Magical realism is not speculative and does not conduct thought experiments. Instead, it tells its stories from the perspective of people who live in our world and experience a different reality from the one we call objective. If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have “real” experiences of ghosts. Magical realist fiction depicts the real world of people whose reality is different from ours. It’s not a thought experiment. It’s not speculation. Magical realism endeavors to show us the world through other eyes. When it works, as I think it does very well in, say, Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, some readers will inhabit this other reality so thoroughly that the “unreal” elements of the story, such as witches, will seem frighteningly real long after the book is finished. A fantasy about southwestern Indian witches allows you to put down the book with perhaps a little shiver but reassurance that what you just read is made up. Magical realism leaves you with the understanding that this world of witches is one that people really live in and the feeling that maybe this view is correct.
To convey this, magical realist writers write the ordinary as miraculous and the miraculous as ordinary. The ice that gypsies bring to the tropical village of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude is described with awe. How can such a substance exist? It is so awesomely beautiful that characters find it difficult to account for or describe. But it’s not just novelties such as a first encounter with ice that merit such description. The natural world comes in for similar attention. The behavior of ants or the atmosphere of a streamside oasis are described in details that match objective experience, but which remind us that the world is surprising and seemingly full of design and purpose.
The miraculous, on the other hand, is described with a precision that fits it into the ordinariness of daily life. When one of the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude is shot in the head, the blood from his body flows out into the street in a path that takes it all the way to the feet of the character’s grandmother—a miracle. But along the way, the path of the blood is described in great detail, and the miraculous journey is rooted in the day-to-day activities of the village and the grandmother’s household. An even better example is the character who is so beautiful that she is followed everywhere by a cloud of butterflies. This extraordinary trait is brought to earth somewhat by the observation that all of the butterflies have tattered wings. The miraculous, looked at closely, is mundane.
Constantinople is an idea for a future novel in which a would-be author (who for these purposes is known as Enver, though this later turns out to be a nom de plume) develops his own first novel, but finds himself increasingly embroiled in his own plot.
The title of the novel is also the title of the novel-within-a-novel, whose plot comprises a brief historical journey around the ancient city of Constantinople but then becomes engaged in a modern thriller about a plan to rename Instanbul as part of a new Roman Empire, apparently with the blessing of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church.
As he begins to research the story, Enver finds strange things happening in his life that suggest Constantinople is coming true, which leads him to believe he can anticipate, predict and even change events before they have occurred, through his writing.
He puts this to the test by writing a chapter, then deliberately changing it before leaving the house to see what happens. The results are not quite what he expects, but he sees sufficient glimpses to suggest he can orchestrate the reconstruction of Constantinople and even make himself its ruler. He tells a friend but is met with much derision.
He begins to plan how he will achieve this, starting by travelling to Istanbul to see if he can influence key players and to elevate his own role in the story. At first it appears magically to be working, such that Enver believes he has forced a political crisis and riots in the street, but the next stage of the plan requires him to be regarded as the saviour, and other countries to support his proclamation as leader.
When this does not go according to plan, Enver tells his friend, who has a brainwave for how he can use his writing to change events – and force the revolution to its crisis. Much to the amazement he finds himself the focal point of a popular uprising and starts to worry that he has bitten off more than he can chew. The results surprise Enver, but only at the very end does he realise just how far he has been deceiving himself and that events are not what they seem.