Study Guide

Magic Realism

Magic Realism Biography

Introduction

Magic Realism is a literary movement associated with a style of writing or technique that incorporates magical or supernatural events into realistic narrative without questioning the improbability of these events. This fusion of fact and fantasy is meant to question the nature of reality as well as call attention to the act of creation. By making lived experience appear extraordinary, magical realist writers contribute to a re-envisioning of Latin-American culture as vibrant and complex. The movement originated in the fictional writing of Spanish American writers in the mid-twentieth century and is generally claimed to have begun in the 1940s with the publication of two important novels: Men of Maize by Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias and The Kingdom of This World by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. What is most striking about both of these novels is their ability to infuse their narratives with an atmosphere steeped in the indigenous folklore, cultural beliefs, geography, and history of a particular geographic and political landscape. However, at the same time that their settings are historically correct, the events that occur may appear improbable, even unimaginable. Characters change into animals, slaves are aided by the dead, time reverses and moves backward, while other events occur simultaneously. Thus, magic realist works present the reader with a perception of the world where nothing is taken for granted and where anything can happen.

The fantastical qualities of this style of writing were heavily influenced by the surrealist movement in Europe of the 1920s and literary avant-gardism as well as by the exotic natural surroundings, native and exiled cultures, and tumultuous political histories of Latin America. Although other Latin America writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortazar used elements of magic and fantasy in their work, it was not until the publication of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in English in 1970 that the movement became an international phenomenon. Subsequently, women writers like Isabel Allende from Chile and Laura Esquivel from Mexico have become part of this movement’s more recent developments, contributing a focus on women’s issues and perceptions of reality. Since its inception, Magic Realism has become a technique used widely in all parts of the world. Thus, writers such as Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and Sherman Alexie have recently been added to the magic realist canon of writers because of their use of magical elements in real-life historical settings.

Magic Realism Representative Authors

Isabel Allende (1942–)
Isabel Angelica Allende was born on August 2, 1942, in Lima, Peru, the daughter of a Chilean diplomat, Tomas, and his wife, Francisca. They later moved to Chile, where Isabel attended a private school. Afterwards, she worked for a United Nations development organization before becoming a journalist in Santiago. Allende’s most notable family member was her uncle, the Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was assassinated in 1973 as part of a military coup. This event heavily influenced Allende, who commented in an interview later that she divided her life before and after the day of her uncle’s assassination. Her first novel, La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits), published in 1982, won a number of international awards in Mexico, Germany, France, and Belgium. In the mid-1980s, Allende moved to the United States where she has taught creative writing at various universities. In 1985, an English translation of her first novel, The House of the Spirits, was published by Knopf. Since then, she has written a number of other well-known novels, including De amor y de sombra (Of Love and Shadows), translated in 1987, Eva Luna, translated in 1988, which won a number of national book awards including the Before Columbus Foundation award, the Freedom to Write Pen Club Award in 1991, and the Brandeis University Major Book Collection Award in 1993. Allende’s most recent novels include Daughter of Fortune: A Novel (1999) and Portrait in Sepia (2001).

Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899–1974)
Born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on October 19, 1899, Asturias was the son of a supreme court magistrate, Ernesto, who later became an importer, and his wife, Maria Asturias. He became a lawyer in 1923 and left Guatemala for political reasons, residing in Paris and studying the history of ancient Mesoamerican cultures at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1923 to 1928. In Paris, he associated with members of the surrealist movement, such as Andre Breton and Paul Valery. His exposure to Surrealism as well as his intellectual and political interests in Central American indigenous cultures would later influence his own writing. Returning to Guatemala in 1933, Asturias worked as a journalist, publishing books of poetry in small presses. In 1942, he was elected deputy to the Guatemalan congress and later became a diplomat under Jose Arevalo’s presidency. In 1946, he published his first novel, El señor presidente, translated in English as Mr. President, which garnered praise from both South and North American critics. His next novel, Los hombres de maize (Men of Maize), published in Spanish in 1949, was not as highly praised but has come to be viewed as his masterpiece. In 1954, Asturias was exiled again due to the establishment of another repressive Guatemalan regime. He worked as a journalist in South America and later returned in 1966, becoming the French ambassador under Carlos Montenegro’s moderate government. He was awarded the 1967 Nobel Prize for literature for his commitment to writing about the injustice and oppression of Guatemalan people, particularly working class and peasants. He died on June 9, 1974, in Madrid, Spain.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986)
Born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges was the son of a lawyer and a translator. He was born of mixed European and Spanish-American heritage and was educated in Switzerland, England, and Argentina. In 1919, the...

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