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Magical Realism: A Genre of Narrative Fiction

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Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth
Image credits: Telecinco Cinema, Estudios Picasso, Tequila Gang, Esperanto Filmoj, Sententia Entertainment & Warner Bros.

When I first saw The House of the Spirits, I was mesmerized. Then, I read the book and I was mesmerized even more. At that time, I hadn’t heard of “magical realism” and I didn’t know it was a genre in literature and visual arts. All I knew was that watching and reading Isabel Allende’s story, I liked how reality was stretched beyond the confines of norms and I liked even more how the process did not make the story nor the characters sound and look ridiculous.

When I saw Like Water for Chocolate and Pan’s Labyrinth recently (at the recommendation of readers — thank you!), I started to wonder if that kind of storytelling that blends reality with fantasy in a unique way is something peculiar to Latin Americans. Almost as soon as the idea hit my head, I just as quickly realized that no, it’s not a Latin American thing because Amy Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning follows a similar pattern. And then there’s Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. That was when I started reading up and discovered the name for that peculiar pattern — magical realism.

It might be difficult for anyone who hasn’t seen or read any of the titles above to understand what magical realism is. It is tempting to define it — and I have read half a dozen articles that attempted to do just that—but I won’t. The beauty of magical realism is that it makes the imagination soar. It is about allowing the confines of the mind to crumble to enjoy an experience like no other. It is about letting loose and letting go. And to try to create a definition for something that precisely refuses to stay within normal boundaries is both ridiculous and self-defeating.

Without trying to define what magical realism is, what does it do? It allows a story to be told not just the way things happened but the way things the characters thought and / or wished they happened which is naturally affected by beliefs, non-beliefs, hopes and frustrations. The effect is both an exaggeration of reality and a transcendence over it but without exactly altering historical events.

For example.

As with The House of the Spirits, Like Water for Chocolate and Pan’s Labyrinth incorporate a period of war in the story. That the wars happened is not denied. How they happened is not altered. But interspersed in all that horrid reality are elements that no normal mortal would consider real.

In Like Water for Chocolate, one scene stands out. For me, at least. If you’re not familiar with the story, a mother refuses to allow her third and youngest daughter, Tita, to marry because it is a family tradition that the youngest daughter cares for the mother until death. When the youngest daughter falls in love, permission for marriage is denied and the young suitor, Pedro, is obliged to marry the girl’s oldest sister, Rosaura, just to be near the one he truly loves.

Bah, it’s the stuff that telenovelas are made of! And I bothered? Well, see, there are scenes such as the one with the rose petals. With Pedro and Rosaura living with Tita and her family, Tita conveys her continuing love and passion for Pedro through the meals that she prepares. One time, she puts rose petals in the food and her passion (okay, lust) for Pedro is transferred to her second sister Gertrudis who takes a cold shower to cool down but nevertheless runs away naked with a passing revolutionary. I mean… really, now. But while watching the movie? Oh goodness, yes, it’s ridiculous but it’s funny and it’s totally delicious. All of it.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark fantasy. It begins with a fairy tale about a princess that lived in an underground kingdom who ventured to the world of humans above where the sunlight erased her memory and where she eventually died. The king, her father, never gave up hope that she would return someday. The fairy tale segment ends and it is 1944 in Spain. A girl, Ofelia, and her pregnant mother move to a mill where the mother’s new husband, an army captain in Spain after the rise of Franco, is stationed. Ofelia discovers a labyrinth near the mill and a hole in the ground with steps leading underneath. She descends and meets a faun who tells her that she is the long-lost princess. But to reclaim her place, she has to perform three tasks.

Pan’s Labyrinth‘s employs a lot of computer generated imagery as well as animatronics and lots of fantastic make-up. The dark and gray colors convey Ofelia’s feelings about her stepfather and the the new life she is expected to accept. But, watching the movie, depression is not an option — unless you have totally no imagination. Despite the violence (it takes place in Franco’s Spain, after all, when violence was rampant), the effect is inspiring and uplifting. Even as the film ends and Ofelia dies, you never get the feeling that she lost. You rejoice with her. And I almost stood up in the living room to applaud.

So, yes, I like the genre called magical realism. Very much.