The Origins of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Magic Realism

"Surrealism runs through the streets," the Colombian author, who died today at age 87, told The Atlantic in 1973. "Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America."
Bjorn Elgstrand / AP

It’s often said that the works of Colombian novelist and short-story writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez are quintessential examples of “magic realism”: fiction that integrates elements of fantasy into otherwise realistic settings. In his 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which ambles through a century in the lives of one family in the enchanted Latin American hamlet of Macondo, magic carpets fly, ghosts haunt villagers, and trickles of blood from a killing climb stairs and turn corners to find the victim’s mother in her kitchen.

When Garcia Marquez, who died today at age 87, spoke to William Kennedy in an extensive interview published in the January 1973 issue of The Atlantic, he explained why he and other Latin American authors chose to weave fantastical details into their stories:

In Leaf Storm, the old doctor sits down to a pretentious, bourgeois dinner and startles everybody by saying to a servant: "Look, miss, just start boiling a little grass and bring that to me as if it were soup." "What kind of grass, doctor?" the servant asks. "Ordinary grass, ma'am," the doctor says. "The kind that donkeys eat."

Surreal? Not to García. "A man said that in my house," he said.

He believes that Faulkner differs from him on this matter in that Faulkner's outlandishness is disguised as reality.

"Faulkner was surprised at certain things that happened in life," García said, 'but he writes of them not as surprises but as things that happen every day."

García feels less surprised. "In Mexico," he says, "surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America."

About two weeks before he talked, a newsman had called to ask García for his reaction to an occurrence in a rural Colombian town. About ten in the morning at a small school, two men pulled up in a truck and said, "We came for the furniture." Nobody knew anything about them, but the schoolmaster nodded, the furniture was loaded onto the truck and driven off, and only much later was it understood that the truckmen were thieves.

"Normal," says García.

"One day in Barcelona," he continued, "my wife and I were asleep and the doorbell rings. I open the door and a man says to me, 'I came to fix the ironing cord.' My wife, from the bed, says, 'We don't have anything wrong with the iron here.' The man asks, 'Is this apartment two?' 'No,' I say, 'upstairs.' Later, my wife went to the iron and plugged it in and it burned up. This was a reversal. The man came before we knew it had to be fixed. This type of thing happens all the time. My wife has already forgotten it."

García likes the principles of surrealism but not the surrealists themselves. Given a choice, he prefers the painters to the poets, but he does not think of himself as being like any of them. And it is true that his work is based more in the anecdote than in the symbolic or random flow of events so important to the surrealists; true also that his aim is to be accessible, not obscure. And yet, a surreal quality, a rendering of the improbable and impossible as real, pervades his work.

In 1982, Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and three years later, he published the widely acclaimed novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

Read Kennedy’s full interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez here.

Presented by

Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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