Defining magic realism has always been difficult. Perhaps this is why there are so many bad examples of it. However, Gerald Martin has a good example of magic realism at work in the life of Gabriel García Márquez, the form’s master. Here is Michael Wood retelling the story after reading Martin’s Gabriel García Márquez: A Life:
Many years later, and many times over, the famous writer was to remember the day he discovered how to set about writing his great novel. He was driving from Mexico City to Acapulco when the illumination hit him. He turned the car around, went home, and locked himself away for 18 months. When he reappeared, he had the manuscript of One Hundred Years of Solitude in his hands. In her hands, his wife had 18 months’ worth of unpaid bills.
Martin clears his throat and says what really happened. García Márquez probably continued on to Acapulco, where he wrote some notes on the novel. Upon his return to Mexico City he completed the novel in one year. He wrote it so quickly because it emerged from an earlier manuscript upon which he’d already devoted years of work.
However, as Wood points out, “Just because the miracle didn’t happen as the nifty story says it did doesn’t mean there wasn’t a miracle. One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was published in 1967, changed García Márquez’s life entirely, and it changed literature.” Wood’s version of the story re-enacts one of the primary devices of magic realism: the way it condenses time into an image, usually of a wordless gesture. Magic realism cuts through the messy sprawl of events, but we still get the sense of time wizzing by, of the occluded events being repressed rather than cut out altogether. Note the dual ending of Wood’s anedote: there’s a novel and a stack of bills.
The effectiveness of the famous episode in which Remedios the Beauty floats away with the family laundry is not that the conventions of realism are suddenly violated, but that the incident happens in silence. Her disappearance reverberates through the narrative, but when the incident is recalled, words are thrown into a void. Recreating the event so that its reality may be finally understood only enhances its fabulous quality.