Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
CAN YOU HAVE MAGICAL REALISM WITHOUT BORGES?
s h a n n i n   s c h r o e d e r   s a y s   y e s

BY JOE BENEVENTO

REDISCOVERING MAGICAL REALISM IN THE AMERICAS
Shannin Schroeder
© 2004
Praeger: Westport, Connecticut, London, 204 pp.
$84.95 hardcover

ONE OF the most thorough and compelling arguments ever made for the important connections existing between North American and Latin American fiction, Shannin Schroeder's Rediscovering Magical Realism In The Americas is also a valuable resource for all students interested in understanding the underpinnings of what magical realism is and (at least as importantly) is not. Schroeder's book gives its reader a thorough grounding in the history of Latin American magical realism, and a compelling series of arguments and examples for the prevalence of magical realism in the United States and Canada.

Schroeder's first two chapters provide the reader with an introduction to magical realism, "including its origins, misuses, and critical pitfalls"; she also seeks a redefinition of magical realism, relying on critic Amaryll Chanady's "carefully articulated criteria."

Chapter Three provides a close and thorough-going reading of a Latin American "master text of the mode," One Hundred Years of Solitude. Schroeder's discussion of the role of alchemy in García Márquez's novel, as a kind of ongoing metaphor for magical realism itself, an indivisible mix of fact and the fantastic, is original and compelling. In Chapter Four Schroeder identifies key texts from North America as magical realism, including works by writers as diverse as Louise Erdrich, Ron Arias, Robert Kroetsch and especially Toni Morrison, whose title character in Beloved Schroeder posits, throughout Chapter Five, as the "physical embodiment of magical realism."

Chapter Six argues for how many "marginalized" characters and authors of both Americas are connected via magical realism. The final chapter concludes the need for "increased inter-American scholarship by making connections between the variations on the magical realism that both continents so effectively employ."

While all of what Schroeder articulates and argues in this scholarly book will strike most readers as thoroughly researched and carefully presented, her topic is inherently too controversial not to engender some debate. For example, Schroeder decides early on to exclude Borges from the list of magical realists, though fully admitting his influence on the mode. Instead, she claims he is a writer of fantastic literature. However, to back up this rather large and key contention, she calls on the support of just one article by Canadian critic Rawdon Wilson, even though she admits there are many critics who consider Borges to be a magical realist. One gets the feeling that Schroeder has not considered or studied Borges's work with the keenness or enthusiasm she devotes to García Márquez or Toni Morrison, particularly when the very criteria her favorite critic, Amaryll Chanady, sets for a magically real text fit Borges far better than a few of the authors she does claim as magical realists, including Laura Esquivel.

What Schroeder likes best about Chanady's work is her clear definition of a magical realist text. She points out that, for Chanady, a text is magically real if

1) the text simultaneously posits a rational view of reality while still accepting the supernatural as part of everyday life

2) within the text the supernatural is not considered problematic, but within the norm for both the narrator and his/her characters

3) authorial "reticence" prevents the narrator from favoring realism over the supernatural, or vice versa

Ironically, Schroeder quotes Chanady's discussion of a short story by Cortázar, (often regarded as a Borges protégé) "Letter to a Young Lady In Paris," as a classic example of authorial reticence that leads to a magically real text. However, Schroeder doesn't see Cortázar as any more of a magical realist than Borges, in part because she sees both Argentinians as too influenced by Europe, and not "marginalized" like García Márquez, Isabel Allende or Toni Morrison.

Certainly the magical realism practiced by Borges has a different flavor and feel than that of García Márquez, but it is difficult to see why Rawdon Wilson or Shannin Schroeder seek to label Borges an author of the fantastic, particularly when the two stories Schroeder discusses of Borges, "The Garden of Forking Paths," and "Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" have no supernatural or fantastic elements at all. In those two stories, as in many others from Ficciones or El Aleph, especially, Borges brings us a vision of the world in which standard reality is shown to be incidental when compared to the possibilities of the fictional world. Borges's stories are very much magical realism along the lines Chanady posits. In his stories, ranging from "The Secret Miracle" to "The Circular Ruins," we have the rational and supernatural coexisting equally in the same text, no problematic or inferior status for the supernatural and certainly the requisite amount of "authorial reticence" in privileging reality over the not real. On the other hand, some writers who Schroeder argues are magical realists do not fulfull Chanady's definition nearly as well. Laura Esquivel in Like Water For Chocolate does not present the supernatural as accepted in the same way as reality; instead there is constant surprise and disbelief registered by at least some of the characters when Tita's emotions are transmitted and exaggerated into the food she prepares for others. (Mama Elena, for example, who ends up a fairly traditional ghost later in the story, accuses Tita of doctoring the wedding cake with a diuretic rather than with her magical tears.) The use of the supernatural in Esquivel's text is more aligned to the traditional ghost story and the tall tale than to magical realism, and certainly strays farther from Chanady's prescriptions than most of Borges's best known fictions.

It is perhaps Schroeder's goal, most explicitly addressed in the final two chapters, to argue for magical realism as a literature for the "marginalized" that causes her to privilege writers like Esquivel and Morrison over Borges or Cortázar. But any close study of the history of Latin American fiction makes it clear that the majority of the best and most influential writers of magical realist fiction are not in any sense from the "margin" within Latin America. After all, the famous "boom" period in Latin American fiction is mostly made up of writers usually considered magical realists: Borges, Cortázar, García Marquez, Cabrera Infante, Fuentes, etc. Many of the most important magical realist writers in Latin America have been white, middle or upper middle class men and women, and Nobel Prize winner García Márquez (Schroeder does admit his winning of that prize in some ways compromises his "marginalized" status, as I suppose can also be said for his recent embracing by Oprah), Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Cristina García and Carlos Fuentes fit that designation every bit as much as Borges or Cortázar do. Schroeder makes a more convincing case for North American writers of magical realism being marginalized, but somehow, instead of seeing that as a key distinction, she tries to argue a sameness that does not seem to be present.

Ironically, Schroeder does discuss how Borges and other Latin American writers were influenced by 19th century U.S. writers such as Poe, Hawthorne and Irving. She need not have gone any further than Irving or Hawthorne to see the beginnings of the rift that would make magical realism marginalized in North America and mainstream in Latin America. Irving comments, both directly and indirectly, in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," how it is getting impossible in a Yankee culture to find anyone who believes in ghosts and other elements of the supernatural as "real." North Americans have been predisposed for a few hundred years not to consider the magical as having the same value as the real. Latin American culture and its best writers have never been so burdened.

My counterarguments to a few of Schroeder's key points are offered not as an indictment of her text, but rather as a resistance to her ambitious belief that she could, even in so fine and thorough a book as hers, settle the ongoing question of what magical realism really is. Anyone who is interested in that question should read Schroeder's book; its bibilography alone, of hundreds of books and articles Schroeder examines in the course of her study, is one of the best I've ever encountered. Anyone who is interested in magical realism, and particularly interested in the connections between Latin American and North American writers within the mode, should read this book. It offers both a breadth of facts and examples and an acute understanding of some key seminal texts, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Beloved. It also offers us a challenge to test our own beliefs about what magical realism is and isn't, against the careful, consistently intelligent and thoroughly compelling arguments offered in this text.

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