Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

A U T H O R   I N T E R V I E W
The Difference between Fantasy and Imagination
a   c o n v e r s a t i o n   w i t h   i s a b e l   a l l e n d e


ISABEL ALLENDE, niece of Chilean president Salvador Allende, is today's most widely-read Hispanic female writer. She has appeared in scholarly bibliographies, publications and dissertations as well as in film credits, newspapers, magazines, and, last year, as a featured Oprah Book Club author.

From her auspicious arrival on the literary scene in 1982 with The House of the Spirits, a family saga of history and myth, to her 1999 Daughter of Fortune, a Chilean girl's coming-of-age odyssey through the California Gold Rush, with its 2000 neo-sequel, Portrait in Sepia, Allende continues to command both academic attention and public affection. Through lyrical humour, finely-drawn suspense and social statement, Allende attempts to reconstruct and illuminate personal and historical myths and memories in her novels. Her individual and cultural profiles of suffering all bear the promise of redemption through solidarity, faith and compassion.

On July 15, 1999, Allende granted an extended interview at Piatti's Restaurant in Stanford, California, a portion of which is excerpted below, involving questions on magical realism, a term German critic Franz Roh used to address post-expressionist art in the 1920's. The term was taken up by Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri in 1948 in reference to a literature with surrealist elements. While the term magical realism has been widely applied to contemporary Latin American works, its incarnation is so variable that literary critics often dismiss the expression as overextended, and artists resist it as a classification.

It might be said that Allende's work contains some features of magical realism, which, according to the Chilean novelist, are nothing more than the elements of the imagination that "heighten" reality. Her novel, The House of the Spirits, is most representative of this exalted reality, with its carnivalesque hyperbole, surreal coincidences and "naturally" occurring supernatural features -- a telekinetic grandmother, a curse-shrunk patriarch, the varied communiqués of the spirits -- these are the realities of the artist's vision, strange ballasts for strange and elusive truths.

The ensuing conversation illuminates Allende's concept of magical realism as it occurs in limited fashion in her own work, and as she sees it in a broader context. ~ CZW, Ph.D., California State University/Fresno


CZW: The Latin American writer usually has -- and generally has had -- a political-social agenda in his or her work. Paradoxically, in the literature of the so-called "Boom," and "Post-Boom" eras, sobering political realities appear next to a humorous irreality, what some critics call magical realism. How do you explain this contradictory union?

IA: I think that there is a fundamental difference between fiction and journalism. Each has its virtues and its limitations. Literature, good literature, incorporates those elements of reality with the eye of the writer. The fiction writer is not reflecting facts; rather, he or she is recounting the impact of the facts. When I was a journalist, the question was, "What happened? What happened?" Today, as a novelist, I find that the question is "Why did it happen?" In the "why?" comes the story, the novel. I think that if the brutality of Latin American history and politics were recounted without this element of imagination, its true dimensions would not be reflected. Because you can tell the story of the "disappeared" [Latin American political activists kidnapped and tortured by government agencies], for example, and you can say, look at everything that they did -- and write a book on the "disappeared."

Now, I think that this type of account has less impact through time than something that [Ernesto] Sábato or García Márquez can write, in which the disappeared acquire a mythological dimension and go on to be like the spirits of [Juan] Rulfo, who can go into the world, and where one can go about the earth surrounded by these beings who are in limbo -- a limbo that is here -- but they are not here. That [imagery] gives such a phenomenal dimension to history, that it allows literature to reflect what is happening much better than journalism. Look at a book like The Autumn of the Patriarch; it says so much about a typical Latin American dictator than any chronicle that one can write about Pinochet.

CZW: Do you think that in your work there are elements of magical realism?

IA: Let's see: define magical realism for me.

CZW: A combination of commonplace, "objective" reality with elements of fantasy that appear to occur in a very "natural" manner.

IA: There is a fundamental difference between imagination and fanasy. Fantasy is made up of fairytales, which do not have a basis in real life. Imagination is the exaltation of reality. I believe that in my books there are elements of imagination; there is hyperbole; there is gross exaggeration; there is recurrent use of premonition, of coincidence -- of things that happen in fiction that wouldn't seem to happen in real life; but, actually, if you pay attention, they happen often enough. In that sense, there are elements of magical realism in some of my novels -- but not in all of them -- and they always have a logical explanation if you look for it.

For example: In the novel, Daughter of Fortune, perhaps the only element of magical realism is in the ghost of Ling, the wife of the Chinese man [Tao Chi'en]. Now, how do I explain her ghost? Always, the only person who sees it, is the Chinese man. And he has made a discipline of remembering her, which is the same that happens to me with my daughter, Paula. For me, it is a daily discipline to have Paula present. I do not want Paula's features to start to fade. And Tao Chi'en, like me, has his loved one permanently with him -- it is not odd that he see her. In his culture, in the time that he lived, the idea of ghosts was ordinary, was completely real, so real that there were amulets in the houses so that spirits would not appear to you; there were streets where you couldn't walk, etc. So in his culture, ghosts were perfectly possible. No American characters, for example, those who came to the Gold Rush in Daughter of Fortune, have any experiences of that sort because they live in a reality different from that of Tao Chi'en. What is reality? A combination of daily "reality" with a reality that is experienced in another manner?

In world literature, including modern U.S. fiction, written, for example, by women of ethnic minorities, African-American women, Chinese-American women, there are elements of the imagination as extraordinary as the ones employed by those [writers] of Latin America's "Boom." These occur in Scandinavian sagas, in German Gothic literature, in all parts of the world. By incorporating these elements of the imagination, literature, precisely, enriches reality.

I think that what happens is that the reality of Latin America is exaggerated. It is a continent united by language and religion, and divided by everything else, that has 500 years of a history of exploitation. The worst genocide in history was committed against the native Americans. The Spaniards brought a decadent culture -- which was Spain at the time of the Inquisition -- and they mounted this apparatus of empire, which was also a theological empire intended to extend Christianity; and they built it on cultures that were also theocratic cultures, where the emperor was the equivalent of God. So there was an entire culture, a theocracy, on which was mounted this other theocracy, resulting in a debacle.

The first Spanish chroniclers who wrote the chronicles of the Indies were already reporting mythological beings with only one eye in the middle of their foreheads. And they wrote about rivers as wide as oceans, and of cities of gold and of places where diamonds lay on the ground, where people had to have chickens to harvest them. The imaginations of the Spaniards who came from Extremadura took wing, imagine. Their imaginations flew off with them because there was no vocabulary to describe this geography, this vastness, this immense unpopulated continent, these cultures that they saw and did not understand. But they had the premontion, the Spaniards knew, that they had stumbled into something that--if it was not blasted at the root -- would devour them. These [conquistadors] were the consorts of rashly courageous and desperate men, but they had come face-to-face with highly sophisticated cultures -- and they destroyed them just as the Huns destroyed Europe.

So, I think that there are many elements by which Latin American literature, when it finally loosens its reins, is able to converge all of these images and create an extraordinary style.

Because up until Alejo Carpentier, Latin American literature was an imitation of European literature: regionalism, portraits of manners ("costumbrismo") -- we were imitating Spain, and Alejo Carpentier, who was involved with the surrealists in Paris, starts thinking and says, "What is it that my friends are doing here? My surrealist friends are putting two or three ordinary elements in an unusual situation and creating an event called surrealism!" The classic example of surrealism is the dissecting table, the umbrella and the sewing machine. And Alejo Carpentier realized that he didn't have to put anything together in Cuba, because it was already in place: in Cuba, the donkey was sitting on top of the piano, the white piano, with the black man playing. So Carpentier is the first who loosens his collar and says, "We're going to tell it like it is, dammit!" And he tells it; and he tells it with such a vocabulary and with such freedom and in an extraordinary work!

CZW: You said in one of your interviews that you exaggerate, that your grandmother, on whom you base the magical, eccentric Clara in The House of the Spirits, couldn't levitate -- that she could only move the salt shakers without touching them.

IA: Oh, of course; little things, yes (wry-voiced).

CZW: She could?

IA: Only little things (laughter). You know, they would say in the family that my grandmother could move the billiard table; the pool table ran all around the house. I never saw it happen. Not once. Then they said that she played the piano with the lid shut. My grandmother didn't play the piano in any fashion, because she didn't know a single note of music. She couldn't play the piano with the lid shut or open (laughter). They tell some stories about my grandmother!

CZW: So she could only move small things [with her mind].

IA: Little things -- of no importance.

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