Section 5

Witi Ihimaera et al., ed. Te Ao Mārama,
vol. 3: Te Puāwaitanga o te Kōrero (1993)

Lecture 5:
Magic Realism (ii)

Deciphering the Tropics


Salvador Dalí: The Persistence of Memory (1931)

Gabriel García Márquez: Ojos de perro azul
[Eyes of a Blue Dog] (1947-1955)

Post-colonial Heterogeneity

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
– Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1848)
There is much in this opening passage to one of his most searingly “realist” novels which Dickens clearly cannot mean us to take literally: the Megalosaurus, the flakes of soot in mourning for the death of the sun. Nevertheless, these poetic details are meant to give an enhanced vividness to realities such as fog and mud and rain: to enable us to understand what it feels like to experience such things by means of such imaginative truths.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
– Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
Cien Años de Soledad (translated as “One Hundred Years of Solitude”), like so many other works of Twentieth-century Latin American literature, belongs to the genre called “Magic Realism.” Returning to those comments by Ursula Le Guin which I quoted in the notes for week 2:
Magic realism is a brilliant modern use of fantasy to record a reality not accessible to the techniques of realism. (Le Guin, vii)
Everything in this opening passage of García Márquez’s novel is meant to be true in context: the firing squad, the ice, the polished stones. Even the simile of the prehistoric eggs is not at all surprising to readers trained in the realism of Dickens and his successors. When we come to the sentence which claims that “the world was so recent that many things lacked names,” though, I think we begin to feel that a new way of thinking about reality is beginning to come through.

This comment, with the further detail that “in order to indicate them [the things] it was necessary to point,” can hardly be meant to be taken as literally true. And yet, in the context of a backblock village in Colombia, the assertion makes a certain sense. The “solitude” and lack of content with civilisation of García Márquez’s imaginary village of Macondo is, after all, a large part of the point of his book – and one of the reasons why it has become a modern classic.

Ghosts, portents, floods – all these phenomena are described in the same deadpan manner in García Márquez’s book: as if there was no real distinction between them. Magic Realism, then, is a realism in which otherwise “magical” events can occur without invoking that sense of suspense and hesitation so characteristic of the Fantastic as a genre.

This is, above all, a literature of the poverty-stricken and downtrodden. There is only one event described in García Márquez’s novel which people refuse to believe, and that is the foreign Fruit Company’s mass slaughter of striking plantation workers described about midway through the book. Hundreds of dead bodies are removed from the town square in the dead of night and dumped in a local swamp, while the streets are scrubbed clean of blood and spent bullets. By morning, there is no evidence that the massacre ever happened.

Paradoxically, this is one strictly historical event in the whole of García Márquez’s novel. The rest may be imaginatively true, but the factual nature of this terrible act of murder make it a kind of fishbone in the throat of the novel, and serves to remind us that Magic Realism is in no sense a neutral genre: it is meant to give power to the powerless – in this case, the power of the imagination, which is all that economic exploitation has left to these citizens of the “undeveloped” world.

Antonio M Ruíz. El sueño de la Malinche [Malinche's Dream] (1939)

Alice Tawhai: Luminous (2007)

Exercise 4 – Parody

"Graham Greene taught me how to decipher the tropics."
- Gabriel García Márquez, The Fragrance of Guava (1982)

Almost all successful authors begin by imitating the writers they most admire. Sometimes these influences are swiftly assimilated or transcended; sometimes they persist as recurrent temptations throughout a whole career.

  • I want you to write a short piece of narrative in the style of your favourite writer of fiction.
  • The subject matter - setting, characters, events - must be drawn entirely from your own experience.
  • The language, vocabulary and sentence structure should, however, scream out the influence of your chosen author.
  • Don't tell us who it is - at first: give us some time to guess

Length: no less than a page, no more than 500 words.

NB: There is a slight twist on this exercise. If you wish, instead of imitating your favourite author, you can write your piece in what you consider to be your own characteristic style. If that is what you’ve done, don’t tell us until we’ve made a few guesses who you might be imitating. Some of the choices may surprise you.

Witi Ihimaera et al., ed.: Te Ao Mārama: Contemporary Māori Writing (1993)

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