Essay | Come Back West, Magic Realism, We Need You Too


Erik Martiny

Come Back West, Magic Realism, We Need You Too

In 2016, Roisin O’Donnell published an article in The Irish Times which addressed the curious fact that so few Irish writers wrote in the magic realist mode. Putting in a plea for magic realism, she argued that “Ireland, with its healthy litany of bread-crusts-make-your-hair-go-curly superstitions, along with its hand-me-down myths and often illogical way of doing things, would seem like the
ideal climate in which to cultivate a culture of what many simply refer to as “Strange Fiction”. And yet, for much of the past century, Irish fiction, and in particular the Irish short story, has been tightly wedded with naturalism.” O’Donnell’s claim is difficult to argue with, in fact, I believe her thinking can be applied to a much larger scope of Western countries on the whole, as magic realist writing seems strangely absent nowadays.

Magic realist critic Maggie Bowers, writing to me by email, agreed that it was slowly disappearing from the West: “I think the mode has shifted into more frequent use in postcolonial and indigenous contexts. Although there are always some writers in Europe employing it, it seems to have moved away from the Atlantic in a shift towards Asia.” Despite Paris being the birthplace of surrealism, even the great French surrealist/magic realist writer Boris Vian (1920 – 1959) experienced trouble getting published by a major publisher following the publication of literary masterpiece L’écume des jours (Foam of the Daze).

British writing, too, seems to have veered away from the aesthetic since the untimely passing of Angela Carter in 1992 while the mode was still in its heyday. The occurrences of magic in Ben Okri and Salman Rushdie’s writing seem rather timid (not to say genteel) when compared with baroque extravaganzas like Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann. All the while in America, the mode tends to be extremely inventive but almost invariably ultra-violent, renamed as bizarro fiction or weird fiction. For the most part, magic realism has been relegated to the small press fringes where it is more or less ignored by the mainstream press, and often boycotted by libraries and bookshops. 

In a recent interview, best-selling American author Jodi Picoult advised aspiring writers to use the realist mode “so that you don’t starve”, realizing that it is much harder to get published as a magic realist writer, and sell well if you do. With a dwindling market, many would-be writers naturally steer clear of magic realism. Sadly, the system is self-perpetuating; the less available magic realist fiction there is to read, the less it gets promoted on the literary market. But what are the reasons behind the marginalization of a genre that once loomed so greatly in the western cultural landscape?


Before we examine recent works of magic realism, I’d like to briefly posit my view that there is no strong dividing line between magic realism, fantasy and surrealism. The only real distinction between magic realism and fantastic literature is that in the latter, the supernatural event is regarded by its characters as anomalous, tending to have disturbing and often disastrous consequences. By contrast, characters in magic realist works take the supernatural in their stride as part and parcel of the world. The distinction between magic realism and surrealism is arguably even more tenuous. Salman Rushdie pointed out in an interview that when the words ‘magic realism’ are uttered only the word ‘magic’ is heard, thus dissolving the generic boundary even further, and so I would like to suggest that magic realism is at heart no more than a diluted form of surrealism. In other words, you might say that reality as we know it plays a greater part in magic realism, hence the hybrid conjunction of the terms ‘magic’ and ‘realism’. More intensely surrealist works tend to veer away from narrativity towards pure invention and metaphor, as well as contemplation of the metaphysical and the subconscious.

A recent French novel entitled En rêve et contre tout by Anastasie Liou takes after the Boris Vian model, a fictional world in which reality is saturated with unreal occurrences that are typical of surrealism. Anastasie Liou’s En rêve et contre tout offers no reassuring, easily identifiable conventional myth. The absence of words like ‘ghost’, ‘vampire’ or ‘mermaid’ in the title, along with the absence of supernatural imagery on the cover, means that it is unlikely to draw in many erstwhile Harry Potter fans. Liou’s out-and-out model of near-absolute surrealism, coupled to her dismantling of narrative conventions is also too disorienting to draw mass readership. Opening the book on any page is a little like opening a door on a gale-force literary wind. Liou’s brand of magic realism is strongly metatextual in a manner which recalls Jasper Fforde. The starting point of Liou’s story is that the characters of famous classics such as the Sherlock Holmes stories and Alice in Wonderland escape into the real world. Ideally, this is the kind of book that the larger reading public should be reading: unconventional magic-oriented books in which all kinds of disorienting, surprising situations occur.

By contrast, Une sirène à Paris by Mathias Malzieu focuses on a single supernatural phenomenon: a mermaid washed up on the banks of the Seine. Une sirène à Paris could, of course, be categorized as fantasy but it also classifies as magic realism because it is set not in a fantasy world but in a very recognizable contemporary Paris. While the book is rather lively and inventive, it is mostly worthy of interest as a marketing phenomenon as it has been in the top ten list of sales. In generic terms, I would place Une sirène in the same category as Marc Lévy’s ghost-in-love stories.

These magic realist books make it to the top, not only because their authors are already famous, but also because their magical properties are limited and conventional. Ghosts and mermaids draw on the large stock of hand-me-down supernatural elements that mass readership readily responds to. They are attractive to teenagers and adults alike because they draw on unchallenging, easily accessible romantic myths.

An enthusing Anglo-Saxon equivalent to Liou’s book is Geoff Ward’s You’re Not Dead which adds a touch of dark, absurdist comedy to the conventional trope of the book of magic spells. A Cambridge University professor well versed in deconstructionist theory, Ward infuses the magic he describes with a Derridean slipperiness. The book of spells in this book is delightfully indeterminate as the words on the pages get modified every time they are read. You’re Not Dead offers a whirligig of events and characters who travel through photographs, mirrors, death and time. With its modernist techniques, it’s the novel that comes closest to being a kind of adult’s Harry Potter.

Apart from the conventional Une sirène à Paris, the above novels are all published by small presses which tend to be more open to magic realism for the simple reason that they don’t expect to sell large numbers of books. Let’s take a look at two recent magic realist novels that made it to big publishers like Harper Collins and Bloomsbury: Rosie Garland’s Night Brother and Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds. Both are undoubtedly high-quality novels but I would argue that they also made it past the large publisher barrier because their magic properties are muted and unlikely to be seen as potentially alienating large numbers of adult readers. Garland’s novel draws on the figure of the dark twin, a somewhat conventional trope in itself, but the novel also partly rationalizes away the magic by making it clear early on that the little girl Edie is given to fantasizing and has, in her mother’s view, invented a non-existent double. The same can be said for Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds as the eponymous red birds are only seen by a character who has had his brain fried by electricity. Although the character (called Mutt) initially seems like a kind of cross between a child and a dog, he turns out to be merely a dog who thinks like a human but is incapable of speech. In both of these cases, I’m reminded of Ann Radcliffe’s supernatural explained who, in the late eighteenth century, reconciled the gothic novel with Enlightenment ideology by explaining away any magic at the end of her novels – a rationalization that has clearly resurfaced today.


My own career as a magic realist writer began with the publication of The Pleasures of Queueing, a novel invoking the comic trials and tribulations of an over-populated Franco-Irish family of twenty-seven children living in Ireland from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Much of the novel is occupied by the pursuit of what the German art critic Franz Roh called “the magic of being”, in other words, a marvelling approach to the ordinary world which seems surreal but doesn’t involve anything supernatural. My recently published second novel in English, Night of the Long Goodbyes, takes the stuff of contemporary politics and climate change more firmly into magic realist territory.

One of the reasons magic realist novels seem particularly apposite responses to the modern world is that we will soon be living in a world that is going to seem like a dark fantasy in which things like shorelines, ice, snow, hail and small islands will recede or disappear forever. A dystopian world in which water and food will be insufficient, causing food riots and water wars all around the globe. Magic realism is the mode that seems ideally adapted to the circumstances that we will soon be facing, so let’s hope it comes back to mainstream bookstores to reactivate our imaginations and warn us, with cautionary magic, of the perils to come.


                                             Erik Martiny has taught Anglophone literature, art and film in Cork, Aix-en-Provence, Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Paris. He currently teaches literature, art and translation to prep school students at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. His short stories and articles have appeared in The London Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, World Literature Today, The Iowa Review, Litro Magazine, Fjords Review, Frieze, Whitewall, Aesthetica. His academic work has focused on poetry, fiction and film. He has published articles in The Wallace Stevens Journal, Etudes Anglaises, The Cambridge Quarterly and a number of other periodicals. His book on the poetics of filiation, Intertextualité et filiation paternelle dans la poésie anglophone (L’Harmattan), was published in 2008. He has also written on the connections between film and fiction, having edited a volume of essays, Lolita: From Nabokov to Kubrick and Lyne. In 2011, he edited A Companion to Poetic Genre for Wiley-Blackwell.

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