Latin America, Native America and Magical Realism
Magical realism is the art of infusing the supernatural in the mundane. Many Latin American authors exploit the power of magical realism in their novels, in which characters have regular encounters with the spiritual world. This capacity equips them with a ‘sixth sense’ so that they have superhuman insight, discern apparitions unseen to natural eyes or communicate with spirits or spirits of the departed. Laura Esquivel are Latin American authors who employed “lo real maravilloso” or magical realism into literature, pervasive in her best-seller Como Agua Para Chocolate. This method serves to weave in legend, religion and spiritism into reality (Jameson 1986). The reader realizes that magical realism is not simply magic, but it forms an inextricable part of life and human experience. Also in the Native American tradition, as seen in Monkey Beach authors depict their deep religious heritage in literature, inserting religious beliefs, rites and supernatural occurrences.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende is a text peopled by characters with magical capabilities. Characters, such as Clara, are endowed with uncanny, spiritual ability such as clairvoyance, interpretation of dreams, and telekinesis (moving objects with the mind). In the novel, writing is not a mere activity. It becomes a spiritual affair in which the writer undergoes a catharsis or inner purging, wielding the power of the pen. Clara records her dreams and spiritual encounters to be passed down to future generations. In this world, “conventional resources were not everything” (Conniff 1990). Spirits aid man in a mutually beneficial relationship. She relates well with the good spirits and they abide in her home, giving her a contentment that nothing material could bring. Characters can see the apparition of ghosts and experience comforting spirits participating in daily life so much so that the residents of the home accept them as normal. The paranormal constantly takes place in the novel. For example, Clara miraculously finds the lost head of her mother who accidentally gets decapitated. The spirits reveal to her the head’s exact location when no one could retrieve it. The punctuation of the novel with magic and surreal occurrences impresses on the mind the intersection of the spiritual world (embodied as Clara) and the material (embodied as Esteban).
In Monkey Beach, Lisa, the protagonist equally has phenomenal spiritual ability to foresee events through dreams before they come to pass. In the Haisla culture in Canada, the Native Indians cherish the culture of supernatural consciousness and communication with dead ancestors. Ma-Ma-Oo, Lisa’s grandmother, appreciates Lisa’s unusual gift and teaches her how to sharpen and control it. In magical realism novels, the presence of older generations is indispensable because the work “is the simultaneous impetus of atavism and modernism” (Gish 1990). Lisa learns about her sixth sense and later ‘sees’ a vision of her dead brother relaying an urgent message to her. Lisa also receives a vision that her best friend has died. Magical realism is woven into Monkey Beach not only through Lisa, but also through the old witch, Screwy Ruby, Sasquatch (an fabled animal from another world) and a strange little man who appears to Lisa whenever something imminent is about to take place. These personas are gifted with premonitions and foretelling. Some of Lisa’s family members also have strains of her spiritual gift but choose to deny it.
Setting is key in structuring a text with magical realism. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the setting is a fantastic, timeless village called Macondo, whose inhabitants are immortal. Setting not only signifies space, but also time. Time laws in magical realism works operate outside of the normal sphere. “Time is curved and coincidental in a whole moment that is outside of clock time” (Rabassa 1973). Marquez’ title emphasizes a timelessness which also points to an otherworldliness. Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes the Macondo village as a place untainted and uncorrupted by modern civilization and technology. Comparable to the Eden paradise of Genesis, the town never saw disease. Although not a pristine picture of perfection, the interaction of gypsies gives the storyline a surreal appearance. Science and invention are unknown in this idyllic world and the magic of pastoral life seeps into the story. The novel, House of the Spirits, is set in a nameless country. In literature, anonymity lends the idea of mystery and otherworldliness. Due to the title, one knows that the major scenes take place within the confines of a haunted house whose dwellers have regular communication with spirits or ghosts. Within the house, eerie events unfold as the mistress of the home, Clara, takes pleasure in spirit worship.
In Monkey Beach, Monkey Beach assumes a new meaning as it becomes the setting/site of her brother’s death. Monkey Beach is a gloomy environment where crows and hawks haunt and where drownings occur. At Monkey Beach, Lisa observes a Sasquatch (B’gwus) when others cannot see it and hears voices that others cannot hear. These spirit beings offer help to Lisa if she performs a ceremony and gives them an offering. Because of these supernatural events, Monkey Beach evolves into another world full of supernatural power. Religion lies at the core of magical realism in literature. Religion promotes belief in otherworldliness and the reality of a spiritual world. In Latin America where over 90% of the population profess Catholicism, the novels House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude are pervaded with religious references, persons or myth. In House of the Spirits, Clara is denounced as demon-possessed by the village priest. After their deaths, Clara and Ferula become ghosts that haunt the big house on the corner, thereby making the house, ‘The House of the Spirits,’ thus forwarding the popular spiritual concept of life after death and spiritism (the belief in spirits and communication with the spirits of the dead through mediums). References to priests, nuns, churches, convents and mass reinforce the overarching presence of religion and its role in inculcating the masses with spiritual teachings.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel pervades with magical realism in the home setting. Tita’s visions of her dead mother, Mama Elena in the bedroom. The culinary miracles that unfolded in the kitchen as she prepared her meals and the wonderful effects on the partakers give credence to the power of magical realism in the homes and heart of the Mexican and Native American cultures. The sexual powers unleashed in this novel through food impact on the bodies, minds and spirits of all the characters. For the wedding scene, the wedding guests are magically ignited by passion as they consume Tita’s quail in rose petal sauce. As an aphrodisiac represented in Tita’s own suppressed sexual desire for Pedro, a supernatural transfer of passions occurs. Mama Elena, her tyrannical mother is also portrayed a witch whose dictatorial enchantment, controls her entire life. The magical blanket that Tita knits also comforts her in her time of bereavement and solitude, suddenly catching fire at the conclusion of the novel.
Religion also plays a great role in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Garcia Marquez uses many Biblical texts and stories from Genesis and uses it as the chassis on which to base the story. The Adam and Eve personas who began the Macondo civilization-Colonel Aureliano and his wife, the queer gypsy people and the alien Whites penetrate the perfect kingdom and debase it from a spiritual settlement to a material world. The church’s influence in magical realism is evidenced by the levitation of a Roman Catholic priest, Remedios’ mysterious ascension to heaven (an imitation of the levitating priest) and village-wide insomnia plagues. The Native American religion is based on ancestral worship of the dead. It is known among Native American tribesmen that tribute and offerings must be paid to the dead whose life continues even after death and blesses or curses the nation. Medicine men and witch doctors are the priests of this ancient religion that endorses spirit worship. In Monkey Beach, Ma-Ma-Oo is educated in the religion of her people and provides much needed guidance for Lisa who struggles with her superhuman ability. In the novel, the spirits’ request for offerings in exchange for a favor blends in with the traditions of spirit worship within Native American religion and magical realism.
Extraterrestrial or immaterial beings fill the pages of The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude making the novel a habitation of magical realism. After Clara’s and Ferula’s deaths, they reappear to give encouragement to their friends and loved ones. In a moment of oppressing grief and bitterness, Esteban’s eyes are open to see the ghost of his dead wife. Also the dead Clara appears before Alba while the latter suffers torture in prison. Also, in Esteban’s last moments, Clara’s ghost stands at his side giving him morale support. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, apparent humans work miracles such as the White people that alter the weather cycle, agriculture times and the courses of the rivers. Melquiades, the gypsy, is said to be a lonely man resurrected from the dead. He stops the sleepless plague that afflicts the township. In another scene, the murdered Prudencio Aguilar reappears to torment the wife of his killer, Jose Arcadio Buendia. In sum, the awe of magical realism is universal in that it attraction both child and adult. Fairies, mermaids, gypsies, angels, demons, good spirits and evil spirits all occupy a world separate from the natural sphere. Magical realism presents a “vision of everyday reality” (Slemon) and gives the reader a backstage illustration of the forces influencing weather, the physical, people and destiny. In The House of the Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Monkey Beach, magical realism forces one to question the credibility of events, where the ordinary and extraordinary, real and unreal are confused. Latin American and Native American writers and many other acclaimed authors’ publications carry allusions to magical realism in their narratives, demonstrating their embrace of the imaginary, the religious, the spiritual and the seeming impossible.
Allende, I. (1993). The House of the Spirits. Bantam Books, New York, 1993.
Conniff, B (1990). “The Dark Side of Magical Realism: Science, Oppression, and Apocalypse in One Hundred Years of Solitude.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer 1990, 167-179.
Gish, R.F (1990). “Word Medicine: Storytelling and Magic Realism in James Welch’s ‘Fools Crow’” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Autumn, 1990), 349-354.
Jameson, F (1986). “On Magic Realism in Film, Critical Inquiry”. University of Chicago Press. Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter, 1986), 301-325
Marquez, G. G. (1998). One Hundred Years of Solitude, Harper Perennial Classics Publishers, New York, 1998.
Rabassa, G. (1973). “Beyond Magic Realism: Thoughts on the Art of Gabriel García Márquez” Books Abroad, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), 444-450
Robinson, E. (2002). Monkey Beach. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, USA, 2002.
Slemon, S. “Magical Realism as Postcolonial Discourse”
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Magical realism is the art of infusing the supernatural in the mundane. Many Latin American authors exploit the power of magical realism in their novels, in which characters have regular […]