Imagine a world where flowers rain from the sky and people can transform into animals at will, a place in which time flows unpredictably and the fantastic seems
unremarkable to observers. This is the chimeric, phantasmagorial realm of the magical realist genre of literature. Magical realism, as seen in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is a reflection of the Latin American postcolonial culture and has greatly influenced world literature for the last century, despite a complicated history and chronic nominal confusion. The history of magical realism is complex and multinational. To understand it, one must understand the history of the term itself. The phrase “magic realism” was coined by Franz Roh, a German art critic, in his 1925 book Post-Expressionism, Magic Realism: Problems of the Most
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Recent European Painting (Bowers 9) to describe the post-expressionist art of certain contemporary German painters (Bowers 9-10). This original magical realist movement featured a detailed, clear depiction (Bowers 9; Zamora 24) of, in Roh’s words, “the strange, the uncanny, the eerie…aspects of everyday reality” (Baker). In 1949, a second, similar term, “marvelous realism,” first appeared in Cuban author Alejo Carpentier’s seminal essay “On the Marvelous Real in America,” describing the extraordinary idiosyncrasies that make up the everyday reality of Latin American life (Bowers 14-16; Feinstein). Finally, the more familiar term “magical realism” was first used by Angel Flores in his 1955 essay, “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction,” in which Flores contends that the genre has its roots in the romantic realism of Spanish-language literature (Bowers 17-18).
Soon after this essay was published, the 1960s saw the beginning of a decades-long flowering of Latin American literature and of magical realism. During this “Latin American Boom,” an emerging continent-wide desire to develop a distinctly Latin American culture catalyzed a creative explosion led by Garcia Marquez of Colombia, Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, Jose Donoso of Chile, and Julio Cortazar of Argentina that perfected the genre (Bowers 17-18; Feinstein). Neither magical realism’s authors nor its origins are confined to Latin America, however. It was largely influenced by the Romantic and Surrealist movements in Europe, and important precursors include quasi-surrealist German writer Franz Kafka, sixteenth-century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, and Italian surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico (Bowers 18). Among the first genuine magical realists was German author G¨unter Grass, author of The Tin Drum (Bowers 19). Modern magical realists hail from such nations as the United States, India, Japan, Canada, Nigeria, and Italy, including noted authors Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie (Bowers 18; Cowan 4). Perhaps because of this complicated history, there is a general consensus that there is no general consensus on how to precisely define magical realism (Baker). This can be attributed in part to confusion over the precise meanings of and distinctions between the terms “magic realism,” “magical realism,” and “marvelous realism” (Bowers 2). However, the style’s features are less nebulous and readily identifiable. According to Flores, the essence of magical realist fiction is that, “time exists in a kind of fluidity and the unreal happens as part of reality.” Wendy B. Faris gives an “irreducible element” of magic as its most important criterion (Faris, “The Question” 102), in addition to a “strong presence” of the world we know (Faris, Ordinary Enchantments 7). This corresponds to the “realism” portion of magical realism’s name.In general, the supernatural coexists with the mundane, and neither character nor narrator express any feeling that such fantastic occurrences are out of place (Baker). This all creates what Adam Feinstein eloquently calls “a rich, often disturbing world that is both familiar and dreamlike”(Feinstein 15). Briefly, magical realist fiction presents magical events in a realistic manner.
Magical realism can best be understood through examples from its authors. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian author of the novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, and winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, has come to typify the genre, and even all of modern Latin American literature (Bowers 3). Fuentes calls magical realism “the personal stamp of only one: Gabriel Garcia Marquez” (Faris, “The Question” 108), and Michael Wood refers to him as the “undisputed master” of the magical realist voice that tells of fantasies in deadpan prose (Wood 10). Garcia Marquez’s work is full of examples of magical realism. For instance, in his short story, “Light is Like Water,” the light from a common house fixture acts in such a way that children can sail boats on it (Faris, “The Question” 114), and “household objects […] [fly] with their own wings through the kitchen sky” (Faris, Ordinary Enchantments 12). But all subsequent
examples will be taken from what is arguably his most famous work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the story of the Buendia family. The erraticism and ambiguity of time can be seen in the example of Pilar Ternera, who, upon turning 145,
[gives] up the pernicious custom of keeping track of her age and […] [goes] on living in the static and marginal time of memories, in a future perfectly revealed and established, beyond the futures, disturbed by the insidious snares and suppositions of her cards. (Garc´Ä±a M´arquez 394)
Similarly, a rain shower lasts for nearly five years; insomnia can erase the past; a room exists where it is always a Monday in the month of March (Faris, Ordinary Enchantments 23); and, after he dies, Melqu´Ä±ades Buend´Ä±a begins to chronicle the history of the town of Macondo, both recording and predicting the town’s events (Faris, Ordinary Encantments 10). In another example of magical realism, yellow butterflies, relentlessly swarming and invasive, accompany Mauricio
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Babilonia to his trysts with Meme Buend´Ä±a (Garc´Ä±a M´arquez 285-287); despite being magical, they are vulnerable to an insecticide bomb, demonstrating the realist component (Faris, Ordinary Enchantments 18-19). And, during the funeral of Jos´e Arcadio Buend´Ä±a, tiny yellow flowers rain from the sky, carpeting the streets (Garc´Ä±a M´arquez 144). The fantastical elements of magical realism can be explained in part by the cultural situation that existed at the time of the genre’s nascence. Magical realism’s duality might be considered to be a residue from the colonial occupation of the Latin American continent. The European conquerors imposed their own culture on that of the conquered, resulting in the
coexistence of two conflicting world views-European rationalism and ancient native spiritualism (Baker). In the words of Stephen Slemon, the “two oppositional systems […] each [work] toward the creation of a different kind of fictional world from the other” (Faris, “The Question” 102). Magical realism can also be seen as a form of resistance to colonial ideologies, a discursive system that “challenge[s] the restrictions of a circumscribed colonial space” (Baker). It honors native tradition by frequently “giv[ing] voice […] to indigenous myths, legends, and cultural practices” and simultaneously “serve[s] a decolonizing role, one in which new voices have emerged, an alternative to European realism” (Faris, “The Question” 103). The fact that magical realist authors often hail from transitional, third-world countries supports this hypothesis (Cowan 6). But now the magical realist tradition appears to be dying. Magical realism has been victimized by modernization and unification in Latin America, and the need to develop a distinct
Latin American writing style no longer persists (Feinstein). Only a few writers like Isabel Allende still practice it (Cowan 6; Feinstein). Also, recent magical realist work is a testament to the change in the landscape of the continent, infused with urban elements and modern issues. (Feinstein). And, unfortunately, the magic is increasingly being used as an instrument of lazy deus ex machina instead of an element in an alternate world, resolving plot conflicts rather than creating them (Khair). Thus, the future of magical realism looks dim. Even if the magical realist movement has lost its ´elan vital, it has been an important player in the history of twentieth-century literature, spearheaded by fountainheads of creativity like
Gabriel Garc´Ä±a M´arquez. Although the remnants of European hegemony led to it being most prominent in Latin America, over the course of its rich history, magical realism has left a permanent impact on worldwide literature.
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