Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 860

As a literary movement whose most well-known writers are from Latin America, Magic Realism played an important role in placing Latin-American fiction on the international literary map in the 1960s, particularly in the United States. As Jean- Pierre Durix points out in his book Mimesis, Genres, and Post-Colonial Discourse, the term Magic Realism “came into common usage in the late 1960s, a time when intellectuals and literary critics were often involved in Third-Worldism, civil rights, and anti-imperialism.” Propitiously, these same issues are often the underlying themes of many magical realist novels, and thus they were widely read and discussed as significant testimonies that “evoke the process of liberation of oppressed communities.” However, it was not just these novelists’ politics and commitment to social justice that made their works so well received. In their article, Doris Sommer and George Yúdice claim that Magic Realism’s popularity could not be summed up as response to one particular aspect of the works but instead to an array of characteristics:

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Latin Americans dazzled the reader with crystalline lucidities (Borges), moving renderings of madness (Sábato, Cortázar), and violence (Vargas Llosa), larger than life portrayals of power and corruption (Fuentes, García Márquez), ebullient baroque recreations of tropical culture (Carpentier, Souza, Amado, Cabrera Infante, Sarduy).

However, for Latin-American critics, the concept of Magic Realism had been debated for quite some time. In his famous 1949 essay, “On the Marvelous Real in America,” Carpentier discusses the importance of “lo real marvilloso” (the marvelous real) as an artistic movement that had sprung from the soil of Latin-American history, myth, and geography. The richness one finds in Latin America due to its unique history and fecund landscape acts as a catalyst for the imagination in Latin-American writers. However, other critics such as Angel Flores disagree. In his 1955 essay, Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction, Flores argues that (Latin) American Magical Realism is distinguished by a transformation of “the common and everyday into the awesome and the unreal.” Flores locates magic realist’s roots in the aesthetics of European art, particularly Surrealism. Interestingly enough, Flores does not even mention Carpentier’s earlier essay on marvelous Realism, which later became influential. However, much later in 1967, Luis Leal put forward a thesis in his essay “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” that resonated with Carpentier’s. His claim that Magic Realism is not “the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances” coincides with Carpentier’s material definition of Magic Realism as being a confrontation with a specific sociohistori- cal reality rather than an escape. Thus, a large part of the critical reception of magic realist fiction has been defining what exactly it is in terms of origins and philosophy.

For the most part, critics tend to fall into two camps: those that view Magic Realism as being specifically tied to the formation of a Latin-American literature and others who view Magic Realism as being less about geography, history, and culture and more about rendering a specific version of reality that can be adapted across cultures. For example, whereas Chilean literary critic Fernando Alegría, in “Latin America: Fantasy and Reality,” reads magic realist works as a political critique in which “we come to realize [that their realism] is a truthful image of economic injustice and social mockery which passes off as authoritarian democracy in Latin America,” for other critics, such as Zamora and Faris, authors of Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Magic Realism “is a mode suited to exploring—and transgressing— boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, political, geographical, or generic.” What is most impressive about Zamora and Faris’s book is the liberty it takes in presenting Magic Realism as a device utilized by writers worldwide yet at the same time publishing key articles such as Carpentier’s and Leal’s that argue against this global approach.

Other recent critical approaches to Magic Realism that fall within the two poles mentioned are also worth mentioning for what can be seen as unorthodox approaches. For example, the most radical view is taken by González Echevarría, who represents the skepticism that is part of poststructuralism. He states, “The relationship between the three moments when magical realism appears is not continuous enough for it to be considered a literary or even a critical concept with historical validity.” Others such as José David Saldívar in The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History attempts to forge a pan-American approach to Magic Realism that includes the diaspora of slaves and Mexican immigrants in North America as being part of the collective voice that situates specific histories in a magic realist moment. Lastly, Durix’s book Mimesis, Genres and Post-Colonial Discourse probes Magic Realism as a specific genre that developed within a sociohistorical postcolonial moment in which writers and intellectuals in former colonized countries began to question the representations and realities handed to them by the colonizers. Thus, Durix is attempting to broaden the concept of Magic Realism by viewing it as an artistic manifestation of the psychological and ontological conditions posed by the European colonial era.

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