to what they are.  Magical Realism in this way reports the world as it is at that moment--and this includes dream, desire, misinterpretation, and anything else one feels in the glorious simultaneity of feelings a single moment invariably offers.

Magical realism seeks release from the contemporary bondage of words into the time of things, to which words are subservient.

Magical realism's purpose is to go back to what words are; to recognize that the things words represent were named because they were worthy, and in need of representation in the world; but like representative government, the individual constituents sometimes get lost.  Remembering their stories is always a power.

In magical realism, time is often everything, but the clock is nothing.  The minute hand is replaced by the breath, the hour hand by a rhymth of yawns.

Surrealism and dada were acts of art finding itself again, of reexamining and reassembling the toolbox; magical realism, however, does not stand around looking at the handsome tools.  It uses these tools to build.

Magical realism comes from a life lived more than a life imagined, but it includes and embraces a life lived in the imagination.

Magical realism is a moment encountered, a moment found--not a moment predicted or planned for.  And yet that encounter is not an encounter with surprise.  Rather, it is an encounter with something normal, but not normal at that moment.  It is not a boo! with exclamation points; it's more of an "oh, it's you--I almost didn't recognize you at first."

If I am standing next to you, I am standing next to you both clothed and naked, depending on the distance being measured.  A distance of half and quarter inches is everything.  This understanding is the province of magical realism.  To make the heart beat very fast can take very little.

Magical realism is not escapist; it's there, witnessing.  It is a literature fomented in oppression and cultural struggle as much as anything else, the spinoff of saying: this can't be happening--But it is.  This is magical realism, with its true edge in view.

Magical realism might be usefully thought of in political terms, particularly Marxism, and especially in García Márquez's writing.  The best sentence in a García Márquez work is the line I'm reading.  To generalize, all sentences are good, and equal in that way.  One thing is not more important than another.  The sentences and paragraphs themselves become a working and worthy community, in service as much to themselves as a greater good.  This is honest work, and well done.  And so on.  Neruda said that everyone should travel first class.  I think they have both meant for that to apply to their writing as well as their lives.

Magical realism is also the stuff of fairy tales; but here, the impossibility is more real--it is reframed, rather, as possibility pushed to new boundaries on the edge of understanding.

Surrealism is about objects, magical realism is about people.  Surrealism often, in fact, turns people into objects.

Surrealism confronts you; magical realism takes you there and returns you.

In magical realism you don't make any leaps; rather, you are leapt....  You have made the leap before you know it, caught up already by the net of what is new around you.

Magical realism has reached maturity, and gone beyond itself, in
Love in the Time of Cholera.  It is well beyond the braggadocio of the new coat in One Hundred Years of Solitude; today, we still find the coat, but now it has the elegance of use.  This has always been magical realism's intention.  It lives not simply by what color and how shiny it is--it requires of itself an answer, an elegant answer, to the question: does this work?  Does this serve the need of the moment?  Is it a fabulous color that is also a useful barrier against the wind?

I didn't feel any compelling need to reread
Love in the Time of Cholera, but not because it wasn't a brilliant book.  It has such immediacy, such presence, that it doesn't go away....  There are no particular scenes to point at, nothing memorable in that way; and yet, one experiences the book remarkably.  It works in some other manner.  It is what magical realism has become.

Work and form as frames in literature--a novel, a short story, a sonnet--may be predictable, but detail is always singular.  This is part of the engine of magical realism: the time taken with the singular, even at the risk of offending the form it is working within.

"Magical," in magical realism, as with its companion word in translation, "marvelous," implies an appreciation of the real, rather than a distortion of it.

The Russian formalists, working about the same time as the surrealists, offered up a phrase useful in these discussions:
defamiliarization.  I suggest that we have become comfortable with what is regularly around us, confusing that commonness of things with an understanding of them.

Magical realism is sometimes characterized as stylistic excess.  Some would view that as a negative characterization, and some would celebrate it.  Some would, further, see the inherent politics of this response.

The rules of the world and the universe exist inasmuch as they exist within the moment; sometimes the moment offers us new rules.  This is something I would call situational physics, and is something of the science of magical realism.

Much of the descriptions of magical realism sound like descriptions of poetry.  It is true that they embrace many or even all of the same variables.  But what distinguishes the two is that, in general, poetry goes from the literal to the metaphorical, like an airplane taking off;  magical realism, just as often, moves from the metaphorical to the literal, more like an airplane landing.  Nicanor Parra says in a poem, for example, "I wish to make a noise with my feet/I want my soul to find its proper body."  Juan Rulfo, in the novel
Pedro Paramo, says, on the other hand, "This death really hurt me, my shoulder is still sore."

Anyone who writes magical realism isn't.


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