Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


The Magic in Magical Realism Part 2: The Mystery in Magical Realism

I ended my first magical realism blog post, “The Magic in Magical Realism,” with the following passage: “The writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts. The principle thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between our circumstances and us. The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things.”

These observations deserve some explication. Magical realism isn’t the only way art, and in this instance literature, reveals truths that otherwise might not be recognizable. Most literary writers are trying to understand in a more profound way the dynamics between individuals and groups. They’re probing everyday events for what might be hidden from view. It isn’t unlike what Don DeLillo’s character Artis in Zero K observes:

I’m aware that when we see something, we are getting only a measure of information, a sense, an inkling of what really is there to see. I don’t know the details or the terminology but I do know that the optic nerve is not telling the full truth. We’re seeing only intimations. The rest is our invention, our way of reconstructing what is actual, if there is any such thing, philosophically, as what we call actual.

Artis could be speaking for the writer/artist who knows that our ordinary vision, our way of apprehending the world and its contents, is limited. Probing the actual, then, is what writers and also many visual artists attempt. I’m thinking of Anthony Marra’s recent collection of linked short stories The Tsar of Love and Techno. By taking his readers inside the fractured world of Chechnya and the former USSR between the 1930s, the present, and even beyond, he reveals the tragic consequences of Stalinist Russia and surroundings. In the book, art both reveals and conceals, as when a painter from the first story is forced to censor photomagicgraphs and paintings. He airbrushes a ballerina out of a photograph, changes other pictures to make Stalin look better, and obliterates his brother’s face from a family photo because his brother’s religious beliefs made him a traitor in the harsh environment of the communist regime. Yet he later paints his brother’s face in the background of every painting he is charged with altering.

This action demonstrates the power artists have, whether writers or visual artists, to alter what we call reality or the actual. What we think we are perceiving can suddenly shift. We easily can be deluded into believing what is being presented visually when in actuality there is little basis for its veracity. Donald Trump is an expert at creating this type of illusion by using his experience in so-called reality TV shows. But, aside from Trump’s slight of hand, we are constantly struggling to strip away the veils that obscure our understanding of things in the hope we’ll come closer to whatever reality is.

Writers who employ magical realism have a unique approach. They don’t try to delude the reader into thinking what is presented on the page is real in the sense it is something that could actually happen. Instead, the narrative leans more in the opposite direction, presenting images/descriptions that the reader understands are not true to our lived life but still contain an even more persuasive reality.

This approach isn’t new. In reading about Virgil’s Aeneid in Richard Jenkyns’ Classical Literature, I came across the following:

Virgil makes the familiar become strange: the Trojans see the River Tiber breaking out into the sea from thick forest, after having sailed past the scented and mysterious island of the enchantress Circe by night, hearing her song and the howling of her animals. Tiber is miraculously stilled before Aeneas travels up it to Evander’s town on the site of future Rome; the trees and waters marvel, as though they had come alive, and the boat cuts through the woodland as though penetrating a jungle.

First, the Tiber is actually in Rome, but in this narrative, the river is linked to Circe’s island, a fictional world. Next, this powerful river is temporarily at rest to allow Aeneas to safely reach Evander’s town. Then, the trees and waters are anthropomorphized, responding emotionally to what has just happened. Finally, this vessel created to travel in water also can move on land, and in a thickly wooded area. Virgil isn’t trying to convince his readers that these things are true to our lived life, but he is showing that those things we take for granted can step out of character and behave differently, contradicting our expectations. His descriptions demonstrate the mystery underlying the Trojan’s journey. A study would show, I’m sure, that many other texts inhabit the magical realism genre if not fully then partially.

This passage reminds me of what quantum mechanics suggests about our universe. Some physicists believe that many interacting worlds (MIW) exist in vast numbers, are real, and “exert influence on each other.” The passage goes on to point out that

There are three main points to the MIW theory…. First, that the universe we live in is just one of an unknown ‘gigantic’ number of worlds, some of which are ‘almost identical to ours,’ but most are ‘very different.’ Second, all of the worlds are ‘equally real,’ existing continuously through time with precisely defined properties. Third, quantum phenomena arise from ‘a universal force of repulsion between ‘nearby’ (i.e. similar) worlds, which tends to make them more dissimilar.’ ‘All quantum effects arise from, and only from, the interaction between worlds,’ the physicists explained in their abstract.

I’m not a physicist, but as a writer I can speculate from this theory. Since everything that could have happened in our past but did not has occurred in the past of some other universe, time may not necessarily always follow its prescribed linear path or could be much more complicated than what we believe. The MIW theory also opens up the possibility that humans will be able to interact one day with some of these parallel worlds. We could conclude that in its way, magical realism is more real than naturalistic, representational fiction.

In my novel Bone Songsto be released early in 2017, the main character, Curva Peligrosa, travels the Old North Trail alone from Southern Mexico to Southern Alberta over the course of twenty years. She started this journey with her twin brother Xavier when they were in their teens, but they got lost and ended up in the fictional town of Berumba, a place they had read about in a novel. Xavier was killed there. We all know we can’t actually visit fictional worlds; they only exist in our imaginations. Yet Bone Songs suggests that in a certain way we actually do inhabit these creations. They become more real in some instances than our everyday lives, and perhaps physicists will be able to demonstrate one day just why. (A woman who came to a recent reading of mine said the characters in the novels she reads are so present to her that she has to wait a few months before starting another book.)

It turns out that Curva has unusual abilities. Not only does she have divination skills, but phantom streams and sink holes often surface when she appears. She also has created a tropical greenhouse in Alberta that thrives because of her intense connection to the natural world. She has brought avocado seeds with her from Mexico, and they become healthy trees that produce that wonderful fruit in an inhospitable climate. Other fruits and vegetables flourish under her care, as do monarch butterflies, and the greenhouse attracts visitors from all over the area.

But what is the point of Curva being this kind of fecund individual? Why should a reader trust her to unveil anything? Curva’s larger than life presence (she actually is over six-foot-tall and a full-bodied woman) reminds the reader that women do have some amazing abilities, yet they aren’t always recognized, hidden beneath the usual misconceptions we have about females. Curva breaks though many of those notions, not wanting to follow the traditional path. Instead, she prefers to create her own trail and to pursue a life free from the type of demands her mother faced. Curva is trying to expand the boundaries of ordinary life so there is room for someone like her to thrive. This approach forces her to explore the mysteries of being human and to reach an understanding that allows her to live both within conventional society and outside it.

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This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Over twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016), these blogs will be posting about magic realism. If you click on the blue frog button below, you will be taken to a list of posts from where you can hop around the blogs. 


8 thoughts on “The Magic in Magical Realism Part 2: The Mystery in Magical Realism

  1. Fascinating and thoughtful contribution to the blog hop, as always, Lily. I always learn something knew with the blog hops and the section about Virgil’s magic realism was new to

  2. drstephenw

    Very thoughtful post, Lily. It makes sense that a lot of us are looking at politics right now and its relation to MR and especially reality. But I love that Physics has an important place in your description of your work, too. Fascinating.

    Best, Stephen Weinstock

  3. A beautiful tribute to magical realism. I love that you brought in art, politics, science and ancient literature. This description rings so true: “The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things.” In practice, magical realists are explorers, it seems, describing a reality that is so vast that the human mind can’t begin to grasp it, many worlds that “are ‘equally real,’ existing continuously through time with precisely defined properties.” That’s it! That’s it!

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