Around the World with Magical Realism
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In a space where the fantastic and the mythical are absorbed into the real world, Magical Realism is a genre that doesn’t quite hit the realms of fantasy, but still skirts reality with a fine line.
It’s a unique literary genre that marries realism with the surreal to such a degree, it can be hard to divide the two. This literary style rose from the contemporary greats in Latin American literature, with writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges and Isabel Allende transporting us into the everyday world with a twist of the unreal.
But since leaving its cradle in Latin America, Magical Realism has sprung wings and taken flight across the world, creating new Magical Realism stories with their own cultural background. From the classics to newer branches, read around the world with these magical realism books.
Begin your magical realism journey in the heart of the genre. You could spend months, if not years, reading through the collection of some of the world’s best Magical Realism books. Whisk yourself away to the eccentric town of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, based on the writer’s home town in Colombia, or live through the Chilean Revolution with a Fabulist twist of ghosts, green-haired women and psychic children in Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits. You can lose yourself in the extraordinary literary Labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges work or cook yourself through the dangerous, yet mouth-watering recipes of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.
When it comes to the genre in Europe, the core book that will come up again in Magical Realism reading lists is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which combines satire of Soviet life with surreal elements. A chess-playing, gun-toting, vodka-drinking black cat and the Devil certainly add to the Fabulist elements of this Russian classic, but like Márquez’s struggles in Colombia with its regime, Bulgakov’s subversive satire poked at the Stalinism in his home country, displaying parallels between the two authors’ lives.
Outside of Russia, European literature plays with the fantastical in subtle ways. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind from Spain is perhaps a more whimsical example of playing with the genre, or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a curious multigenerational epic featuring elements that transcend reality.
Over in Central Europe, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum combines the darkest chapter of Germany’s history with the extraordinary circumstances of its protagonists, to the Czech Republic’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, whose philosophical message gets intertwined in the lives of its characters and the Czech Revolution. And of course, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis makes the cut when Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach.
There is an interesting movement of Magical Realism in Africa, particularly in West Africa, where traditional oral traditions carry their own blend of magical storytelling elements. These oral storytelling traditions have infused African literature with its own brand of “marvelous realism”. The predominant writer who comes to mind, even though he dislikes the Magical Realism label in the classic sense of the word, is Nigerian author Ben Okri, whose Famished Road combines the spirit world with the grittiness of reality. Other African books to add to your shelf include the Return of the Water Spirit by Angolan writer Pepetela, and Women of the Aeroplanes by Kojo Laing from Ghana, before heading over towards the eastern part of the continent to Mozambique with Mia Couto’s Under the Frangipani.
No list on Magical Realism is complete without Nobel Prize-winning African-American writer, Toni Morrison. Her post-Civil War masterpiece, Beloved, integrates elements of Magical Realism clearly influenced by Márquez. The novel follows complex themes of slavery and motherhood, accented by the supernatural elements of the story. While the northern part of the Americas may not have the literary tradition of its Latin counterparts, there is an interesting mix of books that sport elements from the genre, like Canadian Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Down in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago author—and another Nobel Prize winner— V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas touches the genre slightly, expressed through the main character’s chronic case of bad luck that follows him throughout his life.
The canon of Indian literature carries something magical in its content, from Bombay-born British Indian writer Salman Rushdie, whose Midnight’s Children tells the story of a newly independent India through its magical children born on the stroke of midnight, to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, a family epic set in the backwaters of Kerala, where the ordinary and the surreal blend together in the lapping, lily-filled waters. But further east, another name that’s conjured up its own style is Japan’s Haruki Murakami, most notably with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where a curious chain of events kick off after Toru Okada loses his cat and his normal life gets turned upside down by a succession of odd characters.