18 Apr

Magic realism

Don’t let the fact that Gabriel Garcia Marquez (RIP) is extravagantly praised by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and a shoal of lefty South American politicos put you off reading his novels. But, among the justified tributes to Marquez, some very misleading things are being said. Principally that, with Borges, he was the founder of magic realism – a style of writing fiction which mixes together mundane reality and magic, the supernatural, elements of the fairy tale and so on. The genre has often been linked with surrealism and especially with Salvador Dali.

But the founder of magic realism?

For this we must go back somewhat further than the life of Marquez. Thomas Mann was an early practitioner. And so was Hermann Hesse in those enchanting and magical novels Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game and Narcissus and Goildmund. We might think also of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and his novella Victoria. Then there were the German poets such as Klopstock, so enthusiastically taken up by Gustav Mahler – a magical realist if ever there was one.

But even these writers were latecomers on the scene. I’ve mentioned fairy tales and these – particularly in the collection by the brothers Grimm – are surely the origin of the genre of magic realism? In these we have ordinary life penetrated and suffused in the supernatural: witches cast their spells; goblins and pixies appear in forests which are at once natural and unnatural; people have their heads cut off and yet can still run around.

Marquez was an interesting writer and deserves to be read but when it comes to magic realism, he didn’t start it. Perhaps the serious critics will mention this fact. So far we have heard only from the newspapers and the golly-gosh arts commentators at the BBC. These types are renowned both for hyperbole and their extremely short memories.