The Magical Realism of María Luisa Bombal

body of water and mountainMagical realism blends the mystical with the mundane, a task that pioneering voice María Luisa Bombal used with passion and poetic flare in the 1930s and 1940s. She explored irrational and subconscious themes in a highly personal, poetic style, and by doing so, became one of the first Spanish American novelists to examine the secret inner worlds of women’s imaginations.

Born in the Chilean resort town of Viña del Mar in 1910, María Luisa Bombal moved to Paris with her family and attended the Lycée La Bruyère and the Sorbonne at the University of Paris. She returned to Chile in 1931 and, due to political unrest, moved to Buenos Aires in 1933 where she lived with Chilean writer Pablo Neruda and his wife. The famous poet, seeing her talent, encouraged her to write. Her first short stories were quickly published by the influential literary magazine Sur. In 1934, she married the Argentinian painter, Jorge Larcos.

After he died in 1940, she moved to the United States and married Count Raphael de Saint-Phalle, with whom she had a daughter. However, when he died thirty years later, she returned to Chile, where she lived until her death in 1980. While she never achieved fame for her work, the Chilean government recognized her contributions to art and literature by providing her a small stipend in her final years.

While she wrote many short stories, she translated two of her novellas into English for American audiences. In The House of Mist, published in Spanish in 1935, the heroine uses her vibrant creativity as a sanctuary from a boring and unfulfilling marriage. When she takes a mysterious lover to add passion and excitement to her life, she begins to question if the man really exists, or if he is a figment of her desperate imagination. In The Shrouded Woman, published in 1938, the dead protagonist watches from her coffin as funerary mourners file by – family members, old lovers, friends – and she regales the reader with the stories of their relationships. While the main character is honest about her own shortcomings in life, she has grown more forgiving and tender in death, and reflects upon her mourners with compassion.

The struggles of Bombal’s female protagonists are rooted in sad reality – often trapped in unhappy relationships or pushing against the confines of a male-dominated society – but wonderful and strange fantasies provide them with an avenue of escape and a source of strength. Their dreamscapes are sometimes accessed through music, or through nature, or through a desire for intimate connection. Again and again, Bombal blurs the lines between memory, passions, and reality. Perhaps her work holds too much of the real world to be considered fantasy, but steeped in the creativity of her own vibrant imagination, her stories fit neatly into the genre of magical realism, and her work predates Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is often considered the quintessential example of magical realism.

The work of María Luisa Bombal is full of vibrant imagery, passionate and emotional characters, and fantastical elements that juxtapose the challenges of real life with the rich hallucinations of those trapped in it. Her stories are infused with strange and unbelievable moments, leaving her characters to navigate a magical universe that may, or may not, exist only in their fertile imaginations.