Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
IS IT MAGIC OR MAGICAL REALISM?
w h y   k n o w i n g   t h e   d i f f e r e n c e   m a t t e r s   t o   l i t e r a t u r e

BY TAMARA KAYE SELLMAN

MAGIC (AL) REALISM
Maggie Anne Bowers
© 2004
Routledge, 150 pp.
$19.95, paperback

I WAS attracted to reading this book because Bowers made some pretty great promises on the very first interior page, one of them being that she would distinguish magic realism from magical realism from marvelous realism. Finally! Bowers had obviously been dogged by the same problem I'd had all this time, as she points out in her preface:
The writing of this book was motivated by the lack of an accessible English language guide to the confusing and often confused terms associated with magic(al) realism.

She's certainly right about that. Not that there aren't other books that approach this confusion. Faris and Zamora touch on it constantly in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, that terrific tome of magical realism, but one needs to be equipped for the major depth charge of strong academic writing in that book in order to boil down the differences independently. (To be fair, I still regard the Faris and Zamora book as the magical realism Bible, but it may not suit the average reader or writer needing to make clear distinctions without traversing hundreds of pages of theory in order to put together that puzzle.)

Maggie Ann Bowers has put in some serious research time on this, and related subjects. She's Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Portsmouth, specializing in multi-ethnic and cross-cultural writing from North America and Britain, especially by women. She's also written extensively about African American and Native American writing and has compared Asian American, Canadian and British literature. She is a co-editor for the multi-lingual postcolonial volume Convergences and Interferences, and she's a member of both the University of Portsmouth's Centre for European and International Research and the Postcolonial Literatures Research Group sponsored by the University of Antwerp.

Bowers does a terrific job of setting apart each of these terms, which, while often used interchangeably, possess distinct differences in historical relevance and definition (which, again, to be fair, Faris and Zamora also cover well in their book). Her sensitivity to this confusion is reflected, in fact, in the book's title. Bowers uses the term "magic(al) realism" throughout the book to honor the various separate terms that have been applied over the years. I admire this willingness to be clear on matters while, at the same time, respecting that others have historically approached the usage of the terms differently. At Margin, we typically use only the term "magical realism," but also honor others who prefer the shorter "magic realism" because our efforts at discussion are (we hope) less about what we think and more about what the larger community thinks. This seems to be Bowers' attitude as well.

Bowers' first and second chapters are essential reading if one is to understand and appreciate the evolution of these terms. This, I think, is requisite for anyone who wants to master an accurate definition of magical realism. If you read nothing else in this book, read the introduction and Chapters One and Two!

Let's explore this for a moment. In Chapter One, Bowers sets out to show that magic realism makes reference to the post-Expressionist art movement in Europe as identified by Franz Roh, not to literature in and of itself. Naturally, the term began to be used to convey the essence of other art forms, particularly literature, but ultimately, magic realism was not originally about words, but about painting.

Then there's marvelous realism, that phrase coined by French-Russian-Cuban Alejo Carpentier, who sought to reconfigure what he'd encountered as European surrealism through a distinctly Latin American lens. However, though most critics credit Carpentier as the first to bring the concept to Latin America, it's been argued that Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar-Pietri actually did that work. He thought Carpentier's vision of the marvelous American reality was not influenced by European literary movements at all. Instead, he credited Latin American writers for their independent efforts in modernist experimental writing for bringing out the marvelous.

Neither of these definitions, of "magic realism" or "marvelous realism," ultimately defines what critic Angel Flores finally introduced in 1955 as magical realism. Writes Bowers,

Controversially, [Flores] does not acknowledge either Uslar-Pietri or Carpentier for bringing Roh's magic realism to Latin America and instead argues that magical realism is a continuation of the romantic realist tradition of Spanish language literature and its European counterparts.

Over time, as Bowers explains, a boom in Latin American narrative followed which evolved this idea, of a less regionally bound and more inclusive form of "second wave" magical realism that has come to be recognized as the magical realism we enjoy today. While Latin American writers (Borges, García Márquez, Allende) deserve credit for popularizing and developing magical realism, ultimately, it's now recognized as a form of narrative, even a worldview, that has been used successfully throughout the world to chart those territories between the impossible and the material.

(The importance of understanding magical realism as a global literary tradition cannot be understated here, for which I am grateful to Bowers. One of the deep-seated stereotypes of magical realism, that it can only be a Latin American literary mode, is riddled with inconsistency and has forced the ghettoization of many talented writers from the region who deserve better. Yet, this misperception remains as one of the major reasons why some people downplay magical realism as an important narrative form. The sooner critics learn to move past that old stereotype, the better. Bowers' book, with its strong and well-documented arguments, should play a big part in the progression away from clichéd understandings of magical realism.)

Chapter Two in Magic(al) Realism becomes essential reading, then, because Bowers moves the discussion away from history and into the realm of philosophy by "delimiting" the terms.

"Magic realism, magical realism and marvelous realism are highly disputed terms, not only due to their complicated history but also because they encompass many variants. Their wide scope means that they often appear to encroach on other genres and terms. Therefore, one of the best ways of reaching some form of definition is to establish to what they are related, and to what they are not related."

This chapter is probably the best one in a highly useful book because it confronts misconceptions about magical realism as being the same thing as surrealism, fantasy, allegory, fabulism, even science fiction. Magical realism may share some goals and boundaries with all of these forms of literature, but ultimately, Bowers sets out to prove (successfully, in my opinion) that magical realism still remains distinct among them, not only in form, but in purpose.

For a slim text, Magic(al) Realism packs a powerful amount of information and debate, while giving some crisp readings of major MR texts such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Beloved, Midnight's Children and Woman Warrior: A Memoir of Girlhood Among Ghosts. Bowers also peppers her discussions with references to feminist thinking as a chronicle of the gender response to realism. She also enters the worlds of children's literature, television and film for a moment, to show how magical realism takes on important facets in these various forms of cultural production.

Finally, Bowers speculates about the future of magical realism. Of necessity, she uncovers key obstacles that lie in the path of magical realism's success in the 21st century:

• Its over-association with Latin American writing has rendered it "fashionable" rather than ethereal, despite evidence to the contrary (Cervantes' Don Quixote being the key example of magical realism's timelessness in what is universally considered the earliest precursor of the magical realist mode)

• Magical realism has relied too heavily upon assumptions about perspectives, both Western and nonWestern, and this means that the postcolonial divisions that MR writing seeks to elucidate often simply perpetuate them instead (it "reinforces the colonialist view that the colonized are like irrational children who need the guidance and superior knowledge of the colonial power in order to progress into modernity").

• While Western readers seem to adore magical realism, it's been asserted by intellectuals that they may not be capable of discerning the more important goals of magical realism (truthtelling, giving voice to the voiceless) in exchange for the more pleasurable, entertaining aspects of the form (i.e., escapism, unfamiliar and exotic locales, or—perhaps unwittingly—the reinforcement colonial biases).

• Magical realism's "truthtelling" aspect may be entertaining for some readers, but devastating and dangerously political for others (think of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie or Isabel Allende's exile from Chile). In politically unstable times and places, can magical realist writers and their stories survive such upheavals?

Magic(al) Realism is an excellent introductory book to the subject, not only for the student of literature and criticism, but for writers who think their work moves into this territory. Bowers' includes a useful glossary and a careful, extended bibliography of primary and secondary resources and citations to turn to for further inquiry. I especially appreciate the organization of her chapters and points. Her clarifications and distinctions are useful, pragmatic and well presented. I'd recommend this book as an entry level means for mastering the complexities of magical realism (with a follow-up using the Faris and Zamora text for deep, critical supplementation).

I know this much: I'll never loan my copy out, especially with all the margin notes and highlighted evidence I've come away with! I expect I will reread this book at least twice while I further my own adventures into magical realism. I hope you will, as well.

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