Magical Realism’s Constructive Capacity
Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.
Since literary magical realism exploded out of Latin America and into international critical attention in the mid-twentieth century, the limbs of its narrative genealogy have continued to be sketched in both lower and higher than the branch bearing the immense impact of el boom
. Perhaps the most often cited figure from magical realism’s pre–Latin American and pre-literary phase is Franz Roh, who deployed the term in 1925 to describe the German painting movement Magischer realismus
, as critics such as Irene Guenther, Kenneth Reeds, Wendy Faris, and Lois Parkinson Zamora have discussed.2
Guenther traces the term even earlier, in fact, plotting a point in the late eighteenth century when it was deployed by Novalis, the German Romantic philosopher (34).3
By the time the term migrated transatlantically to Latin America, magical realism had formally mutated at least three times already, becoming a fixed literary concept after being developed in Latin American literature.
Following the boom of the 1950s and 1960s, magical realism began to be recognized as a global literary phenomenon. Magical realism has now been written by authors from innumerable countries of origin and thus is not the sole property of Latin Americans, as Alejo Carpentier might have us believe. Erik Camayd-Freixas, who himself contends for the delimitation of a distinct Latin American magical realism, still concedes that the mode is “today’s most compelling world fiction” (583). In addition to Carpentier, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez, and Isabel Allende, among other significant Latin American magical
realists, key contributions to the mode’s corpus have since been recognized in the works of Jack Hodgins, Louise Erdrich, Robert Kroetsch, and Toni Morrison. Beyond the American continents, Wen-chin Ouyang points out: “[Magical realism] is in Arabic, Chinese, English, German, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, Tibetan, and Turkish, to name but a few languages” (“Magical” 15).
One recent example of magical realism is Salman Rushdie’s novel The Enchantress of Florence
(2008), analyzed in this study. Considering this novel in conjunction with the landmark 1949 publication of Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World
(El reino de este mundo
), these two novels represent a significant development in magical realist authorship in the East and West Indies.4
Furthermore, they form two temporal poles between which there is a nearly 60-year time span, a figure that does not include texts preceding the Latin American boom.
Magical realism has traversed boundaries of many kinds: temporal, geographical, linguistic, and formal. Since its transformation from philosophy and painting to literature, a more recent trend has been the metamorphoses from literature to theater and film.5
Clearly, magical realism has proven extremely elastic, and it is just this adaptability that explains a significant aspect of its creative and critical persistence.
Yet, despite this rich history, literary magical realism has been underestimated. I am not here merely responding to skeptics of the mode by pointing to the stubborn endurance of the term, though that point is true. What I want to draw attention to addresses those within the magical realist fold, as it were: those who have engaged or are engaging with the literary form creatively and/or analytically. I mean to contend that magical realism has proven to be far more malleable than perhaps anyone deploying the term within very particular historical moments, locations, and political frameworks may have been able to foresee, crucial as these specific usages have been to the mode’s development and genealogy. Frequently, the mode has been circumscribed within these particular historical usages, critics and authors wedding the form to secondary features such as thematics, cultural resources and deployments, and political concerns; yet, we are just beginning to see that magical realism (and here I am concerned with its literary narrative form) is flexible enough to structure diverse projects and even divergent, incompatible views. This is a benefit, I hasten to add, for it means that the mode is capable of transcending any specific historical exigency. Returning to Carpentier at this point, then, we may extend his argument about the “baroque” attributes of lo real maravilloso
to magical realism in general: the
form’s adaptability recommends it as a cyclically recurring spirit as opposed to a “historical style” frozen in time (“Baroque” 95).6
In making a distinction between formal characteristics and secondary features, I am participating in a long-standing critical argument, a “secular schism in Magical-Realist scholarship” that can be traced to Roh and Carpentier, as Camayd-Freixas describes (584). In their anthology, Zamora and Faris comment on the divergent views among two of the mode’s founders: “Roh’s emphasis is on aesthetic expression, Carpentier’s on cultural and geographical identity,” the latter being reflected in primitivist thematics such as Afro-Cuban voodoo (“Introduction” 7). Significantly, Camayd-Freixas observes, Zamora and Faris formulate magical realism as a conversation that should include both Roh and Carpentier, aesthetics and secondary features, as is implicit in their inclusion of both in their anthology and explicit in the view they espouse here: “Despite their different perspectives, Roh and Carpentier share the conviction that magical realism defines a revisionary position with respect to the generic practices of their times and media; each engages the concept to discuss what he considers an antidote to existing and exhausted forms of expression” (Magical Realism
While I agree that magical realism includes both aesthetic and secondary aspects, this is true only in a specific sense. A robust understanding of magical realism requires both a close-up view in which one perceives the numerous different applications (such as regional identity formation), including how these specific usages have adapted the mode, as well as a bird’s-eye view, a panoramic perspective of the magical realist timeline in its entirety, including an understanding of why and how magical realism as a theoretical nexus has attracted myriad usages, a mapping I endeavor subsequently to achieve.
As examples of the mode continue to proliferate, the need to separate form from supplementary features employed during particular stages has again become compelling. The Roh/Carpentier debate, then, is not only prior but also current, and it impresses upon us today the necessity of working toward resolving it. This debate, I suggest, is at least one significant exigency giving rise to contemporary critics advocating expansions in our understanding of the mode, as I will describe in more detail later. For now, it is enough to note that this conversation indicates that the critical registers available to us for engaging with magical realism are too narrow, and, I will argue, this problem stems from a restricted, fixed view of the mode, one that has married secondary features to formal features.
Untangling these issues requires a new look at magical realism and some of its most basic presumptions. What are the implications of magical realism? What might it mean for a narrative to be written in this modality? How do we as readers and critics interpret its conspicuous magic? What is the potential range of narrative magic’s functionality? This study re-poses and responds to these questions lying at the heart of magical realist hermeneutics with a view to re-evaluating limited critical paradigms.
The Authorial Circle and Latin American Magical Realism
While numerous critics have traced the genealogy of the term magical realism – an illuminating project – in what follows, I track vicissitudes in authorship, or changing perceptions of who qualifies as an authentic magical realist storyteller. By studying the barometer of authorship one is able, first, to isolate precise points when magical realism has been wed to secondary features and, second, to track alterations in treatments of those secondary features from one stage to the next. Sometimes when the authorial circle is widened, the broadening is justified by the new grouping’s continuance of prior political and/or cultural agendas; at other times, those secondary features are abandoned when they are no longer perceived as mandatory ingredients, when the expansion necessitates their abandonment, or simply when the concerns of authors and critics and/or historical circumstances have changed. When this timeline is seen from a long view, it becomes evident that magical realism encompasses divergent incarnations and incompatible usages. The thread that unites these varied stages is the fantastic assumption that magic and realism might cohabitate in a single imaginative world, a foundational and formal feature.
It should be noted that by using authorship as a guiding rubric I do not always follow a temporal progression, but an expansion, or widening, of what begins as a very restricted group identity. Moreover, these are not completely isolated categories; they overlap at certain points so that some authors might be situated within more than one phase.
As mentioned, the term magical realism
did not originate in Latin America. Prior to two key applications of it in the early twentieth century, Roh’s painterly as well as Italian Massimo Bontempelli’s artistic and literary, Guenther identifies Novalis’s late eighteenth-century usage (34). She also mentions its application in early to mid-twentieth-century German literary criticism, as well as in the classification of numerous authors from Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium (59–60).
Günter Grass was employing this technique in 1959 against the tyranny of the Nazi regime in his novel The Tin Drum
), as Faris shows (“Scheherazade’s” 179). This is the same time at which the boom authors were writing. In fact, Grass’s novel precedes García Márquez’s seminal One Hundred Years of Solitude
(Cien años de soledad
; 1967) by eight years. Nevertheless, it is in Latin America that the mode is first extensively developed as literature and gains wide recognition.8
One can look to this phase, then, to discover formative frameworks.
Magical realism evolves significantly in Latin America in the 1940s, following the prior translation of Roh into Spanish in José Ortega y Gasset’s Revista de Occidente in 1927. According to Amaryll Chanady’s timeline, by the mid-twentieth century magical realism has been appropriated from Roh and German painting now to refer explicitly to “a means of expressing the authentic American mentality” and an “autonomous literature” (Magical 17). As she describes it, magical realism is deployed at this time to “territorialize” – Chanady’s term – Latin America and its exclusive, marvelous ontology (“Territorialization”). Carpentier, Asturias, and García Márquez are key figures advancing this position. In his Nobel Lecture, García Márquez territorializes Latin America when he contends that Latin Americans’ “crucial problem” is “a lack of conventional means to render [their] lives believable,” thereby coyly intimating that magical realism is the only literary form capable of expressing their “outsized reality” (“Solitude” 89).
A significant mechanism of territorialization involves the source from which narrative magic was frequently derived. Chanady explains that “the presence of the supernatural is often attributed to the primitive or ‘magical’ Indian mentality,” or imported African mentality, it could be added (Magical
In Carpentier’s short story “Journey to the Seed” (“Viaje a la semilla
”), for example, after “el negro viejo
,” the old Afro-Cuban servant Melchor, causes time to reverse with the waving of his stick and a string of unintelligible words (a chant?), the narrative juxtaposes a superior, autochthonous connection to the natural world with the loss of this connection that stems from Catholicism and Western learning and legal practices (59).10
African and American Indian indigenous worldviews offered a pivotal political strategy through which Latin American intellectuals combated the hegemony of (neo)colonialists: they countered the latter’s purported superiority and rationality through the antirationalist beliefs originating outside the so-called West, namely Central and South America.11
From this early, crucial foundation, then, magic is deployed against Western reason. This is a determinative paradigm, one that recurs
throughout later engagements with the mode, even if the resource base for magic does not stem from indigenous beliefs.
Latin American magical realists were not completely original in their tactic. As Chanady shows (‘Territorialization’), Carpentier, Asturias, and Julio Cortázar furthered the strategy begun by two other contemporaneous movements. One is antipositivism, a reaction to the rise of the US as a neocolonial force.12
“The antipositivistic subversion of the neocolonial hierarchy” criticized and rejected reason in order to claim both “difference” and “superiority” from those who imposed rationalist models of thinking and being upon them. Their purpose in doing so was to undermine key premises on which Western claims of supremacy were grounded: “It is hardly surprising that Latin American intellectuals questioned the European rational canon. One of the criteria for the conceptual ‘Calibanization’ of the colonized was their supposed absence of reasoning faculties.” She adds: “Claiming that a Latin American (or generally Hispanic) philosophy was different but equal to the Franco-German tradition, and even criticizing the claim to universality of European philosophical systems, became a means of questioning one of the main criteria of Western superiority” (133–6). The Surrealists had also been utilizing techniques such as automatic writing and eccentric juxtapositions in order to critique reason from within the empire, and this through the “valorization of non-European mentalities” of so-called primitive peoples (Chanady “Territorialization” 137–41). In the 1920s Asturias and Carpentier were both affiliated with French Surrealists while they were in Paris, though Carpentier later explicitly rejects the Surrealists’ “manufactured mystery” for “the marvelous real” that “is encountered in its raw state, latent and omnipresent, in all that is Latin American” (“Baroque” 104).
While it is important to note that there are exceptions to the pairing of magic and Latin American indigenous resources, the view that this link is absolutely necessary becomes so pervasive that in 1985 Chanady must actually make a case for the inclusion of García Márquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude
in the magical realist literary corpus because he looked for supernatural resources outside of the autochthonous, depicting magic that stemmed merely from “the author’s imagination” (“Origins” 56). That Chanady had to propose an argument for García Márquez’s magical realism seems today, 25 years later, bemusing because of the paramount position this novel has acquired in any magical realist canon. Nevertheless, it demonstrates an early point in magical realist theory wherein extratextual features, here indigenous resources, were viewed as nearly mandatory in the DNA of the
mode. Chanady acknowledges this issue in an earlier text: “The themes treated in magico-realist narrative are often a more important criterion than style or structure, and authors are frequently excluded from the category” when their narratives are not set “amongst the American natives” (Magical
Camayd-Freixas comments on the persistence of this paradigm in contemporary Latin Americanist scholarship. His discussion, unlike Chanady’s, aligns García Márquez’s fantastical fiction with a primitive worldview, if one that stems from the purported general view of all Columbian villagers:
… the Latin American trend has been to reduce the scope of Magical Realism to a handful of authors and texts. While far from a consensus, most [Latin American] critics now lean towards an ethnological version of Magical Realism, with Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Juan Rulfo, and Gabriel García Márquez being the authors most often cited. Here, Magical Realism issues from an alternative world view one might call “primitive” – whether it is that of voodoo practitioners, Guatemalan Indians, or villagers from the Mexican and Columbian hinterlands. The emphasis is anthropological and regional, but what lies behind this is the suggestion of a continental Latin American identity. (584)
This last sentence picks up on an additional significant characteristic of Latin American magical realism. The indigenous resources from which magic was derived were frequently utilized as a tool for the region’s self-definition. The autochthonous was a means through which to recuperate a buried identity and culture, that which preceded the rupture of colonization. Chanady explains: “The Otherness of ‘primitive mentality’ … is appropriated by Latin American magical realists in their narrative strategies of identity construction.” In Carpentier’s lo real maravilloso
, she offers as an example, “the marvelous is presented as one of the main characteristics of the Latin American continent” (“Territorialization” 138). This usage of the mode links it with the related function of regionalism and nation-building, a potential use of magical realism later harnessed by Nigerian-British author Ben Okri in The Famished Road
) and, in a more troubling way, by Italian Massimo Bontempelli in his fascist cultural work, as will be discussed in greater detail shortly.
As the mode began to be recognized and developed beyond this region, though, critics had to alter their hermeneutical frameworks
accordingly, paring down the perceived requirements from bulky, unnecessary characteristics. Magical re...