Margin: Exploring 

Modern Magical 


b y   r o b e r t   m c c r u m   ~   t h e   o b s e r v e r ,   u k

FOR JUST over a generation, magic realism has been the default position of the world's new fiction, the modish literary style to which aspiring novelists in English, Czech, German, French or Spanish, of course, would resort in the perpetual struggle to make an ordinary narrative seem extraordinary.

In the name of magic realism, a novel's protagonist could be 199, fictional characters could sprout wings and become angels, ghosts could hold dialogues with the living, corrupt politicians could decompose but never die, and wonderful parrots could articulate philosophical truths.

At the high end, writers as diverse and gifted as Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje have all published novels exhibiting the creative impact of magic realism, though all three would, if pressed, probably adduce other influences.

And at the low end, your wannabe Booker Prize-winner has only had to season his or her story with a bit of magic realism and the dreariest, most implausible tale of contemporary manners in God-knows-where-on-sea began, for a page or two, to seem the equal of the brilliant Colombian, Gabriel García Márquez, who introduced the form to the world as long ago as 1970.

That was with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a complex and magnificent multicoloured hurricane of a novel that transformed the literary landscape and encouraged a hundred flowers to bloom.

One Hundred Years of Solitude did more than blow away some rickety old literary tenements, it brought to light the extraordinary fiction of Latin America and helped to make fashionable the work of García Márquez's gifted contemporaries: Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, to name three of the most celebrated.

The literary press dubbed the movement 'el boom' and for a while it was the only game in town, reaching its apogee when Hollywood began to exploit magic realist tales such as Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits and Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate in blockbusting films. By the 1990s, magic realism had begun to rival football as Latin America's greatest cultural export.

But the parade of literary fashion eventually passes and now, according to a report in Newsweek, magical realism is dead or at least ready to receive the last rites.

To put that another way, there's a new generation of writers from Latin America, particularly Chile, who take issue, creatively, with the way the world sees their fiction. Where García Márquez explored the sultry, deranged paradise of Macondo (where rain could fall for a hundred years and the sky could smother the city streets with a silent storm of yellow flowers), the new generation, led by Alberto Fuguet (to Newsweek 'the agent provocateur of Latin American letters'), wants to explore a globalised community pulsating with sex, drugs and pop music that is emphatically not a paradise, a place, ironising García Márquez, they call 'McOndo', derived from McDonald's, Apple Macs and condos. It's also a name they've given to a collection of short stories by 18 new writers, all under 35, launched at a branch of McDonald's in Santiago.

It is, of course, the oldest story in the book, the new generation challenging its elders and gleefully provoking an outraged reaction from a local literary establishment that has, predictably, denounced the enfants terribles as shallow, flippant purveyors of trash.

It may seem a long way off, in a faraway country at the other end of the world, but it provokes the thought that here, in Britain, the time cannot be far off when a new generation begins to challenge the orthodoxies of the old, a time when death and infirmity begin to thin the ranks of those who have grown up and prospered in the age of magic realism.

Last year saw a first attempt at such a challenge. As in Santiago, a group of writers subscribing to a radical new literary aesthetic published an excitable paperback volume of stories entitled All Hail the New Puritans.

For about 15 minutes, the 'new puritans' attracted quite a bit of attention in the literary press but despite making a lot of local noise, they failed to attract the support of the most influential new names in contemporary British fiction and their book flopped badly.

For the literary old guard, bespattered with the debris of previous conflicts, marching in step towards that familiar critical cannonade, the conspicuous failure of the so-called New Puritans should provide only a temporary frisson of satisfaction. Everyone involved in the world of books knows that it is only a matter of time before the new kids on the block will start to call the shots.

Remember McOndo.

This article originally appeared in The Observer on May 12, 2002.



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Rev'd 2004/01/18