Magical Realism

Last year, I watched Isabel Allende, one of Chile’s most famous novelists, speak in Boston about her latest book. As she answered questions at the end of her talk, someone asked where she got her inspiration – where did these unbelievable stories come from? Allende laughed, and retorted she wasn’t that creative. Magical realism was just realism in some countries – Chile and Puerto Rico being her prime examples. Truth was stranger than fiction.

As a child, my grandmother told me a story about the night her mother passed away. As she tells it, it was late at night and her mother passed quietly in the hospital. Fifteen miles away, her mother’s beloved, elderly dog howled in the night – an unprecedented outburst, which woke up a neighbor. The neighbor opened her eyes and uttered knowingly, “She’s passed away.” It might seem like a somewhat fantastically morbid story to tell a child, but to me it was fascinating family folklore. A story that talked about the interconnectedness of the universe, and the power the presence of certain people had in the lives of others. Did I believe that the dog held magical powers or was so connected to my great-grandmother that it could tell the time of her death? Not necessarily, but it didn’t matter. Stories are as much about the content, as they are about the storyteller and the listener.

The day Peter Taylor arrived in Chile, Gonzalo and Peter spotted a llama near Gonzalo’s home. They shared this story and aroused excitement in the llama enthusiasts of the group, eager for our own sightings. But although we looked every day, the llama was never there. Until this morning we had begun to think that Gonzalo and Peter had shared a hallucination – but then we spotted them. Three llamas all in a row, sitting and waiting. As Peter left today, someone said, “The llamas welcomed you, and now they’ve come to say good-bye.”

Spanish is the language of magical realism and Isla Negra is in many ways, its home. Not the home where it was born and raised, so to speak, but it is where it seems to have settled. Magical realism can be found in every corner and hallway of this, Pablo Neruda’s so-called “most beautiful house”.

In one of his rooms stands a life-size paper mâché horse he admired as a child. As an adult, he went back to the store where it was displayed, and found it damaged from a fire. He took the horse home, repaired it, and threw a party in its honor. The horse had lost its tail and when three of Neruda’s artist friends showed up all of them had fashioned a tail for the horse. Neruda pinned all three tails on the horse and proclaimed it “the happiest horse in the world.” In his study sits a wooden table, made from a door that washed up on the shore that his house overlooks. Neruda apparently saw the door floating near the shore from his window and ran down with his wife Matilde, stating that the sea had gifted the poet a table. In his living room, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean, he placed a figurehead and a painting across from each other. It was Neruda’s hope that they would fall in love. He later remarked that he made a mistake – the figurehead had a view of the window, and she fell in the love with the sea instead.

Therapy is a space in which storytelling occurs and getting lost in translation takes on a particularly significant meaning in this space. What does this mean for us – working in the U.S. with Spanish-speakers, many of whom have narratives embedded in this language of magical realism? Individuals who might make meaning out of hearing voices, or take comfort in things we might consider pathological? What if Neruda had told his therapist that one of his figureheads cried real tears because she missed the ocean so much? At the house, I heard a tourist comment in English on the story of the figurehead – “how whimsical!” she sighed. I wondered if she had seen Neruda in therapy, would she have said the same thing?

Pictures are not allowed inside any of Pablo Neruda’s homes. You will just have to believe everything I told you.