Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

b y   b r u c e   t a y l o r   ~   a. k. a.   m r.   m a g i c   r e a l i s m
s e a t t l e ,   w a s h i n g t o n

AROUND TEN years ago, I believe, I became familiar with a term called "Magic Realism." Through much of my adult writing life I had been writing in a mode called, for lack of a better term at the time, "Surrealism." The term never felt quite right because in much of my work, the fantastic co-exists with reality and is simply accepted as a part of that reality; sometimes an obnoxious part, but nonetheless a part of it. I had always equated "surrealism" with the bizarre or the incomprehensible or, at best, equated with the painter Salvadar Dali. But somehow, that form of "surrealism" didn't seem to me even close to what I was writing and publishing.

Now, perhaps it was ignorance on my part, but it seemed something strange happened in U.S. publishing in the mid-1980's -- the blossoming of the alternative "small press" and its coming into co-existence with the literary/academic presses. The small press took a keen interest in what I was doing and many of the stories that I wrote in the late seventies and early eighties -- most of which had never been published, although lord knows how many editors had seen them, and, while certainly respecting them, didn't know what to do with them. Suddenly, these stories were hot and many were published and are being published now.

And as this was happening, I picked up the book, Eye of the Heart, edited by Barbara Howes. It was during the summer of 1987 or 1988, I believe; upon reading it, I was astounded. These writers were writing, or had been writing, what I was writing. And so many of these stories, mine and those in the book, had that unmistakable common thread: the fantastic or the strange being accepted as reality or equally co-existing with (consensual) reality.

It was also about this time that I began to hear not only people talking about Magic Realism, but that I had been identified by several editors as one of the top writers of it. I also began to see references in the small press about Magic Realism and before I knew it, I was on panels at science fiction conventions talking about the subject. At these gatherings, I was struck by how little people knew of the history of Magic Realism, and that included me, much to my embarrassment.

In my defense, I will say that after the first panel dealing with Magic Realism that I appeared at, I headed off to one of the local libraries to find more information. I found two references to it, and one reference was a style of painting.

In his excellent essay on Magic Realism ("Magic realism: Definitions," Magic Realism, vol.5.1, Winter 1995/96), Brian Evenson says:

"Magic Realism first appeared as a term for the visual arts, introduced in the 1920's by Frans Roh, a German art critic. It identified a kind of art that claimed to be a return to realism, but which nonetheless tried to approach objects in new ways, as if seeing them for the first time. It was an attempt to uncover a magic found in ordinary objects but hidden by too long a familiarity with these objects.

"When Roh's book was translated into Spanish in the late 1920's, the term magic realism began to be bandied about in South America, soon becoming a way of speaking not only about art but about literature, usually European literature."

Anyway, over the next few years, I assumed that it was a style of writing that was evolving, having yet to reach its zenith, and that Magic Realism was simply too new for there to be much of any critical analysis of the form. How exciting to be a part of a form of literature in the making!

Wrong! Just to make sure that I had done enough research on the subject, I went with a friend and former librarian to the University of Washington library, to see if I could glean any more of what I was sure was scant information about the subject and came home with ten books containing substantial material on Magic Realism -- but what was most interesting about the research was that while some books were published in the 1980's, most were published since 1991.

It appears that, while the "form" and "concept" have been around for a time, much of the interest and accessible information about Magic Realism is extremely recent and marks a rather abrupt flood into this country [U.S.A.].

The two books that are most presently identified with Magic Realism and may have provided the initial "flood of interest" are Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. These are regarded by many as some of the best examples of Magic Realism.

While this may be so, in terms of structure, theme, content, and the interchanging of myth, reality, and fantastic elements regarded as commonplace (for example, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, a lowly mechanic is forever surrounded by butterflies), is Magic Realism just the attention to the co-exitence of reality and the "unreal," or the strange? Or is it calling attention to the synthesis of that which is empirical and that which is known only to the heart?

The term "Magic Realism" is a derivation of the term lo real maravilloso (or Latin America's "Marvelous Reality"), a term coined in 1949 by Alejo Capentier (1904-1980), an outstanding Cuban cultural historian of Latin America, particularly of the Spanish-speaking and French Carribbean populations. Carpentier came up with the term in his introduction to The Kingdom of This World. This manifesto of Magic Realism proved the rationale for the vital central phase of the New Latin American Novel which was born in the late 1940's and reached a pinnacle with One Hundred Years Of Solitude, which was published in English in 1970.

Later, in 1993, with the release of the movie Like Water For Chocolate, based on the novel by Mexican author Laura Esquível, North American audiences en masse received a powerful dose of Magic Realism in the theater. Until the release of the Italian movie, Il Postino, in 1996, Like Water For Chocolate was the highest grossing foreign film of all time.

So. Literary Magic Realism all started with Alejo Carpentier?

No. The multi-generational scope of One Hundred Years of Solitude owes its form to Faulkner, and Hopscotch owes much of its form to Ulysses by James Joyce, for they had greatly influenced the writers of Carpentier's time, notably Asturias, Andrade, and Borges -- the ABC's of the literature of South America in the 1920's and early 1930's. These authors found that the work of Faulkner and Joyce proved the best way towards understanding the dualist societies of South America -- countries that, by European and North American reckoning, were forty years behind in providing a milieu stable enough for the condition under which realistic fiction could flourish.

However, there was another major factor involved and that was this: South America was and is continually fractured by regional wars, border conflicts, internal disputes, regimes of various political persuasions; a vast tropical continent in constant turmoil, and on top of that, the South American indian heritage seemingly co-existing at the same time. It is a land where dualities and dichotomies are the rule, not the exception; the urbane and the indian, the spiritual and the superstitious, the civilized and the rustic, the city and the jungle, the mundane and the exotic. The continental homogenous thread, pulled by Simon Bolivar, was never enough to knit the fabric of the totally alien continent with twenty nation states, each one seeing the other as more different than similar. There has never been a chance to pull the land into a unified consensual reality.

While this was going on, the "realistic novel" (whose ancestor was Flaubert, author of what is regarded by many to the the finest novel ever written, Madame Bovary), as it was known in Europe and the United States, never did as well against the Empirical Tradition of Great Britain and the United States. But due to the superimpositions of the European heritage, particularly Spanish heritage, on the lands of culture particular to South America, other European writiers did find the fertile soil that they did not find -- or find nearly as much of -- in Europe and the United States.

Ultimately, according to Gerald Martin, author of Journey Through the Labyrinth the ancestors of Magic Realism are Marcel Proust and...Franz Kafka.

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