Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

A R T I C L E ~ I N ~ E X C E R P T
An Introduction To The Realities
of Fiction: Teaching Magic Realism
in Three Stories by Borges, Fuentes
and García Márquez

b y   j o e   b e n e v e n t o   ~   k i r k s v i l l e ,   m i s s o u r i

NOTE: This is an excerpt from an article
which originally appeared in Kansas Quarterly (Vol. 16,
Number 3) in 1984. Some of its original formatting
has been altered to accommodate online readability.

THE STUDENT who understands the underpinnings of stories by men such as Borges, Fuentes, or García Márquez comprehends that there can be no neat demarcations between fact and fiction or between the real and the fantastic. In good fiction, life and art coexist in a strange, tenuous, and magical partnership that cannot be readily dissolved by a return to the "real world." In addition, because magic realism combines the most current and experimental narrative techniques and the most intricate attempts at verisimilitude with the special "spell narrative casts when it is perfectly implausible,"* it is a mode that both delights and challenges the beginning literature student.

I have used stories by Borges, Fuentes, Cortázar and García Márquez while teaching introductory classes in fiction and literature at both Michigan State and at Northeast Missouri State, and I have always found students particularly responsive to the works, in part because these stories have been so different. After all, though magic realism is certainly distinct from science fiction or fantasy or from the ghost story, it has enough in common with such modes to be of particular interest to today's students who continue to enroll heavily in courses in science fiction or mystery, while enrollments in some other literature courses decline. Magic realism is a kind of fiction that will almost certainly interest and engage students, while also helping them attain graphic and specific insight into such basics of fiction as plot, point of view, setting, and symbol.

Three of the stories most characteristic of magic realism and available in more than one of the more popular anthologies such as Fiction 100 or The Norton Introduction to Literature are Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths," Fuentes' "Aura," and García Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." Each of these tales is, in fact, partially a metaphor or allegory of the fictional mode itself.

Borges' story focuses attention on the reader's role and on the probabilities of fiction. Fuentes' "Aura" forces the reader to consider point of view and characterization in a highly focused way. García Márquez's fable is an allegoric representation of the world of magic realism itself, which explains to the reader how impossible it is to categorize either art or reality.

Jorge Luis Borges, certainly one of the most important living writers, has provided many stories which have served as forerunners or blueprints of the whole magic realism movement. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is an excellent story for an introductory course, though at first it seems like an unlikely choice as a "model" story because of its complexity and the ostensible implausibility of its plot. However, once the implicit meanings are unraveled through class discussion, it serves as a guideline for much of the subsequent reading in a class.

In an introductory literature course that I taught recently, I had assigned several conventionally popular short stories, such as "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Cask of Amontillado, " and I had received fairly conventional responses from my students.

However, on the day I arrived in class for our discussion of "The Garden of Forking Paths" I noticed that my students had arranged all of their desks against one wall, leaving a row of empty seats against the opposite wall. In response to my bemused look one of my students informed me that "Everyone who understood today's story is sitting on that side of the class" (the side with the empty desks). I took a look around the room, got my own chair, and placed it with my students, on the side of less than perfect understanding.

After we had a good laugh over their initiative and my response to it, we were able to approach the story in a way that the other stories had not seemed to encourage. Though they were confused, their actions also pointed out that they were challenged and interested, and we went on to have one of the best discussions of the semester. We began to unravel the plot and try to get at what Borges might have meant, but we also realized that one, neat solution might not be possible or even desirable.

The basic plot of "The Garden of Forking Paths" seems almost bizarre at first reading. A Chinese spy for the Germans during World War I in England is about to be captured before he can let the Germans know the site of the British munitions plant. He decides upon a strange solution; he goes to a phone book and selects a person whose last name is the same as the town which holds the munitions. He then goes to this man's house planning to kill him, so that when he is captured and his name is linked to the selected man in an apparently motiveless crime, the Germans will know that this was his way of relaying the site's location to them. Incredibly enough, the plan eventually works. However, the specific details of its enactment turn out to be even more bizarre than the plan itself.

The man selected from the phone directory by the spy is Stephen Albert, who, incredibly enough, is a sinologist. Far more incredibly, he is the man who has finally figured out the true significance of a book written long ago by one of the spy's ancestors, Ts'ui Pên. Albert has discerned what no one before him could, that Ts'ui Pên's avowed intention to create a labyrinth and to write a novel were in fact one notion: his "Garden of Forking Paths" was a labyrinth within a novel.

The incredible coincidence that the spy has to murder the one man who has revered and understood his ancestor more than any other person on earth is ostensibly the worst kind of "improbable possibility." In Aristotelian terms one might suggest that Borges' story is a classic example of an implausible plot. However, the real magic of Borges' story is that it redefines the borders of the improbable and introduces a different concept of time.

The book of Ts'ui Pên offers a rationale not only for Borges' story but also for much of the magic realism that it would help to engender. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a kind of blueprint for the work of men such as Fuentes and García Márquez. Ts'ui Pên's work is a novel in which there is no linear or normal chronological pattern. A character can be killed in one chapter and reappear in the next. The reason for this is that life and time are both conceived of as a series of infinite choices, in which all choices, all possibilities, eventually and inevitably come to pass.

As Albert explains: "In all fictional works each time a man is confronted with several alternatives he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên he chooses simultaneously all of them. He creates in this way diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork."

Life is thereby seen as a series of infinite possibilities and so too is art. The reader must consider all possibilities; there no longer can be a "road not taken." Hence no coincidence, no matter how seemingly bizarre, can be incredible, according to the logic of this "garden."

The strange circumstances that lead the spy to kill Albert are no more or less absurd than the many other possible worlds in which the two men would never even have met. Borges is not an absurdist; instead his fiction redefines the real and what is really probable. Everything and anything that can be imagined really can happen, and the reader must be prepared for all contingencies. This message allows a new kind of legitimacy to the fantastic and implicitly suggests that the most incredible of tales has every bit as much right to our "willing suspension of disbelief" as the most conventionally realistic story. Any reader who accepts the premises of "The Garden of Forking Paths" is, by definition, more open to the potentials and possibilities of fiction, and more aware of the role the reader must play in deciding upon which path to take in the interpretation of a given story.

When we discussed what Borges had done in this story, I could see that my students enjoyed the idea of a story that had no set ending, and I could see that they were intrigued by the mix of verisimilitude (the story has footnotes and is supposedly an uncovered diary with a few pages missing) and elements of the fantastic. They seemed entirely prepared to allow the author to create a fictional world that would not have to conform to narrow or normal expectations, but which might instead determine its own rules of authenticity by the force of its narrative pattern. In this way Borges did more to suspend my students' disbelief than any lectures on the subject ever could have done.

Carlos Fuentes' "Aura" creates a seductive atmosphere which not only overwhelms the main character but also each one of the readers of this strange tale. Fuentes employs a second person point of view which inevitably makes each reader as much a part of the story as the ostensible protagonist, Felipe Montero. For when the narrator says, "and for the first time in years you dream," he is surely speaking to each one of his readers as well who are caught up in the "aura" of his work.

The rare use of the second person viewpoint is an excellent opportunity to teach students the value of point of view, which can sometimes be overlooked in omniscient or even in some first person narratives. Fuentes almost forces us to become "accomplice readers," the kinds of readers that Julio Cortázar insisted would be necessary for the new kind of fiction being written in Latin America. We are certainly caught up in the magic of the story, but the second person reference, the repeated, "you," makes us feel its reality as well.

"Aura" begins when the protagonist reads a job description in the newspaper that seems "addressed to you and nobody else... All that's missing is your name." From the first, then, each reader is implicitly invited to fill in his name as well. Upon making inquiries, the protagonist soon gets caught up in the strange world of a very old woman who wants him to revise and publish the memoirs of her long dead husband. She is eccentric, but the money offered is substantial, and the old woman's beautiful niece, Aura, is a further incentive to stay. Captivated by Aura's beauty, the protagonist agrees to stay in the house to do the assigned work on the memoirs. With. each hour that passes, he becomes more enchanted by Aura's beauty.

However, the strange atmosphere of the old house becomes more pronounced. At night Aura comes to the protagonist's bedroom and they become lovers, though the encounters have a strange, dreamlike quality, and Aura appears to be older each time. The old woman seems to exert a strange power over Aura, as if she could only do what the woman willed her to do. Instead of being suspicious, however, "you" become more in love with Aura and more determined to rescue her from the old lady.

However, "you" discover through reading the memoirs and by examining some old photographs that Aura looks exactly as the old woman did when she was young. More amazingly, "you" discover that the husband looked exactly like "you." By the powers of a kind of black magic the old woman has been able to resurrect the aura of her youth, though she cannot keep Aura young for very long, and eventually she fades entirely. However, by this time "you" are totally captured by the bewitchment, and the protagonist makes love to the old woman herself, while she promises that they will bring Aura back together. The main character has become lost in the vision, the magic and madness of the old woman, so much that in the end he cannot distinguish himself from the old woman's husband.

The eerieness of the final scene in which the protagonist embraces the old hag, unable to distinguish between the real and the fantastic, is of course augmented tremendously by "your" direct inclusion in the narrative line of the story. Each reader inevitably becomes one with the protagonist and identifies with him as he himself identified with the old woman's husband.

Most obviously, "Aura" is an effective story to employ in a course because it demonstrates quite graphically the effect that point of view can have on the interpretation and understanding of a story. Its hypnotic effect, so appropriate to the tale of a man slowly bewitched, is the perfect example of an author making the right narrative choices.

However, this story is just as certainly about what any good work of fiction must do. Just as Felipe Montero realizes that he fits the picture of the husband, you the reader realize that you fit the picture of the protagonist; you identify with the character directly. In any work of fiction we become involved with the characters and/or point of view. We are always caught in the "aura" of the work, while also bringing our specific selves to the work. Our inclusion in "Aura" is far more direct, but in all fiction a large part of its potential magic is in how much we can identify with the characters and situations presented. Indeed, if the essence of the work affects us intimately enough, we may lose forever our inclination to discriminate sharply between the real and the imaginary. The vision can then begin to take shape; the aura becomes real. Invariably, when I have used this story in the classroom I have discovered that the questions of both point of view and reader participation become focused in a way that more conventional stories cannot always bring about. However, once the magic of "Aura" has worked on a class, students seem more able and more willing to reflect on how point of view can take us into its premises and biases, in stories ranging from "Rip Van Winkle" to "The Barnhouse Effect." Students who are being introduced to literature often have a compelling need to try to "understand" each work fully. In part this phenomenon can be attributed to their fear of exams, but it can also be traced to a fairly natural desire to avoid confusion and ambiguity. Magic realism forces students to rethink comforting but ultimately unsatisfactory answers.

For example, García Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" challenges our implicit desire for safe or explainable fantasies. The story is subtitled "A Tale for Children," and its skeletal plot seems to favor that assessment. An old "angel" falls from the sky near the home of a poor, beleaguered couple who have a very sick child. During his stay with them the child gets well and the family comes into financial prosperity. Eventually the angel grows new wings and flies away. On the basis of that description one would certainly feel safe to say that the story is a kind of modern fairytale. However, anyone who reads the story swiftly loses any such sense of complacency, and is instead befuddled by it at every turn.

The old man is by no means a typical angel, if indeed he is an angel at all. He is disheveled and weak, speaks an incomprehensible tongue and makes little attempt to communicate, is infested with parasites, and has ugly, vulture-like wings. In short, he bears little resemblance to any of the angels of mythic convention.

The villagers offer various explanations of this incongruous creature, while the young couple, Pelayo and Elisenda, eventually decide to make good on the attention he attracts by charging five cents admission to view him, locked safely, if uncomfortably, in their chicken coop. His notoriety, however, is short-lived; he is soon displaced in the public eye by a carnival attraction that rolls into town, a woman who claims to have been turned into a tarantula. This woman is more than willing to explain how she reached her strange state, so she is far more attractive to the villagers than a sullen angel who grants no miracles.

The people in this story want an explanation for the bizarre, and they readily accept the spider-woman's explanation, no matter how ridiculous (she claims to have been transformed by God as punishment for having gone out against her parents' will) because it is conventionally sound (the gods have a long history of changing people into animals). The contradiction of explainable or comfortable fantasy is brought home clearly by the old man who clearly is fantastic, but who offers no explanations. And so it is with a sense of genuine relief that the couple discover the old man's gradual growth of new wings and witness his renewed power of flight and his escape back into the sky.

This story defies simple categorization, just as the old man himself does. It purports to be a child's tale, a simple excursion into the realm of the clearly imaginary, but it becomes instead a difficult tale of a strange old man whom no one can figure out, though the priest and the "neighbor woman who knew everything about life and death" pretend to understand him.

The truly amazing thing about this strange being is that he so soon loses his incredible status. As the narrator informs us, "They looked at him so long and so closely" that they soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. In addition, the doctor who initially examines the man and his wings out of curiosity concludes, "They seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn't understand why other men didn't have them too." The old man is a mix of the familiar and the fantastic and his effect upon us is to make the incredible familiar and perhaps the familiar incredible.

When I have used this story in class a few students have chosen in their assigned papers to compare and contrast it with Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist." Both are stories about strange old men who are enclosed public attractions until their audiences lose interest and they face neglect. A prime contrast that my students have been able to discern, however, is that Kafka's hunger artist is clearly a man with a purpose who seeks recognition and is clearly a human being, no matter how strange. The winged old man fits no known categories, does not try to communicate, even in the end (unlike Kafka's hero), and he never can be explained, either as an angel or a hoax or as anything else. He remains enigmatic from beginning to end.

As Young and Hollaman* point out, "We must take him as a given, accepted but not explained." García Márquez refuses all "reasonable" explanations. Science fiction or fairy tale are explainable fantasy on some level; the first implies that someday or in some world these things can be real, and fairy tales are real enough for children. The old man cannot be explained by the church or science or by a child's fantasy; he is real until the moment he flies away. Only then can we "imagine" that he never existed.

The old man is, therefore, very much like magic realism itself. He has fantastic qualities, but also some very ordinary, even unattractive features. Neither can be easily classified, and that is annoying. Like magic realism, the old man cannot be expected to conform to the ordinary person's expectations of the fantastic. A fantastic tale that fits expectations should be a contradiction in terms. Magic realism insists that it is foolish and inappropriate to look for a consistency in literature that has never been present in the "real world."

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the old man and about magic realism is that they both fly, tentatively at first, but eventually they soar beyond the normal field of vision. The maddening mix of the real and the fantastic that is magic realism is aptly represented by the fantastic commonality of the old man.

Magic realism and much of good fiction insists upon thwarting the reader's ordinary expectations. The good reader does not want safe or predictable answers, and magic realism never supplies them. The works of Borges, Fuentes, and García Márquez and other authors of magic realism can be valuable tools in any introductory literature course because they introduce students to a most enriching way of viewing the fictional world. These stories familiarize students with the province of fiction and of art even as they puzzle and entertain them. They are a most viable means of introducing students to the realities of fiction, the role that fiction plays in broadening our range of beliefs and possibilities. They focus our attention on the intimate bond between fiction and the real world, in part by suggesting what an ultimate "fiction" any neat or orderly version of the real world must be.

* FROM Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology, edited
by David Young and Keith Hollaman (New York:
Longman, Inc., 1984).

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