When I hear the expression "magical realism" being applied to any book, I usually get a little wary. At least in my country, Germany, the expression sometimes seems to be used as a euphemism, a polite way of avoiding the evil f-word: "fantasy!" Once that particular tag is applied to your books, you might be stuck in a genre as deep as that swamp from the second volume of Lord of the Rings.
If you look at the expression more closely, you'll find that the word magus comes from the ancient Greek word for wizard but that its origin lies in the Persian language, where a magus was a member of the priests' class. This meant that he was educated, learned and a scholar of the arts and sciences. It seems that, originally, magic had less to do with the three wishes of a good fairy or anything one might learn at Hogwarts than with a long and thorough preoccupation with nature, philosophy and theology. What a relief!
In a novel of magical realism, you'll find elements of the fantastic which break or creep into an otherwise realistic world. Thus, it is also a means for writers to criticize the "western," or capitalist concept of an overpowering rationality, in which everything that doesn't quite fit in is marginalized. Post-colonial influences are still strong in the magical realism of contemporary works by writers like Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison or Zadie Smith.
But long before the expression itself existed, magical realism has lived in literature. The cultural and intellectual influences on those works lie less in the overflowing abundance of southern or eastern cultures than in Romantic texts by, for example, E.T.A. Hoffmann or medieval literature, in legends, fairy tales and folklore.
I think what we call "magic" in certain works of art is simply a means of expanding the reality. Salman Rushdie, being asked about realism, once said: "I'm not very inclined towards social realism. Not that I don't like realism, but it seems to me that it's a convention that has tried to impose itself as some kind of objective truth. Whereas it's actually only as artificial as everything else."
This is very true. If the alternative to magical realism is plain old realism, would this then not be simply an equally limited attempt to express one's experiences as truthfully as one can? For however realistically your written world is depicted, it still remains a conglomeration of words alone, an artifact, something that is not real. Thus it can never be "The Truth." And so why shouldn't one use and explore as many ways as one possibly can in order to fathom what one helplessly and for the want of a better word, has to call "reality"? A book can never render "The Truth" but it can be truthful, which is as good and beautiful as it gets.
1. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1982)
This is the story of six generations of the Buendía family in the fictional Columbian village Macondo, but it can also be read as an allegory of the history of South America. It is about love and war, is full of visions, ghosts, languid women who live under clouds of butterflies and a secret prophecy, that is fulfilled the moment it is deciphered.
2. Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel (1941)
This is a beautiful and profound speculation about a cosmic, infinite library which does not only contain every readable book, but also every unreadable book. Its readers try to find different ways to approach the masses of illegible books. Some form sects of worship, some demand that the books should be burned, some just wander around the shelves, browsing and hoping to find a single sentence they might understand. Others try to structure the library, which has neither system nor order.
3. Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees (1957)
On the 15th of June, 1567, Baron Cosimo Piovasco Róndo decides to leave his aristocratic family home in order to live in the trees. He gets up from the table, climbs an oak and will not set a foot on the ground again until the day he dies. It is one of Calvino's early novels, but also one of his strongest.
4. Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000)
This is the story of two and, later, three, families living in London between 1975 and 1992. In a Henry-Fielding-like fashion, all the characters' lives are somehow intertwined and at the end a lot of crazy things happen simultaneously. White Teeth was the explosive debut of a 25-year old writer.
5. Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959)
Oskar Matzerath is born in 1924 with his mind fully developed. At the age of three he decides to stop growing and tells his story from the perspective of a weirdly wise child. He claims to be able to remember everything and has the ability to scream glass into shards. This is a harsh and strong account of the darkest chapter in German history as well as a poetic, beautiful text.
6. Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1848)
When the novel first came out, readers were shocked and disgusted; it falls through all the stylistic categories of its time; it is neither realistic nor "historical." You cannot fully identify with anyone and there is an inappropriate number of storms, ghosts and passions for a good Victorian reader. Today, it is listed among the most important novels of English literary history. It stands in the tradition of Shakespeare and anticipates the narrative techniques of the 20th century.
7. Toni Morrison's The Song of Solomon (1977)
This is the account of Macon "Milkman" Dead III from the day of his birth till the day of his -- not death, actually. When Milkman flies away, it has less to do with magic than with faith, love and fear, in short, with human nature.
8. Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928)
The novel begins in Elizabethan England and follows the life of Orlando, a young nobleman. In order to escape the advances of a woman, he travels to Constantinople. After a very long sleep, Orlando awakens as a young woman and returns to England. From then on she hovers through the various historical eras until the restrictions of the Victorian age put and end to all lightness. At the end of the novel we see the 300-year old Orlando at the age of 36 in a department store. Written as an homage to Vita Sackville-West, it is a book about gender and love, sexual identity and art.
9. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1980)
The narrator, Seleem Sinai, is born on Indian Independence Day, at midnight sharp. His individual story is tighly interwoven with the history of India. Although he stays at the periphery of most of the dramatic events, he is still present at almost every one of them. The reader follows him through the Indian-Pakhistani war and the regime of Indira Gandhi and leaves him in the present time, just before the publication of the book itself.
Katharina Hagena is the author of the new book The Taste of Apple Seeds.