Thursday, August 11, 2011

Guest blogger: Fantasy writer Rhys Hughes

I always enjoy the funny, imaginative, and unabashedly weird stories of Rhys Hughes, and I'm thrilled to have him as a guest today. As you can tell from his photo, he's a shadowy character, so who better to discuss the term "magic realism"?

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Magic Realism
(A Personal View)

The term 'Magic Realism' is a mysterious one and I am frequently asked to explain what it means. The truth is that it's a vague term and has many precise definitions, which perhaps is the same as saying it has no precise definition at all. My response is to shrug and simply say, "It's fantasy that isn't fantasy." But that's really quite unhelpful, especially as 'fantasy' itself is a vague term that encompasses an enormous range of styles and subject matter. 'Magic realism' isn't a genre, but it is possible to talk about it as a type of fiction with a distinctive flavour.

There are certain basic qualities that can be called 'magic realist' that one doesn't usually find in conventional fantasy. A writer of fantasy will often try to create a place or a time that may or may not have parallels with the place and time we currently live in, but generally that invented world isn't supposed to be our world. Even if the fantasy story is set in what seems to be everyday life, sooner or later some incident will occur, an intrusion of the supernatural, that ultimately demonstrates that the fantasy world isn't reality as we truly know it. In such stories, all the magic might be said to be external. It comes from outside.

In magic realism, on the other hand, the magic is mostly internal. A writer who is a magic realist rarely invents new worlds but uses this world as a stage, and yet he or she doesn't write about how life actually is but how it sometimes feels. So magic realism tends to be an emotionally based style of writing, rather than intellectually, politically or philosophically based. The prose tends to be 'hot', 'sultry' and 'tropical'. It uses exaggeration and overstatement to present the subjective worldviews of the characters and these subjective worldviews will often interact and influence each other. It is safe to say that understatement has little place in magic realism.

The most famous magic realist novel is undoubtedly still Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is a character in that book who is fatally shot. In a realistic story the wound might be described accurately; in magic realism it is described symbolically. We are told that the character’s 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 angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlour, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other 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 Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.”

This doesn’t mean that the blood really travelled so far, but that the emotional shock of the character’s death was so great that it felt as if his blood was seeking out witnesses to the deed. Magic realism makes very heavy use of symbolism. Every significant event is a symbol or extended metaphor, but even though those events are determined by a literal application of feeling, they are also presented in a deadpan style. So if someone is deliriously happy they might start flying, but nobody around them will comment on this miracle, even if they notice it, because the flying takes place on the inside.

To redefine your own life in magic realist terms you merely have to turn every emotion you experience into a concrete symbol or action. Jumping for joy can now result in leaping over the moon or stars, but don't forget the cosmic ramifications that will follow; being sad might result in floods of tears powerful enough to destroy cities; anger may topple mountains and cause earthquakes. None of this is objectively real but subjectively it is exactly what happens to all of us during the process of living.

I now expect to be told that my understanding of magic realism is wrong, for it is a style of fiction that has many advocates with opposing views as to its real meaning and significance. The best magical realists were either unaware they were writing magic realism, or else they disowned the label when it was applied to their own work, yet it's generally accepted that the original magic realist was Alejo Carpentier. Other Latin American writers evolved the form. Frustrated with the cool rationality and understatement of most Western fiction, they injected colour, vibrancy, mythology and a passion for coincidence, implausibility and hyperbole into their prose.

The heyday of Latin American magic realism was in the 1960s and 1970s. With a few exceptions the style didn’t really catch on in the English-speaking world until the 1980s, and then, for some reason, magic realist novels suddenly flooded the bookstores of Britain and the USA. Back then it was possible for the most difficult magic realists to be translated into English and published by major houses. I remember working my bemused but enthralled way through Mario Satz’s Sol, a book that probably wouldn’t be published now except by a small independent publisher. But an enthusiasm for this kind of literature soon spread to other continents and some of the most accomplished magic realism now comes from Africa, the Middle East, India, and even further afield. Here is a short list of my own personal favourite books in this genre that isn't a genre…

Alvaro Mutis, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
Mia Couto, Under the Frangipani
Isabel Allende, Eva Luna
Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel
Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World
Felipe Alfau, Chromos
Amin Maalouf, Leo the African
Cabrera Infante, Three Trapped Tigers
Jorge Amado, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands
Gina B. Nahai, Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith
Fazil Iskander, Sandro of Chegem
Manuel Mujica Lainez, The Wandering Unicorn
Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke
Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in his Labyrinth

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Rhys Hughes' new novel, Link Arms With Toads! is available here, and you can also visit his blog.

[Please note: If you are having trouble posting with Google ID, you can choose the Name/URL option even if you don't have a website. Copy and paste in any URL from another site, and it should work.]


  1. How interesting! Thanks for sharing : )

  2. "The best magical realists were either unaware they were writing magic realism, or else they disowned the label when it was applied to their own work..."

    Seems this is true of a lot of the great, innovative works in all categories of the arts. We force them into genres later.

    Thanks for the terrific essay, Rhys.

  3. My only experience with magic realism was reading Aimee Bender's "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," so I couldn't help reading this article with that novel in my mind. I was quite baffled by it when I came across it in this book and wasn't sure how I felt about it for some time. I appreciate the insights offered here. Thanks Rhys and thanks Anne.

  4. Enjoyed your guest’s post, Anne. I was interested in “el realismo mágico” being translated as Magic Realism. I usually refer to it as magical realism. Love the following authors represented on the list: Allende, Márquez, Rulfo, Vargas-Llosa, Carpentier y Cortázar. I was pleased to find such a discussion in my blogging world. That first sentence of Cien años de soledad “Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.” has to be one of the most memorable first lines ever. Indeed, Isabel Allende’s first line “Everyone is born with some special talent, and Eliza Sommers discovered early on that she had two: a good sense of smell and a good memory” captured me from the beginning as it carried me through the sense of smell and the time dimension of memory. Delightful guest entry…thank you for arranging it. PS I came over from Deb Bryan's site.
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  5. Wow, very neat. I loved that. What a great post. I never really got the difference between magic, and magic realism, so it really helped clarify that.

  6. Loved this post! Loved it mainly because I read a book in my teens that I couldn't place it anywhere. Till now, I'm still not entirely sure if Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale" belongs to magic realism. (I couldn't place it under Fantasy, cos ... it just wasn't!) Whichever category it comes under, it's certainly a book that's given me so much hope, courage and love for beauty. And if that's magic realism, then I love this genre!

    Am intrigued by 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' now. (Yep, I must be one of the few who hasn't read it yet ...)

    Thanks for this post!

  7. We covered magic realism in high school; I characterized my old e-zine as "magical realism" based on my teacher's definition. This definition reflected ordinary life as we experience it--except that it also included some magical component which was taken as unremarkable by onlookers. This particular definition captures why I love a lot of horror, actually. Horror takes a world very like our own, but adds a significant tweak or two that makes me look at this world and go, "Wait, but . . . which of these is really real, and are they really that dissimilar?" Granted, that's a better feeling to have with my beloved My Little Pony figures than with horror monsters, but the core questioning is delightful to me regardless. Also delightful? That picture! Love it.

  8. Thanks for this. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between genres that seem so similar. Magical realism, fantasy, paranormal--it's nice to get some clarification.

  9. Oh wow, what great info! Thanks for the clarification between the two. And I absolutely love the "shadowy character".

  10. Thanks for the feedback, folks! Ever since writing this short article and listing some of my favourite 'Magic Realism' novels I've inevitably thoughts of lots of other titles I wish I had included as well!

    Salman Rushdie's *The Moor's Last Sigh*, for example, or Laura Esquivel's *Like Water for Chocolate*, or Ngugi wa Thiong'o's *Wizard for the Crow*... Too many to list really!

    Thanks again for all your comments!