What We Talk About When We Talk About Magical Realism




To Gabo

“NICE ONE … but where is the magical realism?” commented a friend, after reading one of my stories. A joke, yes, but there was also an element of blunt sincerity to his words — it isn’t rare for me to bump face-first into the expectation that I deploy the magical realist algorithm in my writing. [1] Why should I do that, you may ask. Well, because I am Latin American and that’s what we do, concoct magical realist things. Look around: It is everywhere, the de facto association between the region’s literary production and these two vague words. If the Holy Bible had been penned in my neck of the woods the whole of Christianity would have been condemned to the status of yet another writerly cult, like the Church of Tolkien, or the Brethren of Literary Fiction.

I do not expect everyone to be aware of the many differences between Latin American people, the contrasting cultures and literatures of each country. I do not bother trying to convince anyone that it would be highly unlikely for Argentines (like myself) to make much of the words “magical realism” when thinking about our own contribution to letters. But I have no qualms in declaring that this label isn’t in any way useful to explain all of the fiction produced south of Texas, as so many have tried to do, forcing the most disparate authors into this pigeonhole. And to raise the ante even more, I’d happily die on the hill which declares that magical realism doesn’t even say that much about the region’s fertile literary production, beyond what it might say about a handful of authors, mostly around the Boom of the ’60s, plus their disciples. [2] In other words, the Latin American titles that would be shelved under the category of magical realism — without resistance from producers, critics, or well-informed readers — would represent a rather limited sample, if we consider contemporary and historical examples, regardless of originality and literary quality. [3]

But we are talking about a very powerful Force (uppercase intended). The “magical realist imperative,” critic Sylvia Molloy calls it, understanding that this is a label but also a demand: the demand that Latin American literature fit the label. This sounds circular, like the Chicken or Egg Paradox, and paradoxes are confusing. To make it simpler, for simple it is, it all boils down to: “If it comes from Latin America, it has to be magical realism, in some way, even if it looks like something completely different.” Needless to say, this results in terrible reductions. It has “wreaked havoc,” as Jorge Volpi puts it without much exaggeration, for it has “erased, with a single [stroke], all of Latin America’s previous explorations […] and it became a choke-chain for those writers who didn’t show any interest in magic.”

A choke-chain that, more than 50 years since One Hundred Years of Solitude, some of us are still trying to shake off. [4]

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If this reduction were limited to literature the only problem would be inadequate criticism, mediocre books, confused readers, and some other minor catastrophes. But this imperative not only continuously shapes ideas of Latin American literature; in a more problematic way, it also shapes ideas of the region, well beyond the cushy world of books. See, for example, the first episode of the Netflix blockbuster Narcos — before the action starts, titles welcome the audience with the following words: “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”

One issue here — aside from the fact that such a vague definition could apply even to the films of David Lynch or to Harry Potter — is that magical realism actually wasn’t born in Colombia, as we shall see. But whatever, common sense says it was and that’s good enough for a TV series. And this being a series in which Latin American people engage in stereotypical Latin American things, no matter where in Latin America they are from (a Brazilian actor with outstanding Spanish, but with an obvious Brazilian accent, plays a Colombian drug dealer, for example), one shouldn’t expect much in terms of scholarly literary criticism, cultural coherence, or the avoidance of clichés.

But there is a bigger problem: Latin Americans themselves aren’t alien to reductive and speculative uses of the label either. For example, the magical realist algorithm was put in motion by the Colombian government in the early 2010s, for a tourism campaign called “Colombia is Magical Realism,” an effort that included a series of vomit-inducing short clips inviting visitors to the country. “Magical is the best word to describe [Cartagena], when you arrive here it’s like you’re entering a García Márquez novel,” says the Panama-hatted gringo in the video. One can only hope that the novel isn’t Love in the Time of Cholera, or that he doesn’t enter One Hundred Years of Solitude during the banana plantation massacre.

If anything, magical realism — in its juggling of exoticism and legibility, a combo that Edward Said would have called Orientalist when occurring in other elsewheres — is a practical marketing ploy, a reduction by means not of absurdity but of obfuscation — a crude simplification through fuzziness. And simplification, in addition to providing headache-healing narratives to the intellectually shy, makes people money, as any advertising manager will agree. No wonder tourism boards deploy the magical realist algorithm. No wonder sales-hungry publishers and their favorite lapdogs, lazy critics, keep regurgitating it so much.

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As long as you agree that a concept has a meaning, and this meaning is coherent with your vision of something else, it is easy to avoid going too deep into what that meaning actually is. This is more or less how the concept “magical realism” works — those two words must mean something, since other (learned?) people are using them. These words allow you to participate in certain discussions, but more importantly, these words allow you to synthesize a whole array of preconceived ideas (unclear but preconceived), so that you come across as knowing what you are talking about. Considered in this light, Narcos’s description of magical realism is as valid as that of most literary critics. There is no need to ponder too much what anyone means by magical realism as long as we all agree not to ask, “So actually, what the hell is this magical thing you are talking about?” But let’s ask it. Because sometimes impoliteness is actually necessary. Especially when you are trying to get to the bottom of things.

So, what do we talk about when we talk about magical realism? I am not searching of course for dictionary definitions — dictionaries know what magical realism is — dictionaries know everything, with the unflinching certainty of your average Latino narrator, your male El Narrador. I am talking about actual critical definitions, literary conceptualizations with a considerable level of agreement, lest we all be talking about different things, because that is how the magical realist debate comes across when you actually pay attention to what is going on. Is it a genre, as Clive James would have it? A style? A certain aesthetic inflection? A particular combination of fantastical elements and realism, as the Pablo Escobar School of Literary Criticism via Netflix (among others) would argue? A formula for the perfect mix of sweaty sensuality, infectious diseases, strange climate events, passing references to colonization, and metaphors and allegories about nature and authoritarianism (always the metaphors and allegories), as in your regular Louis de Bernières novel?

What does magical realism mean? Where did these words originate, and how did they end up becoming so much associated with Latin American literature, and the literatures influenced by it?

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Origins need not be magical, literary criticism need not sprout from inside a banana, like Guadalupe, your favorite Latin American magical princess, who, thank God, I made up, because, as everyone knows, bananas only grow in republics. Interestingly, as already hinted above, the magical realist saga didn’t begin in the New World.

The first recorded use of the term can be found in the work of the German philosopher and poet Novalis, who, in 1798, wrote of two hypothetical kinds of prophets: a magischer Idealist, and a magischer Realist. The discussion — one about idealism and realism — is beyond the scope of this piece, so suffice it to say that the term is then put to sleep for more than a century, until another German, Franz Roh, summoned it in 1925, when discussing a specific vein in German painting of the late 1910s to early 1920s. It is in his book Nach-Expressionismus. Magischer Realismus: Probleme Der Neuesten Europäischen Malerei that magical realism resurfaces, now deployed to explain a distinct return to realism in post-Expressionistic painting. “Magical,” according to Anne Hegerfeldt, is how Roh understands this return — one mediated by “a sense of mystery and unreality.”

Interestingly, the term reappears a year later in Italy, in the work of Massimo Bontempelli, an Italian poet and future secretary of the Fascist Writers’ Union. Whether Bontempelli — who was more interested in fabricating new European “myths” after the hard reset of World War I than with German Idealism or painting — was aware of the work of Novalis and Roh is a matter of debate. But that Bontempelli is looking for “an explanation of mystery and daily life as a miraculous adventure,” in the words of Maryam Asayeh and Mehmet Arargüҫ, and the fact that he was a wordsmith (a fascist poet, that most sado-masochistic of combinations), puts his understanding of the term closer to ours.

So how did we go from German Idealism, post-Expressionistic painting, and myth-searching lyrical fascists to the muddy streets of Macondo? The first step in this direction — independent of the Bontempelli diversion, which continued to evolve on its own — followed the Roh line, when Nach-Expressionismus. Magischer Realismus: Probleme Der Neuesten Europäischen Malerei was published in Spanish in 1927, in José Ortega y Gasset’s Revista de Occidente, in a translation by Fernando Vela (one of Ortega y Gasset’s students). Ortega y Gasset’s credentials as a phenomenologist explain the connection to Roh; the magazine’s renown among Spanish-speaking literati — particularly across the pond — explains why these two words started to resonate in Latin American literary circles toward the end of the 1920s, as some critics like Irene Guenther have pointed out.

Over time, many Latin American writers started to toy with these two words. Stephen Henighan suggests that both Miguel Ángel Asturias and Alejo Carpentier “would start to talk of ‘magical realism’ (Asturias) or ‘the marvelous real’ (Carpentier), whenever given the opportunity to do so,” toward the end of the 1940s. Around the same time, according to Kenneth Reeds, Venezuelan intellectual Arturo Uslar Pietri, in his Letras y hombres de Venezuela, finds in “magical realism” an explanation to a new creative force of Latin American letters, in which man [sic] exists as a form of mystery amid realism, and is embedded in — or even negated by — a poetic divination. And a year later, Alejo Carpentier would in turn move from talk to the written page, publishing his renowned El reino de este mundo, where he tests his theory of “lo real maravilloso,” defined in contraposition to surrealism and in quite exoticist terms, as the side of the brutality and religious fervor of Haiti. But over 20 years had elapsed between the publishing of Roh’s article in Revista de Occidente, the term being heard in the literary salons of the Latin American capitals, and later explorations of magical realism by Uslar Pietri, Carpentier, and Asturias. How to explain the long vacuum during which these words all but disappeared from literary discussions?

According to Chilean writer José Donoso, before the 1960s, Latin American literature existed mainly as a constellation of disconnected national literatures, which might explain why the idea of magical realism was left behind, to ferment in the dark, after its initial arrival. But would it be far-fetched to assume that perhaps the term vanished between the late 1920s and the late 1940s because writers were looking elsewhere? The later work of Uslar Pietri, Carpentier, and Asturias suggests not.

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These explorations by Carpentier, Asturias, and Uslar Pietri were attempts to think through their practice and the meaning of this practice in their place in the world. This kind of theoretical work in progress is always inconclusive and speculative, with definitions unlikely to be set in stone, if not becoming contradictory over time. It is unsurprising then that these three writers eventually moved away from exploring the magical/realist dialectic, if not outright rejected association with the label, as did Carpentier in 1975, in his lecture “The Baroque and the Marvelous Real,” where he openly remonstrated against being called a “magical realist” writer.

But more importantly, I would argue that it isn’t through Asturias, Carpentier, or Uslar Pietri that the term magical realism became cemented in criticism. This happened in 1955, with the English-language essay “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction,” by Puerto Rican critic Ángel Flores. It was there that these two words entered the literary lexicon, with the impetus and violence of the Bacterium Vibrio Cholerae, causing all sorts of damage that extends to this day, and reaching every possible corner, even the messy Wikipedia entry for “magical realism,” doubtlessly the first point of contact for many a confused soul who will then repeat the nonsense consecrated to posterity by good-willing but ill-informed Wikieditors, those digital accomplices of Flores.

In his article, published by the renowned academic journal Hispania, Ángel Flores set out to establish what could be called the differential quality of Latin American fiction. The intentions might seem noble, but this is such an ill-conceived piece, with such outlandish and patronizing claims, that it is very hard to understand how so many critics took it with any degree of seriousness (not that the repetition of incoherent theoretical fads is uncommon in academia). Flores paints a rather bleak picture of Latin American literature, this rather unaccomplished feat, explained because “[t]he conditions of life are so difficult that they [Latin American writers] are unable to devote the time and travail required for all memorable achievements, with the result that their output is heterogeneous, often careless…” He concludes with a line, a sub-editor’s wet-dream of a line, the perfect click-bait: “[I]n the field of fiction, Latin America is unable to boast of any titans.” Thankfully, Flores finds the “trend” in Latin American fiction that could fill this vacuum of titans: magical realism, of course.

Flores places its birthdate in the mid-’30s, in his words:

For the sake of convenience I shall use the year 1935 as the point of departure of this new phase of Latin American literature, of magical realism. It was in 1935 that Jorge Luis Borges’s collection Historia universal de la infamia made its appearance in Buenos Aires[.] […] With Borges as pathfinder and moving spirit, a group of brilliant stylists developed around him.

From here, Flores moves to 1940, and dedicates a few words to the work of Adolfo Bioy Casares, specifically his “La invención de Morel, the first full-length novel of fantasy in Latin American letters.” One problem here is the fact that the title of Flores’s essay includes the pigeonhole “Spanish American,” rather than “Latin American,” and this forces him to erase the towering work of fantasy that is the 1928 Macunaíma, by the Brazilian Mário de Andrade. [5] Another more urgent problem is that Flores’s article grows more unhinged by the line, with gems like: “In the following year [1941] Borges gave us his memorable El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan, which imposed magical realism in many corners throughout Latin America,” much like how San Martín and Bolivar had imposed freedom from Spain in the 19th century.

If one were to apply Flores’s version of magical realism to the writers we associate with the concept today, it would be easy to imagine Borges exploding in a fit of rage and killing Flores with merciless blows with his signature walking stick. But Flores — however reductive his article might be — was not thinking of our usual suspects, for the obvious reason that none had made their name at that point in history. Flores had in mind a certain connection to “lo fantástico,” and this shows in the writers he chose as representatives of a “transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesome and the unreal.” [6]

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Following Flores, a flurry of academic documents about and around magical realism was released into the world, among which we can include: a 1957 article by J. E. Irby on the influence of William Faulkner in Latin American literature; a 1965 PhD dissertation by Ray Verzasconi on the work of Miguel Asturias; a 1966 thesis by E. Dale Carter on magical realism in then contemporary Argentine literature; a 1967 essay by Luis Leal, in which he refutes to some extent Flores’s work and aims to reinsert the concept back into the Roh line of discussion; and so on. Arguably the final strike in the canonization of the notion was delivered in 1969 by Latin Americanist Jean Franco, who in her An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature dedicates some pages to magical realism, vaguely delineating it as something inherently Latin American, a new term that “has recently been coined to categorise novels which use myth and legend.”

By the 1970s, it is safe to say that the term was pretty much institutionalized, as was its vagueness, and the elbow-patched classes would spend hectoliters of ink debating the meaning (and lack thereof) of these two words. As Kenneth Reeds argues,

Perhaps the high point (or low point) of this deliberation was the 1973 (published in 1975) Congreso Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana held at Michigan State University. The declared intention of the conference was to resolve once and for all the question of magical realism’s definition and its role in Latin American literature.

Spoiler: They didn’t resolve it. But that didn’t stop the term being used and abused.

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Poor Flores, he could have never guessed the confusion his essay would cause.

In his defense, aside from the fact that he was one of the staunchest promoters of Latin American literature in English, he wasn’t necessarily hallucinating when imagining a connection between the region and fantasy. The problem is in the terminology he used to think through this connection. And more precisely the European bent behind this terminology. For though Flores never mentioned Roh or Novalis, he was still looking toward European literature when thinking of his version of magical realism. [7]

The problem, to reiterate, isn’t necessarily the connection with fantasy, which would be more accurately defined as “lo fantástico,” because Latin American literature is indeed very connected to “the fantastic.” [8] This hypothesis is at the core of “Sirenas en el Amazonas,” a short essay slash literary op-ed by Mario Vargas Llosa, published in the Spanish daily El País in 1998. Vargas Llosa may have made, in recent decades, a strong attempt at destroying his oeuvre and reputation as a writer, with his at times infantile interpretation of liberalism and his often reactionary opinion pieces that remind one of the “Old Man Yells at a Cloud” meme, where he frequently rehashes all the usual stereotypes around a wide array of topics (including feminism, the left, and any other body politic that might challenge his position as a Caucasian male of a certain stature and age), but credit where credit is due: his piece gets to the core of Latin American literature better than most academic and critical attempts to define it via magical realism. “Sirenas en el Amazonas” is an attempt to argue for objectivity in journalism, but one of the most interesting ideas asserted in the piece is that there is a fantastical element in Latin American literature (and in Latin American culture), that this element was available to pre-Columbian cultures, [9] and that it was further exacerbated in the encounter with the European colonizers.

Obviously, this was not an equal encounter, as the genocide of indigenous populations and the destruction of most of their cultures, the imposition of a European worldview (including languages, religions, and so on), and the pillage of natural resources that would ensue clearly indicate. But it was an encounter nevertheless, in the specific definition of encounter as the act of meeting someone or something (frequently unexpectedly). And it was an encounter between two cultures that, due to their enormous differences, had no other means of interpreting each other than by resorting to the fantastic as an explanation. These fantastical interpretations are very much present in the crónicas of those first colonizers, as well as in the crónicas of the native populations, trying to account for the devastating presence that had visited upon them.

It was in the violent and contrasting nature of this encounter that Latin America was born. It is in the huge contradiction of being both victim and victimizer, the coexistence of criollo, European, Afro-descendent, and native in the region (and in many of us as human beings), that we exist. No wonder the fantastic keeps being a preferred mode of expression.

Lo fantástico? Absolutely. Magical realism? An over-complication. One that beyond its exoticism keeps imagining Latin American literature as a response to this or that European avant-garde.

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So what to do about magical realism? I am asking as a writer, who happens to be from Latin America, who is trying to shake off that “choke-chain,” to go back to Volpi’s accurate image.

Because even if my writing has very little of the magical (and perhaps much more of what writer James Miller denominates “deranged realism”), I haven’t managed to avoid the label. I have been slammed into the magical realist dustbin, even by well-meaning reviewers and booksellers. Would someone else, say a European or Anglo-American writer, be called a magical realist if he wrote about people who snort Bosnian cocaine until they start speaking Bosnian, or they masturbate into disappearance, as I have written, to earn the label? I do not think so. But then the magical realist imperative is so strong, as I have already argued above.

To be fair, I do not know what to do about magical realism. If I could get rid of the label I would, and propose instead that there is more to be gained from considering Latin American literature as driven by “lo fantástico,” without resorting to vague distinctions in how that fantastical element works, [10] than by mobilizing the magical realist algorithm. And this essay is obviously a step in that direction, as well as an attempt to bring some clarity, to invite others to consider the complexities of the rich cultural landscape of Latin America before surrendering to easy definitions.

Will this proposal have the effect I want? Unlikely. The damage is perhaps irreparable. And to be fair, I shouldn’t really care that much, busy as I am trying to do my writing, avoiding the screeching birds of fire that constantly interrupt my work, all the unexplainable natural phenomena that take place constantly in my life, that would be magical to others, and that to me are just part of everyday life. Of the everyday life of a generic Latin American, from a generic Latin American place. Call it Macondo if you want.

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Fernando Sdrigotti is a London-based Argentine writer and cultural critic. He teaches Latin American literature, film, and language at Birkbeck, University of London. His latest fiction book is Jolts, a collection of short stories published by Influx Press. Twitter: @f_sd.

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Featured image: “Gabriel García Márquez 01” by Gorup de Besanez is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.

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[1] Nothing better captures the algorithmic nature of magical realism than Twitter’s magical realist bot (www.twitter.com/MagicRealismBot), as seen in beauties such as “A Czechoslovakian necromancer is building a swimming pool that is filled with the Second Amendment.” Thanks to Ben Bollig for pointing toward this (parodic?) account, and for his many erudite comments toward this piece.

[2] Some of the obvious Latin American names paraded around the label include Gabriel García Márquez (the most obvious one, of course), Isabel Allende, and Laura Esquivel. But also Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Alejo Carpentier, and Julio Cortázar, among others. As I will discuss, some of these names are pigeonholed in this way for no other reason than that they work with fantastical elements. This results in a forcing together of writers from different and very distinctive periods, with very different aesthetic and ideological concerns, as the list above shows.

[3] Beyond Latin America, magical realism is frequently “spotted in the wild” in Indian and African literature too. More rarely, it is also spotted in Anglo-American literature, particularly when practiced by post-colonial (meaning nonwhite) subjects: see Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison among others.

[4] Since the popularization of the label there have been many attempts to shake off these two words. Some have even appropriated the notion and reinterpreted it, using it against its grain. For example, the McOndo Generation, a 1990s movement started by Chilean Alberto Fuguet, or Washington Cucurto’s “realismo atolondrado” (giddy or scatterbrained realism). The McOndo Generation not only resisted and rejected the label but also created one of the most acerbic criticisms of neoliberalism and the exoticism through which Latin American life is frequently read. For additional references to McOndo, see Fuguet’s essays “I am not a magic realist” (1997) and “Magical Neoliberalism” (2009). For Cucurto’s parody of the notion, see Ignacio Aguiló’s 2018 book The Darkening Nation: Race, Neoliberalism, and Crisis in Argentina (also the best entry point to race relations and their impact on contemporary culture in Argentina), and Julio Prieto’s 2008 article “Realismo, cumbia y el gozo de las bajas palabras: en torno a la poesía de Wáshington Cucurto.”

[5] This clearly betrays the theoretical limitations of his taxonomy. Although in this section he uses “Latin American” instead of “Spanish American,” it is obvious from the corpus of texts he discusses that he is actually thinking of the latter, as the title of his essay suggests. We can also question the term “fantasy,” closer to the world of Tolkien than La invención de Morel. In my mention of Macunaíma, I use italics for “fantasy” for that reason. There is also the possibility that Flores wasn’t familiar with the work of de Andrade, but this seems unlikely, as there is no denying his encyclopedic knowledge of Latin American literature.

[6] Flores brings together a wide array of contemporary Latin American writers, such as the aforementioned Borges and Bioy Casares, but also Silvina Ocampo, Norah Lange, María Luisa Bombal, Julio Cortázar, and Enrique Albamonte, among others. When seeing his “sample” it is quite clear that his idea of what magical realism might be differs quite radically from current conceptions. Moreover, what his sample allows him to do is to highlight the work of writers who have moved away from Romantic Realism, a style that he despises, and that he blames for the supposed poverty of Latin American writing before the mid 1930s.

[7] This is evident in declamations such as “During these ten fruitful years ago [1940s–1950s] Latin America produced prose fiction comparable to the best in contemporary in Italy, France, or England.” Most of his points of reference nod toward the Old Continent, be it Kafka, Gide, or Gogol. Yes, he also mentions the work of the Americans Edgar Allan Poe and Melville, as a benchmark and point of comparison, which does not necessarily get him closer to Latin America.

[8] Another thing that can be said in defense of Flores is that even if guilty of inspiring the abuse of the term “magical realism,” and even though he used a European paradigm to think through Latin American literature, he understood Latin American fantasy as something that exists on a similar wavelength to other forms of fantastic writing. He might have called Borges a magical realist but he did the same with Kafka. This is more coherent than most exoticist versions of magical realism, intent on finding a special type of the fantastic in Latin American literature, one to justify a different label.

[9] Take the Popol Vuh, for example, to name just what is the most renowned selection of pre-Columbian oral stories of a religious and mythical nature. This text was deeply influential in the work of Miguel Ángel Asturias, with the title of his Men of Maize, taken directly from this Mayan book. See Richard J. Callan’s Miguel Ángel Asturias (1970).

[10] For example, through mystifying speculations of how fictional characters might perceive (or not) the irruption of fantasy in a realist narrative!

 

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