“Magical Realism is a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.”
There’s a fascinating twist built into the premise of magical realism – the realism part is realistic, but not reality (it’s fiction), and the magical part isn’t sham or slight-of-hand, it’s real – real magic. All this is rolled into the dough of fictional narrative. And fiction, by some definitions, is writing that doesn’t claim to depict reality, where non-fiction is writing that does. A newspaper story about an alien abduction is non-fiction though the content is completely fabricated, where a dialog in a work of historical fiction is fiction, even if it describes what was actually said rather precisely.
“These things never happened, but always are.” So argued Fourth century Roman philosopher Sallustius. By ‘these things’ he meant the ancient Roman and Greek myths – stories about the gods dwelling on Mt. Olympus. Sallustius’ treatise, On the Gods and the World, says these stories are not to be taken literally (these things never happened) but are rich in timeless truth (but always are). He goes on to add the neo-Platonist view about the relationship between truth and the mind that grasps it – “mind sees everything at once.”) I’ll write another blog about Plato’s view that everything we experience is illusion and the road to knowledge is traveled by the mind on its own (reason)…sometime.
Sallustius’ insight, at least the first one about the necessity of capturing eternal truth in temporal prose, is echoed sixteen centuries later by Ernest Hemmingway:
“You know that fiction, prose rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the reference, the old important reference. You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true. You have to take what is not palpable and make it completely palpable and also have it seem normal and so that it can become a part of experience of the person who reads it.”
The best works of magical realism weave artful tapestry from this twisted thread of the real and the magical, and the reader walks away dazzled by the magical but informed by the real.
For example, Laura Esquivel’s, Like Water For Chocolate, conveys important insights into stresses that develop in relationships between obedient daughters and overbearing mothers. Esquivel conveys these truths through fantastic episodes, often ironic, sometimes involving the supernatural. Mama Elena is found dead from ingesting a strong potion she consumed for fear her daughter, Tita, was trying to poison her (the ironic). Later the ghost of Mama Elena (the supernatural) returns to drive Tita from the ancestral ranch because she’s pregnant by her brother-in-law, Pedro. For the first time, Tita stands up to her mother. This rejection causes Mama Elena’s spirit to shrink from her daughter’s new-found strength, and, as her mother’s ghost is expelled, Tita is relieved of all her symptoms of pregnancy.
There’s much realism (truth in Hemingway’s sense) about mother/daughter relationships here, couched in the magical, twisted with irony and good storytelling. To use a culinary metaphor (one cannot speak of Like Water for Chocolate without that), the magical gives this writing flavor; the realism makes it nourishing.
Discussions about the acumen of the phrase magical realism continue and will continue, but I find that keeping these questions in mind (what is magical here? what is real?) while reading works such as Like Water for Chocolate, help keep me open to grasp the truth while enjoying the magic show.
 From Zoe Brooks’ wonderful blog, http://magic-realism-books.blogspot.com/
 Ταῦτα δὲ ἐγένετο μὲν οὐδέποτε, ἔστι δὲ ἀεί
 Probably Saturninius Secundus Salustius, though some argue Flavius Sallustius, both friends of Emperor Julian.
 Περὶ Θεῶν καὶ Κόσμου
 καὶ ὁ μὲν νοῦς ἅμα πάντα ὁρᾷ
 Letter to Bernard Berenson (24 September 1954); published in Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917–1961 (1981) edited by Carlos Baker