Magical realism: the bridge from childhood

Maybe its common knowledge to everyone who actually knows something about this, or maybe its all wrong, but I was just now in the first chapters of Wizard and Crow by Ngugi wa Thiongo while listening to PJ Harvey‘s White Chalk and it struck me that the literature I remember from childhood was magical as in Grimm’s or the 5 Chinese Brothers or Little Black Sambo and that was my love for this form partly due to that? Was this maybe, though not inferior to, a route to, a link to, traditional narrative?

That’s the whole idea really, tell me if you agree.

In the meantime, my favourites of the genre (and there certainly seems to be debate about whether it exists) in no particular order:


One Hundred Years of Solitude: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The classic, the one everyone refers to, and in this case rightly so. Someone once said that it was enough that the classics existed: it wasn’t really necessary to read them. Not so. This is a great book. If you can’t find this Love in the Time of Cholera or Of Love and Other Demons will do in a pinch.


Paradise Motel: Eric McCormack

Canadian writer who can’t quite get the Scottish out of his bones, and a wonderful man to have a beer or two with, McCormack is somewhat Borgesian; he questions reality at every turn, and each answer is only another door. If you can’t find this, read Inspecting the Vaults, a short story collection that you might have to lie down after reading.


Famished Road: Ben Okri

I already wrote about this Booker prize winner. One of the best.


Winter’s Tale: Mark Helprin

And this one too.


God Who Begat a Jackal: Nega Mezlakia

This author, Canadian who immigrated from Ethiopia, had a bit of a scandal with his first book, a memoir, but this book proved his genuineness. Has a wonderful little part where the gods will only and always fight for the losing side which of course makes for an endless battle.


Arthur Rex: Thomas Berger

Wrote about this one too.


Anything with Isaac Sidel: Jerome Charyn

There is no one in the world who writes like Charyn. A cross between Kafka and Lewis Carroll his noirish adventures throughout Manhattan make for exhilarating reading punctuated with many “what?!!”s.

15 comments on “Magical realism: the bridge from childhood

  1. Marquez is my favorite author and magical realism is the genre that I enjoy reading the most of. Just the other day a girl that I work with said that she noticed on my visual bookshelf on my Facebook that I have read a lot of his works. She asked me to describe it. I find it difficult to describe exactly what magical realism is. It took me forever to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I even had to take notes while reading it to keep all of the characters straight. I know that sounds fairly pathetic but when nearly every character has the same name I had to do something. I think that Solitude is pretty heavy for someone to start with but I agree that Love is a great place to start. I also would suggest his short stories as a starter, a appetizer of sorts. The collection “Strange Pilgrims” happens to be my favorite.

    Oh and I would also have to throw in two other authors into this listing. Umberto Eco and Carlos Ruiz Zafron. I’m adding a bunch of these to my to be read list. Thanks.

  2. Sounds more like you were reading a Russian novels with all their annoying patronyms. I’m going to look for Strange Pilgrims (don’t think I have read it). I did like Shadow of the Wind but Eco has always been a tough slog for me. Foucault’s Pendulum I found insanely repetitious; needed editing down to about half the length. Don’t think I would call him magical realist at all.

    To me, magical realism is the kind of narrative where almost everything follows the generally agreed upon laws but every now and then something inexplicable happens or perhaps it is even more than that as in Marquez but it still is considered unusual. Once it is usual or normal you are into straight fantasy.
    I’m sure there are much better definitions out there.

  3. I have never been able to make it through Foucault’s Pendulum although I’ve always had the best intentions. I do think that Eco falls into the genre even if it’s not the same way as Marquez. Since I haven’t read it I can’t comment on the specifics of that book but I do think that The Island of the Day Before can be called magical realism.

    I feel that magical realism is a continuum and there are some authors who are more magical and some who are more real. The definition of magical realism that I feel is a good summation can be found Here

  4. Bibliomom: the link did not come through. Maybe just write it out? I forgot another two I really liked: Moacyr Scliar’s Centaur in the Garden, and Russell Hoban’s Lion of Boaz-Joachin and Joachin-Boaz.

  5. I’m curious about your take on Little Black Sambo.

    I read those books as a child. I read them to my kids. Someone saw me reading them to my kids and made remarks about them encouraging racial stereotypes. I don’t see it.

  6. I loved Little Black Sambo. I don’t have a copy and haven’t seen one for years so I have to speak from memory but what I remember is a paradise of endless pancakes and the story of a clever boy. It seemed magical; here was a far away land unlike anything I was familiar with, palm trees and huts and tigers; that Sambo was black was unusual but immaterial (I am white and in the places I’ve lived black has never been more than a couple of percent of the population (most places in Canada)). Though Sambo is now pejorative and maybe always was, all it was to me was a name, and a good one. Like I said, an interesting foreign place, a boy in jeopardy who uses his brain to outwit a tiger, which magically turns into butter, which then is made into pancakes. What more could you want?

    I’ve always taken issue with people who seem to be obsessed with identifying race. See, he’s black and therefore… When I used to manage a bookstore, I remember a customer wanting books by women of colour. I told her, we didn’t segregate the books and besides there was no way of knowing. Often there was no author photo, and it really incensed me that that should matter regarding the text. Thankfully, I think that whole attitude has been going the way of the dodo. One of the good things about globalism.

  7. There’s a series of the books. I have three of them.

    At one point, I explored the web looking for them and found some photographic versions of them with the pictures. I’m feeling a bit lazy and sluggish at the moment. I can’t remember exactly where I found them. I did a quick search and here’s what I found:


  8. Well, well, well… I must chime in here. First, we have to go for a pint to discuss this in detail (and also it’s implications for film). But, as it is my specialty… Eco and Ruiz Zafon, while both excellent, do not fall into the category of magical realism. The mode of magical realism itself suffers from an unclear definition that allows surrealism, fabulism and other genres to often be mistaken for MR. The term, as it was coined by Franz Roh to refer to a style of painting, is quite different from the term as used when referring to literature, which actually borrows more from Carpentier’s “lo real maravilloso” (the marvellous real).

    Now, the main agreed upon feature of MR is that it is a literary mode that represents extraordinary events as though they were part of everyday reality. This does not move the work into the realm of fantasy, however, because the world in the novel/story is very much dependent on realism (a recognizable world). Fantasy, on the other hand, is the creation of an entirely different possible world in which strange things may happen, but they are still part of that possible worlds’ “rules”, and so are acceptable for that reason (ie. there are dragons in a story, because in the world of the story dragons exist, but the world of the story is NOT our world). I hope that clears things up. And let me know when you can grab that pint. I’d like to discuss this further, as I’m working on my candidacy proposal and could use the intellectual stimulation!

  9. That works for me Nat, and you are the scholar in this area. Get back to you on the pint idea (right now in the midst of many things). Let’s see if others chime in on this.

  10. I’m not a scholar so my opinions are only just that. Semi educated opinion. Thanks for clarifying.

    • I just read Arthur Rex and have never read Malory but I have read T. H. White and other Arthurian books . . . although I haven’t read Rex 10 times I would dare say that Rex is not a complete satire (perhaps it’s too sly of a satire for my dulled senses?), but half a satire and half a loving homage to the Arthurian legend. The only other book by Berger I’ve read is Orrie’s Story and feel much the same way about that . . . funny and acerbic but still staying within the lines od respectful admiration for the original myth. Now I must needs read every book by Berger I can get my hands on.

      • Quite agree donchad,

        It is a loving homage, and I think thats why I keep rereading it. Satire would lose its allure after the first few times. The balance is a joy where the overblown phrases somehow also elucidate the pure majesty of the event, of the genre.

        Other than this, my favourite Bergers were ones along the lines of Neighbors, where its all about the precise lines of intimacy and how we both feel both fear and exhileration when someone crosses those (a common enough trope when writing about sex but quite rare though more common in life, when sex is not the concern).

  11. I’ve read Arthur Rex at least ten times, though I would never have thought of it as magical realism. I think it’s one of the most brilliand pieces of sociopolitical satire ever written.

  12. Before I had written this post I had not thought of it as such but I was casting about for unusual examples and I am still not entirely sure it fits. It probably is closer to simple fantasy. But whereever it ends up being classified it is a great book! Never thought of it as socioplitical satire..on the next read through I’ll be thinking about that (certainly generally true of Berger).

  13. […] Magical realism: The bridge from childhood Making the cut Mark Helprin: Character description Marketing novels Mirrormask My culture ravaged: My culture was ravaged […]

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