As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
In One Hundred Years of Solitude the narrator calls Macondo, the mystical village built on the bank of a river, “an intricate stew of truth and mirages”.
The same could be said of magical realism, the genre that Colombian literary giant Gabriel García Márquez embodies. Magical realism plants into the real world the strange, the uncanny, and the magical.
Characters accept enchantment in their everyday realities. Rather than invent entirely new worlds – as in the fantasy genre – the magical is unveiled in a world we recognise and already know. Rather than look at the bizarre workings of the unconscious mind – as in surrealism – magical realism deals with the material.
The term ‘magical realism’ was popularised in a 1955 essay, Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction, by the critic Angel Flores. Initially it was used to describe literature. But aspects of magical realism have crept into other genres, too. Not least film.
The recent film Birdman opens with a man levitating, his backside visible to the viewer. He is wearing white y-fronts and sits in a lotus position; he appears to be looking out of the window.
It is unclear why he is there or what he is doing. Is he a yogi with special powers who has trained himself to hover mid-air? An illusionist? Or is his mind taking a wild flight of fancy? It is only when the camera retreats to show a drab dressing room that we realise he is an actor on Broadway.
The high-octane black comedy, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, never explains its protagonist’s magical abilities. But they somehow make complete sense.
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a fading celebrity who is no longer relevant. Once, decades earlier, he achieved fame for his role as the super-human Birdman, a comic book character dressed like a big bird with a beaked mask and glistening ebony feathers. Now, desperate to make his mark again, he is directing and starring in a play he has also written.
Birdman is a wired exposé of the New York theatre scene that behaves as if it is on crack. It is also a painful exhibition of a man standing at the edge of a mental precipice. Riggan has magical powers like Birdman, a character who appears – as a critical, disparaging voice – to both taunt and encourage him. Birdman is Riggan’s own creation but the creature’s very success threatens to subsume him.
Meanwhile, Riggan can fly, emit balls of fire with his fingertips, and move objects with his mind. But his superpowers do nothing to soothe his own insecurities. They cannot make the snooty New York Times critic give his play a good review or rescue his strained relationship with his daughter, who has just come out of rehab.
In the past, myth and religion have wrapped the mysterious around us, so that the world becomes imbued with, and buffered by, hidden meanings and magical explanations. In mainstream American movies – the territory of instant gratification – comic book characters have taken on the roles of the magical and fantastic.
Birdman is a comic book character. But magical realism also externalises Riggan’s desires and fears. In a telling moment the all-powerful Riggan blows up the streets of New York, puffing up his ego at the same time. Yet the bird-like squawk he emits does not match his actions – it is weak, pathetic, and all too human.
Other American movies have played with magical realism as a central conceit: in Midnight in Paris the disenchanted screenwriter Gil, on holiday with his fiancée, travels back in time to hang out Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso. In Ruby Sparks – another tale of an uninspired novelist suffering from writer’s block – the lonely and nerdy Calvin starts to pen the perfect woman, the quirky, offbeat Ruby Sparks. Then she appears, literally written into existence and into his life.
The seemingly miraculous, yet ultimately utterly un-extraordinary, appearance of Birdman, Ruby Sparks, and Pablo Picasso (among others), are all examples of an enchanted world. These are our versions of the gods and devils that walk among us. What’s more, their existence triggers epiphanies for the characters with whom they interact.
Gabriel García Márquez, the godfather of magical realism, grew up the oldest of twelve children and as a small child lived in the tumbledown house of his maternal grandparents. His grandmother told him stories of the spirits that lurked behind the doors.
Christianity was another influence. One Hundred Years of Solitude is essentially a South American Genesis story – and Genesis is surely the most powerful example of magical realism ever written. García Márquez describes a world “so recent that many things lacked names”. Like the Old Testament, myth and magic gestate and thrive in the bawdy, earthy, real world.
Blood flows by itself up the streets, characters are trailed by clouds of butterflies, events are predicted ahead of time by gypsies, rain lasts years and a weird “insomnia plague” makes people forget everything, even ordinary household items. One pure and innocent girl floats away with the sheets when folding the linen in the backyard.
It was not only the spectres of García Márquez’s childhood which played a part in feeding his imagination, but the fraught politics of his day. Magical realism was a response to Latin America’s dictators and revolutionaries and their legacies of violence, pain, and bloodshed.
The genre was a way to dream and to create meaning in a flawed, unfair world. As García Márquez once said: “Reality is also the myths of the common people. I realised that reality isn’t just the police that kill people, but also everything that forms part of the life of the common people.”
In China, magical realism has found its way into the literary canon. The Nobel Prize-winning author, Mo Yan, delves into the peculiar and unaccountable to expose the crushing realities of life in China.
Frog, Mo Yan’s latest novel to be translated into English, deals with the controversial one-child policy and, in particular, forced abortions. For Chinese citizens of a certain generation the one-child policy has proved inescapable. In Frog the obstetrician Aunt Gugu, who often brutally forces women to have abortions for the sake of serving the country, is haunted by a plague of frogs.
Mo writes: “The croaking of frogs is often described in terms of drumbeats. But the cries that night were infused with a sense of resentment and of grievance, as if the souls of countless murdered infants were hurling accusations”.
Frog depicts the scents and sounds of village life, the pettiness, the gossip, the food, and the sex. Within this, magical realism lends a haze of hallucination and of half-dreamt nightmares. It is also a tool to circumvent the censors, by lessoning and disguising criticism of the state, and a reaction against the tradition of socialist realist novels that pervaded Chinese literature under Mao Zedong.
If One Hundred Years of Solitude, Birdman and Frog have one thing in common it is that they depict a magic that you can touch, smell, taste, and breathe; their magic is not a mental state or a figment of the imagination. It becomes mundane to those who inhabit it. Above all, magical realism is a tool against the dictates of politics and culture. It teaches us that life doesn’t have to be read one way.
From the ‘Frida’ edition of Womankind.