Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Magic realism

The term magic realism describes contemporary fiction, usually associated with Latin America, whose narrative blends magical or fantastical elements with reality. Magic realist writers include Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, and Isabel Allende.
The term was coined first by German art critic Franz Roh in 1925, but it was Alejo Carpentier who gave the term its current definition, in the prologue to his book "El reino de este mundo." "The marvelous," he writes, in a translated version, "begins to be unmistakably marvelous when it arises from an unexpected alteration of reality (the miracle), from a privileged revelation of reality, an unaccustomed insight that is singularly favored by the unexpected richness of reality or an amplification of the scale and categories or reality, perceived with particular intensity by virtue of an exaltation of the spirt that leads it to a kind of extreme state [estado límite]."
As the poet Dana Gioia reminds us in his article, "Gabriel García Márquez and Magic Realism," the narrative strategy we know as magic realism long predates the term: "One already sees the key elements of Magic Realism in Gulliver's Travels (1726) . . . Likewise Nikolai Gogol's short story, 'The Nose' (1842) . . . fulfills virtually every requirement of this purportedly contemporary style. One finds similar precedents in Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Kafka, Bulgakov, Calvino, Cheever, Singer, and others."
But Carpentier's intention was to differentiate lo real maravilloso americano from the European surrealist movement. In his mind, the fantastic in Latin America was not achieved by transcending reality, but was inherent in the Latin American experience of reality: "After all, what is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvelous real?"
Magic Realism
"My most important problem was destroying
the lines of demarcation that separates what
seems real from what seems fantastic"
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A narrative technique that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. It is characterized by an equal acceptance of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Magic realism fuses (1) lyrical and, at times, fantastic writing with (2) an examination of the character of human existence and (3) an implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite.
The Venezuelan essayist and fiction writer Arturo Uslar Pietri (b. 1906) was especially eager to promote this literary mixture as an exceptional feature of Latin American literature. It was Uslar Pietri who applied to Latin American writing a term taken from German art criticism, magical realism. By the 1960's this phrase was being taken up not only by critics but by ordinary readers for whom it summarized a quality they had been noticing in recent fiction. In the broadest terms, the phenomenon that seemed to be spreading through a sector of Spanish American writing was the co- occurrence of realism with fantastic, mythic, and magical.
A secondary trait was the characteristic attitude of narrators toward the subject matter: they frequently appeared to accept events contrary to the usual operating laws of the universe as natural, even unremarkable. Though the tellers of astonishing tales, they themselves expressed little or no surprise.
It is worth noting that Uslar Pietri, in presenting his term for this literary tendency, always kept its definition open by means of a language more Iyrical and evocative than strictly critical, as in this 1948 statement: "What came to dominate the story and to leave a lasting impression was the view of man as a mystery surrounded by realistic data. A poetic divination or denial of reality. Something that for lack of a better word could be called magical realism." When academic critics attempted to define magical realism with scholarly exactitude, they discovered that it was more powerful than precise. Critics frustrated by their inability to pin down the term's meaning have, in disgust, urged its complete abandonment. Yet in Uslar Pietri's vague, ample usage magical realism was wildly successful in summarizing for many readers their perception of much Spanish American fiction; this fact suggests that the term has its uses, so long as it is not expected to function with the precision expected of technical, scholarly terminology.

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