Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

Magical Realism At World's End
b y   m i c h a e l   v a l d e z   m o s e s   ~   d u r h a m ,   n o r t h   c a r o l i n a

"MAGICAL REALISM" expresses the nostalgia of global modernity (note) for the traditional worlds it has vanquished and subsumed. Far from representing an alternative to or a subversion of an emergent world order, magical realism is both an effect of and a vehicle for globalization, itself only the latest phase of a centuries-long process of modernization. At one time understood to be mainly, if not exclusively, a Latin American phenomenon, magical realism has emerged over the last three decades as an artistic movement of international significance. (1) As writers from Latin America, North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East have joined a literary movement attracting an ever widening international audience, the magical realist novel has arguably become the preeminent form of fiction in the contemporary world. Its rise to global prominence suggests that the magical realist novel is a particularly visible contemporary manifestation of the emergence of what Goethe called "Weltliteratur." (2) To be sure, such transnational and translinguistic exchanges are not unprecedented. The classical and Renaissance epic, the medieval romance, and the historical novel have enjoyed success across sizable geographical and cultural territories. But these earlier cosmopolitan genres did not achieve the simultaneous preeminence throughout the globe that the magical realist novel currently enjoys. (3) The worldwide prestige of magical realist fiction signals more than the fact that the publication, distribution, translation, and consumption of such narratives have been integrated into a global marketplace. For the magical realist novel not only depends upon but also enframes a certain concept of the world that is distinctly modern. To put it another way, the modernity of the magical realist novel manifests itself in the implicit acknowledgment that there is such a thing as a coherent, interdependent, and recognizable modern world that is inescapable, that such a world is the only one with a historical future, the only one (in a Hegelian sense) that can any longer be represented.

If the rise of the magical realist novel signals the most recent phase of the globalization of literature, it also marks a recent and significant evolutionary development of an old and venerated literary genre: the romance. In particular, despite its differences from the historical romance, the magical realist novel exemplifies the same cultural logic that structures and undergirds the historical romances of Walter Scott. By tracing the genealogy of the magical realist novel back to Scott, I do not wish to imply that the historical romance is the sole source of the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, and company. A comprehensively plotted genealogical "tree" branches both forward and backward; if Scott's novels have many different descendants, so too does the magical realist novel have many different generic progenitors. Nonetheless, I maintain that the contemporary magical realist novel performs a cultural function that is strikingly similar to that which Scott's historical romances fulfilled in their day. Both the historical romance and the magical realist novel are compensatory sentimental fictions that allow, indeed encourage, their readers to indulge in a nostalgic longing for and an imaginary return to a world that is past, or passing away. Far from offering real, that is politically engaged, resistance to modernization, these fictional genres depend for their success on the fact that their readers (at least implicitly) accept that the premodern world is a historical anachronism. Both literary forms offer purely symbolic or token resistance to the inexorable triumph of modernity. The magical realist novel, like the historical romance, sublates (preserves, cancels, and transcends) those anachronistic cultural forms of the premodern world that it incorporates and represents in fictional form. These sublated forms include archaic literary and oral narrative traditions, as well as premodern social, religious, and political institutions, practices, and beliefs. Even in those instances in which these forms do not work to reconcile their readers with the actually existing historical realities of the modern world, that is, when such genres serve both a utopian and a critical function vis-a-vis the modern age, these forms admit (are indeed premised upon) the inescapable triumph of modernity. Those historical romances and magical realist novels that look to the past as a window opening onto an imagined or transformed future nevertheless remain bounded by the recognition that such a future can offer only a version of or amendment to modernity. Implicitly acknowledging that a simple return to the past is impossible, the magical realist novel, like the historical romance, displays the defining characteristics of what Schiller termed "sentimental poetry."

The term "magical realism" was coined by the German art critic, Franz Roh, who first employed the phrase "Magischer Realismus" in 1925, though the Italian critic, Massimo Bontempelli, may have independently minted his own identical critical term in 1927. (4) Although sometimes distinguished from "magical realism," Alejo Carpentier's notion of "lo real maravilloso americano," (popularized by the Cuban novelist in 1949), has had a crucial influence on the subsequent theoretical understanding and fictional practice of magical realism. (5) Carpentier argues that "lo real maravilloso americano" is a new representational mode of writing unique to the Americas, one firmly rooted in and inseparable from the peculiar realities of life as experienced by the inhabitants of Latin America and the Caribbean. For Carpentier, the "marvelous American reality" (to translate the phrase literally) of his region is the privileged preserve and subject matter of the indigenous writer of Latin America. (6) Indeed, until roughly twenty years ago, general and sophisticated readers alike followed Carpentier's lead in regarding magical realism as chiefly, if not exclusively, a Latin American affair. (7) How is it, then, that since the 1967 publication of García Márquez's runaway international bestseller, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad), a widely diverse and cosmopolitan set of writers, including the British Indian Rushdie, the Francophone Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun, the Anglophone Nigerian Ben Okri, the Australian Peter Carey, the North Americans Toni Morrison, Robert Koetsch, Jack Hodgins, Mordecai Richler and Rudolfo Anaya, the Pakistani British Adam Zameenzad, and the Japanese authors Oe Kenzaburo and Murakami Haruki, have all written critically acclaimed magical realist novels? (Franz Kafka and Günter Grass may be considered magical realists avant la lettre). If the "marvelous reality" of Latin America is distinct from and even opposed to the First World realities of North America and Western Europe (to say nothing of the realities of Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, or Asia), why has magical realism proven universally popular, or at least globally adaptable?

One answer lies in the peculiar superimposition of literary and oral narrative traditions that has come to define magical realism. The constitutive feature of magical realism is a powerfully appealing hybridism of the realistic and the fabulous. (8) One Hundred Years of Solitude is at once a realistic novel, a family chronicle on the model of Buddenbrooks,(9) and a fabulous tale of marvelous events that would seem more akin to a Catholic saint's life, a biblical parable, a sixteenth-century Spanish crónica, an Amerindian myth, African American folk tale, or fanciful family story passed down orally (with increasing embellishment and unreliability) through the generations. García Márquez's novel neither settles comfortably into the secure realism of George Eliot or Gustave Flaubert, nor faithfully inhabits the region of pure fantasy we associate with the works of J. R. R. Tolkien or Lewis Carroll. One Hundred Years of Solitude refuses to resolve the cognitive and social-historical dissonance between realism and fantasy. Unlike the gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe or the Sherlock Holmes detective fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, in which supernatural occurrences are invariably explained away by reference to a scientific-materialist understanding of the physical universe, the magical events of One Hundred Years of Solitude cannot be assimilated to a rationalistic worldview. By the same token, the realism of García Márquez's Macondo is never entirely abandoned -- the world of science, technology, and empirical knowledge exists side by side with the world of the magical and the supernatural. The characters of García Márquez notoriously fail to acknowledge that there even exists a tension between the "real" and the "magical" features of the world they inhabit. As Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris put it, in "magical realists texts ... the supernatural ... is an ordinary matter, an everyday occurrence -- admitted, accepted, and integrated into the rationality and materiality of literary realism." (10)

This fusion of the real and the magical can be understood in terms of a double lineage, a convergence of two distinct narrative traditions. The paternity of the magical realist novel is traceable to the Western European realistic novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such a parentage carries with it certain assumptions about the nature of modern reality. The world of the realistic novel is subject to universal empirical scientific laws. It is objectively secularized. It is, in short, the world of modern society in which the gods have vanished and in which scientific rationalism, religious skepticism, and the secularization of civil society are taken for granted. The realistic novel, in short, represents what Max Weber calls the "disenchantment of the world." But if the paternity of the magical realist novel is everywhere the same, the maternity of the literary genre is more varied, heterogeneous, and exotic; in each locale where the magical realist novel is born, its mother appears to be different, distinct, and as it were, native to the region. García Márquez draws upon the fabulous tales of the Old and New Testaments, Amerindian myths, African American folk tales, the legends of miracles performed by Catholic saints, family legends, indigenized retellings of late medieval Spanish chivalric romances (such as Amadís de Gaul),(11) and the crónicas of the early Spanish explorers of the new world for the magical substratum of his novel. In Midnight's Children Rushdie turns to Hindu mythology, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the legends of the life of the Buddha. The Irish writer Flann O'Brien looks to medieval Celtic narratives, epic tales, and epic cycles, the Tain Bo Culaigne, The Acallam, or the Buile Suibhne as a source for some of the fantastic features of At Swim-Two-Birds. The Haitian author Pierre Clitandre borrows from voudon myths and folk tales in his novel, Cathedral of the August Heat (Cathidrale du mois d'ao). Okri, a Nigerian novelist, draws upon Yoruba folk narratives, religious customs, and oral traditions for his novel, The Famished Road. The Moroccan writer Ben Jelloun makes use of The Thousand and One Nights, traditional tales of the life of the prophet Mohammed, the legends of Sufi mystics, and Berber folk motifs in his novels, The Sand Child (L'enfant de sable) and The Sacred Night (La nuit sacrée). Even the European pioneers of magical realism such as Kafka and Grass draw upon a reservoir of "archaic" or premodern materials -- the Kabbala, the Old Testament, the Yiddish folk tradition, medieval Catholic legends and saints' lives, Grimm's fairy tales, and German folklore -- for their fiction.

In short, we find that the variable features of the magical realist novel are the so-called local or native narrative traditions that are brought by the practitioners of this literary genre into contact with and incorporated into the European realistic novel. To be sure, the distinctions between foreign and native, cosmopolitan and local, Western and nonWestern are eroded, if not altogether collapsed in the successful magical realist text. (12) In any event, to insist upon a difference between a local narrative tradition and an imported or alien one is to make an arbitrary and historical distinction. Legends of medieval Catholic saints, like indigenized versions of Spanish chivalric romance or West African myth and folklore are hardly the pure product of the Latin American soil. Many elements of voudon were imported from West Africa and Western Europe, just as the oldest Celtic elements of the Irish sagas and epic tales were borrowed from a continental European oral tradition. But the fact that these exotic narrative strands within the magical realist text typically appear to even sophisticated readers as native or indigenous elements merely underlines the modern historical horizon within which the magical realist novel is both written and read. García Márquez, Rushdie, and Ben Jelloun depend in no small part for their literary success on the exotic appeal of the magical elements in their novels. (13) All magical realist writers wish to inculcate in their readers the sense that they are encountering anew a premodern and nonWestern world which has yet to be disenchanted. This self-consciously staged encounter between the West and its Other always involves a meeting between a modern literary tradition and one or (usually) several premodern, presecular, prescientific, and sometimes preliterate narrative traditions. Magical realism replicates in its narrative form the sedimented character of global postcolonial culture: beneath the topmost layers of modernity, one finds lower strata of cultural traditions that predate the arrival and imposition of "Western" modernity. (14) The universal popularity and the impressive adaptability of magical realism may be understood as the outgrowth of a worldwide transformation -- global modernization -- that paradoxically is everywhere the same and in each locale subtly different and unique.

The author of the magical realist novel serves as a cultural mediator between a dominant -- perhaps the preeminent modern Western literary form -- and the vestigial, residual, or latent cultural traditions that vary from one society and community to another. The author of the magical realist novel typically highlights this mediating function by dramatizing the verbal act of storytelling itself. (15) That is, in the midst of a written and printed text -- itself a product of modern modes of industrial production, information technology, and international literary markets -- the magical realist writer often dramatizes the role of the traditional storyteller, who orally narrates one or several of the most memorable magical episodes. (Of course, the oral character of these stories is necessarily a literary fiction or convention.) In Rushdie's Midnight's Children, the chapters written by the narrator, Saleem Sinai, are punctuated by the often irreverent "oral" interjections, corrections, and tales of Padma, Saleem's illiterate companion and auditor. Some of the more fantastic stories are directly credited to other illiterate minor characters, who appear only as representatives of a living oral folk tradition. The story of the assassination of the Muslim political leader Mian Abdullah, whose death is avenged by the spontaneous action of thousands of pie-dogs in the city of Agra, is put in the mouths of the downtrodden "betel-chewers" of the local paan shops. (16) Of course, these spoken interjections and popular legends must finally be filtered through the consciousness of the more learned and sophisticated Saleem, whose narrative is preserved in print. Rushdie's audience is reminded that the magical realist novelist stands over and above the traditional storyteller, whose role and function are ultimately subsumed by the magical realist writer. This generic enframing of local oral traditions within the modern global novel is self-consciously acknowledged in one of the concluding chapters of Ben Jelloun's magical realist novel, L'enfant de sable. In Djema El Fna, the central city square of Marrakech, where jugglers, magicians, boxers, soothsayers, and itinerant storytellers gather, an old man known as "The Blind Troubadour" appears, in order to continue the story of the protagonist, Mohammed Ahmed (also known as Zahra). This storyteller speaks to a random and apparently local assembly of Arabs and Berbers who gather round, and thus it appears that Ben Jelloun's magical realist novel will, at least fictively, resolve itself back into a popular oral tradition of indigenous storytelling. But the blind troubadour turns out to be none other than Jorge Luis Borges, an author much in love with The Thousand and One Nights, one of Ben Jelloun's acknowledged literary masters, and a forefather of magical realism.

Magical realism thus serves as a form of global mediation: it hybridizes elements borrowed from Western and nonWestern cultures, modern and premodern ways of life. Such a synthesis does not necessarily require, however, that these elements be combined in equal measure, or that they be granted an equal ontological, epistemological, and historical status. The question arises: do these writers implicitly favor modern Western culture or the many traditional nonwestern cultures represented in magical realist fiction? The authors of many magical realist novels, as well as their reviewers and critics, have emphasized the ways in which new alternative voices of the marginalized and the subaltern are to be heard in their pages. For example, the literary critic, Theo L. D'haen articulates a widely held critical judgment that seems to me mistaken in its understanding of the function and cultural logic of magical realism:

Magic realism thus reveals itself as a ruse to invade and take over dominant discourse(s). It is a way of access to the main body of "Western" literature for authors not sharing in, or not writing from the perspective of, the privileged centers of this literature for reasons of language, class, race, or gender, and yet avoiding epigonism by avoiding the adoption of views of the hegemonic forces together with their discourse. Alternatively, it is a means for writers coming from the privileged centers of literature to dissociate themselves from their own discourses of power, and to speak on behalf of the ex-centric and un-privileged (with the risk of being judged "patronizing" by those on whose behalf such writers seek to speak). (17)

D'haen may well be correct that this is how many magical realist writers have presented, or, at any rate, marketed themselves for a global audience. But this is merely to acknowledge that magical realists, like all successful professional magicians, understand that the popular appeal of their magic acts would be compromised if they were openly to reveal the secrets of their trade.

I would of course grant the limited and sensible claim that premodern, presecular, prerational, and occasionally even preliterate narrative cultures and traditions have been in some sense preserved and represented within magical realist works. I would nonetheless insist that such works are written by and for those who live on the other side of the divide that separates the modern from the traditional. Neither García Márquez nor his reader, whether he or she lives in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, is expected to believe in the literal truth of the magical episodes, though surely some do. (18) The magical, the oral, the fantastic, the religious, the occult, the mythic, are present, but they are sublated, that is, aufgehoben in Hegel's sense of having been preserved, canceled out, raised up, and transformed in the historical present which is both rational and real. (In Rushdie's Midnight's Children, the chapters of Saleem Sinai, and hence the fabulous and magical tales they contain, are literally pickled -- an apt metaphor for the process of sublation). The magical realist novel is not written by or for those who believe in the marvelous, but rather for those who would like to believe in the marvelous. Those who would contest this claim must consider that were the reader of the magical realist text perfectly naïve or credulous, then the appearance of the magical would not occasion the shock and surprise that has made the experience of reading the magical realist novel a delight. Such a reader would be unmoved and unimpressed with the novelty and artfulness of this literary form. It is not the implied reader of The Satanic Verses, but rather the one who does not read, or, in his naïveté, does not "get" the fiction, who issues a fatwah against its author.

The Rushdie affair illustrates with unusual clarity the cultural logic of magical realism. Among those who felt threatened by the political and ideological implications of The Satanic Verses and took political action to suppress both the novel and its author were the defenders of an ostensibly antiWestern and antimodern theocratic regime. Among those who defended the rights of the author to free expression, and opposed what they understood to be foreign and domestic varieties of religious intolerance, were modern Western political leaders, including the prime minister of Britain (herself the subject of some of the most venomous political satire in Rushdie's novel). If The Satanic Verses were to be judged solely according to its politically subversive effect, then it is clear that Rushdie's magical realism threatened to undermine not the rationalistic postenlightenment basis of a modern Western liberal democratic regime, but instead the theological (mystical) foundation of an illiberal and reactionary regime that regards revealed religion as the surest basis of its authoritarian claim to rule. Rushdie himself noted the unpleasant irony that some devout Muslims in Britain publicly burned The Satanic Verses, called for him to be brought up on blasphemy charges, or worse, supported the sentence of death against him, while "Maggie the Bitch" (as she is referred to in the novel) and her government moved to protect his life and ensure his freedom of expression under English law. In the early phases of the so-called "Rushdie affair," the novelist defended himself and his work on the grounds that he was a secular writer who could not be charged with blasphemy, since he did not believe in Islam or any other religion. (19)

Rushdie's satire of racially discriminatory policies designed to stem non-white immigration to the United Kingdom pointed up the failure of the Thatcher administration to uphold the principles of English liberalism. Nonetheless, those magical realist episodes in The Satanic Verses set in a tropicalized London did not, in the end, threaten to undermine the fundamental ideological bases of modern liberal democracy in Britain. Rather, it was the debunking of the sacred authority of both the prophet Mahound and the Imam (thinly disguised portraits of Mohammed and the Ayatollah Khomeini) that provoked a firestorm of domestic and foreign protests and the thunderous fatwah of the Ayatollah. Those most outraged by the magical realist representation of the life of the prophet, of the origins of Islam, and of the absolute rule of the Imam were precisely those whom D'haen calls the "ex-centric and un-privileged," fundamentalist believers in the literal truth of a revealed religion, the name of which ("Islam") can be translated literally into English as "submission." The Rushdie affair reveals with extraordinary clarity how the magical realist novel and its author stand with respect to Western modernity and its antagonists. The fatwah forced the author of The Satanic Verses to toss aside the costume in which he and his fellow practitioners of magical realism prefer to disguise themselves, a conjurer's cloak that has helped them to promote the illusion of magical powers and to popularize their mesmerizing and marvelous acts. Under the very real political pressures brought to bear on him, Rushdie legitimately claimed that he was only a nonbelieving fabulist who made up stories, a British subject who embraced the fundamental political and religious freedoms of modern Western liberal society. (20) Surely Rushdie is being honest when he claims that The Satanic Verses is his cri de coeur on behalf of the oppressed South Asian and Black British minorities who have in recent years sought a home in the United Kingdom. But Rushdie's radicalism, as both fabulist and essayist, never fundamentally challenges the underlying foundations of the modern, secular, and liberal nation that is his adopted home.

If, then, magical realism is a form of global mediation that hybridizes the modern and the traditional, the Western and the nonWestern, the realistic and the fabulous, the literary and the oral narrative traditions, the secular and the religious, the sophisticated and the popular, it nonetheless manages this fusion on the terms of and within the parameters established by global modernity. For most readers, magical realism generally offers only the newest form of the world museum, in which the artifacts of every culture from around the planet and from the distant past are gathered together and put on display for an audience that happily pays for admission to an exhibit at which they are invited to forget momentarily that they are both tourists and patrons. No doubt my thesis will antagonize those who look to magical realism and more generally to Third World postcolonial literature for a radical alternative to the malaise they understand global modernity to be. And I must admit that several of the authors I have mentioned have encouraged these utopian hopes, if only because at some deep psychological level the appeal of magical realism does depend upon a widespread anxiety that global modernity is not fully satisfying, even or especially for those who enjoy most fully its advantages and privileges. Moreover, I would grant that by virtue of the hybridization that occurs between the modern and premodern, the realistic and magical, the Western and nonWestern, we come to understand "how newness enters the world" (as Rushdie would say). (21) If global modernity has become an inescapable destiny, there is at least room in the world for local variants and modifications of what we call modern (or more recently postmodern) existence.


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Rev'd 2003/03/27