Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

MAGICAL REALISM AT WORLD'S END by Michael Valdez Moses, continued

If anything, we might expect that the more conservative writers would be more likely to embrace a religious or supernatural worldview, while the more progressive authors in the socialist or radical tradition would be more likely to be suspicious of religion and mystification. In any case, I would argue that the generic modulation from historical romance to magical realist novel is a consequence of the greater reach and dominance of global modernity at the end of the twentieth (as opposed to the beginning of the nineteenth) century. Scott's "conservatism" (the term is deceptive) might be said to be a function of his greater historical proximity to forms of traditional life that once posed a genuine alternative and a real threat to the establishment of modern political society. By contrast, the left-radicalism of Rushdie, García Márquez, Donoso, or Carpentier might be taken as an effect of the far stronger hold of modernity upon global culture a century and a half later. The enframing consciousness of a modern sensibility is allowed to recede from view in the magical realist novel precisely because a sentimental nostalgia for the premodern can more easily and safely be indulged in by a late twentieth-century cosmopolitan author and his or her audience. Moreover, I would also emphasize that as Marxists some of the most prominent practitioners and critical analysts of magical realism are proponents of a distinctive version of modernity, and one that has been traditionally based upon Western postEnlightenment, progressive, teleological, materialist, and scientific premises. Marx was a champion of scientific socialism and a fierce critic of utopian socialism. However we may judge his political commitments, we must nevertheless credit the candor and self-critical virtues of García Márquez when he eschews the honorific of "magical realist" in favor of that of "socialist realist." (45) I am tempted to suggest that the exotic and marvelous appeal of magical realism is all the more seductive and psychologically necessary as a compensatory response when modernity is envisioned as the cheerless authoritarian triumph of centrally planned bureaucratic state socialism on the model of the Soviet Union, East Germany, China, or Cuba.

The geopolitical logic of the magical realist novel is thus analogous to and perhaps even a historical elaboration of what is found in the historical romance. Scott is widely regarded as a Scottish regionalist who nonetheless embraced and celebrated the Act of Union joining Scotland and England in 1707. Scott's antiquarian interest in a Scotland that had become merely a political subunit within the Kingdom of Great Britain does not undercut his British patriotism and may even be said to provide a necessary and enabling complement to it. His historical romances succeed insofar as they evoke the grandeur and nobility of an independent Scotland only after it ceased to exist as a sovereign political regime. The Mexican American and magical realist author, Anaya, reiterates this same logic of subordinated regionalism in his best-selling "Chicano" novel of 1971, Bless Me, Ultima. Here the distinctive cultural zone of Nuevo Mexico is gradually subsumed by the more "advanced" and hegemonic nation-state of the United States. Rushdie, García Márquez, and Ben Jelloun similarly focus upon small enclaves or regions within their respective nation-states: the Muslim enclave of Bombay, the coastal Caribbean region of Colombia, the southern Berber regions of Morocco. But there is something else at work here. For their novels present emergent or postcolonial nations as themselves smaller regions being engulfed by an encompassing global order. These novelists may differ in what they regard as the most salient features of this new global system, but they agree that their own nation-states increasingly bear the same relation to the new world order as did the Scottish highlands, the Caucuses, and the Vendée to the imperialistic nation-states of Great Britain, Russia, and France in an earlier historical epoch. (46) The sentimental appeal of the magical realist novel, like that of the historical romance, is not only that of the historical past, but also that of a form of community whose scale is temptingly smaller and more intimate than the present world affords.

Of course, the authors of magical realist novels do not themselves typically live or work in the narrow but secure confines of a Gemeinschaft; they are, almost without exception, cosmopolitan sophisticates who circulate freely through "world cities" and the artistic and intellectual centers of an increasingly global cultural system. García Márquez is more likely to be found in Mexico City, Paris, or Madrid, than in Aracataca, much less Macondo. One of the greatest deprivations Rushdie suffered during the agonizingly long period in which the fatwah hung over his head was that he could not travel as freely as he pleased, or as the world-wide promotional tours of his books demanded. The secure confines of the world represented in the magical realist novel possess a nostalgic appeal or sentimental attraction because they allow the reader to temporarily reside within a virtual organic community without having to assume the social burdens and obligations of its historical counterpart. Membership is purely elective. No reader is ever compelled to stay or forced to leave. The romantic allure of the magical realist novel is thus due in no small measure to the fact that it allows the reader an escape both to and from what Rushdie calls "an imaginary homeland." Readers of García Márquez's magical realist novel need not live strictly within the cultural and historical limits of Macondo, nor need they relinquish the material and political benefits of the modern world. It is easy to forget that Macondo ends in an apocalyptic frenzy of incest, deprivation, and death. The last of the Buendías, the issue of an incestuous union between brother and sister, is born with the tail of a pig. Left unattended by a father "unable to bear in his soul the crushing weight of so much past" and "the fatal lances of his own nostalgia," the helpless infant is devoured by ants. (47) Unlike the Buendías, victims of their own endogamous insularity, the readers of the novel are free to escape the past, to inhabit a modern world, which they may attempt to refashion as they see fit. Only by facing the challenges of a new global reality, only by relinquishing the burdens of the past, only by ultimately forgoing the immobilizing pleasures of nostalgia can they avoid the fate of the Buendías, "because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude [do] not have a second opportunity on earth." (48)

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