Diving Into Magical Realism: Two Morsels

Without a doubt, Like Water for Chocolate is a tasty read. It  opens with the ingredients for Christmas Rolls,  Mexican style. But it goes beyond the usual food in fiction novel. A little further down, it reads:

Tita was literally washed into this world on a great tide of tears that spilled over the edge of the table and flooded across the kitchen floor.

That afternoon, when the uproar had subsided and the water had been dried up by the sun, Nancha swept up the residue the tears had left on the red stone floor. There was enough salt to fill a ten-pound sack-it was used for cooking and lasted a long time.

Laura Esquivel, the author, is declaring her Latin roots. She’s invoking magical realism, a theme/approach/literary device that Latin writers introduced into world literature.

I know realism. At least, I think I do when it comes to art and literature. But I’m a kind of newbie to magical realism in fiction. “Kind of” because when I first read this book in the early 1990s, I hadn’t known then nor read about  magical realism. I’m revisiting it because I saw similarities between this book and Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune . Besides, the concept intrigued me. I was born in a country steeped in folklore rich with mysticism and surreal ideas. But having lived in the US most of my life, I’ve lost touch with that lore and its associated imagery.

I enjoyed Like Water for Chocolate much more than Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune. Esquivel drew me into the story not only because of its many food scenes (and recipes).  The story itself is more beguiling with its theme of food as the language of love. Told from the point of view of a grandniece, you share Tita’s private world as she prepares her dishes and serves them to her loved ones, including the man she’s lost to her sister. You feel her anguish from losing her love because of tradition. Presenting months of the year as chapters that begin with recipes was unique and new when the book was initially published. Esquivel’s choices in writing her story make the book an attractive, entertaining read.

Food also plays a part in Allende’s story. Like Tita, Eliza—whose special gift is her acute sense of smell—spent time in the kitchen with a housekeeper who taught her how to cook. But the book drew me in only in the beginning chapters. Once it got into the heroine’s life in California, the  narrative and the all-knowing omniscient point of view made it read more like chapters on the history of the California gold rush. That’s when this novel lost me, though I persisted and read it to the end. I think it’s also trying for deeper meanings and a cross-cultural perspective that don’t quite succeed because of its style.

Gabriel Garcia Marques,author of One Hundred Years of Solitude is often credited with “inventing” magical realism in literature. But he probably just brought it to the awareness of millions of readers around the world with his book, one which everyone but me seems to have read. I picked it up long ago, read a bit of it but set it aside. The length of it intimidated me.

On first blush, the term “magical realism” is an oxymoron. Magic is fantasy, hocus-pocus that defies realism. The concept has been stretched from its original meaning as used by Garcia Marques et al. Some call it a genre. Others think it isn’t a genre but a literary device or style. The view I subscribe to is true to the original meaning and is   presented here:

A literary mode rather than a distinguishable genre, magical realism is characterized by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a so-called rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality. Magical realism differs from pure fantasy primarily because it is set in a normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society.

You rarely (if ever) see magical realism as a genre on book sites. But genres and codes, in general, are probably useful only for selling and accounting purposes. What matters is how a reader experiences a book. My immersion in literature from “foreign” cultures has rekindled my interest in magical realism. I want to give One Hundred Years of Solitude a serious read, after which I’ll review it here along with Love in the Time of Cholera which I’ve already read.

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