Ben Winch's Reviews > One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
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Aug 20, 12

bookshelves: latin-american, colombian

Why I hate the term 'magic realism':

1. It's widely misused. Not every work of fiction that references the supernatural is magic realism. Poe, for instance. In Poe, when something supernatural happens the characters respond with awe; in Marquez they don't even notice it. As Marquez said, he tells it flat, the way his grandmother used to. Nor, to pick someone contemporary, is Murakami related; yes he tells it flat, but Mr Wind-Up Bird is disturbed by the intrusions of the dream-world into his reality, and compelled to seek their source by passing through the boundary between worlds. But in Marquez there are no different realities; magic co-exists with the everyday, and his plots are never enquiries into the sources of that magic. That's the whole point of the term 'magic realism' - that it treats of magic as just another component of reality. Let's not forget, there has always been magic in literature. What book will this so-called genre claim next - the Bible?

2. It's been used to typecast the literature of an entire continent. Even now, it's possible and probably quite common for certain readers to buy, say, The Savage Detectives based on the presumption that it'll (a) be magical, (b) detail, in picturesque terms, a 'primitive' society, and (c) be set in the jungle. In Australian terms, it's the equivalent of writing about the desert to impress the grants board, and given that the population of South America is roughly 85% urbanised as compared to Australia's 90%, it's just about as absurd. Nor is magic realism the only style of literature to have come out of Latin America. Roberto Arlt, Clarice Lispector, Felisberto Hernandez, Juan Carlos Onetti - all are urban; none are epic, romantic or magical; all are considered canonical in their own cultures. Think of the abiding stereotype of the rural Latin American macho - does the popular conception of magic realism challenge it even slightly? I don't think so.

3. It's an oxymoron. Surely magic naturalism is more accurate. Which brings me to...

4. I dislike the term 'realism'. What does it mean? James Wood talks about it a lot in How Fiction Works, yet every time he mentions it I have less idea of its meaning. It's nebulous; when Wood talks I'm tempted to think it means the whole of prose fiction, or at least the whole of it after Flaubert. And though he takes great pains to define most if not all of his other terms, this one he leaves alone, as if we should understand it implicity. But I don't - I don't understand it at all. Not if magic realism is a species of it. Nor Wood's 'hysterical realism'. Thomas Pynchon realism - of any variety? I just don't see it.

And One Hundred Years of Solitude? It's decent, from what I remember. I used to think I loved it, though that was 20 years ago and I was swayed by the gushing recommendations of my parents. I re-read it maybe 5 years later and liked it, but mostly it hasn't stuck with me. So let's say it's good, but so is a lot of other Latin American writing - and not just the so-called magic realism.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Jessica (new)

Jessica good discussion Ben. I want to add to it, but it'll have to wait til tomorrow as i'm way too tired right now...


message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Yeah, do it Jessica! I'm so tired of hearing those two words - either help me to stamp them out or help educate me as to why they should stay. Goodnight now...


message 3: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala One Hundred Years hasn't stuck with me much either. Could it be Isabel Allende's books that have contributed to the myth of magic realism defining South American writing? They put me off the entire continent for a while. Apropos The Savage Detectives, isn't it a bit worrying that you, in Australia are referring to books, i. e. the Bolano and the Marias you mentioned in another review, that I have just bought. Is there something out there manipulating us all? No, that smacks of magic realism...


message 4: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Well, there certainly is a filter through which things have to pass to reach the mainstream, if that's what you mean - and often it seems to only allow one author per country! Like a big Hall of Nations where sits Marias, Bolano, Marquez, etc. Not good - kind of galling, in fact. But at the same time, when something great breaks through and we're all reading it around the world that can be pretty great, no?

Bolano has some funny things to say about Allende in Between Parentheses - and yeah, she couldn't have helped. But I think it's the publishers who are really to blame, for exploiting this 'niche' ruthlessly for so long.


message 5: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala "when something great breaks through and we're all reading it around the world that can be pretty great, no?"
A big yes to that!


David I agree with your take on magical realism, Ben.

I am frequently puzzled by the use of 'realism' as well because often these products of realism strike me as very stylized, artificial, and—to put it bluntly—unreal. I guess I always supposed that maybe it was realistic only in comparison to the styles that preceded it? Maybe?

Right now I am in the middle of reading Emile Zola, and he is described as a 'naturalist'—which is essentially an outgrowth of realism, right? But this novel is incredibly unrealistic. I suppose it is relatively more realistic in that it deals with the darker aspects of society—but it still deals with these things in a contrived way.


message 7: by Jessica (last edited Aug 31, 2012 05:47AM) (new)

Jessica I dislike the magical realism term because it's discussed as if the Latin American writers, Garcia Marquez in particular, invented it. And yet...this "tradition" is borne out in any number of cultures and literary lifelines. Novels written in Persian or Japanese or Chinese also incorporate elements of myth, legend, fantasy and the fantastical and have done so for centuries. It's a label. And like any other it's misleading.
On another topic, I can't stomach Isabel Allende's fiction and all of these Marquez-inspired 'magical realist' Latin American writers. It seems false, contrived, less interesting to me than much other Latin American literary fiction.
As for Marquez himself, I like some of his work. I think he's overrated, however, given far too much credit to the exclusion of other much more interesting Latin writers.


message 8: by Ben (last edited Aug 31, 2012 05:45AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Agh God, you've just melted my globule! Maybe my use of the word 'naturalism' was wrong. When I think naturalistic I think:

1. Imitating or producing the effect or appearance of nature.

Not:

2. Of or in accordance with the doctrines of naturalism.

But maybe I can't use the noun in that way.


message 9: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Of course Marquez traces a direct line to Kafka and has said that it was the first line of 'The Metamorphosis' where Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into a beetle that made him fall out of bed himself and begin to see the possibilities of writing and literature in a whole different way.

I realize we have a number of different conversations going on here.


message 10: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch David wrote: "I am frequently puzzled by the use of 'realism' as well because often these products of realism strike me as very stylized, artificial, and—to put ..."

I accept that all these terms are ridiculous in one way or another, but 'realism' seems especially absurd because it also refers to a quality of writing which can be present in many if not all genres, not just the so-called genre of realism itself which, as you point out, is frequently unrealistic. I mean, to me even Raymond Carver is not realism because he's so damned stylised. (PS: Any home remedies for this globule-melting thing?)


David (PS: Any home remedies for this globule-melting thing?)

Sedatives, a dark room, and a little white noise.


message 12: by Ben (last edited Aug 31, 2012 06:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Jessica wrote: "Of course Marquez traces a direct line to Kafka and has said that it was the first line of 'The Metamorphosis' where Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into a beetle that made him fall ..."

Hey Jessica, yeah I still haven't got the rhythm of these multiple-participant comment threads - I seem to always be writing/posting over/under someone.

Not sure if you're interested but I just mentioned that very fact about Marquez at
this other thread in which, for some reason, and against my better judgement, I seem to be trying to draw a line between Poe and Borges, perhaps purely because I feel damn well sure there's a line between Poe and Kafka.

Good point about the pretence that magic realism was somehow born out of nowhere in Latin America too, by the way. And luckily I've never read Isabelle Allende.


message 13: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch David wrote: " (PS: Any home remedies for this globule-melting thing?)

Sedatives, a dark room, and a little white noise."


Important health tip, thanks. Sounds like when I used to have to block out the building site nextdoor to my apartment by playing Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail, a symphony for 100 feeding-back guitars, on repeat. It was the only way I could sleep.


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