Magic realism: not fantasy. Sorry.

Some years ago I was at a con in Cambridge where Steven Brust, during his otherwise very fine GoH speech, made an offhand crack about “magic realism—which we all know is just fantasy written by a Latin American author!” The crowd laughed and applauded, but I did not. I had just read Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, and I couldn’t help thinking: not so fast, Steve. It’s more complicated than that.

Right now I’m traveling through Colombia, and I’ve been rereading local hero Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic-realist masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, which has a strong claim to being the best book ever written. But is it also, like Mr. Brust claimed, a fantasy novel?

That’s a question that can lead to tedious semantics with dangerous ease. I have no interest in arguing classifications: all fiction is fantasy, it’s just a matter of degree. But I do think it’s worth asking, is “magic realism” indeed included in what SF readers mean when they say “fantasy”? Is it in fact just a label used by highfalutin university professors and literary critics to canonize those fantasy novels they like, while simultaneously dismissing “fantasy” as genre crap?

No. Sorry. It’s more complicated than that.

Fantasy magic is systematic: there are rules, if implicit, dictating who can perform it, and what it can do, and how. Distinctions are drawn between magicians and Muggles, enchanted items and normal kitchenware. Magic is extraordinary, supernatural, paranormal—anything but quotidian—and the staggering implications of its existence are explored and illustrated.

Consider Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a terrific novel about two types of magic: one a rational science bound by rules and algorithms, the other the wild, unpredictable power of Faerie. But even the latter follows rules. There are humans, and there are fairies; there is our world and there is theirs; some items, places, persons, and rituals are magical, and some are not.

Now consider One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s chock-full of magic, no question. Flying carpets, ghosts, insomnia plagues, telekinesis, prophecies, premonitions, alchemy, unexplainable deaths and inescapable smells, blood that flows upwards, landlocked galleons, a woman whose presence drives men mad, a bag of bones that clack constantly together, to name just a few examples. But all this magic is random, chaotic, surreal, of no lasting consequence to any but those who experience it; and all these supernatural events are told in the same casual, matter-of-fact tone used to describe lunches and money problems. In one famous paragraph a character suddenly and without warning ascends to heaven while hanging sheets on a clothesline. She is never seen again. Nor are the sheets.

It might be easy to read the above paragraph and think “So the magic in magic realism is just a bunch of random, arbitrary weird stuff happening, with no consistency and no examination of the ramifications?” And, well, you wouldn’t entirely be wrong. But if you went on to conclude that this is just bad fantasy—honestly, you couldn’t make a worse mistake. Again, I’m talking about what may well be the best book ever written.

(No, really. And it’s not just me who says so: OHYOS basically singlehandedly won its author the Nobel Prize, and the New York Times famously called it “required reading for the entire human race.” Lest that leave you thinking that it’s dull-but-worthy stuff, let me assure you that it’s full of insane amounts of sex and violence, a compendium of every sin under the sun, and that it has also sold some 20 million copies since its release and is widely beloved around the world.)

Let’s take a step back. “Magic realism” and “fantasy” are a false dichotomy. Better to imagine a spectrum, with what I’m going to call “surreal fantasy” to the left and “systematic fantasy” on the right. (Yes, we could probably add another axis or two. No, I’m not going to.) One Hundred Years of Solitude occupies the far left; a little further in is Ben Okri’s Booker-winning The Famished Road. Midnight’s Children and Little, Big occupy the centre-left. The Dragon Waiting and Patricia McKillip are dead centre. Jonathan Strange is centre-right. Julian May is way out on the right, as is, um, most (though not all) Steven Brust.

I may have some details wrong there—I’m going on fuzzy memory in a couple cases—but bear with me. The natural question that follows is: why does the oft-despised-by-genre-folks Literary Establishment trumpet the left, and treat the right with contempt?

Well, I’m sorry to say it, but you know what, they may kind of have a point; or at least they’re being consistent. Surreal fantasy is more celebrated partly because by its nature it tends to use magic mostly to illuminate and explore its characters. But more importantly, surreal fantasy, far more than systematic, is about the real struggles of our real world.

Consider their pedigrees. Systematic fantasy tends to come from Western writers, who live in nations where “peace, order, and good government” (to use that wonderful Canadian phrase) more or less rule. Oh, there are wars and depressions and tragedies, but by and large, the phones work, the roads are smooth, and you’re not likely to be massacred without warning.

Surreal fantasy comes from more troubled lands. Midnight’s Children is set in post-partition India; The Famished Road in Nigeria; One Hundred Years of Solitude in Colombia. Their magic is random, surreal and arbitrary because their worlds are random, surreal and arbitrary.

Take Colombia. It’s a place where strange things happen. Ten years ago, the mayor of Bogota hired 420 mimes to control the city’s rush-hour traffic by mocking jaywalkers and reckless drivers. In 2006 the women of the city of Pereira went on a sex strike to convince their men to surrender their guns. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s friend Alejandro Obregon once rode to their local bar on an elephant to convince the owner to open early. Amusing stories all … but lurking behind and fuelling all this charmingly erratic behaviour is the story that no one here wants to talk about: La Violencia, Colombia’s endless and ongoing history of terror and civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and rendered millions homeless.

When you live amid papered-over blood-soaked horror, like Nigeria’s Biafran civil war and corrupt dictatorships, India’s partition and Emergency, and Colombia’s La Violencia, then the surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational. That’s the well that magic realism draws from. What the surreal fantasists have to say about desperation and tragedy and violence is more powerful because, alas, the desperation and tragedy and violence they’re writing about isn’t fantastic at all.


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