Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (Zhuangzi, 2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)
A good work of fantasy can let you live in a different world. A good horror story can make you worry and wonder about your own. But a work of magic realism makes you question the world you live in, and question the book you’re reading.
When I read Jorge Luis Borges or Philip K. Dick, there always comes a moment where I just stare in wonder at the world unfolding in front of me. Even after I close the book, I have trouble deciding if I was actually reading fantasy, or if, perhaps, I was reading a work of non-fiction, and the world I’ve convinced myself I live in is, in fact, a fiction.
I don’t know if Zhuangzi is dreaming the butterfly or if the butterfly is dreaming me. And I don’t know if I’m reading Borges, or if the stories of Borges are simply writing me.
That is why I read Magic Realism.