The Magical Side of Things

In this newsletter, we suggest five works of magical realism from Latin American storytellers to savor after reading March’s CBC selection, The House of the Spirits.

isabel allende, the house of the spirits, magical realism, novel, fiction
© Isabel Allende

One of the most telling scenes in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, this month’s California Book Club selection, occurs when Esteban Trueba, one of the novel’s main characters, then an aged and bitter Chilean senator, berates his fellow conservative-party members for not treating the rising Marxist movement in their country as a serious threat to their power. To assuage Esteban’s fears, one of his political colleagues boasts: “Marxism doesn’t stand a chance in Latin America. Don’t you know it doesn’t allow for the magical side of things? It’s an atheistic, practical, functional doctrine. There’s no way it can succeed here!”

While the unnamed politician is terribly mistaken about Marxism’s spreading prominence in South America within the context of the story, he’s spot-on about the state of magical things. Telekinesis, telepathy, and other paranormal phenomena transpire often throughout Allende’s Chile, and several of Esteban’s own relatives communicate with spirits. The curious thing is that none of this activity distracts from the tragic tale of the Trueba family or Allende’s measured commentary on the political landscape of 20th-century Chile. On the contrary, the fantastical elements of the novel intensify the characters’ immediate, material problems. This mingling of the spiritual and the ordinary, of course, firmly positions The House of the Spirits within the literary field of magical realism, a genre long dominated by Latin American writers.

Perhaps this form of storytelling is rooted in the collision of Catholicism and Indigenous beliefs, or the peasants’ desires to transcend the exploitative agrarian systems and ever-present threat of violence from their Spanish-descended patróns. Or it could be, as Esteban believes, that the flowery nature of the Spanish language lends itself to the machinations of domestic workers and spiritualists. Whatever the case, regarding magical realism as suffusing the normal with the paranormal fails to grasp the rich promise of this form. What it really does is blur the line between reality and fantasy, suggesting that the two are not as distinct as we might like to believe. Here are five more works of magical realism by Latin American storytellers that, like The House of the Spirits, will keep you enchanted for months to come.

Sure, the story of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who wants to be a real boy, has been told in dozens of ways, but the 2022 stop-motion film takes a firm step out of fantasy and into magical realism. Directed by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, this most recent version of Pinocchio is set in Italy between the two world wars. Communication with ethereal beings and an unyielding Father Restrepo–like priest make for a much darker and, dare it be said, more realistic version of the well-known fable.

Similar to how The House of the Spirits made Allende a household name, Like Water for Chocolate (1989) catapulted writer Laura Esquivel into international fame as Mexico’s then-bestselling author. Esquivel tells the story of a young woman named Tita and her forbidden love with a beautiful man named Pedro (not Pedro Tercero García from The House of the Spirits; don’t worry, Blanca). Tita, doomed to a solitary life, finds that the food she prepares is inexplicably infused with her emotions. Otherwise ordinary meals are transformed into deeply moving and life-changing experiences for those sampling her cooking.

Fifteen years before Allende published The House of the Spirits in Buenos Aires, Gabriel García Márquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) in the same lucky city. As in Allende’s tale, Márquez’s story follows a domineering patriarch who finds his fortune and purpose in life by building a society up from the ground, except that in Márquez’s novel, the protagonist constructs an actual city, named Macondo, which is made of mirrors and largely shut off from the outside world—until the conservative government discovers it.

The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962) may be Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’s most well-known work, but Aura, a novella published in the same year, is where Fuentes delivers his most haunting tale. Written with a second-person point of view, the dreamlike narrative follows a young scholar named Felipe Montero, who responds to an advertisement to organize and then finish the memoirs of an aged widow’s long-deceased husband. As Felipe plunges into the work, his fascination with the widow’s green-eyed niece (comparable to Esteban Trueba’s obsession with green-haired Rosa the Beautiful) leads to an unsettling discovery.

How much does one’s culture influence their thoughts or direct the steps of their life? It’s a metaphysical question that Pedro Tercero may have contemplated over his guitar in The House of the Spirits, but one that Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges attempts to answer in “Story of the Warrior and the Captive,” a tale within his masterful collection Labyrinths (1962). Borges details the story of Droctulft, a real-life German barbarian who turned on his fellow soldiers after invading and then beholding the splendor of Ravenna, a city in northern Italy.•

Join us on Zoom on Thursday, March 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Allende joins CBC host John Freeman to discuss The House of the Spirits. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the book. Register here for the event.


house of the spirits, isabel allende
Atria Books


Writer Yohanca Delgado writes about recognition and The House of the Spirits. —Alta

saving time, jenny odell
Random House


Arts and culture journalist Eva Recinos interviews Jenny Odell about Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, which invites readers to sit and think more deeply about what we know about time. Alta

karen tei yamashita


Recently named UC Berkeley’s Asian American Research Center’s artist in residence, prior CBC author Karen Tei Yamashita will appear at these events: “Speculative Fiction: Asian Latinx Intersections” on Tuesday, March 14, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. and “Embodied Memories: Japanese Americans Across Generations” on Wednesday, March 15, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. —Institute for the Study of Societal Issues

who does that bitch think she is, craig seligman


Tony Bravo praises Craig Seligman’s biography, Who Does That Bitch Think She Is?: Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag. —San Francisco Chronicle

gerardo sámano córdova, writer, author, monstrilio, novel, fiction
Gerardo Sámano Córdova


Alta Journal contributor Gabino Iglesias reviews Gerardo Sámano Córdova’s hybrid-genre debut novel, Monstrilio. —Los Angeles Times

roxanna asgarian, writer, journalist
Roxanna Asgarian


Jessica Winter writes about Texas author Roxanna Asgarian’s new book, We Were Once a Family, which investigates the role that racial disparities in the child welfare system played in the murders of six adopted kids. —New Yorker

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Ajay Orona is an associate editor at Alta Journal.
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