Gabriel Garcia Marquez, born in 1927 near Aracataca, Columbia, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He is the author of many novels and novellas that are described as magic realism, a narrative that includes fantastic or mythical elements incorporated in realistic fiction.
Of course, this is a conundrum if not a contradiction for such elements incorporate two world views of reality that challenge the reader’s comprehension.
Marquez’s mastery of this world of fiction is inspiring and dramatic while appreciated by reviewers as both dense and complex, bizarre and unusual. At the same time, some reviewers believe offering simplicity and the familiar. (But familiar to whom?) The irony of these descriptions of his work is intriguing, as you will find in the following examples of his artistic works.
But first, let’s take a look at Magic Realism:
The reader accepts the integration of the natural, conventional, logical, fictitious world with a second different world view of fantasy that, while logically impossible (because it is not based on natural objectivity), is amalgamated in the story because the characters believe it.
With magical realism, there is a conflict between two pictures of the world woven into one plot. Two completely different perceptions of reality—the magical and the rational are integrated.
Preposterous events are presented and must be presented as real without an explanation. In fact, an explanation would change the perceived supernatural into something rational, and you would no longer be in the hands of magic realism.
In other words, as the reader, you will be carried away by the realistic development of a logically impossible situation that seamlessly evolves. The supernatural as it is presented is not problematic because it is amalgamated within the norms of the perception of the narrator and the other characters in a fictitious world.
The narrative voice may be highly educated and rational, in spite of the fact that this very same narrator describes supernatural events as if they are real! The supernatural is naturalized with no attempt to explain how this occurs.
(By the way, this is not science fiction which takes the reader into one fantastical world with only one altered perception of reality throughout.)
Table of Contents
The novel begins with Marquez introducing his main mysterious character, a twelve-year-old child of the Marquis de Casalduero.
An incident of a stray dog biting her ankle at the start sets off an extraordinary plot that unravels with many characters perceiving this incident from multiple perspectives that offer fears of life and death, medicine and exorcism, and love.
The reader works at understanding the unsaid and the prescient significance of everyday happenings as Marquez heightens all our senses that just a few quotes will highlight:
“Her skin had the pale gray color of full-blown dyspepsia” (p. 48).
“She had suffered everything: vertigo, convulsions, spasms, deliriums, looseness of the bowels and bladder, and she rolled on the floor howling in pain and fury” (p. 51)
“The Marquis…distributed meager alms to the crowd of beggars crawling in front of the portico, and entered the cool shadows of the interior just as the enormous tolling of four o’clock sounded in the cathedral and resounded in his belly” (p. 52).
“Each hour resonates deep inside me like an earthquake” (p. 54).
Religious and secular beliefs wind together in the speculation about the twelve-year-old child’s body and soul. This conundrum is expressed with outstanding philosophical language that may arrest your mind:
“Disbelief is more resistant than faith because it is sustained by the senses” (p. 58).
Marquez illustrates “narrowness of mind” (p. 65) paired with “symptoms of demonic possession” (p. 66) as he stretches the symbol of the crucifix as both an expression of purity and a weapon.
All of these images raise questions for the reader as how the story will proceed drawing on each reader’s beliefs and quandaries ranging from what is perceived as real or in the realm of the occult. I can barely prepare you for this “world” that trembles “in a supernatural shudder” (p. 89) as the story unfolds in just the first 90 pages of this short 147 page novel.
I won’t give more away now that you have the atmosphere Marquez creates that will draw you into—a startling page turning experience replete with questions of demonic possession, unusual cruelty, and deeply passionate love.
Be prepared for the fantastic at the end which may compel you to turn back to page one and reread this novel several times. Unless you read very slowly, it is hard to conceptualize all the details and nuances of this beautifully written story where irrational or supernatural reality can bring the dead back to life. Or can it?
Unlike the previous novel, this story is essentially a soliloquy in first person of a ninety-year-old man intent on his birthday. Except for the beautiful writing style that draws the reader to this fascinating man who appreciates his good fortune to live to ninety, his initial intent to celebrate his birthday sounds terribly misogynistic in the reality of a conventional reader.
Be prepared for confusion if you want to forgive him for his intent and be swept away by his well-spoken even magnetic charm and life of poverty but at the same time can’t forget or maybe forgive his intentions with a virgin of fourteen years. At that point you may be a reader with a realistic vision based on the world you are familiar with.
The ninety-year old’s life of solitude is told in a compelling way as he expresses it in first person. Marquez once again captures the reader and takes her on this journey into someone’s inner and outer life. But what are the protagonist’s intentions as they are transformed by a second reality not based on objectivity and reason?
Reminding oneself this is fiction doesn’t deter the reader from anticipating what’s ahead for this unknown virgin child whose anticipated meeting with the older man is described as “her debut.” The narrator’s view of himself, the elderly spirited man, a writer with decades of accomplished work preceding his final wish is ambivalent as he shifts between past and present.
“When I passed El Alambre de Oro I glanced at myself in the lighted windows, and I didn’t look the way I felt but older, dressed in shabbier clothes” (p. 20).
“I saw the copper moon coming up at the horizon, and an unexpected urgency in the belly made me fearful of the outcome, but that passed soon enough” (p. 21).
“The shop had a dim lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and almost nothing for sale on the shelves, which did not even serve as a screen for a notorious business that everyone knew about but no one acknowledged (p. 22)…the world looked as if it were submerged in green water” (p. 24 )…left alone in my terror” (p.25)…I was feeling humiliated and sad and as cold as a striped mullet” (p. 28).
Marquez is using the narrative mode of magical realism to introduce a second world of reality not based on logical reason.
Leaving what occurs with the young girl to your imagination for a while the story proceeds. The man on his ninetieth birthday is filled with mixed emotions including a turn to an unexpected rage. At the same time, commonplace even conventional views of aging are incorporated:
“Age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel” (p. 60). This is a precursor to his later comment: “one ages with more intensity in pictures than in reality“ (p. 85).
The tone shifts. As a reader I am no longer beleaguered by the notion of a child being used as a sexual object because imaginary events emerge, unreal memories fill out the drama perhaps as hallucinations describing the protagonist’s “miracle of the first love of my life at the age of ninety” (p. 60).
A new reality in a new dimension, vague at times and hard to comprehend, has become miraculous as well. It is a journey worth taking to the end.
Marquez’ is a poetic visionary taking us into a realm of musically inspired fantasy we want to enter willingly as we depart from conventional contemporary wisdom.
We enter the protagonist’s mind as if we are really there in a supernatural space drawing on all our senses as he enters his magical world of love in his ninetieth year.
In the breath of this short tender novel, we anticipate and live through unexpected tormented love, fantastical haunting romance, and survival with real love in a seemingly real world.
By the end, hopefully, as a reader, you will find that you have suspended your judgment of what is rational and what is irrational in this hypnotic though at times disorienting work of fiction. The supernatural redefine its borders. That is magical realism at its best.
I will leave the actual opening of the story only to say that Marquez creates a strange, uncanny reality in the town of Macondo. It slowly becomes clear that a child growing up is the first narrator observing the appearance of a nameless doctor who is taken in the house to reside in a small room, making rare appearances.
Some think he is the devil. Others believe he is more of a sorrowful soul who needs to be taken in. In time this stranger keeps his door closed never to be opened again “while the anger grew, spread out, turned into a collective disease which gave no respite to Macondo…, and in every ear the sentence shouted that night—the one that condemned the doctor to rot behind these walls—continued echoing” (p.18).
Is he a priest, a colonel, a military man, a doctor? An elaborate dinner is prepared for him while the narrator lets us know, “Never before had I seen in my house an environment more loaded with unreality” (p.48).
Despite the setting of special dishes as if it is an unusually splendid occasion, the man takes on a vulgar quality and oddly says, “Look, miss just start boiling a little grass and bring that to me as if it were soup…ordinary grass…The kind that donkey’s eat (p. 49).”
The Leaf Storm
A disorienting leaf storm with great metaphorical significance takes on a great deal of unclear meaning that is vague and ominous as this man, now called a doctor, says, “All this will pass when we get used to the leaf storm” (p. 59).
The vague atmosphere of unreality grows. But this is the reality of the story. Magical realism takes hold of the reader—a disturbed, confused reader led into this mysterious world.
The narrator marries for two years a mysterious man whose “truth was strange and different.” He spoke with “a soft and tense voice that …sounded like truth. But even that truth was strange and different (p.65).”
The mysterious stranger who lives in this family’s house, we learn, is divided against himself. “Cruel gossip” (p.68) takes hold of the town. He takes a woman into his world, seems to mistreat her, and then after 8 years leaves not taking care of her when she becomes ill. The narrator is getting older, but none the wiser, confused as ever, and told by her father, “You’ll understand…someday (p.74).
The first-person narrator shifts as the story continues. The suspense builds and the resolution is reached with a suspenseful somewhat haunting conclusion.
The beginning sentence sets the tone for a foreboding story, “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at 5:30 in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on” (p. 186).
His relationship with his mother, who is significant from the start, a woman he was close to from whom he had gained a sixth sense. We witness the last time she saw him.
Previous Foreboding Events
The narrator takes us back in time to learn more about Santiago Nasar’s life, about a wedding that took place before the anticipated killing, and his hope for contact with the bishop which did not occur. Other solemn characters are introduced who do and do not know about the killing.
These new characters all contain an air of mystery in the unfolding peculiar reality, such as the significant introduction of a strange man, Bayardo San Roman, an “enchanting” fellow who “had a way of speaking that served to conceal rather than reveal” (p.203) who intended to marry Angela Vicario who caused “the shudder of a fear in her” (p.204).
The story is bewildering to the reader who ventures forth willing to be challenged by the unknown if she is able to be patient with incomprehensible events. Angela and her siblings were mistresses “in the ancient science of sitting up with the ill, comforting the shrouding, and enshrining the dead” (p. 207).
As morose as this challenging unfolding story is, the belief that it is good to be raised to suffer becomes a curious philosophical theme especially when we learn Angela does not want to marry this famous man who without courting her bewitched her family to such an extent that her mother encouraged the marriage with another theme, that love can be learned.
Despite her threat of suicide, she goes along with the marriage as a public event. Onlookers are “cast adrift over an abyss of uncertainty” P.217).
The reader is also cast adrift with uncertainty knowing that soon this groom would be killed. The foreshadowing events confuse and frighten the characters along with the reader, just as the events after the wedding do as well.
How the Story Proceeds
Deception, a falsely accused innocent killer, and mystery leading to question if a potential suicide occurred bewilders and confounds the reader admidst many other details I should not reveal so the reader can struggle through this peculiar reality on her own such as a killing knife that comes out clean!
Just keep reminding yourself this is fiction so that like the characters you are not startled with fright.
Concluding Thoughts About Magical Realism
The introduction of a supernatural motif by a narrator prevents the reader from being deterred from reading by considering it strange from conventional reality.
The term authorial reticence means that the author will not give any explanation or express surprise suggesting this is an alternate reality. Thus, no justification is suggesting a reaction to the supernatural that it should be suspect.
All transformations and unusual occurrences are accepted on the literal level. Information is given in a matter-of-fact way suggesting any aberrant lifestyles are simply accepted.
There are no contradicting facts, no reasons to disbelieve the story or question the validity of the account. The narrator doesn’t even give the impression any incidents are strange in any way.
Reading the above stories that provide no textual indications to contest the plot result in a lack of skepticism and a joining with the shift of realities. I hope you find this reading adventure fascinating in the wonderful prose style and imagination of Marquez.
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