An examination of the use of Magic Realism in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi
Magic Realism refers to a twentieth century movementwhich was initiated by European artists after WorldWar I. The earliest phases of Magic Realism began inGermany around 1919. A similar form called Surrealismdeveloped a few years later. The important features ofMagic Realism include a sharp focus throughout thepainting, juxtaposition of the near and far objects, andthe limited use of aerial perspective, and eerie andunsettling atmospheric effects. Magic Realism inhabitsthe represented world, but also hides and palpitatesbehind it, intruding into our world, as in the followingpainting of clouds and wheat fields.
The movement began with the paintings of Giorgio deChirico and Henri Rousseau. German artists adaptedthe mysterious and dreamlike elements from these andother predecessors, and combined them with objectsfrom everyday life. They endeavoured to infuse magicinto ordinary, even banal objects. The effect wasenhanced by a sharply focused realistic style, resultingin paintings whose details held the viewers interestwhile also exploring deep emotional reservoirs.
Giorgio de Chiricocreated geometricperspectivesmarked by stronglight and equallystrong shadowsthat gave hispictures an air ofmystery andmenace
HenriRousseau’spaintings weresuffused with anaïve andstylized beautythat combinedthe familiarwith the eerieand the exotic
The development of Magic Realism was complicatedby the concurrent development of Surrealism.Surrealism was an organized movement in both artand literature whose purpose was to find methods ofuniting the conscious and subconscious realms ofexperience. The world of dream and fantasy wouldthus be joined with the everyday rational world inmore than real or surreal experience.
Surrealismcontainsimagesthat areclearlyimpossiblein the realworld
The Surrealists often drew from the theories ofSigmund Freud, probing the subconscious mind as awellspring of imagination. Some Surrealists wereinterested in abnormal behaviours and sexuality.Surrealism takes us to another world, one which existsonly in our mind. It presents the impossible, oftenshocking us.
The surrealimages ofSalvador Daliwere meant todepict thelandscape ofthe repressedimagination
The objective of Magic Realism is to bring us freshpresentations of the everyday world we live in. Theartist may choose unusual points of view, mysteriousjuxtapositions or common objects presented inuncanny ways. Magic Realists view the world inuniversal, recognizable images rather than throughintrospection and self-analysis. Everything we see orread in Magic Realism is within the realm of thepossible, although sometimes unlikely.
‘Danger on theStairs’ juxtaposesthe familiar andthe exotic to createan air of mysteryand danger
Magic Realism requires that the imagery be fresh andinventive. The artist must find ways to weave infantastic elements, while still maintaining an illusionof reality. The difficulty of doing this consistently is themain reason that for many artists only a portion oftheir work is considered Magic Realism. True MagicRealist art seems to shine with the glow of worlds onlyglimpsed at behind the ordinary world, as in theethereal light pushing through the window inRudolf Dischinger’s “Gramophone”
In America Magic Realism is best observed in theworks of painter Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth was a masterof the dry brush and egg tempera technique whichallowed him to achieve great detail in his work. Astrong feeling of nostalgia and rural isolationemanates from his work that helps bring a mysteriousquality to his paintings. This combined with manyunusual viewpoints, including sharp focus in both theforeground and background, verifies his standing as amaster of Magic Realism.
Canadian Alex Colville is notable for the scope andvariety of his work in Magic Realism. The geometricprecision of his compositions and meticulousattention to brush detail add to the air of hoveringunreality. With Colville there is always something inhis paintings that lies as an intrusion into the life ofthe viewer, an implied threat that puts the viewer onedge and draws them into the ‘story’ of the painting.
The term Magic Realism was first applied to literaturein the 1960s. At first it was used in reference to worksof Latin American writers, such as Gabriel GarciaMarquez, Isabel Allende and Jorge Luis Borges. Itsusage has been broadened to include works of diverseorigins and earlier periods, such as those of ErnstJuenger and Salman Rushdie.
Salman Rushdie’sThe Satanic Versesset off a firestormof protest in theMuslim world forgiving Islamichistory the MagicRealism treatment
In literature Magic Realism points to a reality thathovers on the edges of our own; a recognizable world,familiar in most details, but operating under adifferent set of rules. This unsettling of realities causethe reader to examine their own expectations andprinciples regarding the world that they inhabit. In thehands of the inept, Magic Realism descends into themerely fantastical. But in the hands of a master artistor storyteller, a work imbued with elements of MagicRealism hovers on the borders of our conscious mindand impacts the way we see the world.
Jorge Luis Borges wasone of the mostinfluential writers ofthe 20th century. Hiscollection of shortstories, Labyrinths,explored the nature ofthe world in a subtlyaltered reality that ischaracteristic of MagicRealism.
Magical Realist writers depict the ordinary asmiraculous and the miraculous as ordinary. The icethat gypsies bring to the tropical village of Macondo inOne Hundred Years of Solitude is described with awe.How can such a substance exist? It is so strange andbeautiful that characters find it difficult to describe.But its not just novelties such as a first encounter withice that merit such descriptions. The behaviour of antsand the atmosphere of a streamside oasis are describedin details which remind the reader that the world isfull of intricate design and strange purpose.
Gabriel Garcia Marquezis considered thegreatest living exponentof Magic Realism, andhis most popular novel,One Hundred Years ofSolitude sold 20 millioncopies and earnedMarquez the NobelPrize in literature.
Canadian writer Yann Martel’s Life of Pi usesmeticulously researched details about zoologicaloddities such as the eating and sleeping habits ofsloths and tigers to lull readers into believing that theworld Pi inhabits is rational. Pi’s survival for 227 daysin a boat on the Pacific stretches credulity, but Martelis so detailed about the ordinariness of this ordeal thatour disbelief is suspended. We even come to acceptthat it might just be possible that a 450 pound RoyalBengal tiger could be cowed into submission by themovement of the waves and the need to be fed.
Martel tips his hand when Pi lands on an island of self-sustaining, fresh-water generating algae covered in averitable carpet of meerkats. As delightful as this falseparadise is, it is clearly impossible, and not sodelightful either as Pi discovers to his horror. With thisunsettling revelation about the unreality of Pi’s worldin mind, readers are then confronted in the finalchapters with the overthrow of all that they haveunderstood about the story. The final challenge toreaders is to which story they choose to believe. Istruth more than what we can see and measure?
Magic Realism depicts a world of people whose realityis different from ours; it endeavours to show us theworld through other eyes. Magic Realism leaves youwith the understanding that the strange worlddescribed is one that real people really live in. Thisgenre of literature at its best invites the reader tocompassionately experience reality as many of ourfellow human beings see and feel it, deepening ourunderstanding of the people and the world around us.
Slides researched and developed by: S. Wise B.A. (English), B.Ed. (Toronto)for use in the Canadian Pre-University Program