INTRODUCTION: I wrote this essay for ENG 560: Magical Realism as a Global Genre taught by Dr. Sadowski-Smith. I was familiar with the genre prior to taking this course and I count Gabriel Garcia Marquez among my favorite authors, but this course really opened my eyes to how the genre can be wielded as an extremely effective literary device. This essay dissects themes of identity as they present in the writings of Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. This is the first critical analysis essay I’ve written where I felt like I really “got it”. I felt like I was finally able to hone in on my thesis statement and craft a compelling argument and present strong evidence to support it. Perhaps this essay was easier to write because I really enjoyed the source material, but I felt a great sense of accomplishment that I was able to overcome one of my greatest obstacles as a writer.
Magical realism is as entertaining to read as it is an effective literary device. The genre allows authors to blend fantasy and reality into one seamless existence that is both highly creative and extremely revealing and can be used to expose essential elements of human existence that would otherwise go unnoticed. Late Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez is widely considered to be one of the pioneers of the genre and frequently discussed themes of solitude, isolation and individual identity in his numerous magical realism works. Two of his short stories, “Eva Is Inside Her Cat” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” are two such tales that detail the titular characters’ struggle with personal identity and social isolation as the result of their unique physical forms.
Similarly, contemporary and internationally renowned Japanese magical realism novelist Haruki Murakami creates stories that feature characters who also deal with themes of identity and social ostracization. Two of his short stories, “The Elephant Vanishes” (1993) and “TV People” (1993) feature nameless protagonists dealing with crises of identity and reality brought on by their gradual acknowledgment of the emotional attachments they have (or thought they had) in their otherwise solitary existences. While both Garcia Marquez and Murakami use magical realism to discuss themes of identity and isolation, Garcia Marquez’s characters face challenges of a corporeal, material nature whereas Murakami’s characters deal with obstacles of a more cerebral, emotional quality.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat” examines the role of the physical body and how it influences one’s perception of individual identity. Eva is an extremely beautiful young woman, who, despite the privilege her beauty affords her, finds that it “pains her physically like a tumor or a cancer,” (2). Her entire identity is wrapped up in her corporeal form and she finds that even though she is constantly the center of attention and “under siege from men’s long looks,” she is only in the spotlight because of her attractiveness (1). Her beauty ostracizes her, and she considers herself a martyr just like her female ancestors who came before her. Marquez uses magical realism to characterize her loneliness as “hot, tiny insects…transmitted from generation to generation,” that constantly eat away at her body in the night when she is alone (1). She is further martyrized by insomnia and the lack of sleep affects her mental faculties, which she values above her physical beauty.
Eva’s suffering is seemingly relieved when she miraculously experiences physical death, meaning that her spirit is alive and conscious of the transformation from corporeal form to immaterial form. She transcends the “physical world to an easier, uncomplicated world, where all dimensions [are] eliminated,” (5). But now that she resides in a new “elemental situation” she finds that she feels “nostalgia for her beauty” because she can no longer be visualized and therefore cannot interact with those she loves the most (6). In an ironic twist of fate, she has lost her only real chance to attain the connection she so desperately craved. She resolves to reincarnate her spirit into that of the family cat so that she can spend her days being admired as “a cat with the intelligence of a beautiful woman,” (7). But upon reflection, she realizes that her crisis of identity and desire to ascend beyond her beauty was inherently foolish. By grounding his protagonists’ central conflict in her physical form, Marquez creates a feeling of inescapability and suffocation. Her crisis of identity is centered in her very existence and cannot be solved through action or philosophy. When Eva transcends beyond the physical realm, she loses a significant portion of her humanity, which is rooted in her physical presence. How can one establish a connection with another if one does not exist? Marquez recognizes that the human experience can indeed be isolating, but also acknowledges that we have the ability to transcend our perceived limitations if we reflect inward and confront our own inner turmoil. Eva believed that her ostracization was due to her physical attributes, but in reality, she valued the attention more than she realized and her greatest desire was to connect with others without the distraction of her physicality. It is only after her physical form “dies” that she realizes that “above all her virtues what was in command was the vanity of the metaphysical woman,” (7).
Another of Garcia Marquez’s magical realism tales, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”, also deals with themes of identity as they relate to the title characters’ physical form. The old man, who has giant bird-like wings, is discovered in the courtyard of a country home “dressed like a rag picker…[with] few faded hairs on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth,” (1). He is characterized as a weak, decrepit “drenched great-grandfather” who speaks in an “incomprehensible foreign dialect,” (1). By immediately establishing his primary character’s differences, Marquez sets the scene for his further isolation and ostracization as the result of his physical anomalies. The old man is assumed to be a heaven-sent angel, but due to his disheveled, less-than-heavenly appearance, the homeowners decide to hold him captive in their chicken coop. This is the first of many attempts by the bewildered humans to take away the angel’s sense of agency and identity. They believe the angel was sent to bring a sick child to heaven, which speaks to their inherent selfishness as they think the angel could only have appeared to administer some kind of service to them, rather than him needing their help. The villagers swarm the chicken coop en masse and gawk and taunt the angel who is unable to communicate with them due to his strange dialect which only serves to widen the gap between humanity and divinity even further. The congregating pilgrims are then depicted proselytizing about what they believe they should do with the angel and what his purpose on earth is. Apart from a disingenuous attempt at conversing in Latin, no one thinks of attempting to communicate with the angel as he is disregarded as no more human than the chickens he is held captive with. Although his humanity has been stripped away by people who fear him solely because of his physical appearance, “the angel was the only one who took no part in his own act,” (2). In this way, Marquez allows the aging angel to retain some semblance of identity and personal agency. The angel does not give in to the ignorant townspeople who poke and prod at him like cattle but rather retains his “supernatural virtue [of] patience,” (2). Just as Eva finds solace in her non-physical, cerebral form, the angel is able to survive his harsh imprisonment by relying on his emotional passivity. He acquiesces to his unfortunate circumstances “with the patience of a dog who [has] no illusions,” (3). In a way, the angel understands why humanity cannot accept him, so he simply waits for them to discover a new anomaly to be concerned with. Although his physical form deteriorates, his silent resistance allows him to survive the harsh winter and heal his wings to the point where he is able to regain his physical autonomy and fly away to freedom.
While the themes of identity and isolation take on a decidedly corporeal form in Garcia Marquez’ works, Haruki Murakami contemplates these topics from a more societal, emotional perspective. In his short story “The Elephant Vanishes”, Murakami comments on how Japanese culture tends to shy away from emotional expression, which results in social and personal ostracization. The narrator of the story is a young, unmarried man who lives a simple, quiet, domestic life in the suburbs of Tokyo. He becomes fascinated with the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a captive elephant who served as the mascot of a small town. The narrator’s social isolation is mirrored by the captive elephant who lives in a small enclosure with its human keeper, an older, nondescript but pleasant man. Murakami emphasizes the isolation felt by the narrator, elephant, and elephant keeper with lines like “the disappearance of one old elephant and one old elephant keeper would have no impact on the course of society,” (318) and defines his protagonist by his societal standing as an unmarried but successfully employed contributing member of society, rather than by his personal, individual qualities. The narrator shies away from discussing his honest opinion when prompted and only notices the physical and material features of other people.
But when the nameless narrator meets a woman at a company party and begins to be more open with her and discuss his true feelings about the elephant’s disappearance, a marked shift in tone begins. His female companion notices his emotional investment in the case of the elephant and its keeper and comments, “I can’t understand you anymore. Something’s wrong…The problem is with you,” (322) and ends their conversation and professional association. By including this exchange, Murakami comments on how Japanese society ostracizes those who attempt to make genuine emotional connections. He continues his critique via the narrator’s observation of the elephant and its keeper after they have retired to the privacy of the elephant’s house by describing them “as if they stored away their emotions during the day, taking care not to let anyone notice them, and took them out at night when they could be alone,” (323). Once the elephant and keeper are alone, they are able to escape, both literally and metaphorically, from the shackles of their cage and of society to be their authentic selves. It’s revealed that the duo escaped their enclosure during this time of emotional freedom by “dissolving into nothingness”, which of course echoes of Marquez’s Eva dissolving into the ether to escape the constraints of her physical form. Once the narrator of Murakami’s story realizes his emotional attachment to the elephant’s plight, he notes that “some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair, and maybe that causes external phenomena to strike my eye in a strange way,” which can be interpreted as Murakami’s confirmation that his narrator has recognized the source of his isolation and will seek to rectify the emotional void in his life (327).
Murakami continues to analyze themes of isolation and social ostracization in his short story “TV People”. The narrator of the story is once again a younger, albeit married, man living with his wife in Tokyo, Japan. While this protagonist does have a companion, his relationship with his wife is routine and monotonous. His wife has friends that she regularly spends time with while her husband does not, and he frequently spends time alone in their apartment, notably reading an unnamed novel by Garcia Marquez. Murakami inserts elements of magical realism to further stress his narrator’s isolation with the inclusion of the titular TV People. The TV people seem to be inhuman due to their physically “reduced size” and the fact that they are not noticed by the rest of the protagonist’s peers. The TV People are able to blend in with the rest of society to the point where they are unnoticeable. When three of them walk into the narrator’s apartment one evening, unannounced, they ignore the narrator as he if doesn’t exist while he watches them install a static-screened TV in speechless bewilderment (199). The narrator does not protest at the intrusion since they ignore him so completely. He feels “devastated, powerless, in a trance,” and can’t bring himself to move or question the bizarre scenario (202). Just as with Marquez’s Eva and Murakami’s captive elephant, this narrator imagines himself dissolving into nothingness as the result of the TV People’s clear avoidance of him. When the TV People finally leave and his wife arrives home, she does not notice the new electronic installation or her husband’s obvious emotional distress which emphasizes the protagonist’s further isolation from his wife and eventual break from reality. As his obsession with the TV People grows, his world begins crumbling and seems to be “out of balance” (208). During one of the TV People’s return trips to his apartment, the narrator is finally able to speak to them, which alludes to his growing connection with the TV People and his gradual disconnect from those he thought he shared a close relationship with. His disintegrating mental state can also be attributed to his growing realization that he is more alone in the world than he thought. He feels he cannot turn to his wife for support and imagines himself “alone in the dark” as the rest of the world gradually forgets about him and he loses his grip on his perceived reality (209). Eventually, the TV People reveal that his wife has left him without so much as a goodbye. Murakami uses the bizarre, jarring event of the TV People’s late-night intrusions to expose the truth of his narrator’s already solitary existence. Murakami also allows the reader to make their own decision as to whether or not the narrator’s “break” from reality is really a symptom of psychosis, or if the narrator is waking up to reality.
When used as a vehicle for social and personal commentary, magical realism allows authors to discuss and expose real-world issues in more abstract, creative ways. By grounding themes of isolation within the physical body, Garcia Marquez creates a visceral, intimate, and at times inescapable tone that drives his readers to search the parameters of their own relationship with their physical form and how it informs their own sense of self and identity. Both Eva and the Angel are subjects of social ostracization due to their bodily differences and can only transcend their earthly prisons by reconciling their corporeal forms with their emotional intelligence. Conversely, Murakami calls on his readers to evaluate how their emotional connections with others inform their sense of identity. Using magical realism, he indirectly denounces material culture and the prioritization of corporate success over the cultivation of interpersonal relationships and emotional connectivity. His nameless narrators both gradually become aware of how isolated they are from the rest of humanity through bizarre interactions with creatures that would otherwise go unnoticed had they not been paying close attention. Both authors masterfully use magical realism and the inclusion of bizarre and otherworldly occurrences to call into question essential elements of the human experience that often go unacknowledged, but that should be prioritized.
Photo courtesy of the New York Times