Magic Realism

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Wayne Ude (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Forging an American Style: The Romance-Novel and Magical Realism as Response to the Frontier and Wilderness Experiences,” in The Frontier Experience and the American Dream: Essays on American Literature, edited by David Morgan, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant, Texas A & M University Press, 1989, pp. 51-64.

[In the following essay, Ude examines magic realism in the works of early American writers.]

A nation's literature cannot be studied only through the examination of content; a history of literature is also a history of technique. That is especially true of the United States, where our literary history has been bound up, perhaps more than in most cultures, with a search for both the techniques and the conceptual framework which might be capable of containing and presenting the full range of realities within which Americans have lived. Understandably, those realities begin with, and often return to, the experiences of wilderness and frontier. That search led our writers early on to what Northrop Frye called the American romance-novel,1 which Richard Chase suggested underwent a “definitive adaptation to America,”2 producing what we may as well call the American romance-novel. More recently, the traditional American romance-novel has developed into what we will call North American Magical Realism.3

But there was no American literary tradition available to the first European settlers (the flourishing American Indian literary traditions did not become known to Europeans until much later). Those settlers seem to have experienced this new—to them—continent less as frontier (a borderline, a buffer protecting, if not extending, what they knew as civilization) than as pure wilderness: a place not only where the familiar rules and laws of the European past did not apply but where it often seemed that no laws of any sort had ever existed. At any rate, any rules encountered in this wilderness would not be those of English literature; and yet, English literature provided the forms, the styles, most immediately available to settlers attempting to write about the new land. It was not likely that those first European newcomers would invent dramatic new techniques for prose and poetry—that sort of invention has generally developed in more settled and secure lands—though new techniques were what they most needed.

Because the sixteenth century was a great age of poetry, we can look first at the techniques and attitudes offered by poetry; attitudes, at least, were available to prose writers, and often techniques as well. Certainly the English Metaphysical poetry which influenced Anne Bradstreet's early career, and all of Edward Taylor's, offered little help. For all their elaborate conceits, the Metaphysicals had devised a style based on the elaboration of familiar imagery, not the presentation of the new and unfamiliar; their work finally centered not on emotion but on thought. They began with thought, attempted to embody thought in familiar images which they then turned and turned, elaborating to an extent not found in earlier poetry, to produce finally an emotional apprehension of thought. In form they were rational and controlled, with complex meter, rhyme, sound, syntax and diction.

Such poetry was designed to take writers and their readers more deeply into the familiar in hopes of reaching new understandings, but only of familiar things; the Metaphysicals operated within a conceptual framework which asserted that the world was both rational and rationally understandable. Techniques developed for such purposes are not of much help when one is surrounded by what appears to be a howling wilderness unlike anything one has ever imagined, much less seen, and finds oneself confronting emotions which are equally unfamiliar.

The results are startlingly inappropriate to their...

(This entire section contains 6528 words.)

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surroundings in the work of Bradstreet and Taylor, easily the best of colonial poets. But prose writers such as William Bradford or Mary Rowlandson did not fare much better. Because the Puritan typology which dominated their work insisted that the meaning of any event existed prior to the event and needed only to be discovered by comparing the event to its biblical model (a technique still used by contemporary American fundamentalists on the so-called religious right, of course), they did not search for ways of describing which would force the reader—or the writer—to discover meaning. Thus, even Rowlandson often seems to stand outside her own experience, cataloguing it. By the end of her captivity narrative, she can say of events only that the Lord answered her prayer and tested her. The structures within which she wrote did not provide her techniques that might have led to new understandings; for the Puritans, there were no new understandings, only reaffirmations of old ones.

The earliest Puritans had followed a general European practice of the age,4 by thinking in terms of an opposition between civilization—the religious community, the city on a hill—and wilderness, with little notion of an extended frontier as a buffer between the two. (Frontier for them meant the town borders; thus, each community had its own little circular frontier, unconnected to the frontiers of other communities around them.) As the area claimed by civilization grew, and wilderness began to recede, the concept of an extended frontier began to develop, but the techniques which might have allowed a full description of both frontier and wilderness did not.

The age of Franklin, with its rational and Deist philosophies, was dominated by the techniques of a neoclassicism which supplanted the Metaphysicals and was not itself supplanted until the very end of the eighteenth century. Franklin and his contemporaries found the frontier itself of less importance than the attempt to create a secular American civilization away from—and protected by—the frontier. Neoclassical technique, with its insistence on the dominance of reason; its valuing of emotional restraint, restricted scope, moderation, and self-control, in prose style as well as content; its strong sense of form, decorum, and proportion, expressed in elegantly elaborate prose; and its intellectualism, its love of concepts rather than images, its seeking after clarity and simplicity based on the discovery of order within order, provided nearly the ideal conceptual framework and techniques for writing about Franklin's version of American civilization. Little in neoclassicism allowed for discerning—much less describing—a separate order on the frontier or beyond, in the wilderness, an order which needed first to be described and only later to be conceptualized. Instead, the wilderness was simply an extension of God's rational world. Even Crevecoeur, who attempted to write about life on the frontier, on the edge of the wilderness, was not able to see either frontier or wilderness separately from his ideas of what an ordered civilization should be.

Colonial and Revolutionary writers turned their attention away not only from frontier and wilderness but also from both poetry and fiction; certainly the greatest American writers of the age are not remembered for their work in those genres but for what we would now call their “prose nonfiction”—the personal and political essay, of course, but also the polemic, the philosophical and/or political meditation, and so on. Each of those modes tends toward the intellectual, rational, conceptual, and abstract. Both their concerns and their lack of appropriate technique led eighteenth-century American writers away from the emotional, individual, experiential, and concrete presentations of poetry and fiction.

Ironically, by the close of the American Revolutionary period—and partly in response both to that revolution and to the experience of wilderness—English and European literature had begun to develop those attitudes and techniques which would be reshaped by American writers to produce Richard Chase's American romance-novel, of which Magical Realism is the most recent development. When American writers again turned their attention to the frontier, a new set of techniques was waiting.

The European Romantic movement provided the most thorough rebellion against the restraints of neoclassicism in both poetry and prose. Of great importance to Americans were the Romantics' idealization of rural life (which became frontier life in American Romantic development); their love, not of formal gardens but of the wild, irregular, strange, or even grotesque in nature (and in prose and verse); and their idealization of the primitive. These three elements freed the American imagination (the more so as they came, in part at least, in response to the American wilderness experience) to see the frontier and wilderness in ways which, while idealized, at least came closer to the actual experience. When combined with Romantic interest in the past (including the noncivilized past); the Romantics' abandonment of conventional elevated diction in favor of freer and more informal language, of conventional rhythms for the bolder and more irregular; their emphasis on imagination over literal fact; and their mysticism, or emphasis on metaphysical as well as physical experience, American writers were finally provided both an attitude and a set of techniques that could allow them to report on frontier and wilderness and on human reactions to both. Again, it is important to keep in mind that American prose writers did read both the creative work and the theorizing of European Romantic poets as well as of prose writers. The tendency in western American criticism to separate poetry from prose ignores the actual reading habits of, and therefore influences on, writers.

Earlier in the eighteenth century, the Gothic novel had introduced other elements of what became the American romance-novel. Gothic admitted what realists would call the supernormal, events not possible to treat within the confines of the English or Continental realistic novel. It also allowed for the continued existence of the historical or legendary in the present, not only as ghosts and other demonic begins but even through its settings, the ruined castles and wild landscapes that are visible examples of a persistently continuing past, and that, as in the work of the Romantics, often seem to possess a life of their own. Further, the Gothic reached beyond rationality and presented images directly from the subconscious and unconscious mind (as we call them now), not all of which were simply nightmare images, and affirmed the value of intuition and emotion over reason.

Finally, as part of its attempt to speak to emotions through rhythm and sound rather than to the rational mind, Gothic tended to use both an emotionally heightened yet informal diction and a stronger, darker prose rhythm and sound than had been favored by either neoclassicism or the Age of Reason. It placed less emphasis on surface coherence, using juxtaposition of images or events in place of carefully ordered plot development. Imagery tended less toward the literal and even favored metaphor, in which something becomes something else, over simile, which can compare without transforming. These elements combined with looser syntax, which itself lessened the impression of surface coherence in Gothic works.

A third influence developed early in the nineteenth century: a growing interest in folktales, especially as those tales seemed to illustrate what we now recognize as human psychological archetypes; to embody both the dark and the light sides of the nonrational (not irrational) subconscious; to contain imaginative rather than literal truth; and to forge connections between humans and the past, between humans and the natural world. Again, the influence was not merely on or through writers of prose: the Grimm Brothers' Household Tales, published early in the nineteenth century, were to be the source for some thirty-five choral works in Germany alone before the century ended; more than fifty operas have been based on the Grimms' work.5 The style of folktale also reinforced the tendency of Romantic poets and prose writers to use a more commonplace language and a syntax both less formal and less controlled than that prevailing in Europe and America in the eighteenth century.

Provided with these techniques and attitudes, American writers again turned their attention to the frontier and wilderness. Cooper's Leatherstocking romance-novels and Irving's A Tour of the Prairies,Astoria, and The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, testified to the strength of that impulse to report on the then-contemporary frontier. But both writers also turned back to re-create the earlier American past, recognizing that it had not yet been revealed in what they now saw as its true character. The prerevolutionary parts of the Leatherstocking series are evidence of this impulse, as are Irving's History of New York and Sketchbook, and, for that matter, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and House of the Seven Gables.

Cooper's fiction was still what Richard Chase has called adventure-romance, which Chase distinguished from the more profound psychological romance6 to be found in Hawthorne, Melville, and, at its most extreme and gothic, but also its most individually centered, in Poe. As Chase has said, it seems clear that in the work of these three writers the romance-novel moved beyond its European history, not least in its ability to create fully developed characters in place of the stock and idealized performers found not only in the English romance-novel, but also in Puritan prose typology-narrative. Thus, the most convincing re-creations of Colonial American minds seem to come not from colonial writers, but from Hawthorne, writing at a time when he had the full technique of the romance-novel upon which to draw.

Further, Hawthorne was able to re-create in his tales and short stories the experience of confrontation with wilderness at a time when there was not yet a clearly marked extended frontier behind which civilization might shelter (as in “Young Goodman Brown,” for example). Romance was able to recognize, and techniques learned from romance, the Gothic novel, and the folktale were able to present, the possibility that wilderness existed not only as an external set of conditions but within characters as well, and so could not entirely be banished beyond a frontier. Melville's use of the sea as a setting allowed him to demonstrate the same possibility by removing entirely any protection which a frontier on land might have offered his characters, whether from the outer or their own inner wildernesses. His ships are, like those early New England towns, little individual civilizations surrounded by wilderness. Poe took the exploration of inner wildernesses further than did any other nineteenth-century American prose writer; his characters exist as isolated individuals, with only their own inner resources to protect them from their own inner wildernesses; civilization is no help to Poe's characters. Understandably, his style is also the most extreme, and most obviously influenced by Gothic.

By midcentury, the romance-novel seemed permanently established as the dominant prose style and most important fictional form in North America. That quickly changed, and after the Civil War prose romance was displaced by the flatter, more controlled styles of naturalism and realism.

During the latter part of the nineteenth and on into the early twentieth century, with the supposed closing of the American frontier and the belief that wilderness had ceased to exist, came a focus on urban and industrial America. The end of external wilderness seemed to mean, for such writers as Dreiser, Norris, and Farrell, the end also of inner wilderness, indeed of inner complexity. Such writers had little belief in the individuality of human character in a machine age; they saw their minimal characters in a world where the conditions of life were mechanistic, predictable, and deeply unfavorable to humans. (And they were basically correct about the urban world they chose to write about, as are their minimalist/naturalist successors today, who select a similarly narrow subject matter and treatment.) That the techniques of the romance-novel might have allowed them to explore more fully an emerging urban wilderness7 does not seem to have occurred to the American Naturalist writers. Similarly, their style harkened back to the less adventurous diction of the eighteenth century—though with none of that century's elegance; and their syntax became predictable, their prose rhythms dull and unadventurous, their imagery literal to the point of boredom, the surface coherence of their work monotonous to an extreme.

The spirit of the romance-novel persisted to a very limited extent in the work of popular writers whose work dealt with a largely imaginary frontier of cowboys-and-Indians, cattle drives-and-fast draws. Thus, the romance-novel, a very serious literary form, was replaced by the romanticized-adventure-novel, an awkward term for an awkward simplification in which inner wildernesses were denatured and replaced by an “inner fire” or “inner power” which the hero might channel and control at need, and which would somehow lead him (always him) to do in the end what was (according to the limited and shallow moral conventions of the romanticized-adventure-novel) morally correct. Thus, the romanticized-adventure-novel preserved only a pale shadow of the romance-novel's attempts to intuitively understand deeper regions of the human psyche. Its manly prose read like sarsaparilla Gothic.

Among more serious writers, only Mark Twain and to a limited extent Stephen Crane seem to have recognized the existence of an inner wilderness that could not be banished to or beyond an artificial frontier, recognizing the frontier as a meeting place for inner and outer wildernesses. But Twain (like Steinbeck later) attempted to express that vision within the techniques of realism, which were not sufficient, and Twain (also like Steinbeck) left an uneven and flawed body of work. This era was not a prosperous one for the American romance-novel.

Probably the best American fiction writers to emerge from the early twentieth century's realist and naturalist influences were Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, all three of whom turned away from urban settings in their best work, and all of whom were able, with varying success, to make use of the tradition of the American romance-novel. The greatest of these, William Faulkner, made the fullest use of the techniques, including style, of the romance-novel in the five books which are his best work: The Sound and the Fury,Absalom, Absalom,Light in August,As I Lay Dying, and Go Down, Moses. Of all his work, these five novels also show the greatest concern with wilderness, both inner and outer.

Faulkner was not content only to work within the tradition of the romance-novel as he received it; instead, he took that tradition a step further into what became the Magical Realism that has become so influential among Spanish-American writers and, more recently, among North American writers as well-including those who have produced the most interesting fiction about the American West.

We can see the six common elements of Magical Realism most clearly in Go Down, Moses. First, Faulkner firmly rejects the confines of traditional realism; in its place we find a multidimensional metaphysical as well as physical reality, in which a young deer in the woods may be transformed, if Sam Fathers shows us how to see it, into a sort of Platonic Ideal Deer. Second, the mythical or legendary as well as the historic past becomes an actual presence in contemporary life, as Faulkner mixes southern-white, native-American, and black legends, making them immediately present in his characters' lives. In the process, Faulkner seeks to fabricate poetic recreations, a third characteristic of Magical Realism, rather than mere imitations of reality. Fourth, he seeks to distort time, space, and identity as those elements are understood in conventional realism. Fifth, though his version of human psychology now seems Jungian and archetypal to us (as is the case with most Magical Realist fiction), it also represents the later and more complex development of what Richard Chase called the psychological romance of Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. Sixth and finally, Faulkner mixes mystical or magical elements with the everyday details of commonplace reality in an attempt to generate in the reader a firm belief in the validity and genuineness—the reality—of his fictions. These are also the traits we recognize in both South and North American Magical Realism.

We also recognize the style Faulkner inherited from Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, the style of prose romance, with its heightened yet commonplace diction; its loose, informal syntax; its strong, dark rhythms and sounds; its use of juxtaposition and metaphor; its lack of concern for surface coherence in the presence of deeper coherences. Significantly, Faulkner uses this style for all parts of his work; he does not have one style for “magic” and another for “reality,” and thus the style itself asks us to take all elements of the work equally seriously.

Faulkner was not a writer who experimented for the sake of experimentation; he returned to and developed the techniques of the romance-novel (as did other modern novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) because they were necessary for the full exploration of both outer and inner wildernesses. Go Down, Moses manages, among other themes, to follow the retreat of the southern forest's wilderness remnant in the years after the Civil War; Absalom, Absalom treats, among other issues, Sutpen's attempt to carve a small empire out of the pre-war southern wilderness, in addition to exploring the wilderness within Sutpen and his attempt to carve out a place for himself within the legend of the South. In other books the wilderness is moved more fully into individual characters—into Jewel and Anse in As I Lay Dying (in differing ways), Benjy and Caddy in The Sound and the Fury, Joe Christmas in Light in August, and into the entire Snopes clan in several books and stories.

Faulkner also does away with the idea of an extended, shared frontier: if there is no clearly delimited time or space in the conventional sense, if the past is also the present, then the frontier, no matter how far distant, is at the same time always here and always now, and the wilderness is always within us as well as all around us. If we clear the land, wilderness grows up through our own feet.

Americans do not much care for that idea; we prefer our wilderness “out there” somewhere, with a frontier to serve as our buffer, our protection from the wilderness: if there is an Alaskan frontier, if outer space is the final frontier, perhaps even if an Iron Curtain exists as a political frontier, then we will be safe from wilderness, inner or outer.

At this point we could discuss any number of twentieth-century writers: Gabriel García Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata, Isak Dinesen, I. B. Singer, early Jerzy Kosinski, Margaret Atwood, John Gardner, William Kennedy, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Bernard Malamud, and Maxine Hong Kingston, all of whom use the techniques of the Magical Realist romance-novel (Kingston uses those techniques in her non-fiction!). Instead, we will limit our discussion to those writers who have written about the American West, both as frontier and after.

Western writers earlier in this century (about the same time as writers in other parts of the country) adopted realism, with all of its limitations, and most did not seriously challenge those limitations: one finds realist style employed almost exclusively in the work of Owen Wister, Willa Cather, Harvey Fergusson, A. B. Guthrie, Conrad Richter, Dorothy Johnson, Jack Schaefer, Paul Horgan, Wallace Stegner, Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison, and so on. Other writers have occasionally used the techniques of the romance-novel while remaining committed to realism in the bulk of their work. A smaller—but, to our taste, far more interesting—group has chosen to work almost exclusively within the tradition of the American romance-novel.

In twentieth-century western fiction, the Romantic attitude sometimes has to struggle to get past the author, as in the work of John Steinbeck, who seems to have tried to impose the realist straitjacket over the romantic impulses which break out in such novels as The Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row; Steinbeck's case has been too well documented and is too well demonstrated by his stylistic inconsistencies to need further discussion here.

Frederick Manfred is another Western writer whose work never quite commits itself to the romance-novel tradition. King of Spades, with its parallel to the legend of Oedipus, and Riders of Judgment, with its attempt to raise its central character to the status of epic hero in the closing pages, hint at the existence of deeper levels within the characters and toy with the notion that time might not be linear, that the legendary past might still exist in the contemporary world; but they draw back from the techniques which might allow deeper and fuller exploration of those elements. Even Lord Grizzly, in which the moment-by-moment account of the crawl becomes something of a romance-novel epic in itself through the accumulation of detail and the use of a style which is clearly influenced by the romance-novel, nonetheless returns in its final section to a comfortable realism and a flatter prose. The shift in technique in that final section flattens and dulls the narrative, and as Hugh Glass returns from the wilderness his kinship (through a merging of his own inner wilderness with the external wilderness) disappears and he becomes another mildly confused pioneer.

A more startling example occurs in Vardis Fisher's Mountain Man: a basically realistic novel is interrupted by passages of the most effective prose Fisher ever created. In those sections, we are allowed to perceive the world through the eyes of a woman deranged by the slaughter of her family by Indians. She lives in a shack built for her by the mountain men and tends her family's graves. On moonlit nights she sits out by those graves, nodding to the moonlit sagebrush, which she believes to be her children nodding back at her. In these passages, Fisher's prose sings; it creates the nonrational side of this woman's mind not only convincingly but with a beauty too often lacking in Fisher's more usual serviceable realist prose—and it does so in rhythms and images which seem to come from the romantic, not the realist, tradition. Nothing of the title character's grief for his family seems as convincing as does this madwoman's. Nor does his love for the mountains convince us, even when Fisher asks us to imagine him imagining that he is hearing Beethoven's symphonies as he looks out over the landscape. Instead, we imagine ourselves playing records of those Romantic symphonies as we try to gain from those passages what Fisher's prose by itself can create in the madwoman sections.

The madwoman sections are not integrated into the novel, and though they are the best thing in the book, they are not of a piece with the rest: Fisher uses one style for madness and another for ordinary reality, so the two cannot meet. A similar problem occurs in Don Berry's Trask, for more than half its length another mountain-man novel in the realist tradition. Trask changes to romance-novel-as-Magical Realism and finds real power when Trask, having gone into the mountains with an Indian shaman friend, kills that friend and then carries him back down the mountains while the two of them continue to carry on their conversation; all this is necessary to Trask's spiritual initiation. By the novel's end, Trask has moved back into the world of everyday reality, and the prose has moved back into the rhythms of everyday realism; but in between we have perhaps a hundred pages of powerful magic. Berry sustains the magic more fully than does Fisher, but neither writer can find a way to integrate the magic into the entire book—the visionary sections are separated from the rest of the book, they belong to some dimension other than reality, we do not take them quite so seriously as the rest of the book.

Other Western novelists seem more completely and comfortably to have assimilated romance-as-Magical Realism; one such is Frank Waters, whose The Man Who Killed the Deer was until very recently the best Western Magical Realism yet written and is still among the very best. The Man Who Killed the Deer appeared in 1941, a year before Go Down, Moses. Like Faulkner's novel, it deals in part with a young man's attempt to fit into, or at least come to an uneasy truce with, the world around him. Though in both books an Indian deer-vision is central, Waters's novel elaborates that vision far more than does Faulkner's and makes more use of Indian metaphysics throughout. In his other novels, Waters mixes white, Indian, Chicano, and even Asian versions of reality—of time, place, identity. Waters brings a less formidable sense of esthetics to his work than did Faulkner (there are few writers of whom that could not be said), but a more elaborate sense of metaphysical possibility, and his prose style, like Faulkner's, is definitely within the tradition of prose romance/magical realism.

More recently, John Nichols's New Mexico trilogy, with its walking ghosts and supernatural events, intermingles, with no apparent discomfort, elements of traditional realism and elements of romance in a genuinely Magical Realist fashion. And if one accepts that Ken Kesey's Chief Bromden has not given up his ideas about the Combine and its machine civilization by the time he escapes, then One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is clearly a work of Magical Realism in the tradition of the romance-novel. Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima is even more clearly and completely a fully integrated work of Magical Realism in which transformational, magical reality is also ordinary reality. The two don't simply alternate or coexist; they are one. All three writers use a single style, derived from the romance-novel, for both “magical” and “realist” elements in their work.

But something has happened to the ideas of wilderness and of frontier in this last group of books, in the work of Waters, Nichols, Kesey, and Anaya. Their characters still find themselves on one side of a frontier, hoping that frontier can protect them against the wilderness beyond, but the terms have changed. For each of these writers, industrial and commercial civilization has become the savage wilderness, and their characters wish to retreat to a more natural world. Nature, once the wilderness, has become a place of peace, safety, and harmony, where intuition, perhaps guided and corrected by reason, is a human's most important sense. And civilization has become the untamed, savage, logical but not rational, dark side of life. The power of nature, which once seemed overwhelming and beyond understanding, is still strong, still beyond complete rational understanding, but not beyond intuition. It is not an alien force to be feared, but instead one with which an individual can hope to live in harmony.

We must turn, finally, with a sense both of irony and of appropriateness, to three contemporary American Indian novelists who belong among the best the West, and the nation, have yet offered: James Welch, N. Scott Momaday, and Leslie Marmon Silko. All three tend to work within the tradition of the American romance-novel, and yet all three also work, self-consciously and deliberately, from within an American Indian literary tradition, which was old when the first Europeans landed and began talking of a frontier, a boundary between their civilization and the supposed wilderness within which that Indian literary tradition flourished.

The novels of James Welch seem at first glance the least overtly romantic, the most completely rooted in realism, of the work of these three. Yet his prose is richer than that of most realism, and the characters in Winter in the Blood seek, desperately (even though they're often not aware of what they seek) for some connection with the land, with the past, with both the romantic and the traditional Indian vision even as they seem to deny those visions. Home for Welch's nameless narrator is always on the Reservation, uneasy as that home may be; away from home—especially out in the small urban wilderness of Harve, Montana—anything may happen, and usually does. In The Death of Jim Loney the title character hasn't got even an uneasy home—but he is offered, repeatedly, what seems to be a traditional Indian vision (of a large black bird, perhaps hawk, eagle, even Thunderbird; we don't know, because he doesn't). If Loney were able to understand that dream-vision, to accept it, he might find the connection he lacks. But Loney is so separate from his own Indian past that he has no notion of what the bird might be, what it might mean; he knows of no shaman who might guide him, perhaps doesn't even know what a shaman is. Finally he chooses to take a violent path—the only path he can imagine—back across the frontier, away from the wilderness of the twentieth century, back, perhaps, to harmony. (The Death of Jim Loney is usually read as a pessimistic book, since it promises us Loney's death in the title and gives us that death on the last page. I believe that's a misreading: despite Loney's inability to understand and make use of the dream-vision, the book seems to say quite clearly that old-time dream-visions still occur—and that means they can be offered to others, who can respond to them in ways Loney cannot. In that respect, the book is not about a failure of Indian culture but about Loney's personal tragedy. A way does exist for Loney to save himself; his alienation and ignorance keep him from doing so.)

For Momaday's characters in House Made of Dawn, and especially for Abel, some violence also seems necessary as preparation for the trip back across the frontier. Abel finds himself in Los Angeles, a larger and wilder urban wilderness than any of Welch's characters can find in Montana, and very nearly dies there. A friend begins Abel's healing process by performing a half-remembered Navajo healing chant, but not until Abel returns across the frontier to his home do genuine peace and harmony become possible for him. Momaday's novel is marred by his experiments with Post-Modernist technique, his forays away from either traditional tale-telling or the romance-novel's—and the best Magical Realism's—emphasis on narrative. His The Way to Rainy Mountain is the far more readable book (though by no means a simple book), with its triple structure of history, legend, and memoir. Importantly, it also represents a trip across that frontier, away from urban wilderness, but without present violence; violence exists in memory, but while not forgotten, it is also not continued. In technique, the book is at once traditionally Indian and yet within the tradition of the romance-novel, particularly in its use of juxtaposition, of metaphor, of sound and rhythm, of diction and syntax.

Leslie Silko's novel, Ceremony, most fully integrates these two American traditions and in fact does so completely enough to lead one to the conclusion that, in their essence, the framework and techniques of the romance-novel and of traditional Indian narrative may simply be separate branches of a single tradition. Silko integrates traditional Indian beliefs and traditional narratives (some of which she invents) into the body of a Magical Realist novel, which owes its conceptual framework and its technique equally to the Indian tradition; to such Modernist practitioners of the romance-novel as Faulkner, Joyce, and Woolf; and to the earlier romance-novel of Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe.

One theme in Ceremony revolves around the attempt by old Betonie and his various mixed-blood allies (mixtures of Indian, Mexican, and European ancestries) to restrain the twentieth-century wilderness created by technology gone amuck; but Ceremony suggests both that that wilderness began with the first European settlers, and that it has no boundaries—it exists not just “out there” in the cities but also in the countryside, in Indian communities as well as elsewhere. Importantly, Silko invents a legend which suggests that Indian evil may share responsibility for this twentieth-century wilderness. For Silko, as for Hawthrone, Melville, Poe, and Faulkner, wilderness is not merely physical (though it can have physical manifestations), but psychological and metaphysical, inner as well as outer, and inescapable. The victory achieved by the end of Ceremony is not permanent, as the last lines of the book remind us:

It is dead for now,
It is dead for now,
It is dead for now,
It is dead for now,
Accept this offering,

As we look at the work of these three American Indian writers, two things become apparent: first, that all three work within the American tradition of serious romance as practiced by Hawthorne and Faulkner, in terms both of content and of style; and second, that they work within an even older Indian tradition—a native-American tradition—of tale and chant whose name for romance or for Magical Realism might go something like this: the world as it is, was, and shall be. Traditional native-American literature (like Greek and Norse mythology, among others) anticipated by centuries the conceptual framework, and the technique, of the romance-novel and the Magical Realist novel. And now, a bit suddenly, twentieth-century technological Anglos must certainly feel like terribly slow learners.

The frontier has indeed been an important concept in American culture, and therefore in American literature. It has allowed Americans to deny their own inner wildernesses, to project wilderness always “out there” somewhere, safely beyond a frontier. Further, it has allowed us to imagine that only on that frontier can wilderness and the “civilized” meet and mingle. Behind the frontier, we have regarded our lives as so safe, so tame, so minimally but rigidly rational as to be fully comprehensible within the limited conceptual and technical framework of realism, even of naturalism—in the 1980s, the neonaturalism of Raymond Carver and Tom McGuane.

But the richest, and riskiest, American literary tradition has not believed in frontier so much as it has believed in wilderness and has sought the techniques which might allow the depiction of that wilderness, both external and internal. Certainly one important result has been a characteristic American prose style, with its emotional heightening of everyday diction; its loose and informal yet often complex syntax; its strong, dark rhythms and sounds; its preference for metaphor over simile and certainly over literal imagery; its lack of concern for surface coherence in the presence of deeper coherences; its juxtaposition of images and events rather than carefully, logically linked linear plot development.

The romance-novel and its contemporary incarnation, the Magical Realist novel, contain a perception of reality so different from the perceptions allowed by realism as to be a separate, an altered, a fuller version of reality. To convey that reality, such writers as Hawthorne, Faulkner, and today Waters, Silko, William Kennedy, and Toni Morrison have had to invent a style whose conceptual and technical resources were sufficient for the task: first that of the romance-novel, then that of the Magical Realist novel.


  1. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 303ff.

  2. Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (New York: Doubleday, 1957), p. 19.

  3. For a fuller discussion of Magical Realism, see George McMurray's “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” and my own “North American Magical Realism,” in Colorado State Review 8, no. 2 (1981): 7-20, 21-30, respectively; David Young and Keith Hollaman's introduction to Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1984).

  4. For a fuller discussion of European attitudes toward wilderness, see Marjorie Nicholson's Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1959).

  5. Stith Thompson, The Folktale (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1946).

  6. Chase, American Novel, p. 19.

  7. For an interesting discussion of this notion of any emerging urban wilderness, see Benton MacKaye's The New Exploration, published in 1928 and republished by the University of Illinois Press in 1962. MacKaye wrote as a conservationist and regional planner rather than as a literary critic.

Edna Aizenberg (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Famished Road: Magical Realism and the Search for Social Equity,” in Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, No. 43, 1995, pp. 25-30.

[In the following essay, Aizenberg contends that magic realism as it appears in Ben Okri's The Famished Road, as well as the works of other writers, frequently comments on social ills.]

My topic is magical realism—a maddening, marvelous, carnivalesque topic, dizzyingly imprecise, and deeply hurtful. Contrary to popular opinion, magical realism is not primarily Remedios the Beautiful flying heavenward in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Clara the Clairvoyant foretelling the future in Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, or Azaro the Abiku shuttling between the realms of the living and the dead in Ben Okri's The Famished Road. Magical realism is just as much the block of frozen water melting in the tropics, fueling and destroying dreams of an ice factory that would transform García Márquez's village, Macondo, into a developed wintery city; or protest singer Pedro Tercero García's sliced-off fingers in The House of the Spirits, the product of a class hatred and an authoritarianism so profound that they severed the Chilean body politic into bloody bits; or García Márquez's Big Mama and Okri's Madame Koto, well-fed, well-clothed, well-connected, political and economic matri-gargantuans whose expanding frames contrast so painfully with the shrinking living and eating space of the deprived majority.

In the spirit of the three-legged table belonging to Clara and the three-legged chair used by Azaro's Dad, I have given dual sets of three examples of what might be called “magical realism.” I say “what might be called” because among the first things you learn when you approach the subject is the lack of definition. It's as if you recognize it when you read it, but you can't quite pin it down. Theoretical categorizations abound yet agreement is scarce. Perhaps the image of the three-legged table or chair suggests a short, at least partial, explanation: the item is often familiar but slightly off balance; and this skewedness provides access to a “reality” that overflows the artificial dikes of a narrowly-construed “realistic real.” I will essay into the slippery territory of magical realism (a bit like Don Quixote, great-grandaddy of García Márquez's José Aureliano Buendía or Okri's Dad) armed with the comparative Latin American-African approach that I have been employing for a number of years. I will examine Ben Okri's The Famished Road in the context of broader considerations about magical realism, its development, characteristics, and possible implications for African literature. If my discussion produces a skewed effect, it may be termed a pioneering text of magical realist criticism; it may also be termed other, less flattering things. I'll leave it for the readers to judge.

Let me begin with a few words about the development of magical realism. From the perspective of someone first trained as a Latin Americanist, I find the phenomenal spread of this mode as an “archetypally” Latin American from of literary discourse both exhilarating and disquieting. I will deal with the disquiet a bit later; right now I want to concentrate on the exhilaration. I feel pleased that Latin America has contributed in a major way to contemporary letters. The contribution is not limited to “magical realism,” but that mode has become most identified with the area. Thus, turning to Africa, Ken Harrow in his recent Thresholds of Change in African Literature speaks of Sony Labou Tansi's latest novels as pushing “further back the rational margins of his narrative, increasing his association with the magical realism of Latin American authors” (322). More to our topic, in a review of The Famished Road, Henry Louis Gates rightly insists on the work's originality, yet repeatedly links it with the “techniques of magical realism associated with the great Latin American novelists (especially Gabriel García Márquez)” (3). He concludes: “The book's publication may well prove as significant for the evolution of the post-modern African novel … as One Hundred Years of Solitude was for the novel in Latin America” (20). I will return to this idea.

Similar critical pronouncements can be found in studies of diverse literatures—U. S. and European, Canadian, Australian, Israeli, Indian, to name just a few. It suggests that Latin American magical realism may well be the first contemporary literary mode to break the hegemony of the center by forcing the center to “imitate” the periphery, and, closer to our concerns, by allowing a vibrant, innovative intertextuality of the margins—between Latin America and Africa, for instance. This is a development of revolutionary magnitude in my opinion and we should not take it for granted. To understand it more fully, I want to postulate several phases in the unfolding of magical realism; the current phase includes The Famished Road. As I noted at the outset, chronologies and definitions are contested matters, and any scheme is partial and pockmarked, but let me give it a try. I have found the scholarship of Angel Flores, Enrique Anderson Imbert, Roberto González Echevarría, Gerald Martin, Emil Volek, Stephen Slemon, Kumkum Sangari, Amaryll Chanady and others important here, but the discussion is my own.

The initial phase of magical realism was European—so much for any essentialist “nativist” arguments on its behalf. The German critic Franz Roh introduced “Magischer Realismus” as a critical concept in 1925 to describe post-Expressionist Central European art, which achieved its effect by defamiliarizing familiar objects. According to Roh, in contrast to the Impressionists who painted what they saw and the Expressionists who painted what they didn't see, post-Expressionists such as Max Beckman and Georges Grosz went back to painting the visible—but with a difference: they contemplated the ordinary as if it were a marvel to be recreated magically (Anderson Imbert 7). Kafka's literature was in large measure the narrative equivalent of post-Expressionism.

Surrealism à la André Breton, was a second significant strand in magical realism's evolution, with its emphasis on the unconscious and the “primitive,” on the total liberty of the repressed, on a world more “real” than the “reality” of the evident. For Breton, who was one of many European and North American avant-gardist “primitivists” who visited Mexico in the twenties and thirties, Latin America was such a world, a magical kingdom ripe for novelization (see Torgovnick).

Latin Americans, including Alejo Carpentier and Miguel Angel Asturias imbibed these ideas in the literary cafes of Paris and began to dialogue with them in a problematic but nonetheless fruitful manner. So did African intellectuals such as Senghor; despite their difference, Magical Realism and Negritude grew out of many shared impulses. Horst Rogmann notes not merely the importance of Paris and Surrealism in the gestation of both, but more importantly the common desire to create an alternative to European literature, to vindicate pre-colonial, preindustrial societies, and to validate indigenous universes. When Asturias praised Senghor's poetry, underscoring how it vibrates with an Africa unknown to Europe and how it welds the poet's voice to that of his community, he might have been writing about his own work (634).

Asturias, Carpentier, and their confreres took magical realism into its next phase mainly in the thirties and forties. The world vision of the Afro-Caribbeans and the Guatemalan Native Americans, and the imposing nature of the New World, were central to the construction of Carpentier's and Asturias's ontological brand of narrative magical realism—later elaborated theoretically into Carpentier's “marvelous real.” It interwove a partly Europeanized consciousness confronting modernity with a Latin American reality heretofore ignored and considered magical. Social concerns were important in this real maravilloso, since in the Americas the vindication of the “primitive” and repressed invariably meant a need for political and economic justice. Thus for all the contradictions resulting from its attempts to undo Euro-centric assumptions by in fact accepting many of them (as was the case with Senghorian Negritude), the salient thematics of Latin American real maravilloso was the exploitation of the continent's primordial cultures in such books as Asturias's Men of Maize (Hombres de maíz, 1949), Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World, 1949, José María Arguedas's Yawar Fiesta (1941), and Juan Rulfo's Pedro Pŕamo (1955).

At about the same time, Borges, who was an early admirer and translator of the Central European fantasists like Gustav Meyrink and Kafka, constructed a Latin American phenomenological magical realism, with mental creations—interpenetrating dreams, unwritten books, imaginary planets—providing the magic of narrative art. To simplify considerably, I would say that Borges focused on the three-legged chair, while Asturias and Carpentier on the Latin American “reality” beyond the chair. In either case, what was produced was not Latin American “reality” but a “reality effect” that, to paraphrase Simon Gikandi, related the archaeological function of narrative—its investigation into the histories and cultures of the colonized Americas—with the utopian impulse to create mythic spaces in which new societies might be articulated (4).

This combination of looking backwards and forwards in the context of an incomplete modernity came together in the third phase: the so-called literary Boom of the sixties. Under the impact of the Cuban Revolution, the growth of middle classes, and a heightened cosmopolitanism, García Márquez and his generation built on their strong predecessors, further indigenized them, and used them to deconstruct centuries of colonial Latin American history.

In an era of growing urbanization and industrialization, One Hundred Years of Solitude nostalgically recreates, and asserts as part of a utopian realm of possibility, a rural, precapitalistic “marvelous real” not uninfluenced by Afro-Caribbean elements. It also Borgesianly questions the colonialist mental constructs that underdeveloped Latin America by labeling it “magical”—constructs that Latin Americans themselves had accepted. As García Márquez says: “la interpretación de nuestra realidad con esquemas ajenos sólo contribuye a hacernos cada vez más desconocidos … cada vez más solitarios.” “El desafío mayor para nosotros ha sido la insuficiencia de recursos convencionales para hacer creíble nuestra vida.” (To interpret our history through schemas which are alien to us has the effect of making us even more unknown … even more solitary. … The major challenge has been the want of conventional resources to make our life credible) (cited in Aizenberg 1246-47; emphasis added).

García Márquez manipulates the discourse of the marvelous in order to reproduce, puncture, and overcome the unreality imposed by the colonialist enterprise. This enterprise first read the New World through the distorted glass of a European imperialism fed by a medieval worldview, and it went on doing so, even though it was the persistence of the “fabulous” stereotypes and the ongoing madness of a colonialist history that kept Latin America “magical.” García Márquez sharpens magical realism's postcolonial face through the text's disjunctive (magical/realist) narrative language, a language that foregrounds the spatio-temporal discontinuities and socio-economic deliriums resulting from colonialism. Salient examples of his foregrounding are the magical writerly locales—the gypsy-seer Melquíades's room, the Catalonian's bookshop, Gabriel's hotel room—all condensed postcolonial time-spaces in which the author mixes epochs, objects, authors, languages in a provocative freewheeling that undercuts solemnity and erodes the potency of the metropolis.

That is why the novel opens into the fourth phase, magical realism's international or postcolonial moment. Here I would like to place The Famished Road. Now magical realism's shock of discourses becomes even more heterotopic, since it embraces more multifarious and more far-flung cultural ingredients and enlarges the mode's potential for denouncing foreign colonialisms and domestic neocolonialisms. This new and exciting phase demonstrates that the largely metropolitan forces that continually threaten to “exoticize” magical realism by casting it as no more than an entertaining tropicalism have not yet won, although they are mighty; hence the disquiet to which I alluded earlier and to which I will come back.

In The Famished Road, and its sequel Songs of Enchantment, there is a noisy conversation among Okri, García Márquez, a powerful Borges, a powerful Soyinka, Fagunwa, Tutuola, Achebe, and countless more. We might say that Latin Americans helped Okri to release energies already present in Africa and African literature, to move traditions of contemporary African literature ahead by combining a look homeward with a look abroad—albeit an “abroad” not entirely unfamiliar, just as Africa was not entirely unfamiliar to the Latin Americans.

Harrow, for example, argues against the “totalizing call for classical realism as the only legitimate form of literature for Africa” and against the “authenticizing impulse with its xenophobic rejection of foreign influences on African culture” (343). He illustrates convincingly how the polyphonic and defamiliarized text has always been a feature of twentieth-century African literature, how writers such as Ouolguem, Oyono, Lopes, Soyinka, Sony Labou Tansi, and even “realists” such as Achebe, have always been open to multiple influences and have always “carnivalized” their texts by breaking through the dikes of mimetic imaging, often by employing the Afrophonic subtext—epics, folktales, or myths (66-67). The current move away from transparency on the part of Okri and others indicates not a departure from the tradition of African literature but a heightening of impulses inherent in it, with magical realism providing a “postmodernist” form of political and literary revolt (347; see also Julien 126).

I would like to continue the Latin American-African dialogue by examining the magical realism of The Famished Road more closely, starting with its primary metaphor, the abiku child. Okri has employed an image that concentrates the meaning and strategies of magical realism superbly, wedding several layers of the Afrophonic subtext (as elaborated both in traditional orature and modern writing), blending it with the inspirations of Latin American precursors. The liminal figure of the abiku organizes the various magical realist dimensions—the “marvelous real,” the defamiliarization, the social concerns, the postcolonial foregrounding of discontinuities, the archeological impulse, and the utopic hope.

Like the magical realist text, the abiku child remains forever “in-between,” caught in the interspace of the spirit world and the Living—roughly, the magic and the real—locked in a continuous dialectic between two oppositional systems, a situation that creates gaps, absences and silences, like the postcolonial condition itself (Famished Road 5; Slemon 11). Azaro belongs both to the unconscious and the conscious, to the invisible and the visible, to the preurban, premodern “marvelous real” world of the forest, which is continually shrinking, and to the expanding urbanized space of the modern, where there are new structures based on class, and on different political and economic realities (Gikandi 87). He never resolves this “in-betweenness,” although the oppositional systems do permeate each other, and do provide a window of promise through their interpenetration.

The novel's opening evokes a paradisiacal “world of pure dreams, where all things are made of enchantment, and where there is no suffering” (4). Here, Okri invokes a “marvelous reality”—he uses the phrase—grounded in an indigenous mythic worldview (330). The text reads: “These are myths of beginnings. These are stories and moods deep in those who are seeded in rich lands, who still believe in mysteries” (6). However, the word “still” injects a note of unease. We are not in a holistic universe—we never are in magical realism—but in a discontinuous world, where elements of mystery are under siege. Hence Azaro's (and Okri's) continual return to the dwindling but still potent forest, the forest of myth, and also Fagunwa's, Tutuola's, and Soyinka's forest, a forest that suggests a magical realist lack of purity in conceptual and discursive systems. Hence, too, the mixed attitude with which The Famished Road sees the “mysterious.” Dad, for instance, expresses skepticism at the pronouncements of herbalists, at their absurd and costly ceremonies, yet these ceremonies are performed for Dad himself, and retain ongoing force.

Azaro the Abiku likewise provides access to a defamiliarizing magical realism seen in the exaggerated vomiting and rain (reminiscent of García Márquez's deluge), in the photographer's camera, described as “mystery-making,” in the electricity, the record player, the car (46). As in One Hundred Years of Solitude, technology, brought in from the outside anachronistically, forms part of magical realism's enactment of the deliriums of a colonized world, where alien schemata interpret reality and violent discontinuities configure time and space.

The foregrounding of such deliriums emphasizes the text's constant engagement with sociopolitical and economic issues. Like Asturias, Carpentier, García Márquez, or Allende, Okri employs magical realist devices to protest evils and to tell untold histories. In García Márquez, the government, allied with neocolonial forces, attempts to obliterate the history of the banana strike and the massacre of workers; in Allende, the brutal dictatorship tries to hide the horror of mass arrests and torture; and in Okri, the political thugs, representing the rising neocolonial elites, seek to do the same with the epidemic of the rotten milk. They persecute the photographer, who keeps a record, and terrorize the people of the ghetto. But in each case the textual counterpractices embedded in the novels—photography, folk songs, stories, clandestine notebooks—give narrative substance to unofficial versions that officialdoms endeavor to suppress.

The magical realist text, then, questions colonialist schemata, urges the colonized to wake up from the bewitchments bequeathed to them, and starts redreaming postcolonial possibilities. Okri sets the novel in the transitional moment between the end of colonialism and the dawn of independence, a time when the appropriate redreaming of national communities was particularly important. It remains important today, as the crisis deepens, as colonialist and neocolonialist imaginings refuse to release their hold. That explains why echoes of Borges's mentalist magic reverberate throughout The Famished Road, especially his fictions, “The Circular Ruins” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” composed during World War II when Borges was concerned with redreamings opposed to totalitarian ideologies.

In the first story, a magician dreams a man, creating him in thought limb by limb and feature by feature; in the second, a secret benevolent society first dreams a country, then a planet, Tlön. Gradually, objects from the imaginary world intrude into the real world, and fantasy imposes itself on reality. Okri's Dad attempts similar prestidigitation in The Famished Road. He conjures up an imagined country in which everyone will have education and be aware of local and world affairs, where the poor will have access to government and elections will take place, where people will think for and help themselves and stand up to tyranny (408-420). Okri presents Dad's imaginings humorously, but the humor is serious, as it is in the presentation of Dad's readings. These, too, are invisible conjurings, since Dad is illiterate. The novel affirms the power of mind to stretch, to assume responsibility, and to effect change. In his indefatigable style, Dad relates the garbage-strewn street that the ghetto people must clean together to the clearing of the mental rubbish that handicaps Africa's potential development. His dreamings represent magical realism's utopian impulse, the desire for a space in which a just society might be articulated through an amalgam of old and new strengths.

Some final words: Earlier, I noted my disquiet about magical realism's acceptance as a stereotyped Latin American style, which allows European and North American readers to “enjoy the voluptuous delights of a barbaric Otherness … that go with an ex-colonial mentality” (Martin 313). That disquiet now extends to other “Third World” literatures, including Okri's. Biodun Jeyifo has expressed it in a number of essays not specifically about magical realism, but where he questions which “Third World” texts are canonized by the West and inquires to what use are texts such as One Hundred Years of Solitude prone (Lindfors 112). Jeyifo notes that the post-colonial writers most acclaimed by the academies, journals and media of the “First World” are those who fulfill Western expectations, be they a hallucinatory tropicality or an interstitial hybridity that comports with fashions such as postmodernism and High Theory (Achebe 54).

This is undoubtedly correct, but the equation has another side, a decolonizing side, if you will. Magical realism challenges socio-historical verities, punctures “exoticisms,” projects a future, and forces the metropolis to learn from rather than to feel superior towards the “periphery.” Indeed, Gates and Harrow see the turn to magical realism by writers like Okri as an answer to the need for subversively and polemically trespassing boundaries in an era of grievous political disillusionment (Gates 3; Harrow 347). From this liberational perspective, Okri's magical realist “postmodernism” is not a matter of pandering to the “First World”—though that may be tempting for any writer, realist or magical—but of revisioning Western culture and bespeaking Africa's grand and pained place within the global order.

Works Cited

Aizenberg, Edna. “Historical Subversion and Violence of Representation in García Márquez and Ouologuem.” PMLA (1992): 1235-52.

Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. New York: Bantam-Knopf, 1982.

Anderson Imbert, Enrique. El realismo mágico y otros ensayos. Caracas: Monte Avila, 1977.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Chanady, Amaryll. “The Origins and Development of Magical Realism in Latin America.” Magical Realism and Canadian Literature. Eds. Peter Hinchcliffe and Ed Jewinski. Waterloo, Ontario: U of Waterloo P, 1986.

———. Magical Realism and the Fantastic. New York and London: Garland, 1985.

Flores, Angel. “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction.” Hispania. 38.2 (1955): 187-201.

García Márquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. New York: Avon, 1970.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Between the Living and the Dead.” New York Times Book Review 28 June 1992. 3; 20.

Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe. London: James Currey, 1991.

González Echevarría, Roberto. “Isla a su vuelo fugitivo: Carpentier y el realismo mágico.” Revista iberoamericana 40.86 (1974): 65-86.

Harrow, Kenneth W. Thresholds of Change in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1994.

Jeyifo, Biodun. “For Chinua Achebe: The Resilience and the Predicament of Obierika.” Chinua Achebe: A Celebration. Eds. Kirsten Holst Peterson and Anna Rutherford. Oxford: Heinemann, 1990. 51-70.

———. “The Problem of Realism in Things Fall Apart: A Marxist Exegesis.” Approaches to Teaching Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Ed. Bernth Lindfors. New York: Modern Language Association, 1991. 112-117.

Julien, Eileen. African Novels and the Question of Orality. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.

Martin, Gerald. Journeys through the Labyrinth: Latin American Literature in the Twentieth Century. London: Verso, 1989.

Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. New York: Anchor, 1991.

Rogmann, Horst. “‘Realismo mágico’ y ‘Négritude’ como construcciones ideológicas.” Actas del Sexto Congreso Internacional de Hispanistas. Eds. Alan M. Gordon and Evelyn Rugg. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1980. 632-635.

Sangari, Kumkum. “The Politics of the Possible.” Cultural Critique 7 (1978): 157-186.

Slemon, Stephen. “Magic Realism as Post-colonial Discourse.” Canadian Literature 116 (1988): 9-24.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Volek, Emil. “Hacia un concepto cultural postmoderno del realismo mágico en la narrativa hispanoamericana actual.” Critical Essays on the Literatures of Spain and Spanish America. Eds. Luis T. González-del-Valle and Julio Baena. Boulder: Society of Spanish and Spanish American Studies, 1991. 235-243.

Scott Simpkins (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Magical Strategies: The Supplement of Realism,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 140-54.

[In the following essay, Simpkins attempts to define magic realism and argues that the genre is hindered by linguistic limitations.]

Magic realism seems plagued by a distinct dilemma, a problem arising primarily from its use of supplementation to “improve” upon the realistic text. The source of this nagging difficulty can be attributed to the faulty linguistic medium that all texts employ, and even though the magic realist text appears to overcome the “limits” of realism, it can succeed only partially because of the frustrating inadequacies of language. The magical text appears to displace these shortcomings through a textual apparition, but this appearance itself illustrates the representational bind which hampers its desired success. And thus the magic realists, always trying to overcome textual limitations, continuously fall short of their numinous goal.

In Don Quixote, Cervantes offers an appropriate example of the textual strategies employed in magical texts, and their ultimate failure, as Sancho betrays the creaky machinations that fool the less wary reader (Don Quixote himself, in this instance). Sancho, after all, is not deceived by “magic”—although Don Quixote insists otherwise.

Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez contribute further to this supplemental discourse by examining the condition of textual magic itself in their own writings. Largely because of his close ties with the fantastic, the designation of Borges as a magic realist has created critical dissension, although he is credited by some critics as one of the major early influences on the contemporary magic realism movement which has flourished internationally since the early part of this century.1 And, indeed, Borges' presence surfaces throughout a great deal of the magical strategies employed by the many practitioners of this textual sleight of hand. Moreover, his work also anticipates several of the major textual concerns which have developed among the generations of writers who have followed him. As Robert Scholes observes in Fabulation and Metafiction, the “opposition between language and reality, the unbridgeable gap between them, is fundamental to the Borgesian vision, and to much of modern epistemology and poetic theory.”2

Even the term “magic realism” has engendered disagreement since Franz Roh introduced it into artistic discourse in the mid-1920s through the German phrase Magischer Realismus, a “counter-movement” in art through which “the charm of the object was rediscovered.”3 When his Nach-Expressionismus (Magischer Realismus): Probleme der neuesten Europaischen Malerei, published in German in 1925, was translated and disseminated in Spanish through the Revista de Occidente two years later, his articulation of this new sensibility in art doubtlessly had a strong influence on Latin American writers searching for a suitable means to express the “marvelous reality” unique to their own culture.4 In German Art in the 20th Century, Roh later schematized the differences between expressionism and post-expressionism (which he associates with magic realism), but his focus upon the visual arts reduces the usefulness of his charted oppositions in a literary context. Still, the differences between realism and magic realism could, following Roh, be presented in this manner:

Realism Magic Realism
History Myth/Legend
Mimetic Fantastic/Supplementation
Familiarization Defamiliarization
Empiricism/Logic Mysticism/Magic
Narration Meta-narration
Closure-ridden/Reductive Open-ended/Expansive
Naturalism Romanticism
Rationalization/Cause and Effect Imagination/Negative
Effect Capability

Through these necessarily limited oppositions, it may be much easier to envision how magic realism, as Roh suggested, “turned daily life into eerie form.”5 Roberto González Echevarría, in Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home, traces the historical development of this concept from Roh, to Carpentier's real maravilloso and connections with surrealism, to Angel Flores' influential but limited 1955 essay, “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction,” so that any further recounting of its growth may well be superfluous. He maintains that the term arose from an “effort to account for a narrative that could simply be considered fantastic.” The magic realist text “does not depend either on natural or physical laws or on the usual conception of the real in Western culture” because it is “a narrative … in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality.”6 But, again, the allowance of the fantastic within this realm has led some critics, such as Luis Leal, to assert that

magic realism cannot be identified with either fantastic literature or with psychological literature, neither with surrealism nor the hermetic literature that Ortega describes. Magic realism does not use, like superrealism, dream motifs; nor does it distort reality or create imaginary worlds, as do fantastic literature or science fiction; nor does it place importance on a psychological analysis of the characters, since there is no attempt to explain the motivations behind their actions or which prevent them from expressing themselves.7

These differences in boundaries offer yet another example of the difficulties involved in defining the limits of any period or genre. “The formula” for delimiting magic realism “has been used by many [critics] … as though they will find comfort in a concept with universal validity, like Classicism, or Romanticism, or (even) Realism,” Emir Rodríguez Monegal observes, adding that “it is necessary to insist on the danger of general use of a formula that … is anything but universal.”8 As Fredric Jameson remarks, however, the term “magic realism”—despite its shortcomings—“retains a strange seductiveness.”9

The similar interests of surrealism have also led to critical confusion regarding the concept of magic realism, especially since several writers have produced works strongly suggestive of both. In his book-length study of Alejo Carpentier, for example, González Echevarría stresses both Carpentier's ties with surrealism and those elements which set him apart distinctly as a magic realist. Even Carpentier's identification of “marvelous American reality” points to his preference for an ontological outlook toward the textual enterprise favored by Latin Americans, as opposed to the phenomenological, European stance proffered by Roh, as González Echevarría suggests.10

The Latin American writer preferred to place himself on the far side of that borderline aesthetics described by Roh—on the side of the savage, of the believer, not on the ambiguous ground where miracles are justified by means of a reflexive act of perception, in which the consciousness of distance between the observer and the object, between the subject and that exotic other, generates estrangement and wonder.11

Yet, both González Echevarría, and Rodríguez Monegal in “Lo Real y lo Maravilloso en El Reino de Este Mundo,” note that Carpentier—and several other magic realists—chose to move away from some of the more restrictive tenets of surrealism and turn toward what has become known as magic realism. “In spite of his fascination with Surrealism at one time in his life, Carpentier never completely succumbs to Breton and his theories,” González Echevarría contends. “On the contrary, Carpentier endeavors to isolate in his concept of the ‘marvelous’ something which would be exclusively Latin American.”12 Others such as Borges and García Márquez, however, have departed from surrealism far more substantially than Carpentier.

Despite the various critical disagreements over the concept of magic realism, one element which does recur constantly throughout many magic realist texts, and therefore points to a unifying characteristic, is an awareness of the ineluctable lack in communication, a condition which prevents the merger of signifier and signified. Perhaps the problem with this type of supplementation is really nothing more than that of a rigorous, but overwhelmingly frustrated, endeavor to increase the likelihood of complete signification through magical means, to make the text—a decidedly unreal construct—become real through a deceptive seeming. Rosemary Jackson suggests that “the issue of the narrative's internal reality is always relevant to the fantastic, with the result that the ‘real’ is a notion which is under constant interrogation,” and this seems to be the case. Use of the “real,” in terms of signification, actually appears to eliminate the difference between the construct and the object it somehow reconstructs. Despite its undeniable artificiality, a super-realist painting of an apple, for example, may appear more “real” than an impressionistic rendition of one.13

Gabriel García Márquez, on the other hand, is a member of the generation of textual magicians to follow Borges (since Borges had a head start of twenty-five years). Like Borges, García Márquez employs a variety of supplemental strategies in an attempt to increase the significative force texts seem able to generate. In one of a series of interviews published as The Fragrance of Guava, he maintains that “realism” (he cites some of his realistic novels as examples) is “a kind of premeditated literature that offers too static and exclusive a vision of reality. However good or bad they may be, they are books which finish on the last page.”14 A “realistic” text is hardly a satisfactory mode, much less an accurate presentation of the thing in itself, García Márquez contends, because “disproportion is part of our reality too. Our reality is in itself out of all proportion.”15 In other words, García Márquez suggests that the magic text is, paradoxically, more realistic than a “realistic” text. And this realism is conjured up by a series of magical supplements—such as those found in his One Hundred Years of Solitude.

To Jameson, Carpentier's concept of the “marvelous real” establishes a stance distinctly antithetical to the notion of supplementation as an active component of magic realism. Carpentier's “strategic reformulation” of the label of magic realism through the term real maravilloso produces “not a realism to be transfigured by the ‘supplement’ of a magical perspective,” Jameson claims, “but a reality which is already in and of itself magical or fantastic.”16 But, with this assertion, Jameson seems to neglect the transmission and portrayal of the marvelous, an act effected through a textual medium which is clearly a supplementation of the agency of realism.

For someone who has said he would rather be a magician than a writer, García Márquez meets his desires halfway by being both in One Hundred Years of Solitude.17 Despite the many magical events (flying carpets, living dead, accurate portents, telekinesis, and so on), García Márquez claims he “was able to write One Hundred Years of Solitude simply by looking at reality, our reality, without the limitations which rationalists or Stalinists through the ages have tried to impose on it to make it easier for them to understand.”18 In effect, he is arguing that the magical text operates virtually as a corrective to traditional tenets of mimesis, incorporating those unreal elements which in themselves antithetically ground reality.

One Hundred Years of Solitude offers numerous examples of magical supplementation amid the description of approximately a century in the history of one family, a genealogy which recounts fantastic occurrences as though they were quite commonplace.19 Generations of characters, beginning with the marriage of José Arcadio Buendía and Ursula Iguarán, also encounter the bizarre aspects of “real” life in the inherently supernatural tropics. Early in the novel, for instance, José Arcadio realizes that his plan to found a new village—Macondo—“had become enveloped in a web of pretexts, disappointments, and evasions until it turned into nothing but an illusion.”20 This unreal reality is reinforced further as a contagion of amnesia infects the entire village. But a plan is developed to label everything in Macondo so that its increasingly forgetful inhabitants can remember reality by writing it, a strategy which reveals the unseen fantastic element behind writing and its magical ability to create a reality.

As the amnesia worsens, the villagers' situation parallels the seemingly universal—and also realistic—dilemma that accompanies language's indeterminacies: “Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters” (OHY, p. 53). In the amnesia episode, accordingly, García Márquez discusses this decidedly realistic concern through a magical layer, a supplemental strategy that may enhance, through its own theatricality, the force of an otherwise commonplace development, boosting its significative show in the process through a transcendent power.

To prevent an overwhelming sense of disbelief, magic realists present familiar things in unusual ways (flying carpets, Nabokovian butterflies, mass amnesia, and so on) to stress their innately magical properties. By doing this, magic realists use what the Russian formalists called defamiliarization to radically emphasize common elements of reality, elements that are often present but have become virtually invisible because of their familiarity. And through a process of supplemental illusions, these textual strategies seem to produce a more realistic text. But whether this endeavor succeeds is another matter.

Borges' “The Garden of Forking Paths” offers a distinct illustration of this point. Within its detective-story framework, his story describes a magical novel (The Garden of Forking Paths) which, through a play of textual supplementation, attempts to encompass infinite linguistic possibilities. The story revolves around Ts'ui Pên's labyrinthian novel, first thought to be, as his grandson Yu Tsun describes it, “an indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts” because it consists of a nearly endless series of events which involve the same characters in different roles.21 But a sinologist, Stephen Albert, whom Yu Tsun plans to murder, discovers another hermeneutical path through this textual maze. Albert claims that Ts'ui Pên's novel is designed to create a multi-narrative which saturates its textual capacity and thus achieves the desired state of complete signification. This textual strategy of magical supplementation seems to include everything, thereby overcoming the seemingly unavoidable linguistic lack.

Or does it? It is possible that Ts'ui Pên overlooks a basic problem concerning the text itself by taking its textuality for granted without calling its own provisional status into question. Ts'ui Pên (not unlike the surrealists) tries to subvert and overcome the text, but fails because he ironically remains bound by textual restraints. Still, this strategy, which reveals the desire to increase signification, to embrace the fluttering essence of illumination, always ends—because it begins—in loss. Therefore, a magical text such as Ts'ui Pên's can never enforce a center by remaining forever decentered. Yet Borges (through Ts'ui Pên) forces the reader, as does Sterne in Tristram Shandy, to consider the properties often unknowingly granted to texts while they surreptitiously reveal a certain absence that usually goes unnoticed. If this absence is taken further, multiplied in a self-consciously reflexive manner as in The Garden of Forking Paths, the text seems to encompass everything and lack nothing—although finally it cannot. But the magical attempt is there: bypassing the commonplace unity found in most realistic texts, the magical text tries to go beyond, to make the necessary swerve that Harold Bloom discusses in a different context, a clinamen away from the shortcomings associated with “realistic” texts.22

This plan appears to produce an “infinite text” such as the one Ts'ui Pên tries to create, even though its use of a static medium (language) constantly hampers its signification. Borges does manage to focus the reader's attention upon textual processes, producing as a result the defamiliarization which seems to form a major tenet of magic realism. And, the consciously poly-scenic text portrays more accurately an important aspect of reality, for there are always many different viewpoints of something at any given moment.

In Borges' story, for instance, Yu Tsun is not only a narrator; he is also concurrently an English professor, a prisoner, a friend (albeit newly acquired) to Albert, a spy for the Germans, an assassin, and a character in Ts'ui Pên's novel (as his actions magically duplicate those of several fictive pasts). Like the cubists who tried to show several perspectives of objects in order to capture three-dimensional essences, Borges constructs a multi-perspective text which appears to cover all fictional possibilities. Still, of course, this inherently faulted construct cannot go beyond its frustrating limitations as a linguistic text.

The stress here on the textual element of magic realism is not incidental, because its semiotic dysfunction may be caused by the medium magic realists use: language. Many theorists of the fantastic, in fact, identify the contemporary concern with language's shortcomings as a symptom of the modern temperament. To them, magical texts are one way of supplementing not only the failures of the modern text, but also the inadequacies of what is now called the postmodern condition (perhaps exemplified by existential thought) as well. Christine Brooke-Rose contends that this epistemological crisis has led to new desires in textual generation, revaluations of textual properties, and a poetics of defamiliarization:

The burden of this meaningless situation being unbearable, we naturally escape, and easily, into our more familiar reality, endowed with significance by our desire, whatever it might be, and displace the meaningless situation into a mere backdrop, apocalyptic no doubt, but a backdrop we cease to see.23

Perhaps magic realism's goal is to return our focus to the backdrop of textual reality, its production and function, by defamiliarizing it.

Consequently, the supplemental strategies used by magic realists may be geared toward “improving” the realistic text, a movement which realizes itself by exploiting language's ability to represent reality through fictive constructs. Borges' “fictions and inventions,” for example, “move language toward reality, not away from it,” Robert Scholes contends.24 The textual project of magic realism, then, is displayed through its linguistically bound attempt to increase the capabilities of realistic texts. Yet this same strategy is necessarily undermined by the problematical nature of language. Borges' “The South” demonstrates this dilemma well as its protagonist, Juan Dahlmann, tries to use a magical text (The Thousand and One Nights) to direct his reality, to write (and rewrite) his existence fictionally. “To travel with this book, which was so much a part of the history of his ill-fortune, was a kind of affirmation that his ill-fortune had been annulled”; the narrator says, “it was a joyous and secret defiance of the frustrated force of evil.”25 But Dahlmann catches on to the lack amid this solely textual reality, a drawback that undoes its effectiveness.

As his train ride continues, Dahlmann abandons the book for the more real (though slightly less magical) magic of everyday life, and the narrator comments:

The magnetized mountain and the genie who swore to kill his benefactor are—who would deny it?—marvelous, but not so much more than the morning itself and the mere fact of being. The joy of life distracted him from paying attention to Scheherezade and her superfluous miracles. Dahlmann closed his book and allowed himself to live.

(TS, p. 170, emphasis added)

Here the narrator reveals the immanent failure of magical artifices as textual supplements: the magical text is not much more magical than reality itself, and to go too far beyond these natural perimeters seems an unnecessary and ineffective diversion. Dahlmann's observations suggest that even a more subtle magic still falls prey to this representational dilemma, although admittedly to a lesser extent. In fact, the diversion of a textual reality moves subjects farther away from reality itself, as Dahlmann, for instance, finds he cannot name the “trees and crop fields” he passes, “for his actual knowledge of the countryside was quite inferior to his nostalgic and literary knowledge” (TS, pp. 170-71). The fictive reality, rather than offering a more accurate reality, actually distances itself away from what could be called “actual” reality. Thus when Dahlmann is later accosted by “some country louts,” he “decided that nothing had happened, and he opened the volume of The Thousand and One Nights, by way of suppressing reality” (TS, p. 173). The magical text, in this manner, overturns its assumed corrective nature and instead apparently displaces the reality it was thought to somehow enhance and re-ground.

Angel Flores traces the inception of magic realism during this century to a reaction to the “blind alley” of photographic realism, a textual approach that may undermine its effectiveness through its literality. Realism, in effect, produces a text plagued by the ordinary, the too real. And imagination, another aspect of the “real,” is given short shrift at best. As Borges' narrator in “The Secret Miracle” says, compared with his imagination, “the reality was less spectacular. …”26 Brooke-Rose identifies the particularly modern element of this concern by noting that

the sense that empirical reality is not as secure as it used to be is now pervasive at all levels of society. Certainly what used to be called empirical reality, or the world, seems to have become more and more unreal, and what has long been regarded as unreal is more and more turned to or studied as the only “true” or “another equally valid” reality.

Amid this worldview it is not at all surprising that the “inversion of real/unreal is perfectly logical.”27

Within this arena of uncertainty, magic realism demonstrates its hopeful scheme to supplement the realistic text through a corrective gesture, a means to overcome the insufficiencies of realism (and the language used to ground realism). Alain Robbe-Grillet describes his use of some imaginary seagulls that closely parallels this situation:

The only gulls that mattered to me … were those which were inside my head. Probably they came there, one way or another, from the external world, and perhaps from Brittany; but they had been transformed, becoming at the same time somehow more real because they were now imaginary.28

This use of imagination claims to supplement reality by heightening its distinctive elements through ideal imagination, the essence and not necessarily the vehicle. Borges' use of imaginary authors and works, a practice also found in such magical writers as Jonathan Swift and Flann O'Brien, demonstrates this textual strategy as he creates a new reality through imagination, a reality which becomes “more real” (to return to Robbe-Grillet's assertion) as a result of the magical gloss applied to it through the process of creation.29

But this supplementary act also reveals an implicit despair, a collective lament about the problems involved in using language to convey reality (especially through the delusion of realism). (This is reflected by a comment about a later Aureliano in One Hundred Years of Solitude who abandons worldly pleasures for a lesser “written reality” [p. 357].) In other words, through the use of magical supplements, the linguistically determined text seems to span the chasm between signifier and signified. But it cannot. “Reality is too subtle for realism to catch it,” Robert Scholes maintains. “It cannot be transcribed directly. But by invention, by fabulation, we may open a way toward reality that will come as close to it as human ingenuity may come.”30 Scholes's claim, however, betrays that very element which undermines such an assertion: attempts to signify can never overcome the deficiencies which any sign system presupposes. This is not to say that magical texts do not have any champions, however; Jameson, through a Heideggerian formula, observes that a magical supplement may allow the world-ness of the world to show itself.31

The magic realist's predilection toward the unreal may also reveal an awareness of the impossibility of successful signification—complete information transference—as magic is used to flaunt these same limitations. “You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language?” asks Borges' narrator in “The Library of Babel.”32 Magic realism courts the inevitable problem of signification by offering the impression of success, a supplemental diversion which appears to bypass the limitations of the realistic text, evading its failures through the incorporation of imagination.

Still, as neat as this sounds, perhaps it does not work. Although Jameson, while referring specifically to magic in the genre of romance, may be overstating the situation when he asserts that “the fate of romance as a form is dependent on the availability of elements more acceptable to the reader than those older magical categories for which some adequate substitute must be invented,” he is also at least partially correct, for there is undoubtedly something unsatisfactory about the strategy of magic realism.33 Even the naive inhabitants of García Márquez' Macondo eventually become indifferent to flying carpets.

Plato contends in Phaedrus that the ideal language to use in any discourse is inescapably just that—ideal. In his Second Speech, Socrates says:

“As for the soul's immortality, enough has been said. But about its form, the following must be stated: To tell what it really is would be a theme for a divine and a very long discourse; what it resembles, however, may be expressed more briefly and in human language.”34

Socrates' assertion also unveils a major dilemma of magic realism: the divine language needed to bring about complete signification (what it “really is”) can never transcend its illusory status. Supplementation (magic, in this instance) only adds another layer to the significative deception. The thing itself always slips away.

The textual economy that magic realism creates for itself undoubtedly introduces several problems. Angel Flores suggests that the desire to maintain some semblance of reality as a textual ground engenders an indeterminate element which further decreases what could be called reader comprehension. To Flores, supplementation of realism is far less preferable than working from an entirely fantastic base. After all, it is possible that the purely magical mode more closely approaches Socrates' “divine language” than does realism heightened by magic. In addition to the previously mentioned linguistic drawback that magic realism faces, the concern for the limits of partial magic adds another difficulty to the act of textual transmission, for—as Coleridge noted—the reader's doubt carries a great deal of weight.35 Yet Tzvetan Todorov offers an interesting counterassertion: “‘I nearly reach the point of believing’: that is the formula which sums up the spirit of the fantastic. Either total faith or total incredulity would lead us beyond the fantastic: it is hesitation which sustains its life.”36 It is unlikely, however, that a reader would have any reason to “believe” what is said in a text; the question of doubt always lurks (or should always lurk, anyway) between the lines because the physical presence of the text ceaselessly calls attention to its inherent falseness as a construct.37

This stifling predicament may, in fact, explain why Borges and García Márquez themselves became disenchanted with magic and moved on to other concerns. In an interview Borges remarked:

I feel that the kind of stories you get in El Aleph and in Ficciones are becoming rather mechanical, and that people expect that kind of thing from me. So that I feel as if I were a kind of high fidelity, a kind of gadget, no? A kind of factory producing stories about mistaken identity, about mazes, about tigers, about mirrors, about people being somebody else, or about all men being the same man or one man being his own mortal foe.38

As Borges observes, the magical text cannot maintain its illusion under close scrutiny. García Márquez reveals a similar disquietude in this exchange with interviewer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza:

A. M.: Is it that you feel the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude is unfair to the rest of your work?

G. M.: Yes, it's unfair. The Autumn of the Patriarch is a much more important literary achievement. But whereas it is about the solitude of power One Hundred Years of Solitude is about the solitude of everyday life. It's everybody's life story. Also, it's written in a simple, flowing, linear and … superficial way.

A. M.: You seem to despise it.

G. M.: No, but since I knew it was written with all the tricks and artifices under the sun, I knew I could do better even before I wrote it.

A. M.: That you could beat it.

G. M.: Yes, that I could beat it.39

The underlying desire for rhetorical strategies which may increase the possibility of successful signification seems to be an optimistic semiotic gesture. Discontent with the strictures of realism, magic realists such as Borges and García Márquez construct elaborate magical supplements which imply a purifying concern for textual generation. “Fantasy has always articulated a longing for imaginary unity, for unity in the realm of the imaginary,” Rosemary Jackson suggests. “In this sense, it is inherently idealistic. It expresses a desire for an absolute, an absolute signified, an absolute meaning.”40 Still, as García Márquez and Borges demonstrate, the use of magic is a self-conscious (perhaps painfully so) attempt to overcome significative loss, to bridge that space between the ideal and the achievable (or, semiotically—to remove the bar between signifier and signified). And in this regard, magical texts necessarily reveal their limits in the course of their operation.41 But the magical text almost triumphs over its otherwise crippling imperfections by commenting on its own questionable condition while simultaneously presenting itself. In this manner, magical texts reflect upon their own blind spots, generating a metacritical discourse about their own indeterminate modality.

Such is the case of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which deals with this slippery situation by creating itself through the very workings of the novel it conceals itself within. Accordingly, One Hundred Years of Solitude is “about” a book titled One Hundred Years of Solitude. García Márquez' novel becomes and betrays itself at the same time, playing upon the slippery textuality that can be granted only conditionally to any text, even one which tries to transcend this representational trap through magical supplementation.

García Márquez achieves—or attempts to achieve—this magical effect by having one character (Melquíades) write the novel, and another (Aureliano) decipher it from an unknown “code” (which is actually Sanskrit). The novel ends as Aureliano comes to the close of Melquíades' manuscript, and by manipulating the unavoidable conclusion that any text presupposes by beginning (perhaps with the exception of such arguably cyclical texts as Finnegans Wake and Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch), García Márquez correlates the two events as though it were a textual possibility—which ultimately it may be. By doing this, he manages to go beyond the bounds of realistic texts (mentioned earlier: “However good or bad they may be, they are books which finish on the last page”) as his text ends both literally and magically within itself. The text virtually supplements itself out of its textual plane through a magical dodge which appears to prevent its conclusion (that is, the physical end of the book). Yet, within the drive behind the magical supplement, a maneuver constantly outmaneuvering itself like a dog chasing its tail, the text always disappears into itself, an envelope of infinite beginnings forever grounded by the medium it employs to escape the textual dead end.


  1. See, for example, Emir Rodríguez Monegal's “Realismo Magico Versus Literatur Fantastica: Un Dialogo de Sordos,” in Otros Mundos Otros Fuegos: Fantasía y realismo mágico en Iberoamérica, Memoria del XVI Congreso Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana (Michigan State University, Latin American Studies Center, 1975), pp. 25-37, and Roberto González Echevarría's Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), which both discuss Borges in relation to magic realism.

  2. Robert Scholes, Fabulation and Metafiction (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1979), p. 9.

  3. Franz Roh, German Art in the 20th Century (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1968), p. 70.

  4. González Echevarría develops this assertion at length in Alejo Carpentier, p. 115.

  5. Roh, German Art, p. 84.

  6. Angel Flores, “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction,” Hispania, 38 (1955), 109.

  7. Cited in Rodríguez Monegal's “Realismo Magico Versus Literatura Fantastica.” All translations of this essay and Rodríguez Mongeal's “Lo Real y lo Maravilloso en El Reino de Este Mundo,Revista Iberoamericana, 37 (1971), 619-49, are by Kate Meyers. In Spanish, this passage reads:

    el realismo mágico no puede ser identificado ni con la literatura fantástica ni con la literatura sicológica, pero tampoco con el surrealismo o la literatura hermética que describe Ortega. El realismo mágico no se vale, como el sobrer-realismo, de motivos oníricos; tampoco desfigura la realidad o crea mundo imaginados, como lo hacen los que escriben literatura fantástica o ciencia ficción; tampoco da importancia al análisis sicológico de los personajes, ya que no trata de explicar las motivaciones que los hacen actuar o que les prohiben expresarse.

  8. Rodríguez Monegal, “Realismo Magico Versus Literatura Fantastica,” p. 26. The second half of this passage reads in Spanish: “Es necesario insistir en el peligro de esta utilización general de una fórmula que … tiene de todo menos de universal.”

  9. Fredric Jameson, “On Magic Realism in Film,” Critical Inquiry, 12 (Winter 1986), 302.

  10. González Echevarría, Alejo Carpentier, pp. 109-17.

  11. Ibid., p. 116.

  12. Ibid., p. 123.

  13. Thus Rosemary Jackson was probably off base when she concluded, in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New York: Methuen, 1981), p. 36:

    The text has not yet become non-referential, as it is in modernist fiction and recent linguistic fantasies (such as some of Borges's stories) which do not question the crucial relation between language and the “real” world outside the text which the text constructs, so much as move towards another kind of fictional autonomy.

  14. Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza and Gabriel García Márquez, The Fragrance of Guava, trans. Ann Wright (London: Verso, 1983), p. 56.

  15. Ibid., p. 60.

  16. Jameson, “On Magic Realism in Film,” p. 311.

  17. George R. McMurray, Gabriel García Márquez (New York: Ungar, 1977), p. 86.

  18. Mendoza and García Márquez, The Fragrance of Guava, pp. 59-60.

  19. After all, as Alejo Carpentier notes in “Lo Real y lo Maravilloso en El Reino de Este Mundo, “what is the history of [Latin] America but a chronicle of marvelous reality?” (p. 636). In Spanish, this passage reads: “¿qué es la historia de América toda sino una crónica de lo real-maravilloso?”

  20. Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Avon Books, 1971), p. 22. All subsequent quotations from One Hundred Years of Solitude will be taken from this text and cited parenthetically as OHY.

  21. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. Donald Yates and James E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 20.

  22. See Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973).

  23. Christine Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), p. 9.

  24. Scholes, Fabulation and Metafiction, p. 10.

  25. Borges, Ficciones, ed. Anthony Kerrigan (New York: Grove Press, 1962), p. 170. All subsequent quotations from “The South” will be taken from this text and cited parenthetically as TS.

  26. Borges, Labyrinths, p. 92.

  27. Brooke-Rose, A Rhetoric of the Unreal, p. 4.

  28. Alain Robbe-Grillet, “From Realism to Reality,” in For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 161-62.

  29. Aureliano and his friend Gabriel suggest that texts verify reality when they settle a debate about the reality of an alleged event by asserting that “after all, everything had been set forth in judicial documents and in primary-school textbooks.” Writing is therefore granted the capacity to confirm reality. But the narrator points out this semiotic dilemma by noting that the two “were linked by a kind of complicity based on real facts that no one believed in …” (OHY, p. 359).

  30. Scholes, Fabulation and Metafiction, p. 13.

  31. Jameson, “Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre,” New Literary History, 7 (1975), 142.

  32. Borges, Labyrinths, p. 58.

  33. Jameson, “Magical Narratives,” p. 143.

  34. Plato, Phaedrus, trans. W. C. Helmbold and W. G. Rabinowitz (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), p. 28 (emphasis added).

  35. Magic realism presupposes a certain amount of doubt from the reader who can never escape that element of make-believe which pervades magic. The reader, like José Arcadio, faces “the torment of fantasy” (OHY, p. 45).

  36. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Cleveland, Ohio: Press of Case Western Reserve Univ., 1973), p. 31.

  37. Even those texts which question the notion of truth/fiction—such as the nonfiction novel, the new journalism—or even those forms of the media which present daily versions of current events, exhibit nothing more, in the long run, than a purely provisional status, a status forever shifting under the influence of relative values and acts (perception, interpretation, analysis, and so on).

  38. Richard Burgin, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (New York: Holt, 1969), p. 130.

  39. Mendoza and García Márquez, The Fragrance of Guava, p. 63.

  40. Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, p. 179.

  41. Borges' narrator in “The Secret Miracle” comments: “Hladik felt the verse [drama] form to be essential because it makes it impossible for the spectators to lose sight of irreality, one of art's requisites” (Labyrinths, pp. 90-91).


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Magic Realism

Magic realism refers to literature in which elements of the marvelous, mythical, or dreamlike are injected into an otherwise realistic story without breaking the narrative flow. The term is descended from the German phrase magischer realismus, introduced by Franz Roh in his book Nach-Expressionismus (Magischer Realismus): Probleme der neuesten Europaischen Malerei, published in 1925, to describe a school of painting. Later, Latin-American writer Alejo Carpentier coined the term real maravilloso, which built on the idea of magischer realismus and added elements of surrealism. Today there is much discussion and disagreement about what exactly defines magic realism, but most critics agree about the importance of differentiating between magic realism and other genres that employ the marvelous, such as fables and fairy tales. Unlike those genres, magic-realist texts generally feature the fantastic in a way that does not distinguish between realistic and nonrealistic events in the story and does not result in a break in the narrator's or characters' consciousnesses. Magic realism is used by writers around the world, but it is most strongly concentrated in the work of Latin-American writers. Many critics speculate that magic realism appears most often in the literature of countries with long histories of both mythological stories and sociopolitical turmoil, such as those in Central and South America. Still others question the validity of the term at all, maintaining that it is used irresponsibly to describe any work that is not ultra-realistic and that this usage leads to the stereotyping of minority writers. Finally, some critics maintain that the term magic realism is irrelevant given the newer category of postmodernism, in which the narrative stream typically continues uninterrupted despite elements similar to those that appear in magic realism. Regardless, magic realism continues to be employed by writers as diverse as Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Salman Rushdie, and W. P. Kinsella, each of whom brings a variety of personal, social, and political concerns to the genre.

Birutė Ciplijauskaitė (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “Socialist and Magic Realism: Veiling or Unveiling,” in Journal of Baltic Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 218-27.

[In the following essay, Birutė explains similarities and differences among magic realist works of Latin-American and European socialist writers.]

The choice of my topic—juxtaposition of two seemingly quite disparate literary trends—has been prompted by several factors: (1) a growing awareness of Latin-American narrative and its significance in Soviet literary criticism;1 (2) some evident echoes of the new techniques in the latest works of younger authors in Lithuania;2 (3) almost paradoxical similarity in the original intention of both socialist and magic realism: protest against dictatorship and exploitation of the lower strata in capitalist systems, concern for a total vision of society. The modes of carrying out such programs could not be more divergent, however. One could therefore ask which is more effective: total subordination to guide-lines prescribed by the party, with strong predominance of ideological aspects, or concentration on original creation of works of art which demask and denounce the evils through sheer perfection of expression.

Socialist realism as a literary doctrine was fully formulated in 1934 during the First Congress of Soviet Writers. At that time, Ždanov hammered in the basic principles which were to guide Soviet narrative during two decades at least: idejnost', partijnost', narodnost', klassovost'. Much has been said about the fatal influence of these restrictions. According to Albertas Zalatorius, probably the most capable critic of literary prose in Lithuania today, the novel there started moving ahead only from 1956 on.3 All Soviet critics agree that the “thaw” initiated at that time, transferring the accent from party propaganda to more amply understood humanism enriched prose writing in all Soviet countries.

Keeping in mind the first date, 1934, we find that the earliest study of magic realism in Latin-American literature sets 1935—the appearance of Borges' Historia universal de la infamia—as the cornerstone in its development.4 It is very curious to note that in 1936, Antanas Vaičiulaitis, in his Natūralizmas ir lietuviū literatūra, was appealing for a “new” or “magic” realism which would pay more attention to spiritual values without drifting away from reality. And already in 1926 Balys Sruoga talks about the “magic element” in one of Krėvė's rather realistic sketches. An earlier mention of the term, applied to painting, is found in Franz Roh's Nachexpressionismus: Magischer Realismus (1925). It is presented there as “magischer Einblick in ein unbetont gedeutetes Stück ‘Wirklichkeit’” which permits to capture “the magic of being” in a total vision achieved by juxtaposition of different levels. Another statement by Roh could be considered as a preview of the techniques used by contemporary Latin-American novelists: “zarte aber stetige Spannung zwischen Hingabe an die vorgefundene Welt und klarem Bauwillen ihr gegenüber.”5 Among the writers, it was Miguel Angel Asturias, however, who illustrated more clearly than Borges the connection between magic and ancient Indian myths in practically all his writings, and who offered the following definition of the phenomenon: “a melting of the visible and the tangible, the hallucination and the dream. The Indian sees things not so much as the events themselves but translates them into other dimensions, where reality disappears and dreams appear, where dreams transform themselves into tangible and visible forms.” (Interview in 1968.) In 1949—Preface to Kingdom of this World—Alejo Carpentier supplemented further insight into the essence of magic realism: “Unusual illumination of unsuspected treasures in everyday reality which reveals itself through exaltation of the spirit. Everything turns out to be miraculous in a story that could not take place in Europe but is so real that it could be incorporated for pedagogical reasons into text-books.”

Both authors' insistence on the indigenous element ought not to be forgotten: they really are saying that magic realism is the appropriate mode of writing in Latin-America where reality is a hundred-fold richer and more suggestive than anything an author might invent, inseparably fused with imagination, and where the super-imposed cultures have merged to a point of inviting synchronic presentation of different temporal, spatial, phenomenological levels. The fusion of ancient rites and beliefs with imported Catholic traditions, of old superstitions and myths with chronological sequence of history is found already in Asturias' Guatemala Legends as a natural soil for the growth of new techniques. It explains why this type of realism can hardly be transplanted to civilized, rational Western Europe where, according to Carpentier, by insisting on forcing the marvellous, “the miracle-men succeed only in becoming bureaucrats.” It might, however, surge in countries preserving strong folkloric tradition inseparably linked with life in the countryside, where the society is not yet totally rational or realistic and has kept alive the basic condition specified by Carpentier: faith which does not demand proofs. Magic must grow out of national modes of existence; it cannot be imported. Otherwise the works tend to become intellectually construed worlds of fantasy more suitable for allegory or even approaching a roman à clef, like Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Magic realism, on the other hand, works more like poetry: through intuition, although the great masters structure their novels with utmost consciousness and precision. It is never an invented world: some aspects are just elevated to hyperbole in order to produce what Vargas Llosa calls the “qualitative jump”:6 an almost unnoticeable transition from the realm of reality into that of fantasy. Therefore, with respect to magic realism one might be better advised to speak of symbolic vision, not of allegory.

The two attitudes toward literary creation have one denominator in common: “realism” (social or magic). It seems legitimate at this point to raise the question of verisimilitude in their portrayal of space, time, society. In the most exhaustive study of García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Vargas Llosa documents even the most fantastic passages as having arisen from the author's childhood experiences in a remote Colombian village. The writing of the novel becomes unveiling of a reality not readily found in official history, sociology, or anthropology books. Even Vargas Llosa's most gregariously absurd novel, Pantaleon and the Night Visitors, rests on notes collected on a reconnaissance trip as a journalist. Socialist realism, on the other hand, even without breaking away on the tangent of fantasy, proceeds, in a way, by veiling: trying to comply with the prescribed direction, it only admits situations, types, conflicts suitable for illustrating the ideological theses. Thus, there arises a tendency to create types or archetypes instead of full-fledged characters, and to give a slanted view of reality. The greatest difference might be seen in the authors' attitude toward the reader. While representatives of magic realism invite him to piece together fragments and allusions leading to subjective conclusions, socialist realists tell all, precluding an interpretation which would not fit into the established frame.

Magic realism attracts attention, but has not yet received full recognition in Soviet countries. Kutejščikova's introductory essay in Voprosy Literatury (1972, No. 4), is a good example: she has read thoroughly and discusses in some detail all important Latin-American writers, but little stress is put on their most fascinating facet: experimentation with narrative discourse. The nouveau roman receives even sharper criticism, since here also the contents do not correspond to socialist realist goals. On the other hand, critics in the West lament the fact that only a typological approach seems to be possible when analyzing Soviet writing of the 40s and 50s: “plots are built to portray people in a certain milieu. And the characters, acknowledged as the offspring of the milieu with which they are integrated, acquire traits considered typical for both.”7 The situation has changed considerably in the last fifteen years: the “orderly world (with) stable psychological climate and permanent ideological laws scrupulously enforced and unquestioned”8 is giving way to psychological inquest into individual characters, adopting such techniques as stream of consciousness, multiple point of view, ambiguity, mixed temporal levels.

Many innovations reach the Soviet countries by way of the three Baltic states and Georgia. There is not much literary criticism of the last decade where names of Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian authors would not come up.9 Already in 1973, the Lithuanian critic Algimantas Bučys specifies narrative modes borrowed by Soviet writers from those coming from the Baltic: “short” novel in Estonia (Vetema, Unt), nouveau roman in Latvia (Zigmonte, Skuji[UNK]š), stream-of-consciousness novels in Lithuania (Bieliauskas, Sluckis). At that time, no mention of magic realism occurs yet. After the Fifth Congress of Soviet Writers in 1972 and Brežnev's address in the XXIV Congress of the Communist Party, more and more warning voices are raised about the critics' duties: “to strengthen Lenin's principles of partijnost'; and narodnost', to fight bourgeois ideology.”10 Motyleva states almost in disbelief that “v nekotoryx literaturax perestali govorit' o socialističeskogo realizma.” Ozerov is more ambiguous in his observations. While recognizing the necessity of being freed from typology and monotony, he warms against the “cold creations” produced by “modernist” tendencies setting artistry as their ultimate goal. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that magic realism could receive great praise. Thus, authors like Irina Grekova, Vil Lipatov, Jurij Trifonov are considered as controversial innovators. They prefer not to repeat worn-out slogans, and delve more deeply into a few characters' minds and moral dilemmas, showing that not all is well under the sun. Their narrative techniques do not represent any drastic innovations, however. It seems that in the last decade ethic criteria set by socialist humanism have been replacing stereotype plots and situations prescribed by early manifestoes of socialist realism, but their way to magic realism is still long if not endless.

After this long introduction, let us look more closely at Lithuanian letters, where sometimes magic and socialist trends almost converge. The development of prose-writing has been the topic of several books of criticism.11 All contain statements about the promise manifest in the last decade. Bučys, taking not only the title—Romans ir darbartis (Novel and Contemporaneity)—from often-thrashed issues in Soviet literary journals, but partly also their attitude, shows that critics and writers are perfectly up-to-date on the newest trends in the rest of the world, although these have to be judged along the party line. He also shows with great insight how transformations of first originals to works more obedient to socialist principles in their second edition can be rather fatal: what Puodžiūnkiemis by Vienuolis gains in portrayal of social milieu, it loses in structure. Together with interest in new experiments, a certain hesitancy to accept them is ever present: most theoreticians point out the ephemeral nature of experimentation and warn against the “fatal nihilism and decadentist spirit” penetrating with stylistic innovations from the West, so contrary to socialist realism's staunch optimism.12

The road between 1948, when J. Šimkus was affirming that Communist ideology must pervade not only the author's mind but also his feelings, and 1973, when Areška admits that aesthetic evaluation may reach farther than strictly ideological judgment, has been long and tedious. Quite illuminating in this respect is Romualdas Lukošiūnas' study of a booklet published in 1947—Už tarybinę lietuviu literatūrą; (For a Socialist Lithuanian Literature)—and its consequences, showing how even by then well-recognized authors were persuaded to comply with the canons of socialist realism.13 In 1973 Areška states—very much in line with Brežnev's address of 1972—the necessity of incorporating progress to literature. While Brežnev, however, refers strictly to technological achievements, that is, themes and topics, Areška means progress also in expressive means. Pointing to today's writers' success in creating distance (stylistic device often and effectively used by Sluckis and Aputis), recognizing the latter's outstanding qualities as a narrator, he observes also lack of socialist ideology and concludes that Aputis, one of the outstanding younger Lithuanian prose writers, is more of a poet than a narrator. In a similar way, he gives credit to today's authors for seeking a solid and original basis in folk traditions, but advises them not to forget that this should be merely a foundation, and that humanism is only complete when associated with representation of class struggle. Such forgetfulness can lead to punishment: contrary to logical expectations, Aputis was not awarded last year's prose prize because he side-stepped all prescriptions in one of his latest short stories.14

Two Lithuanian names are often mentioned in Soviet criticism when it comes to discuss innovations in the novel: Jonas Avyžius and Mykolas Sluckis. Between the two, Sluckis has doubtless greater resources. He constantly introduces new devices and has not yet stopped in his experimentations. His writing stands as an example of what can be achieved within the frame of socialist realism without succumbing to monotony, repetition of topics and types, or mere illustrativeness of party goals. From Adomo obuolys (1966; Adam's Apple) on—the first novel to generate wide discussion in Russia—his prose has served as a model to more than one Soviet author. He has been hailed as “father of the stream-of-consciousness technique.” His novels depict the reality of today's Lithuania, with all its economic struggles, social ladder-climbing, functioning of the establishment, even re-statement of party ideals—but all is done viewing it from a particular conscience, juxtaposing interior processes and official interpretations of facts, questioning the ultimate meaning of seemingly insignificant happenings. An aura of ambiguity pervades his best books. Fragmentation helps the technique of omissions, allusions, suggestions. Although in the first novels we still have an omniscient narrator, he seems to view all events from a distance, allowing the reader's judgment to enter. This becomes particularly effective in Saulė vakarop (1976; Setting Sun), where several continued points of view are introduced and the story unfolds alternating first and third person narration, interpolating fragments imitating earlier narrative styles, constantly crossing different temporal levels. He thus achieves an intricate portrait of life—reactions to it—and society in present-day Lithuania. The book is permeated with subtle irony and implied criticism which not seldom encompasses also the narrating “I.” Ambiguity becomes the prevailing mode; mythification of a hero proves quite impossible, and all is not as clear and beautiful as the established canons would have it.

Sluckis' constant breaking out of socialist realism's frame while remaining within it may account for the fact that Soviet critics have lavished more praise on Avyžius, whose best-known novels Kaimas kryžkelėje (1964; A Village at the Crossroads) and Sodybu tuštėjimo metas (1970; Exodus from Farmsteads) show greater conformity with the principles of idejnost', partijnost'; and klassovost'. There is distribution of awards for the just at the end, and some exaltation of the “true” ideals. His narrative discourse does not show achievements similar to those of Sluckis. Black and white characters and traditional realistic presentation have not disappeared, although he does introduce deeper psychological analysis and excels in portraying a simple farmer's inner world. Even his last novel, Chameleono spalvos (1978; Chameleon's Colors), in which a critical stance prevails, and which has not been greeted with such enthusiasm as the preceding books, seems to be introducing mainly thematic and attitudinal changes that could perhaps be likened to the manner of the latest Jurij Trifonov, and not dramatic technical innovations. The new direction does not lead totally out of realism but towards what has been called critical realism. This type of novel continues to present the social milieu as it is, but instead of affirming victory of the only possible ideals, questions all values and attitudes. Through realistic techniques it very effectively shows the shortcomings of the system even without hinting directly at them. Thus, it performs the task of unveiling as opposed to the careful veiling in early socialist-realist writing.

Two younger prose writers in Lithuania: Juozas Aputis and Romualdas Granauskas have been particularly successful in incorporating fantasy and symbolic vision into the framework of socialist realism. Their short stories are among the most interesting literary productions of the past ten years in Lithuania and could stand comparison with the most exciting narrative in the West. Both surpass old-fashioned realistic discourse using manifold new techniques. In the realm of the novel Vytautas Martinkus would deserve mention.

Most of Aputis' short stories are based on the simplest every-day happenings, but present a totally subjective perception and independent inner worlds. In many, multilevel selective memory plays an important part, creating ambiguity through flash-backs and premonitions intertwining past, present, and future. Not seldom happy memories of officially “bad” times add new shades to the objectively portrayed present. Fusion of time and space on several levels permits to transform that objective reality. He proceeds most often by suggestion and understatement, leaving part of the story untold. Many of his stories have an open ending, since only the external facts are stated, and these count least. In some, interesting attempts at simultaneous presentation are made, as in the story showing three wives on a buying spree in a little town while the men of the family wait for their return in the village. Deft transitions occur by means of concurrent drinking scenes in the two locations, or picking up one conversation and continuing it in the other. In a number of them, country-life traditions prove to be the only valuable possession still left to the people: a view beautifully illustrated also in Granauskas' “Duonos valgytojai” (The Bread Eaters). There is intentional simplicity of discourse and dialogue in all Aputis' stories occasionally tinted with irony. More than once the third person narration produces the effect of a subdued first person confession, at the same time viewing it with ironic detachment. Aputis is also a master in creating unforewarned transitions from minute descriptions of reality to completely unreal situations. Some of his procedures bring to mind E. T. A. Hoffmann, whom Hans Mayer has called “Meister der ironischen Brechung und perspektivischen Täuschung,”15 and about whose structures he states that they do not admit a complete ending. In more than one story a subtle didactic inclination can be detected. The values brought forward are not socialist, however, but humanistic.

Aputis' story “Skraidančios obelys” (“Flying apple-trees”) can serve as an example of his narrative procedures. It deals with a very real happening: expropriation of a farmstead. The actual narration time stretches between the owner's—Milašius—awaiting the commission coming to compensate him for the apple-trees that will be destroyed, the arrival of the delegates, their reception (practically no story skips a drinking scene), and Milašius' transfer to the new location, during which he, drunk as he is, falls out of the truck and has a vision. The vision could logically be ascribed to his drunkenness—and so there would be no room for magic realism. At the very beginning a premonition is inserted, however: the apparition of Milašius' deceased mother with a gesture that reappears at the end of the vision, fusing the two. The overall atmosphere is helped by the structure.

The story opens with four stream-of-consciousness paragraphs where the theme is introduced only by allusion, and where also all the elements of the story are laid out, reaching twenty and more years back: a rather penetrating, although purely impressionistic portrait of life in a Lithuanian village, completed and strengthened by anaphoric repetition. The last of these paragraphs deals exclusively with apple-trees—and thus connects with the story's motto: “They blossom, and blossom: in the subconscious, under water, underground.” From the fifth paragraph on the discourse is taken over by the narrator, but Milašius remains within through free indirect speech. At this point the apparition of the old mother occurs—almost in terms of a flying witch. The following paragraphs stress, again through free indirect speech, Milašius' intimate relationship with nature, interrupted—as an announcement of the second part—by the arrival of the bulldozer. The centre of the story presents the “deal” during the reception, but simultaneously Milašius' awareness—according to the sound of the bulldozer outside—of how different trees are being uprooted. He thus never ceases to function on at least two levels. At this point, another mention of the old mother is made: hearing a crow caw, Milašius gets frightened thinking that his mother might slip in through the open door. The scene inside corresponds to the bull-dozing time outside: it ends when the last tree has been torn out. The paragraph leading to the last part of the story—the moving—is again dedicated to the trees, by now all aligned on the ground, but referred to as living persons. When, finally, having fallen out of the truck Milašius goes back to the old farmstead, he has a vision: “little and big trees were resting, lying on their sides; suddenly, five apple-trees detached themselves, flapped their branches, rose up into the air and started circling over Milašius' head, buzzing strangely—like bees.” The movement increases, suddenly all seems to be getting covered by apple blossoms. And here the narrator steps in: “Milašius was looking at the flying apple-trees shedding blossoms; he was not drunk to the point that he would not think: ‘How good that these are only my trees going crazy; but when the flying ones of all the neighbours will congregate, Jesus and Holy Mother of God, we won't be able to tell heaven from earth, and they may even bury us under all those blossoms.’” He then starts to run, but has to stop when he hears somebody calling him: his old shrivelled mother. This leads to the last sentence of the story: “with a withered finger she was pointing to her chin, where, instead of the single long hair, a little white apple-tree was growing.” Such ending takes the reader beyond thought: the story continues long after the book has been closed.

Granauskas uses a different approach in his scenes from Lithuanian country-life. His effects are most often achieved through a masterful use of language. He is more interested in images and symbols, allowing multiplicity of interpretation through these. He also makes use of continued metaphors, or one, all-encompassing symbolic vision throughout the entire story. Some of his pieces could serve as examples of what Octavio Paz has called meta-irony: “Irony belittles the object; meta-irony is interested not in the value of objects but in how they work. And the way they work is symbolic. It is not an inversion of values but a moral and aesthetic liberation which brings opposite sides into communication.”16 In this he may not reach such heights as García Márquez or Vargas Llosa, but is able to create total ambiguity. A good example would be the story entitled “Vienas” (“Alone”), which presents one character between two perspectives (post-war Lithuania torn between “bandits” and their persecutors), with no pronounced or implied judgment. Some of the stories reach epic dimensions, symbolizing the entire destiny of Lithuania, like “Jaučio aukojimas” (“Sacrifice of the Bull”) or “Raudoni miškai” (“Red Forests”), scanning through centuries of history and establishing parallels. Altogether, more war and post-war echoes can be found here, but never a clear declaration of what is right or wrong. As in Aputis, an intimate relationship with nature surges as one value which does not fade, and emphasis is laid on humanism, not on party ideology. Granauskas works from a different perspective, however: he often elevates issues arising from everyday life to metaphysical questioning. In some stories the generation gap is shown in all its crudity; in others, all generations appear united through symbolism. “Red Forests,” where this occurs, is perhaps also the best example of an attempt at magic realism.

The whole story could be called a vision, yet it springs forth from reality, incorporates exact allusions to Lithuanian history, points to happenings in the present, and serves as a symbolic monument to Lithuanian mothers. It starts in a real setting, although from the very beginning this reality can be sensed as ominous: “A plain, stretching out in all directions, where trees don't dare to grow. They have concealed themselves behind the distant hills …” Gradually, transition into the unreal is made: “Nothing but stones, nothing but stones. Seeing them, instinctively she curled her toes, the memory of stubble-fields still lived in them: she grew astonished when the stones did not pierce her body as she had expected, her body, so heavy with tense waiting and pain. She moved her feet, they swayed gently in mid-air, touching nothing.” Suddenly, we perceive the protagonist—nameless, since she is a symbol—among a row of crosses hung with dead women, herself hanging on a cross. A strange, very effective mixture of personal memories and fragments of ancient—and more recent—history follows, again working through symbols: the children always as soldiers, persecuting or persecuted, doomed to die. When the resources of this type of vision are exhausted, the narrator proceeds further, bidding the thoughts of the crucified to wander back into the realm of the living. The last scene seems full of light and returns the reader to reality, yet, the implication of the last sentence is not less ominous than that of the first: “The gate was open, beyond it a crippled goose was walking, not doing anything to anybody. A little girl was waiting on the threshold, leafing through an old prayerbook: ‘Mother, when I grow up, will they also nail me to a cross?’”17 This type of story calls for poetic interpretation, defying any straight-line canons. In a mere 6, 5 pages Granauskas achieves similar condensation as García Márquez in his One Hundred Years of Solitude, allowing for interpretation on as many levels as the reader's imagination will be able to set up. Significantly, it points to mythical origins, but also to folklore by repeated mentions of “half the sun, and half the moon.” Not banning present-time moods, it transcends time. Not leaving real countryside, it confers it mythical dimensions.

The new directions observed in latest Lithuanian narrative seem to fulfill Vaičiulaitis' wish of 1936: to disclose spirituality in man and nature. Increasing lyric quality leads to portrayal of more personal worlds; subtle use of epiphanies permits accentuation of new values without destroying the old ones. Deeper delving into the subconscious incorporates different temporal levels and brings about a changing point of view. Most of the newest techniques introduced in the West have found their way into the Lithuanian short story and have been adapted to folklore and popular traditions without forcing imitation. In 1976, Byron Lindsey, reviewing C. V. James' Soviet Socialist Realism: Origins and Theory (1973), stated: “James' approach is more likely to frustrate, bore and even mystify. But come to think of it, this is in the best tradition of socialist realism.”18 Fortunately, we can safely posit that this is not true of the Baltic literatures, and that re-vitalizing changes which have taken place are in great part due to an injection of magic into the socialist frame.19


  1. See V. Kutejščikova, “Kontinent, gde vstrečajutsja vse èpoxi,” Voprosy Literatury, 1972, No. 4, 74-97.

  2. I am specifically thinking of Šaltenis' “Duokiškis,” where the influence is obvious. Several of the better-known Latin-American authors have been translated into Lithuanian; most of the important works are available in Russian or Polish translations.

  3. See Lietuviu apsakymo raida ir poetika (Vilnius: Vaga, 1971), and introduction to Lietuviu tarybine novelė; (Vilnius: Vaga, 1969). A Bučys, in Romanas ir dabartis (Vilnius: Vaga, 1973) notes that in Latvia and Estonia the development originated earlier and had produced noteworthy results by 1956.

  4. See Angel Flores, “Magical Realism in Spanish-American Fiction,” Hispania, 38 (1955), 187-201; and Luis Leal, “El realism o mágico en la literatura hispano-americana,” Cuadernos Americanos, CLIII, 4 (1967), 230-5.

  5. Franz Roh, Nach-Expressionismus; Magischer Realismus: Probleme der europäischen Malerei (Leipzig: Klinkhardt & Bierman, 1925), p. 1.

  6. M. Vargas Llosa, García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio, (Barcelona-Caracas, 1971).

  7. Xenia Gasiorowska, Women in Soviet Fiction 1917-1964 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1968), 8.

  8. Gasiorowska, 10.

  9. See, among others, T. Motyleva, “Vsmatrivajas' v novoe,” Voprosy Literatury, 1972, No. 5, 31-59; and V. Ozerov, “Literaturno-xudožestvennaja kritika i sovremennost',” Voprosy Literatury, 1972, No. 4, 3-39.

  10. “O literaturno-xudožestvennoj kritike,” Voprosy Literatury, 1972, No. 3. The 1977 Socialističeskij realizm segodnja does not add many new insights.

  11. In addition to Zalatorius and Bučys, see V. Areška, Tradicija ir ieškojimai (Vilnius: Vaga, 1973).

  12. This is true not only speaking of prose; it carries over to drama and poetry criticism. Thus, V. Sventickas, reviewing recent verse collections and expertly pointing out their achievements, reminds us that “citizen comes before individual” and remarks almost with regret that sprightful spring assertiveness is lately being replaced by melancholy autumn moods (Eilėraščio keliais (Vilnius: Vaga, 1978).

  13. Romualdas Lukošiūnas, “Sovietu moralinio teroro dokumentas,” in Aidai, 1978, No. 10, 429-33; and 1979, No. 1, 5-10.

  14. One can find similar criteria even in the West. Michel Zéraffa, one of the members of the highly selective École des Hautes Études in Paris, states in his The Novel and Social Reality (Penguin Books, 1976): “Mallarmé's regard for Zola's writing in some ways carries with it a condemnation in social and political terms of the great novelist” (p. 114).

  15. “Zur Wirklichkeit E. T. A. Hoffmanns,” E. T. A. Hoffmann, Werke, 4 (Fft/M.: Insel-Verlag, 1967), 489.

  16. In Children of the Mire. (Los hijos del limo [Barcelona, 1974], 155).

  17. Tr. by M. Girnius, Lituanus, Vol. 23, No. 4 (1977), 21-25.

  18. Byron Lindsey on C. Vaughan James, Soviet Socialist Realism: Origins and Theory (New York: St. Martin's, 1973), in Books Abroad, (Winter 1976), 191.

  19. This paper was read at the 5th Conference on Baltic Studies in Scandinavia, Stockholm, June 1979.

Keith Maillard (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: “Middlewatch as Magic Realism,” in Canadian Literature, No. 92, Spring, 1982, pp. 10-21.

[In the following essay, Maillard discusses magic realist elements in Susan Kerslake's novel Middlewatch.]

I read Susan Kerslake's first novel, Middlewatch,1 in the spring of 1977. I found it a book not without minor flaws. Kerslake's fragile style, depending for effect upon juxtaposition of intense lyricism with a simple, folkloric narrative line, was a difficult one to control, and she faltered occasionally. But, after finishing the book, I was ready to forgive her anything. Wisps of Middlewatch persisted at the back of my mind for years—the magical shimmer of the writing, the resonance, the sheer importance of what was being said in such a quiet way. For me Kerslake had “that voice,” as Michael Ondaatje wrote of Márquez, “whose greatest power is that we trust it.”2

Shortly after I read Middlewatch, I discovered that I had been labelled, for the second time, a “magic realist.” My publisher, Dave Godfrey, had done it first in the dust jacket blurb of Two Strand River; he had meant it as more than merely a catch phrase to help sell books. My work, he told me, reminded him of the painting of Alex Colville and Ken Danby: the meticulous detailing so realistic it reverses into dream. But then Geoff Hancock, in the Canadian Fiction Magazine, was claiming the existence of a full-blown literary genre called “magic realism” with Canadian practitioners who included Robert Kroetsch, Jack Hodgins, and myself. He assigned us precursors in the South American writers—Borges, Cortazar, Llosa, Asturias, and Márquez—and attempted a definition:

Magic realism is not surrealism or fantasy writing. Surrealist writers … use a linear association of ideas which often dispenses with logic and the laws of the physical world. Fantasy writers, by comparison, are often dependent upon the supernatural and the absurd, and very commonly place their stories on Mars or Jupiter. Magic realists place their extraordinary feats and mysterious characters in an ordinary place, and the magic occurs from the sparks generated between the possibilities of language and the limitations of physical nature.3

Although pleased to find myself placed in such august company, I was irritated at Hancock's article for raising more questions than it answered; that summer I badly needed answers. I was working on my fifth novel, Motet, and having a hard time of it; I felt that in writing this book I needed to know, in every sense of the word, what I was doing, and I was driven into the analysis of other people's fiction—and later into literary criticism—as a way of maintaining my own ability to write. By the time I finished Motet two years later, I had also evolved my own definition of magic realism which was both broader than Hancock's and more precise. Most useful was Robert Scholes' notion of “fabulation” which, he said, “means a return to a more verbal kind of fiction. It also means a return to a more fictional kind. By this I mean a less realistic and more artistic kind of narrative: more shapely, more evocative; more concerned with ideas and ideals, less concerned with things.”4 From his analysis of the work of Durrell, Vonnegut, Southern, Hawkes, Murdoch, and Barth, the outline of what he meant by fabulation gradually emerged, something not far off the old “art for art's sake”—fiction as the playing of games with structure. What Hancock said of magic realism could apply equally to fabulation: “Language and formal structure are now part of a story, as important as plot and character. When language and structures are used as an end in themselves, new dimensions are open for the writer of fiction.” Could magic realism then be simply a style of fabulation? I didn't believe it; I felt, at the heart of the work, a difference in kind from One Hundred Years of Solitude and Giles Goat-Boy.

It appeared to me essential to distinguish varieties of post-realist fiction, not as an exercise in literary pedantry, but as a way of deepening my understanding of particular works and the connections between them. Scholes discussed the difficulties readers and reviewers were having with the books he called fabulations. “Much of the trouble comes from inadequate understanding of this new literary mode,” he wrote.

The trouble is aggravated by the absence of terminology in which to discuss it. Evaluation and appreciation depend helplessly on recognition of kind, and recognition requires appropriate linguistic categories. As long as we expect a nectarine to taste like either a peach or a plum we are bound to be disappointed. But once we assimilate this new category—nectarine—we begin to know what we are dealing with and how to react to it. We can judge and appreciate.

Here, then, is my attempt to define a new category, that nectarine called magic realism. Throughout the long development of the novel as a form, writers have worked out a set of narrative conventions designed to create the illusion that the story on the page is “real” or “true” and corresponds in some direct and substantial way to the ordinary world of day-to-day life. Any working novelist knows just how arbitrary and artificial these conventions are, but they have been so long and deeply established that they are accepted easily by readers as “realistic.” Writing that does nothing more than work inside these conventions is, simply, realism, as in most of the work, for example, of Margaret Laurence or John Updike. Fantasy writing accepts these conventions but shifts the location, not merely (as Hancock says) to Mars or Jupiter, but to Middle Earth or Narnia, and attempts to create what Tolkien calls “a secondary reality”: that is, a world different from the ordinary one we see around us but which, nonetheless, must be perceived as “real.” Surrealism, not the specific movement associated with André Breton, but, as Susan Sontag says, “a mode of sensibility which cuts across all the arts in the 20th century,” attacks realistic conventions at the root, not merely, as Hancock says, by “a linear association of ideas,” but more usually by what Sontag calls radical juxtaposition—the collage principle. “The Surrealist sensibility,” she says, “aims to shock,”5 as in the work, say, of William Burroughs.

Three characteristics appear to me necessary for magic realism. The first is the acceptance of most or all of the realistic conventions of fiction. The second is the introduction of a “something else” which is not realistic—the “magic” of the genre—which may be at the level of plot (the magic carpets and ascensions to heaven of Márquez, the Doppelgängers and resurrections of Hodgins) or at the level of the narrative itself (O'Hagan's direct introduction of myth into the text, Harlow's bomb-like author intrusion in Scann, Márquez's complex structure that destroys itself on the last page). The magic element is not juxtaposed with the realistic for shock value, as in surrealism, but woven in seamlessly. The third characteristic is that the impulse for the writing of magic realism arises out of the desire to transcend the form of the realistic novel not as form but as expression. This statement obviously requires clarification.

Fabulation, as I understand it, arises from a delight in play with all the accumulated baggage of literature itself, Hancock's “language and structures used as an end in themselves”—Barth's elaborate allegory, Nabokov's self-referring index. The spirit of fabulation is something like this: Nothing important can be said, so why not have fun? The spirit of magic realism, in contrast, is: Something tremendously important must be said, something that doesn't fit easily into traditional structures, so how can I find a way to say it? Eli Mandel's comments on the “Child figure” in regional literature are useful here: “the child's vision … is of home; and that surely is the essence of what we mean by region, the overpowering feeling of nostalgia associated with the place we know as the first place, the first vision of things, the first clarity of things. Not realism, then, but rather what in painting is called magic realism. …”6 This nostalgia for a lost Eden is nearly identical to “a suffering native to human beings,” that Ruth Nichols writes about: “the conviction that we belong somewhere else: homesickness.”7 And, as the attempt to say the inexpressible about childhood generates (Mandel tells us) “magical clarity, mistaken for accuracy,” so Nichols' homesickness generates a style of fantasy which she has the singular courage to claim is more “realistic” than realism because it is more true to the way things are. I would argue that the impulse for magic realist writing stems from the need to convey a living experience, that the interweaving of realistic convention with magical elements is not done for its own sake but to produce that symptomatic eerie shimmer which must be seen as an attempt to express what is nearly inexpressible.

Middlewatch now appears to me to be a work of magic realism. That this genre is not yet fully understood would account for much of the difficulty reviewers had with the book. The surface narrative is relatively simple. Eleven chapters alternate between a present time and a past time sequence. In the present time sequence, Morgan, the school teacher in a remote village by the sea, finds a young girl, Sibbi, abandoned in her brother's cabin. Her hair has been cut off; she's been beaten and left tied to the bed. The experience has left her mute and crazy. Morgan takes her home with him and tries to heal her. The past time sequence follows Sibbi from birth to the point she's found by Morgan. After giving birth to her, Sibbi's mother dies. When Sibbi is five, her older brother, Jason, takes her away from her foster parents and leads her out into the wilderness. Jason builds a cabin and carves out an existence as a sheep farmer. He regards Sibbi as a tool to help him in his rigorous pioneer life and disapproves of her desire to go to school. Jason is hurt in an accident and brought back to his cabin by gypsies who live in the hills. Sibbi later goes back to the caravan with a gypsy boy and makes love with him. Jason finds out about it, goes mad, and destroys everything. It is not until the end of the past time sequence that we understand the full implication of the opening chapter: Jason left Sibbi tied to the bed to die.

In the twenty-three reviews of Middlewatch I read, an inordinate amount of ink is wasted in speculations on the time and location of the story. The only details that indicate a modern time are the presence of electric lights, trains, and buses; we are told nothing of life in the cities far from the village. Kerslake's setting corresponds to the Maritimes in much the way Sheila Watson's Double Hook country corresponds to the Cariboo in British Columbia and for similar reasons: no effort is made to establish an exact locale or time because such specificity would limit the possibilities of mythic resonance. Kerslake does, however, go to great pains to build us a real world, describing the school and the objects in Morgan's teacherage, pointing out such mundane details as Sibbi's chapped lips; she observes all the standard narrative devices of realism, so much so that, given the romantic clichés—a lonely man in a remote village, a hurt young girl, gypsies in the hills, the sea, a storm—a superficial reader could easily label the book a gothic or romance (as, indeed, many of her reviewers did). Beneath the surface narrative, however, are additional levels which Kerslake has taken some pains to conceal—or at least to render as unobtrusive as possible. The tension between the realistic surface narrative and the deeper levels creates the shimmering, multi-dimensional effect symptomatic of magic realism.

Most of the reviewers did, to their credit, notice that “something else” was going on in Middlewatch, but few of them had much of an idea what that something else might be beyond noting that it was “mythic.” Ironically, both the highest praise and most vigorous condemnation of the book came from writers who never saw beneath the surface. Much of the difficulty the reviewers had with Middlewatch arises from Kerslake's elliptical presentation so necessary for her magic realist effect. She does, however, supply plenty of sign posts pointing in toward the first level beneath the surface narrative, that of archetypes from myth and folklore. Sibbi is a sibyl; indeed Sibyl is her given name. Jason with his sheep is seeking the golden fleece of crude capital accumulation. Morgan, as a young man on a quest, has “come to the ends of the earth”; his name in Welsh means “a dweller by the sea.”

“When Sibbi was born under a bush, her mother died in the effort,” Kerslake begins the story of Sibbi's origins, and continues in the same matter-of-fact tone, telling us how the children leave their foster parents to go off into the wilderness together. The tone is that of a folk tale. Compare one of Grimm's tales:

Brother took his little sister by the hand and said, “Since our mother died we have not had one happy hour. … Come, we will go out into the wide world together.” All day they walked over meadows, fields, and stony paths. …8

The motif of a brother-sister pair wandering alone in the wild is an ancient one and occurs in many folk tales. As soon as Kerslake has established the reference, she gradually shifts the tone away from folk narrative into that of realistic convention until we are being given again the careful detailing of day-to-day life which recreates the illusion that we are reading a realistic novel.

An example of Kerslake's elliptical presentation is found in the opening pages of the book. “The crimson geranium,” she begins. “Fretted edges casting shadow pools on the softer colour of petals beneath. Dew-fed in the window-box.” Ildikó de Papp Carrington objects: “This doesn't seem to have any discernible narrative function. It is an image described for its own sake, as in imagist poetry.”9 In the face of such wrong-headed criticism, I hope I can be forgiven for attempting an elucidation. The crimson geranium is not an image like something William Carlos Williams would use; it is a symbolist device and, as such is not by now exactly a novelty. It does require close attention. Sibbi is tied to the bed; the geranium is what she is seeing. Morgan calls her name, and she shuts her eyes. “The name is. The crimson asserts itself under her eyelids … as if someone were calling her name, gently, and it turned into colour.” Now Sibbi is the geranium (just as she is associated with growing plants throughout the book). Then the colour, which is her name, her self, turns to the colour of blood: “She is fleeing the ravages of blood, her blood.” Sibbi is the blood sacrifice (like Jason's lambs) who must be slaughtered to be reborn. At the end of the book she returns to Jason's cabin and finds the geranium dead: “She took the dirt and dry roots and crumbled them in her hands. To dust.” Only by the full recognition of the death of her old self can she begin to live again.

Nearly all of the crucial turning points of the book are as carefully hidden; indeed the references to “hide and seek” and “lost and found” recur throughout, as when Sibbi and Morgan first meet and he tells her, “It's okay to come here, I came too, just now, and found you.” To which Sibbi replies simply: “Found.” Eventually, as I followed out thematic connections, I began to feel as though the author herself were playing hide and seek with the reader and to hear at the back of my mind (although it is never mentioned) that grand old chestnut hymn: “For I was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

Sibbi's name, Sibyl, is given to her by “a cold white woman.” When, as a small child, she begins to tan, her brother wants “her winter-white skin, pale, elusive, able to evoke spirits.” She sees Morgan “in the grey-white second-hand light of the moon.” She seeks “the moon … cold and blue.” Wounded by his axe, Jason sees Sibbi “pale, as if she belonged back in night.” Morgan sees her as “a pale skimpy girl” with “sunless skin.” In all cases, Kerslake's emblematic labelling of her characters is as insistent. Sibbi, then, is the moon, associated with women's mysteries and blood. Her mother dies bearing her, in a flow of blood; Sibbi, too, will die and be reborn like the moon. Jason is the sun, associated with gold and with predatory birds—hawks and eagles. Morgan, the nutritive teacher, is associated with water (the sea) and growing things; like Sibbi, he is rooted to the earth. The gypsy boy, as Chaviva Hosek points out, “stands for uncomplicated sexuality. … The girl's movement from one male figure to another shows the transformation of the child to an adult and symbolizes the process of coming to wholeness.”10

Once we've been alerted to the mythic level, we can begin to understand how, in the interplay between characters as people in a realistic novel and characters as archetypes, Kerslake's magic realist style works. Jason, as David Helwig points out, “is a Canadian archetype … and he can attain the discipline he needs to dominate the world only by destroying things in himself.”11 (He is also an archetype older than Canadian, echoing Osiris who would domesticate wild nature and take his sister to wife.) He regards Sibbi as a chattel, a domestic servant to aid him in carving out property from the land; in the first image we're given of him, he is standing in the doorway to the cabin, blocking, with his outstretched arm, Sibbi's way out to the world. As long as she remains confined, tied—the tied image recurs: Sibbi is tied to the bed; Morgan ties her to him when they enter the storm; Jason not only ties Sibbi, he's tied to her—she has no existence; as moon, she shines by reflected light. Like O'Hagan's Tay John at his birth, she doesn't even cast a shadow. Tay John is given a shadow to make him human; similarly, Sibbi, after her sexual encounter with the gypsy boy, is forced uncomfortably into the human world: “They” (the other school children) “could see her shadow, a betrayal.” To Morgan, Sibbi first appears as an elusive wild girl, cousin to Rima in Green Mansions. (In this context it is interesting that O'Hagan, perhaps Canada's first magic realist, mentions W. H. Hudson as one of the influences on his work.12) After she “dies” in the explosion of Jason's inner fire, Sibbi is reborn as the mute Sibyl, and, as Hosek writes, her “silence is a constant temptation to the reader and to Morgan. It teases us into reading her through our own wishes,” which is as good a definition as any of Jung's “Anima.” She is also Morgan's muse, his child, and his potential lover. The sexual attraction between Morgan and Sibbi is given in typically elliptical fashion. After her sexual initiation with the gypsy boy, “She considered the teacher who was also a man, now that she knew something concerning men.”

By now we have enough information to make clear sense of an elusive but crucial passage near the opening of the book. Morgan has just rescued Sibbi. The black horse mentioned belongs to the gypsy boy.

He [Morgan] saw her in the snow that winter, in a gypsy shawl of warm wool. He saw her riding a horse, black as pitch in the white hills, but Jason still came down with the old dun pony. When she wandered into school in the rising of the year, he saw in the set of her lips a different kind of knowledge and she seemed to sit more surely in her seat. As if her centre of gravity had shifted; as if her pit was no longer where her quick heart beat, but had sunk to her womb. Her body flowed now, was no longer driven about like the weeds.

Morgan held that body now. It was as if something had to kill her before she could be either captured or saved. He had found her, but only after she had been trapped and tied.

Morgan takes on the project of curing Sibbi both out of hubris—his sense of self as a teacher—and out of his own loneliness which, initially, he can't admit to himself. He returns from the busyness of the village with his head full of plans:

His instinct was to force her, to shake that covering off, to squeeze some sound out of her. She had cried once; she had touched him once, she could do it again. … As he walked home …, the wind matched his own energy. … The fascination of order, pattern and symmetry. His perseverance, his will to endure fire and survive.

But when he tries to force her back to the world, she smashes the window with her elbows; later he finds her beating her thighs with her fists. Despite his good intentions, he is getting nowhere. And, as Hosek notes, the narrative style matches the story: “The lyricism, the lingering over detail for its own sake, is like Sibyl's holding back in order to be healed in her own time.” Morgan's next attempt to break through has an air of desperation about it. A hurricane is approaching; he feels “the peculiar tension and pressure of calm,” and says to the girl: “This is what it's like in your head, isn't it, Sibbi, this deadly grey, the weight of silence … ?” He ropes Sibbi to him and takes her out to watch the storm come in; it is an act of sympathetic magic. They're nearly blown away but manage to crawl back to the house. Morgan realizes that he's overreached himself; his reflection is one of the few moments of humour in the book: “Morgan was momentarily glad she was still mute; she wouldn't tell tales of his foolishness.” And he has learned “a secret” from the storm. For the first time he reaches out to Sibbi, not to help her, but needing her help:

“Oh, Sibbi, Sibbi,” he said sadly.



“What is it? What's the matter?” Her voice held real concern. …

It's the first time she's spoken since he found her, and, as soon as she does so, she's swept away by a seizure. “Her voice,” just as one would expect the sibyl's to be, “had been deeper than he had imagined. It wasn't a child's voice; … It was unnerving, the way she spoke; so organized.”

Chapter 9 is the emotional heart of the book and contains the most dense, elliptical, compact, and difficult imagery, but also passages of Kerslake's most beautiful writing:

The uneasy months when the sickly and old were watched closely. … The months when the latitudes were surely northern, when the sun appeared now and again, far away, like the pale flag of a foreign country on the horizon. …

As Hosek notes: “The watch between midnight and four in the morning is called ‘middlewatch’; the novel exploits the suggestion of watchfulness, waking and waiting for light implicit in the title.” It is: “The lean lull at the edge of the new year. The time of the year when the Norsemen had rolled the wheel of fire, twined with straw, from hilltop to the winter sea,” and, in this frozen darkness, Morgan sinks to his psychic nadir; all he can do is wait and watch. “What happens when one lives so close to the sea … ?” he wonders—so close to the dark waters of the psyche—“right there, at the edge, you're lulled, stunned.” He can't connect with the people in the village; even in the “warm, brown, rowdy” tavern, he's a lone watcher. After learning the secret from the storm, he now knows what he fears most: that, when he reaches down inside himself “there could be emptiness beneath the cold smooth stone.” He sleeps and dreams that he hears a voice: “Don't please don't, no, no, please don't, no, no, no, please. …” The voice is Sibbi's, re-enacting the terrible moment of Jason's attack on her, but Morgan claims the voice as his own: “And his despair, to which … he felt a right. He wasn't one of those who are betrayed from outside. If he was to be destroyed, it would be from within.” Sibbi gets up. Morgan sees her “sunless skin” and “the two points of her breasts.” Here is Morgan's temptation, and, like Saint Anthony's, it comes accompanied by demons. Sibbi, connected to the underground world, is directly aware of them: “They were trying to follow and find Morgan.” But his perception is more distanced: “There were voices, or perhaps it was the last whispering of the fire.”

Where had she gone; why couldn't he follow? He was lonely and afraid.

He took her straw-blond head in his hands, caressed her cheeks with his thumbs. Each time it began as if he were touching a stranger and the stranger in himself.

Morgan's spiritual task is enormous. To save Sibbi, he can no longer keep himself distanced and safe; he must find a way to experience her directly, as in his dream. But he can ask for nothing in return, and he can't allow himself to be dragged down into emptiness with her. “Turning her round, she lay in his arms,” Kerslake writes, and, in fracturing the grammar of the sentence, merges the characters as nurse and patient merge in Bergman's Persona. And throughout this dark night of the soul, Morgan “held more tightly to the only living thing in his world.”

As the present time narrative has been unfolding, so has the past. Morgan resists the temptation of hubris, but Jason does not. He sees the natural world only as something to be exploited. His sister is a tool for him to use quite as much as his sheep dog or pony: “That she should want anything, be separate in any way, was as foreign to him now as it ever had been.” His struggle is turning him to ice: “For Jason the shape of everything had become deadly serious. Sibbi watched his hands holding a knife-blade against the grinding stone. … Bears stood in his eyes. …” But, as we all know by now, those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. Jason accidentally strikes himself on the forehead with his axe (“labrys,” the two-headed axe, may be the root of “labyrinth”). While Jason is recovering, confined to the cabin, Sibbi is freed to form her liaison with the gypsy boy and grow into sexual knowledge. She is separating herself from Jason; he can regard such separation only as a betrayal.

One night in midsummer when all the forces of the earth and sky were pulling against each other, Jason broke apart. The hawk slanted out of the sky and struck its talons through his head and heart. There was no escape; he was almost relieved. He would fight but he would lose. The hawk would carry him off. But he fought, he fought by destroying everything he would have to leave behind.

But we are not finished. The heart of Middlewatch cannot be reached without an exploration of what might be called Kerslake's mediaevalism. Hosek points out that the novel appears to demand treatment as an allegory, that it is possible to read it “in very schematic terms,” but her statement that “It is not clear what point Kerslake is trying to make by putting all these figures at the fringe of the community,” is symptomatic of her unwillingness to attempt such a reading. “Story-tellers,” Michael Ondaatje says, writing of O'Hagan's Tay John, “are separate from the source of power. … In the superb scene in which Tay John fights the bear, Jack Denham, who witnesses it, is separated by a raging river he cannot cross but which is only two yards wide. He is unable to cross over into the arena of pure myth.”13 Similarly, Jason and Sibbi must be separated from the mundane, civilized order of the village; they are described as living “on the horizon, in a bank of fog”—that is, at the very edge of consciousness where myth repeats itself forever. Morgan, who is drawn both outward into the mythic story and inward to the life of the village, is a bridge across which myth may pass safely back into ordinary life. In this role, he is a priest who must transfer the numina without being destroyed by it. And the myth retelling itself behind the veil of fog is Kerslake's version of Eden.

The Edenic motif is established early in the book when Morgan remembers Sibbi coming in “a golden Indian summer's day before school was open,” that is, in the golden dawn of time before the creation. She writes in a scribbler: “Jason. Dog. Sheep. Tree. Hill,” and creates the world, then, “Sibbi. I am Sibbi. Sibbi. Sibbi,” and defines herself in the created world. Later the Edenic motif is made fully explicit in the Hopkins poem Morgan reads to Sibbi:

What is all this juice and joy?
          A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. Have, get, before it cloy,
          Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning. …

To read Kerslake's Eden myth, we must see a third level beneath those of realism and symbolism, that of allegory. If here I appear driven to an exegesis that is nearly Kabbalistic, I can only argue that it is clearly demanded by the text: allegory is didactic, religious. To understand it, we must treat the characters as personifications.

In Kerslake's version, the fall occurs with the death of Jason's mother, The Great Mother who bears Sibbi on the earth and dies in a wash of blood. From the death of The Great Mother, consciousness arises and the division into male and female, the sun and the moon. Sibbi is the female principle in its tender and undeveloped form, Jason the male principle in its acquisitive, questing form. Separated from the primal union with The Great Mother, The Male Principle strikes out against the natural world (natura), which is the body of the Mother, and enslaves The Female Principle (the shift from the goddess religions to patriarchy at the basis of Western civilization). Separated from each other, the Male cannot love, the Female cannot act (shine with her own light). When the Female meets Innocent Delight (the gypsy boy) and learns knowledge, the dominant position of the Male is threatened and he is driven mad. The acquisitive, controlling force in him is turned back on itself, and he must destroy the world because he cannot love it. The Male kills the Female, and when she is reborn again, she is mute and helpless. The only way out of this dead-end is for the Male Principle to appear in another form, as Morgan, the Nutritive Male. He must give up the attempt to conquer or dominate the Female, allow her to grow in her own time; he must be able to stare into the storm (Untamed Nature), risk being destroyed by it, without attempting to own it or use it. He must continue with infinite patience, expecting nothing; in short, he must become a saint—which, in this context, can be read as “feminine.” Then the Female can be reborn as a whole person with the possibility that the Male and Female can be reunited and the world redeemed.

As Borges claimed, “the solution to the mystery is always inferior to the mystery.”14 But the book still stands intact. Of all the symbols in Middlewatch, only one, the storm, cannot be transformed into anything else. After the storm, Morgan “shared a secret with the earth that he wasn't sure he wanted. He didn't know what to do with this new experience. Almost everything he had learned before had a purpose, practical or intellectual. Here was an immaculate knowledge, an awe that had involved bone, blood and brain. Yet when he consciously called upon his brain, the knowing evaporated into the translucent sky. …” And, as Gershom Scholem, writing of the Kabbalists, tells us:

The thing which becomes a symbol retains its original form and its original content. It does not become, so to speak, an empty shell into which another content is poured; in itself, through its own existence, it makes another reality transparent which cannot appear in any other form. If allegory can be defined as the representation of an expressible something by another expressible something, the mystical symbol is an expressible representation of something which lies beyond the sphere of expression and communication, something which comes from a sphere whose face is, as it were, turned inward and away from us.15

Sibbi walks out into the psychic waters of the sea. Morgan follows. “She mustn't drown,” he thinks. She's crying. She reaches out to him. He touches her, but she pulls away. Then she takes his hand. “When you're ready,” he tells her. But “perhaps he'd been too sure she was looking at him.” Middlewatch has eleven chapters. In a book so carefully linked to the seasons of the year, we would expect twelve. We put the book away on the shelf but continue to read it. Will the sibyl speak? In the silence left behind is Kerslake's twelfth chapter. Such resonance is the way, at best, that magic realism works.


  1. (Ottawa: Oberon, 1976.)

  2. Michael Ondaatje, “Gacía Márquez and the Bus to Aracataca,” Figures in a Ground, ed. Diane Bessai and David Jackel (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978), p. 25.

  3. Geoffrey Hancock, “Magic Realism, or, the Future of Fiction,” Canadian Fiction Magazine, No. 24/25 (Spring/Summer 1977), pp. 4-6.

  4. Robert Scholes, The Fabulators (New York: Oxford, 1967), p. 12.

  5. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Dell, 1969), p. 271.

  6. Eli Mandel, Another Time (Erin, Ont.: Press Porcépic, 1977), p. 50.

  7. Ruth Nichols, “Fantasy and Escapism” (Canadian Children's Literature, No. 4, 1976), p. 26 and passim.

  8. The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, Vol. 1 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), p. 42.

  9. Ildikó de Papp Carrington, “Amor Vincit Omnia,” Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 6 (Spring 1977), pp. 134-36.

  10. Chaviva Hosek, “Middlewatch,” Fiddlehead (Summer 1977), pp. 134-36.

  11. “First Impressions,” Books in Canada (November 1976), p. 38.

  12. Howard O'Hagan mentioned the influence of W. H. Hudson on his work in my interview with him of July 17, 1979.

  13. Michael Ondaatje, “O'Hagan's Rough-Edged Chronicle,” Canadian Literature, No. 61 (Summer 1974), p. 28.

  14. Quoted in Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, Into the Mainstream (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), p. 121.

  15. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1961), p. 27.

Seymour Menton (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: “Jorge Luis Borges, Magic Realist,” in Hispanic Review, Vol. 50, No. 4, Autumn, 1982, pp. 411-26.

[In the following essay, Menton discusses the works of Jorge Luis Borges and the difference between magic realism and fantastic, or marvelous, literature.]

In the epilogue to the 1949 edition of El Aleph, Jorge Luis Borges states that with the exception of “Emma Zunz” and “Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva,” “las piezas de este libro corresponden al género fantástico.”1 This statement by Borges confirms the axiom that an author's words about his own works may not always be taken at face value. Although some of the stories in the volume do fall into the category of the fantastic, it would be difficult to justify that label for “Biografía de Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874),” “La otra muerte,” or “Deutsches Requiem.” However, in order to dispute Borges' statement, the term “género fantástico” must first be defined. Although Tzevetan Todorov's categories of the marvelous, the uncanny, and the fantastic are often cited,2 it is my contention that by contrasting the fantastic with Magic Realism, both terms will become more clearly delineated, and this in turn will help us arrive at a clearer understanding and appreciation of Borges' short stories.

It should first of all be pointed out that the two terms are essentially dissimilar. Whereas “lo fantástico” is a genre, a type of literature that may be found in any chronological period, Magic Realism is an artistic movement or tendency that began in 1918 as a direct reflection of a series of historical and artistic factors and continued in varying degrees of intensity until approximately 1970. According to the Magic Realism Weltanschauung, the world and reality have a dream-like quality about them which is captured by the presentation of improbable juxtapositions in a style that is highly objective, precise, and deceptively simple. The Magic Realist painting or short story or novel is predominantly realistic and deals with the objects of our daily life, but contains an unexpected or improbable element that creates a strange effect leaving the viewer or reader somewhat bewildered or amazed.

By contrast, the literature of the fantastic seems to conform rather well to the dictionary definitions of fantasy: “an imaginative or fanciful work, especially one dealing with supernatural or unnatural events or characters”;3 or “fantasy fiction: imaginative fiction dependent for effect on strangeness of setting (as other worlds or times) and of characters (as supernatural or unnatural beings).”4 Magic Realism, involved as it is with the improbable rather than the impossible, never deals with the supernatural. Furthermore, some of the dictionary definitions of “fantastic” not only sharpen the contrast between the fantastic and Magic Realism but also associate the former with Expressionism, the artistic and literary movement against which Magic Realism rebelled; and Surrealism, which upstaged Magic Realism in the late 1920's and 1930's: “conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination; grotesque; eccentric; odd … imaginary or groundless; not real or based on reality … extravagantly fanciful; irrational.”5

These plebeian dictionary definitions may well be more useful than all the aforenoted theoretical articles and books in sharpening our perception of Magic Realism. The two basic dictionary definitions of magic also reflect clearly the dichotomy between what Carpentier has called “lo real maravilloso” and Magic Realism. According to Carpentier (and Miguel Ángel Asturias), the Indian and African cultures have made Latin America a continent or world of magic in the dictionary sense of “the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of various techniques as incantation, that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.”6 On the other hand, Magic Realists, like modern-day magicians, bewilder the spectators by making reality appear to be magic: “the art of causing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.”7 According to the dictionary, as is usually the case with Magic Realism, magic is “mysteriously enchanting” and “may have glamorous and attractive connotations.”8

Since Jorge Luis Borges is an Argentinean, and a very English-oriented one at that, it would be absurd to attribute his predilection for magic to an Indian or African cultural heritage. Borges' individual genius cannot be accounted for by generational circumstances, but it was in the early 1920's that he made his literary debut, the same early 1920's in which Magic Realism painting flourished in Germany and elsewhere, and the same 1920's in which the writings of Carl Jung became more influential. Whereas Surrealism is strongly based on each individual's Freudian subconscious dream-world, Magic Realism adheres to the Jungian collective unconscious, to the idea that all mankind is compressed into one, that all time periods are compressed into the one moment of the present, and that reality itself is dream-like. From his own texts, it's obvious that Borges shares Jung's view of the world and rejects Freud's. Moreover, the following interview with Richard Burgin could not be more explicit:

BURGIN: I take it you don't think much of Freud, either.

BORGES: No, I always disliked him. But I've always been a great reader of Jung. I read Jung in the same way as, let's say, I might read Pliny or Frazer's Golden Bough; I read it as a kind of mythology, or as a kind of museum or encyclopedia of curious lores.

BURGIN: When you say you dislike Freud, what do you mean?

BORGES: I think of him as a kind of madman, no? A man laboring over a sexual obsession. Well, perhaps he didn't take it to heart. Perhaps he was just doing it as a kind of game. I tried to read him, and I thought of him either as a charlatan or as a madman in a sense. After all the world is far too complex to be boiled down to that all-too-simple scheme. But in Jung, well, of course, Jung I have read far more widely than Freud, but in Jung you feel a wide and hospitable mind. In the case of Freud, it all boils down to a few rather unpleasant facts. But, of course, that's merely my ignorance or my bias.9

Although Magic Realism is evident in Borges' first stories of Historia universal de la infamia written in the early 1930's, it was not until the 1940's that he wrote his most famous stories and it was not until the 1950's that his fame attained international proportions, coinciding with the Latin American rejection of criollismo and Social Realism and the reemergence of Magic Realism. It was also during this period that Borges wrote most of the essays published in Otras inquisiciones (1952), where both the world view and some of the specific stylistic traits of Magic Realism may be found. In “Magias parciales del Quijote,” Borges, while commenting on the particular brand of realism in the Quijote, refers to Joseph Conrad's world view, which coincides with that of Borges and that of the Magic Realist painters and authors in general: “Joseph Conrad pudo escribir que excluía de su obra lo sobrenatural, porque admitirlo parecía negar que lo cotidiano fuera maravilloso.”10 A similar attitude of amazement and optimism is ascribed by Borges to one of his most favorite authors: “Chesterton pensó como Whitman, que el mero hecho de ser es tan prodigioso que ninguna desventura debe eximirnos de una suerte de cómica gratitud.”11 In praising Quevedo as the “primer artífice de las letras hispánicas,”12 greater than Cervantes, Borges stresses the same extreme objectivity and ultraprecision employed by the Magic Realists to invest reality with a touch of magic. Borges attributes Quevedo's relative lack of international fame to the fact that “sus duras páginas no fomentan, ni siquiera toleran, el menor desahogo sentimental.”13 Borges discusses various styles that Quevedo used in his different works but he singles out for special treatment that of the treatise Marcus Brutus, almost all of whose characteristics are typical of Borges' own Magic Realist style: “el ostentoso laconismo, el hipérbaton, el casi algebraico rigor, la oposición de términos, la aridez, la repetición de palabras, dan a ese texto una precisión ilusoria.”14

One of the most incontrovertible indications of Borges' identification with Magic Realism is his constant use of oxymoron from his first stories of 1933 up through what is generally considered his best story “El Sur” (1952) and beyond. Regarding Historia universal de la infamia, the very title of the volume produces a bemused reaction on the part of the reader. A universal history of infamy is a rather unusual and improbable undertaking. Even more improbable is that the protagonists of the seven stories, with the exception of Billy the Kid, are not well-known historical figures. Oxymoron, strictly speaking, is the juxtaposition of apparently self-contradictory words such as “cruel kindness.” Varying degrees of oxymoron15 are present in most of the titles of the volume's seven principal stories: “El espantoso redentor Lazarus Morell,” “El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro,” “La viuda Ching, Pirata,” “El asesino desinteresado Bill Harrigan,” “El incivil maestro de ceremonias Kotsuké no Suké.” Although the title of the book announces the author's intent to be all-encompassing, the juxtaposition in the same volume of a nineteenth-century southern U.S. slave dealer and twentieth-century New York gangsters with an eighth-century Arab dyer, an early eighteenth-century Chinese widow pirate, and an eighteenth-century Japanese Samurai, is rather amazing.16

One of the most successful stories of the volume is “El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro,” whose title reflects the oxymoron-like nature of the whole story. Whereas an impostor usually does his best to assume the physical appearance and general traits of the individual he is impersonating, Tom Castro is the “implausible impostor” because he does nothing of the kind. Incredible it may be, but there is nothing fantastic about the success of his impersonation. Lady Tichborne wanted to believe in the reappearance of her long-missing son; she was rather old; and “los ojos fatigados de Lady Tichborne estaban velados de llanto.”17 Furthermore, in an oxymoron-like paradox, “la lux hizo de máscara.”18 Light usually clarifies things, unmasks them, however in this case, the sudden opening of the window blinds caused Lady Tichborne to be blinded by the strong sunlight.19

The Magic Realist world view is borne out by the characters and events of the story: reality is stranger than fiction; things occur unexpectedly; absolute truth or reality is impossible for mortal man to grasp, but there is nothing in the story that would warrant its being included in the realm of fantastic literature. The transformation of Arthur Orton into Tom Castro and then into Roger Charles Tichborne is highly improbable but not impossible or fantastic. The relationship between Tom Castro and his Negro servant Ebenezer Bogle is likewise improbable. Bogle had a terrible fear of crossing the street but after Tom Castro offered the Negro his arm one day in Sydney, Australia, “un protectorado se estableció: el del negro inseguro y monumental sobre el obeso tarambana de Wapping.”20 Since the story is set in the nineteenth century when Great Britain was taking on itself the burden of “civilizing” a large part of the African continent, Bogle's protectorate over Tom Castro is obviously intended to amaze and amuse the reader. It is Bogle's “ocurrencia genial”21 which, according to the narrator, “determinados manuales de etnografía han negado a su raza,”22 that is responsible for the unexpected turn of events in Tom Castro's life. In fact, Bogle has two sudden inspirations: the plan to have Tom Castro impersonate Roger Tichborne and the plan to marshal public opinion in England on the impersonator's side by publishing an apocryphal attack on him signed by a Jesuit. Paralleling the two inspirations, Tom's fortunes are adversely affected by two sudden deaths. Lady Tichborne dies only three years after accepting Tom as her son and thereupon her relatives bring suit against him for false impersonation. Tom would probably have been exonerated with the aid of still another Bogle inspiration but the latter, as had been anticipated, is unexpectedly killed while crossing the street. Tom is sentenced to fourteen years in prison, is released after only ten, and spends the rest of his life alternately pleading his innocence or his guilt “al servicio de las inclinaciones del público.”23

What makes the improbabilities of this story even more improbable is that its source is the 1911 edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica. Its authenticity is further substantiated by the narrator's giving the exact dates (day, month, and year) of Tom's birth, of his appearance before Lady Tichborne, of his sentencing and of his death. This chronological precision, the initial statement of what fate had in store for Bogle, as well as the implausible situations and unexpected events were to become trademarks of several of Borges' more authentic short stories (the less essayistic ones) and of Magic Realism in general.

Although Borges' stories have usually been labeled fantastic, a more accurate approach would be to designate some of the more authentic ones as Magic Realist and some of the more essayistic ones as fantastic. Borges himself, in his 1941 prologue to El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, calls the title story a detective story and “las otras [piezas] son fantásticas.”24 While “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan,” like “El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro,” is very clearly based on the typical constellation of Magic Realist traits, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “El acercamiento a Almotásim,” “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” and “Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain” are essayistic commentaries on imaginary, nonexistent countries, authors, or books and therefore more deserving of the fantastic label. “Las ruinas circulares,” in which the protagonist succeeds in creating another man by dreaming him only to realize that he too may be a dream creature, is obviously fantastic.

Whereas only one of the eight pieces of El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan may be labeled Magic Realist, in Artificios (1944), the second part of Ficciones, six of the nine stories are Magic Realist. It is no accident that Borges himself recognized the superiority of the more authentic short stories of Artificios. He calls them “de ejecución menos torpe.”25 Two of the stories are clearly essayistic, “Tres versiones de Judas” and “La secta del Fénix,” while “Funes el memorioso,” in addition to being somewhat essayistic, is too subjective to qualify for the Magic Realist label.

Although “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” has a relatively long labyrinthine philosophical discussion between Dr. Yu Tsun and Stephen Albert, the story may be better understood in terms of the world view and stylistic traits of Magic Realism. The ultraprecision and objectivity of the first paragraph26 not only represents a refreshing departure from the more typically Hispanic florid style but also parallels the sharp-focus, Magic Realist painting of the American Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), or the German Christian Schad (1894). Sheeler was praised by his friend, doctor-poet William Carlos Williams, for “the bewildering directness of his vision”27 while Schad is considered by Wieland Schmied “the coldest, sharpest, most precise”28 of all the Magic Realists. The Magic Realist concept of history's being stranger than fiction is borne out by the improbable fact that Stephen Albert, a name picked out of the telephone directory in order to identify the site of the new British artillery park in France, should turn out to be a sinologist. Equally improbable is that the German spy should be a former Chinese teacher of English at a German high school in Tsingtao. The air of Magic Realism that pervades the story is strengthened by other oxymoron-like phrases: “un joven que leía con fervor los Anales de Tácito” and “un soldado herido y feliz”29—possible but not probable.

In keeping with Magic Realism's rejection of the subjectivity and emotionalism of Expressionism, Borges' characters are capable of acting without the slightest trace of emotion and Borges never arouses the reader's sympathy for his characters. In “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan,” Yu Tsun kills Albert with painstaking precision reflected in the utmost simplicity of the following two sentences: “Yo había preparado el revólver. Disparé con sumo cuidado: Albert se desplomó sin una queja, inmediatamente.”30 The reader feels absolutely no anger at the murder of this innocent man nor does he feel any compassion for Yu Tsun who feels no fear of his impending death: “ahora que mi garganta anhela la cuerda.”31 Even in the heinous execution of Jaromir Hladík by the Nazis in “El milagro secreto,” Borges purposely prevents the reader from feeling any emotion—he is too involved in the intellectual process of finding his way out of the labyrinth. Also consistent with Magic Realism are Borges' Jungian32 ideas of the simultaneity of past, present, and future; of the relative insignificance of the individual human being; and of man's identity not only with his ancestors but with every man. Jung's and Borges' cyclical view of history is reinforced stylistically in “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” by “la luna baja y circular,”33 “el disco del gramófono,”34 “un alto reloj circular,”35 and “el vívido círculo de la lámpara.”36

Whereas “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan,” as the title indicates, involves the reader in a labyrinthine experience, “El fin” reflects the relative simplicity of its title. Nonetheless, it too illustrates Borges' affiliation with Magic Realism. The poetic tone which pervades the story is highly unusual for Borges and may be explained by his projecting himself into the world of Martín Fierro. However, José Hernández' long narrative poem does not have the same poetic and nostalgic tone as Borges' story. In “El fin” Borges creates the same poetic, tranquil, dream-like atmosphere that is found in the Munich Magic Realist painter Georg Schrimpf (1889-1938): “He also possessed a background in genuine naïveté rooted in a strongly-stamped feeling for the magical efficiency of the dreamy world of objects.”37 Just as Schrimpf's women gaze impassively out at the world through a window, Recabarren observes the tragic knife duel between Martín Fierro and the Negro through a window as he lies on his cot. The effect of the action's being presented through an intermediary is to make it less vivid, less emotional, more static and more plastic—as in Parson Weems' Fable (1929) by Grant Wood (1892-1942), and in keeping with Brecht's theory of keeping an emotional distance between the action of the play and the audience.

The tone of the story is set in the first few lines which describe the paralyzed Recabarren's awaking from his noon-day nap: “recobró poco a poco la realidad, las cosas cotidianas que ya no cambiaría nunca por otras.”38 This view of reality after awaking from a sleep is tinged with the same magic captured by Joan Miró (1893) in his early Magic Realist phase.39 Although Borges compares reality to a dream, what Recabarren sees is not a dream; it is reality enveloped in a magic aura: “la llanura bajo el último sol, era casi abstracta, como vista en un sueño.”40 The dream-like quality of the scene is maintained by the unemotional low-key, somewhat stoic and somewhat poetic dialogue between the two combattants. It's almost as if the two men realize that they are acting out their predetermined roles in a drama written by an unknown author. The belated identification of the stranger as Martín Fierro provides the unexpected ingredient typical of Magic Realism.

The same belated identification is also evident in the final sentence of “Biografía de Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874),” which informs the reader that the protagonist was not a historical figure but Martín Fierro's companion. The fact that Borges in a matter-of-fact manner converts the literary figures of Martín Fierro into the reality of his stories is also typical of Magic Realism and may be likened to García Márquez' use of Victor Hugues, Artemio Cruz and Rocamadour in Cien años de soledad.

Written in the same year of 1952 as “El fin,” “El Sur” has a similar dream-like tone but is more complex, more transcendent, and is considered by Borges to be “acaso mi mejor cuento.”41 What makes “El Sur” perhaps Borges' best story is its excellent application of Magic Realism to the portrayal of Argentina's national psyche. One of the reasons why “El Sur” is so appealing to the modern reader is that it is one of the very few of Borges' stories that allow for more than one interpretation. No matter how labyrinthine most of his stories may be, once they are solved, it becomes clear that there is only one solution. This is not the case in “El Sur.” Borges himself suggests “que es posible leerlo como directa narración de hechos novelescos, y también de otro modo.”42 Borges was even more explicit in an interview with James E. Irby: “Todo cuanto sucede después que Dahlmann sale del sanatorio puede interpretarse como una alucinación que él habría tenido en el momento de morir de septicemia, como una visión fantástica de la manera en que hubiera querido morir. Es por ello que existen correspondencias tenues entre las dos mitades del cuento.”43 Although the second half of the story may be interpreted as an hallucination as Allen W. Phillips has very carefully demonstrated,44 “El Sur” is a better story when read “como directa narración de hechos novelescos.”

The key to an understanding of the literal interpretation lies in Borges' much greater affiliation with Magic Realism than with either Surrealism or the fantastic. As has already been shown in the comments on “El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro” and “El fin,” Borges has a Magic Realist world view. Truth is stranger than fiction and the most unexpected and amazing events may take place. As the character Unwin in “Abencaján el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto” says, “no precisa erigir un laberinto, cuando el universo ya lo es.”45 The juxtaposition of self-contradictory words or phrases, oxymoron, is not only Borges' favorite stylistic device, it is one of the basic structures of many of his stories. Although critics have generally divided “El Sur” into two parts, before and after Juan Dahlmann's release from the hospital (literally or through hallucination), it is more significant to note the juxtaposition throughout the story of an overly precise, objective, expository style and the transformation, without distortions, of reality into a dream world. The story begins, as several of Borges' stories do, with a kind of encyclopedia-style46 objective description of Juan Dahlmann's family background: “El hombre que desembarcó en Buenos Aires en 1871 se llamaba Johannes Dahlmann y era pastor de la iglesia evangélica.”47 This staccato factual style, however, is subverted by Borges' typical use of the self-questioning “tal vez,” within or without parentheses: “Juan Dahlmann (tal vez a impulso de la sangre germánica) eligió el de ese antepasado” (p. 179); “Las tareas y acaso la indolencia lo retenían en la ciudad” (p. 179). The parallelism established between “tareas” and “indolencia” is still another example of a type of oxymoron. By the same token, the initial description ends with a contrast between the precision of the date and the absence of adjectives on the one hand, and the vagueness of “algo”: “En los últimos días de febrero de 1939, algo le aconteció” (p. 180).

In the next two sentences the tone of the narrator changes completely. He philosophizes about destiny and tells us that Dahlmann “había conseguido, esa tarde, un ejemplar descabalado de las Mil y una noches de Weil” (p. 181). Although the rest of the action is developed in a dream-like tone, certain phrases, clauses or sentences stand out because of their brusque, every-day unrhetorical style: “cuando el cirujano le dijo que había estado a punto de morir de una septicemia” (p. 181); “recordó bruscamente que en un café de la Calle Brasil” (p. 182); “de esa conjetura fantástica lo distrajo el inspector” (p. 184).

Most of the story's Magic Realism is based on its tone, created by the emphasis on the protagonist's remembering (“recordar”) (pp. 181-82) or vaguely recognizing (“creyó reconocer”) (pp. 183-84). It is symbolized by the emotionless, inscrutable, and improbably enormous cat living in the present: “como una divinidad desdeñosa,” “el mágico animal” (p. 182). The same inscrutable and enormous cat also appears as a symbol of the narrator in “Deutsches Requiem”: “símbolo de mi vano destino, dormía en el reborde de la ventana un gato enorme y fofo.”48 Although the cat has not hitherto been recognized as symbolic of Magic Realism in general, it appears significantly in perhaps the very first examples of Magic Realist painting: Niklaus Stöcklin's 1917 Rhein Lane and in George Schrimpf's Still-Life, which was included in Franz Roh's 1925 seminal book on Magic Realism.

The element of chance is also a basic characteristic of the Magic Realist's view of the world. The protagonist is injured because he had purchased The Thousand and One Nights and he was so eager to read the book that he didn't wait for the elevator. Instead he rushed up the stairs and accidentally scratched his face on a splinter. That the scratch should become infected and cause a serious fever is still more implausible. The other “algo” that happened to Juan Dahlmann is equally implausible. When the young rowdies challenge Dahlmann to a knife fight, it is only the unexpected coming to life of the old gaucho and his tossing his naked dagger to Dahlmann that insures the latter's probable death.

How did Dahlmann actually die? Was the fight with the rowdies only an hallucination which permitted Dahlmann to die the hero's death that he would have preferred? As I stated above, the Magic Realism interpretation is more effective. Dahlmann, after almost dying from septicemia, is released from the hospital one morning. His rediscovery of the city at 7 A.M. parallels statements by the early de Chirico regarding the way he felt and painted reality: “I had just come out of a long and painful illness, and I was in a nearly morbid state of sensitivity … then I had the strange impression that I was looking at all these things for the first time.”49 Dahlmann states categorically that the morning and his being alive were greater marvels than the adventures of The Thousand and One Nights. In “El Zahir,” the narrator tells us that “Según la doctrina idealista, los verbos vivir y soñar son rigurosamente sinónimos.”50 Borges is also quite fond of the phrase “como en un sueño”51 and his story “La espera” begins with an apparently precise, objective, unrhetorical sentence in which the house number is obviously intended to recall The Thousand and One Nights: “el coche lo dejó en el cuatro mil cuatro de esa calle del Noroeste.”52 As the train carried Dahlmann southward, he felt as though he were two men, the man riding on the train and the man who had suffered so much in the hospital. With his hospital experience so fresh in his mind, it's only natural that Dahlmann compares people, objects, and events of the immediate present to those of the immediate past.

Although, as Allen Phillips has pointed out, there are many indications that Dahlmann's trip south is an hallucination, it is difficult to determine exactly where in the story the hallucination, or dream, begins. According to Phillips, the hallucination starts precisely after the sentence, “Increíblemente, el día prometido llegó” (p. 181). However, the word “increíblemente” actually defines Borges' view of reality: the most implausible, incredible, and unexpected things may happen. Furthermore, a Magic Realist interpretation would indicate that the narrator makes reality seem dream-like not only at the moment when Dahlmann leaves the hospital but also at the moment he falls asleep after being injured—“Dahlmann logró dormir, pero a la madrugada estaba despierto y desde aquella hora el sabor de todas las cosas fue atroz” (p. 180)—and at the moment the anesthesiologist in the hospital sticks a needle into his arm—“se despertó con náuseas, vendado, en una celda que tenía algo de pozo” (p. 180).

Besides reflecting Borges' Magic Realist view of life and reality with a carefully structured set of parallelisms and symmetries, “El Sur” is unique among Borges' stories because it is a commentary on the basic oxymoron-like antithesis of civilization-barbarism that has prevented Argentineans from developing a true national consciousness.53 Juan Dahlmann is killed because he cannot resist the call of his gaucho or barbarous past. Juan Dahlmann, a clerk in a municipal library of Buenos Aires, is undoubtedly killed by a drunken rowdy after picking up the dagger tossed at his feet by the ancient archetypal gaucho. If Argentina is to progress—“El Sur” tells us—the civilized elements of Buenos Aires must predominate over the barbarous rural tradition reincarnated in the military juntas led by Perón, or more recently by Onganía and Videla.54 If Argentina is to progress, Juan Dahlmann or Juan Argentino must accept the fusion of his oxymoron-like lineage and not choose the more “macho” one … only at the moment of his death. In this respect, Rómulo Gallegos' hero Santos Luzardo is able to triumph over the barbarous forces of the Venezuelan llanos because he is closer to his rural ancestry than Juan Dahlmann and still knows how to rope a steer and fire a gun. If Juan Dahlmann had visited his ranch more frequently, he would have been more adept at handling the knife and might have been able to defend himself against his barbaric compatriot. “El Sur,” with Juan Dahlmann as its protagonist, is obviously intended to be a metaphor of Argentine history.55 However Dahlmann's death is interpreted, it does represent the triumph of barbarism over civilization, the triumph of brute force over innocent ivory-tower intellectualism, the triumph of the Perón dictatorship over the Argentine intellectuals, paralleling the Rosas dictatorship's persecution of the Unitarian intellectuals in the 1830's.

The interpretation of “El Sur” and other stories by Borges in the light of Magic Realism will hopefully help convince scholars that Borges' stories do not all fit into the category of “lo fantástico.” It should also clarify the distinction between Magic Realism, “lo fantástico,” and “lo real maravilloso.” Whether Borges consciously identified with the Magic Realist tendency in painting or not, some of his better stories share the same world view and stylistic traits indicated by Franz Roh and may therefore be better appreciated in this context.


  1. Jorge Luis Borges, El Aleph (Buenos Aires, 1971), p. 171.

  2. Tzevetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris, 1970). Other scholarly books and articles on the fantastic that have failed to recognize properly the existence of Magic Realism are: Ana María Barrenechea, “Ensayo de una tipología de la literatura fantástica,” RI, 80 (1972), 391-403; Irène Bessière, Le Rećit fantastique. La Poétique de l'incertain (Paris, 1974); Emir Rodríguez Monegal, “Borges: Una teoría de la literatura fantástica,” RI, 95 (1976), 177-89; Louis Vax, Arte y literatura fantásticas, trad. Juan Merino (Buenos Aires, 1965).

  3. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged Edition (New York, 1967), p. 515.

  4. Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged Edition (Springfield, MA, 1965), p. 823.

  5. Random House, p. 515.

  6. Random House, p. 862.

  7. Random House, p. 862.

  8. Random House, p. 862.

  9. Richard Burgin, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (New York, 1969), p. 109.

  10. Jorge Luis Borges, Otras inquisiciones (Buenos Aires, 1966), p. 65.

  11. Borges, Otras inquisiciones, p. 120.

  12. Borges, Otras inquisiciones, p. 64.

  13. Borges, Otras inquisiciones, p. 55.

  14. Borges, Otras inquisiciones, p. 58.

  15. See Edelweiss Serra, “La estrategia del lenguaje en Historia universal de la infamia,RI, Nos. 100-101 (1977), pp. 657-63. In this semiological study, Prof. Serra analyzes the parallelisms among the seven stories based on the use of oxymoron. However, she does not relate the oxymoron to Borges' world view nor does she associate it with Magic Realism. Jaime Alazraki does relate Borges' frequent use of oxymoron to his view of an apparently contradictory reality, but, like Serra, does not indicate this as a reflection of Magic Realism (La prosa narrativa de Jorge Luis Borges [Madrid, 1968], pp. 186-95).

  16. I use the word “amazing” because it so often appears in discussions of Magic Realism. Emil Volek, in a most perceptive article on Borges, emphasizes the latter's “estética del asombro” and his “lector asombrado,” but without identifying him with Magic Realism: “Aquiles y la tortuga: Arte, imaginación y la realidad según Borges,” RI, Nos. 100-101 (1977), pp. 293-310.

  17. Jorge Luis Borges, Historia universal de la infamia (Buenos Aires, 1966), p. 36.

  18. Borges, Historia universal, pp. 36-37.

  19. In his later story “El Zahir,” Borges comments on this very example: “En la figura que se llama oxímoron, se aplica a una palabra un epíteto que parece contradecirla; así los gnósticos hablaron de luz oscura” (El Aleph, p. 106).

  20. Borges, Historia universal, p. 32.

  21. Borges, Historia universal, p. 32.

  22. Borges, Historia universal, p. 32.

  23. Borges, Historia universal, p. 40.

  24. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (Buenos Aires, 1968), p. 11.

  25. Borges, Ficciones, p. 111.

  26. The initial paragraphs of “Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva,” “Tema del traidor y del héroe,” and “El Sur” are similarly ultraprecise.

  27. Charles Sheeler (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1939), p. 10.

  28. Wieland Schmied, Neue Sachlichkeit und Magischer Realismus in Deutschland, 1918-1933 (Hannover, 1969), p. 50. The translation is mine.

  29. Schmied, Neue Sachlichkeit, p. 98.

  30. Schmied, Neue Sachlichkeit, p. 108.

  31. Schmied, Neue Sachlichkeit, p. 96.

  32. See Jaime Alazraki, “Estructura y función de los sueños en los cuentos de Borges,” Ibero, 3 (1975), 9-38.

  33. Borges, Ficciones, p. 99.

  34. Borges, Ficciones, p. 101.

  35. Borges, Ficciones, p. 102.

  36. Borges, Ficciones, p. 105.

  37. Paul Vogt, Geschichte der deutschen Malerei im 20. Jahrhundert (Cologne, 1972), p. 235. The translation is mine.

  38. Borges, Ficciones, p. 171.

  39. See Jacques Dupin, Joan Miró, Life and Work (New York, 1961-62), p. 84.

  40. Borges, Ficciones, p. 172.

  41. Borges, Ficciones, p. 112.

  42. Borges, Ficciones, p. 106.

  43. James E. Irby, “Encuentro con Borges,” Universidad de México, 16, No. 10 (1962), 8. Also reappeared in the L'Herne volume dedicated to Borges (Paris, 1964), p. 397. The English translation is mine.

  44. Allen W. Phillips, “‘El Sur’ de Borges,” in Estudios y notas sobre literatura hispanoamericana (México, 1965), pp. 165-75. Edelweiss Serra, although she quotes from Irby's interview, is not quite so certain about the hallucination interpretation: “Con todo, el sentido del cuento me parece más grave y trascendente aún, sin quitar que pueda leerse en el sentido literal o en el fantástico” (Estructura y análisis del cuento [Santa Fe, Argentina, 1966], p. 218).

  45. Borges, El Aleph, p. 131.

  46. For the biographical explanation of this technique, see Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Jorge Luis Borges, A Literary Biography (New York, 1978), pp. 89-90.

  47. Borges, Ficciones, p. 179. The following quotes from “El Sur” are taken from the same edition.

  48. Borges, El Aleph, p. 84.

  49. Giorgio de Chirico (Paris: Musée Marmottan, June 12-Oct. 31, 1975), p. 7.

  50. Borges, El Aleph, p. 113.

  51. Borges, El Aleph, p. 106.

  52. Borges, El Aleph, p. 137.

  53. In his 1946 essay “Nuestro pobre individualismo,” Borges affirms categorically that “el argentino, a diferencia de los americanos del Norte y de casi todos los europeos, no se identifica con el Estado … lo cierto es que el argentino es un individuo, no es un ciudadano” (Otras inquisiciones, p. 51).

  54. In his essay “Anotación al 23 de agosto de 1944,” written on the occasion of the liberation of Paris, Borges indicates that the barbarism of the Nazis is totally anachronistic. By the same token, the drunken rowdy who probably kills Juan Dahlmann is a far cry from the authentic gauchos of the previous centuries: “Ser nazi (jugar a la barbarie enérgica, jugar a ser un viking, un tártaro, un conquistador del siglo XVI, un gaucho, un piel roja) es, a la larga, una imposibilidad mental y moral” (Otras inquisiciones, p. 185).

  55. At a round-table discussion held at California State University Dominguez Hills on April 10, 1980, Borges accepted this metaphorical interpretation but vehemently rejected the relationship between the violence of the gauchos and the violence of the Perón dictatorship. Be that as it may, since the story was written in 1952 during the Perón dictatorship, which took special delight in victimizing Borges, the analogy is inevitable.

Ji Ji (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Beyond Transient Applause,” translated by Eva Hung and D. E. Pollard, in Renditions, Nos. 35 & 36, Spring & Autumn, 1991, pp. 299-304.

[In the following essay, Ji Ji discusses magic realism in the works of contemporary Taiwanese writers.]


In any age works of literature are created against a unique background with a specific emphasis and appeal. The impact of literature on men, be it great or insignificant, is a reflection of society's pulsation; the two are inextricably linked.

On the whole, Taiwan has witnessed a surge in literary activities in recent years, and compared with the 1960s and 1970s, the development of literature has been more complex and multi-faceted. However, whether the overall standard of literary works has improved correspondingly is a question that remains to be answered.

I am not a pessimist as far as literature is concerned; I have always been a believer and an enthusiast. But one who works in the field of literature and who tries to apply the wider perspective of literary history to recent literary developments in Taiwan cannot but be worried by some of the current phenomena: the huge increase in quantity at the expense of quality, the myopic vision of writers looking for overnight fame and profit, the trend among publishers towards vulgarization, resulting in “bad money driving out good”, all this has caused the word “literature” to be seriously tarnished and perverted.

What kind of a report card do Taiwan writers hope to submit to the annals of history?

This is a question I have pondered and puzzled over in the last few years. My basic motive in agreeing to edit a number of annual anthologies of fiction and prose has been to try to find an answer to this question. I believe the editors of Renditions, in publishing a special issue on contemporary Taiwan literature, have the same intention in mind. We share a genuine respect for and high expectations of writers who have refused to succumb to popular values, and who have persisted in the pursuit of their literary ideals.


This special Renditions issue on contemporary Taiwan literature consists of English translations of eighteen poems, eight prose pieces and twelve works of fiction which were all first published between 1982 and 1989. In terms of changes in the Taiwan political, economic and cultural scenes, this was the most dramatic period since the Nationalist government moved to Taiwan in 1949. Literary developments may appear abstract at times, but through linear observation one discovers that social changes and literary development are two sides of the same coin. Writers who are in the currents of change are also evaluating such currents and seeking to transform their own work in order to reflect the form and substance of the changes around them.

In 1982 the Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1928-) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This event had a profound effect on the development of literature in Taiwan. Some books of Marquez, who already enjoyed a world-wide reputation, had been translated and published in Taiwan even before the award. After he received the Nobel Prize, local newspapers and magazines all carried feature articles and translations of his works, and with the publication of the Chinese translation of his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude in late 1982, his fame spread even wider. His signature technique of magical realism took the Taiwan literary scene by storm, with the result that young and middle-aged writers all joined the magical realism camp, producing various works of either illusion or magic in the few years that followed. I use the term “works of either illusion or magic” because the writers merely succeeded in imitating the externals of the literary technique; in terms of content the works were mostly very meagre. Any form of cultural transplant will lead to indigestion in the initial stages, for absorbing the nutrients and essence of a foreign culture is a difficult task.

By 1986, four years after magical realism swept through Taiwan, the talented writer Zhang Dachun had succeeded in imbibing its essence and produced a crop of some ten stories in the magical realist vein. One of these, “The General's Monument”, received the first prize in the China Times award for fiction. “Lucky Worries about His Country”, published in 1987, reveals even greater maturity in terms of technique and subject matter. Of the twelve pieces of fiction chosen for this special Renditions issue, “Lucky Worries about His Country” and “Lost Souls” by Yang Zhao are both representative of the magical realism school. Both writers are students of history, and both are dedicated to creative writing; they represent the best of young Taiwan writers.

Zhang Dachun's family comes from Shangdong. “Lucky Worries about His Country” describes a veteran who came to Taiwan with the Nationalist government and who, in the poverty of his old age, still clings to his undiscriminating loyalty and dreams of a “counter-attack on the mainland”. In September 1987, Chiang Ching-kuo decreed that the people of Taiwan could visit relatives in mainland China, and thousands of veterans rushed back to their native villages to “pay their debts” to their relatives. In December of the same year, Zhang published “Lucky Worries about His Country”. Lucky does not follow the feverish trend of returning natives; he is still waiting for the “counter-attack on the mainland”! Through such clever timing and choice of subject matter the story is endowed with rich irony; it is also a silent accusation against historical fallacies. In the ambience of magical realism, we seem to see the author travelling through time, cleverly disguising his attack and handing out slaps in the face.

Yang Zhao comes from a native Taiwan family. Because Xu Xiqian, his maternal grandfather, was killed in the 28 February Incident in 1947 (Xu was chief executive of the “Three Principles of the People Youth League” in Hualien), Yang's recent works have centred around the 28 February Incident and political persecution. On 15 July 1987, Chiang Ching-kuo announced the lifting of military emergency law and the legalizing of political parties; that year was also the fortieth anniversary of the 28 February Incident.

Wu Zhuoliu, an old Taiwan writer, wrote a book entitled The Fig in 1968 in which he explores the political fate of the Taiwanese through a recollection of his personal experience. A section of approximately 10,000 words in the book relates what he saw as a reporter for Taiwan Min bao during the period of the 28 February Incident. The Fig was censored immediately upon publication; it was censored again when it was reissued in 1985. This is a clear indication of how severely the Nationalist government responded to violations of the 28 February Incident taboo.

However, the actual operation of politics and the re-evaluation of historical events are subject to continual struggle and compromise. On 28 September 1986, the first real opposition party in Taiwan—the Democratic Progressive Party—was formed (though it was not until May 1989, with the new law on the organization of civilian associations, that the party gained formal legal status). What followed was a plethora of street marches, demonstrations and protests. The 28 February Incident, which had been kept under tight wraps until then, also began to emerge like the tip of an iceberg.

Yang Zhao published “Lost Souls” in the fortieth anniversary year of the 28 February Incident. His choice of time and subject matter is just as ingenious as Zhang Dachun's for “Lucky Worries about His Country”. The hero of “Lost Souls” is a Taiwanese patriarch who had survived the 28 February Incident. He owed his survival and his later eminence to the fact that he was tricked into drawing up a list of young leaders [for the government] during the period of the Incident; these young leaders were all arrested and executed. This “Taiwanese patriarch” lived under the guilt of having betrayed his friends, lost his sanity, and finally died. Yang Zhao describes the emotional experience of this Taiwanese patriarch through “an inherited ability to foresee death”; though deliberately obscure, this technique illuminates the sad fate of the Taiwanese. “Foreseeing death” is in fact not a supernatural ability, but the nightmare of a guilty conscience. With this nightmare as a symbol, Yang Zhao employs the techniques of magical realism to create a sense of tragic tension in “Lost Souls”. Yang has described himself as suffering from “fiction mania”: he so absorbs himself in the “fictional reality” that he often bites his fingers till he bleeds. His fiction in recent years has drawn for its material on historical illusions and myths, the truth of which he attempts to reveal and transform into a “fictional reality”. For a novelist this method of writing is spiritual torture, and the wounds on Yang's fingers will probably not be given a chance to heal.

The fact is, Yang Zhao is not the only one with unhealed wounds. Given the special political situation in Taiwan, many writers besides Yang have their own wounds which will not heal, and many more have observed the wounds of others with intelligent understanding. In the past all they could do was to heave a sigh. In the period around the lifting of the emergency laws, the political atmosphere finally cleared, and Taiwanese writers gradually regained the forbidden territory occupied for forty years by taboos. They have finally found the courage to look the wounds of history in the face, and they also know that their works will not be rejected because they are “unsuitable for publication”. In the past writers and literary editors in Taiwan used to tease each other about “the little police chief in your heart”. After the lifting of the emergency laws, this joke has become part of history, or so we hope.

Chen Yingzhen's Zhao Nandong was published in June 1987 (one month before the lifting of the emergency laws) in the Renjian magazine founded by him. The main setting of the novel is the period of “White Terror” from 1949 to 1953, when the Nationalist government took action to root out all communists. Chen Yingzhen was one of the foremost exponents of modern literature in the 1960s. After he graduated from university he started working for multinational companies and has a thorough understanding of “imperialist economic aggression”. In the 1970s, most of his works were denounciations of “economic colonialism”, while in the 1980s his works explored a prosperous Taiwan which had entered the Consumer Age. Zhao Nandong begins with the period of the White Terror and ends with the Consumer Age. With his characteristic tragic touch, Chen describes the helplessness of his characters caught in the currents of the times, but he also writes affirmatively about the courage of those who sacrificed themselves for their political ideals.

Chen Yingzhen's post-1970s works all subscribe to a certain ideology, and this has taken a toll on his artistry as exemplified in his works of the 1960s. This has become a widely debated point of controversy. It seems that Chen, faced with the “image pressure” of an active participant in politics and the “psychological pressure” of one who holds strong political beliefs, has passed the point of no return: “once in the sea, you must follow the currents”. However, Chen is ultimately a writer with a solid grounding in the humanities and literary creation. As a result, though the structure of Zhao Nandong is slightly flawed, the overall effect is one of superior cultivation and steadfastness: from out of the bleakness there can be heard a song in praise of life, ideals and humanity. Since this novel is his first piece of fiction to be published after “The Mountain Path” of 1983, it is only natural that the attention of the Taiwan literary scene should be roused and renewed controversy should be provoked.


Of the twelve pieces of fiction published in this special Renditions issue, I have provided considerable background information to the three mentioned in the previous section, but this is no indication that I consider them better than the other nine stories. We cannot deny, however, that magical realism has held considerable sway over the Taiwan literary scene in the last few years, and that the amount of political fiction has been steadily growing. From these specific perspectives, the above mentioned works are definitely representative of this age.

Six of the remaining nine stories are written by women. In the past the works of Taiwan women writers were usually regarded by critics as “boudoir literature”; the common perception being that women could only write love stories. The fact is, of course, that most writers all over the world are writing love stories. Writing about love is neither a sin nor something to be ashamed of, for love does occupy an important place in our life. However, to portray love in a shallow and hackneyed way may be easy, to write about it with depth and new insight is difficult. In recent years a considerable number of Taiwan women writers have surpassed their male counterparts in terms of incisiveness and power of observation. The relationship between the sexes in Taiwan has undergone tremendous changes in the last five years: traditionally established male superiority has been on a gradual decline, resulting in sexual equality or even a reversal of traditional roles. This change is not only reflected in love and marriage, but has expanded into business ethics, social movements and election activities. Due to the constraint of space I am unable to discuss the individual works of the six women writers represented in this issue, but I would like to say that they have all transcended the boundaries of “boudoir literature”. They come up with unique insights and explications as they each explore the facets of women's life with which they are most concerned and deconstruct the values and relationships arising from a consumer society. Their criticism of the modern male's cowardice and immorality is also objective and sharp.

Lastly, I think “Braids” by Zheng Qingwen merits a special mention. Zheng is an established fiction writer, serious and diligent, who has never written anything in the pursuit of popularity. His style is calm and reserved, rarely carrying any “fat”. “Braids” is a simple story set in a poor village during the Japanese Occupation. A fisherman's wife is in the habit of stealing food from the neighbours, and as a result he is frequently forced to move. But he does not bear any grudge against his wife, for he loves her. Zheng's description of the clashes between this couple and traditional familial morality is soul-stirring and full of suspense; his description of the man's love for his wife is profoundly moving, even heart-rending. Their love is a kind of morality which transcends familial morality—a bond which unites husband and wife in joy and in sorrow. Zheng Qingwen is not burdened by any ideology; he does not even want to put any moral message across. He writes about common folks, gleaning from their ordinary lives qualities which are far from ordinary.

Taiwan is a now a diverse society. Various value systems are in the process of dissolution and reconstruction, and the arrival of the consumer age and the leisure age has drastically altered people's view of life. Some writers are seeking transient applause, some a vainglorious best-seller record, while others face up to the report card of history alone, writing quietly and slowly. To the last group of writers—the ones like Zheng Qingwen—we should show special respect.

Paula Rabinowitz (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “Naming, Magic and Documentary: The Subversion of the Narrative in Song of Solomon,Ceremony and China Men,” in Feminist Re-Visions: What Has Been and Might Be, edited by Vivian Patraka and Louise A. Tilly, Women's Studies Program, The University of Michigan, 1983, pp. 26-42.

[In the following essay, Rabinowitz examines magic realism in works by American minority women.]

I write as an outsider. As a woman, I will always be an outsider within patriarchal culture, as a white woman, I will always be an outsider to the experiences of the oppressed minorities in America; however, as a feminist, I wish to begin bridging those gaps which racism has created among all women, to eradicate sexism. The work of feminist critics needs to be expanded to include understandings of racism, class bias and cultural imperialism as they modify women's experiences.

Frantz Fanon (1967) suggests that the awareness of racial difference alters the construction of self among colonized people, creating a permanent sense of otherness. This extreme alienation is often manifested psychologically in the individual, politically in the state, socially in the economy of imperialism, and culturally in language. Recently, Ellen Willis (1982: 1) has speculated about the radical otherness experienced by black women: perhaps, in a racist culture, the experience of the racially oppressed woman differs so fundamentally from that of the white woman that a wholly different self-conception arises, needing a wholly new language to become articulate. Thus, theories which aid our reading of nineteenth century British women novelists may not be adequate if simply mapped onto all women's writings. We risk writing minority women out of our new literary history, which has challenged the male-dominated canon, but not always its racist and class-biased structure. We need to question all categories assumed to have relevance to literary criticism and perhaps consign ourselves to the experience of marginality and exclusion, which so many women writers have known, in the process. We need to develop a criticism which accepts not only sexual difference, but cultural, historical and economic differences also.

I was first drawn to Song of Solomon,Ceremony and China Men when I noticed that each novel, as an example of committed writing, addressed in practice issues which reflected my theoretical interests. For an American minority woman to write fiction in the twentieth century entails risks which are both formidable and exciting. She must simultaneously confront the history of Western literature (and the attendent exclusion of both women's and minority voices from its canon), her own cultural heritage and her identity as a woman. The choices she makes in her fiction mirror the transformation of her self-perception from the silence of membership in an “objective class” to articulation of herself as creator and participant of a “subjective class” (Lukacs, 1971: 50-51). The process requires claiming whatever resources are available from hegemonic literary practice and reworking them to incorporate residual and emergent cultural practices (Williams, 1977).


Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko and Maxine Hong Kingston introduce myth, legend and fantasy into their narratives as they simultaneously document historical abuses experienced by their peoples. They play on/in language, by inverting stereotypes and using repetition and punning to enhance their narratives. The pleasures and dangers of language evident in the variety of names and the multiplicity of meanings propel the content of the texts. Defying closure and implying “thick” context, yet remaining accessible to their audiences, Song of Solomon,Ceremony and China Men represent neither realist fiction nor avant-garde prose, rather, they resemble the process of storytelling (Geertz, 1973).

Fusing magic and history, the superimposition of genres creates a narrative akin to Latin American magical realism which developed from the meshing of African, Tribal and Hispanic cultures under colonialism. In the case of these three works, the syncretic feature combines aspects of American popular culture and Western literary forms with the oral traditions of women's and each minority group's cultures. Simultaneously, each author writes from a consciousness of gender ideology, cultural imperialism and American hegemony, as insiders/outsiders of American culture. The enduring presences of the “ghosts” of white America and of one's genealogy condition the content and context of Song of Solomon,Ceremony and China Men, connecting social relations to the land, the living to the dead and the self to the community. The materiality of magic expands the narrative terrain from psychological, social and environmental to include the super-natural.

This widened narrative moves away from the formal imperatives of the realist novel by including material which has been unrecognized by dominant cultural practice. Dependent on causality, closure and versimilitude to convey its meaning, the thrust of the realist novel is towards a value-laden climax implying progression through time and movement through space by a protagonist who is able to act effectively in the world. However, as a social process, storytelling mediates social relations rather than providing moral prescriptions; the story's meaning is embedded in the telling, not in its final point. Breaking official silence of those denied access to a fully articulate history, stories recall the oral tradition. Songs, gossip, legend, jokes and lore give voice to commonality and community unrecognized within hegemonic culture. A profoundly interactive process, storytelling provides a cultural intersection between the personal and the political; the individual and the community; the teller, the tale and the audience (Christ, 1980).


Each of the novels eschews closure, pushing the reader back to the beginning of the text or forward into the next one. The dream which begins Tayo's journey toward personal and cultural health contains the key to the ceremony's primary message, that the stories must continue, “And in the belly of this story / the rituals and the ceremony / are still growing” (Silko, 1977: 2). Similarly, the events surrounding Milkman's birth—Mr. Smith's attempted flight, Pilate's song and Ruth's labor—contain all the information necessary for Milkman to chart his genealogy. But it is not until he “surrendered to the air, [and] could ride it” that the pieces of the riddle fall together (Morrison, 1977: 341). China Men exhibits this circularity structurally. The narrative begins with a legend, “On Discovery,” of the Land of Women on the Gold Mountain and ends with the narrator listening to yet another tale of Chinese migration to the Gold Mountain from the voice of yet another outsider, a Filipino historian. She cannot quite hear him and concludes by sitting back to “watch the young men who listen” (Kingston, 1980: 308). For each of these writers, truth lies in the fiction of the myths, legends and stories which surrounded her early years. And it is the recreation of the elements of dreams and folklore—repetition, fantasy and circularity—which constitute the project of these narratives.

This is most obvious in the importance of names and language in each novel. The naming process suggests both the power of language to construct social relations and the power of names to establish cultural history. Names are doubled and multiplied in China Men and Song of Solomon as each character possesses a variety gleaned from the arrogance of white culture and from traditional heritage. The Deads have been saddled with their last name when a drunken Union soldier filled out Milkman's grandfather's emancipation paper incorrectly. The Father in China Men changes his name to Ed-Da-Son after seeing Mickey Rooney in Young Tom Edison when he first comes to America. On the other hand, an assertion of cultural resistance emerges in the naming process—the residents of Milkman's community defy the city authorities by calling Mains Avenue Doctor Street and then Not Doctor Street in honor of Ruth's father, while they defy the Deads' class position by renaming Macon III, Milkman. Similarly, the Deads' system of naming entails a celebration of the power of the word as each child is named by a blind selection from the Bible. The inversions of standard Biblical imagery—a key factor in much black American writing—reveals itself here; Milkman's savior is his Aunt Pilate. In China Men everyone has at least four names—Chinese, American, Family Status and Nickname—in addition to the multiplicity of surnames which the Father takes up and discards after each gambling bust.

If the self is constructed through language and a culture is transmitted through language, then its maintenance is an act of resistance to the hegemonic culture. For to maintain one's own language constitutes cultural identity and autonomy. When the Great-Grandfather and the other sugar cane workers invent a way of coughing to communicate in Chinese, they are able to organize despite the injunction against speech. They readily acknowledge that they have invented a tradition when they gather together and yell into the earth. Like the Father, they had “the power of naming” (Kingston, 1980: 242). Similarly, for Tayo, both nature and social relations are constituted by language. For in Laguna cosmology, “Thought-Woman, the spider, / named things and / as she named them / they appeared” (Silko, 1977: 1). Like Ts'its'tsi'nako, who thought the world into existence, Tayo is certain that when he cursed the rain in an Asian jungle after Rocky's death, he caused the seven year drought plaguing the Laguna land.


Ann Kaplan calls autobiography and reportage the “natural forms” for women writers since, as outsiders, women cannot write a fiction of “totality” (1974: 164). Women circumscribe their work to description, either of the self and its vicissitudes or of the surrounding social world. Additionally, Suzanne Juhasz suggests that projected fantasy and revived mythology complement the documentary tendency, since these forms can serve to explore deeper areas of women's creative perceptions and aspirations (1980: 22). Women's narratives are circular, convoluted and contextualized, relying on repetition and interaction (rather than linearity and finality) for meaning. Often within women's fiction, women's personalities are split into two or more characters further destroying the illusion of totality and wholeness. The contradictory self—both victimized by social relations and constituted by the imagination—cannot be wholly contained within one character.

Furthermore, women's writings must react against the long masculinist tradition of appropriating the female image as sign. For much of the history of literature, woman has served as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning of the presumed universal (male) experience. Western imperialism has produced stereotypes of the colonized people which function in much the same way in Euro-American literature. Women's otherness has metaphorically signified man's alienation as the stereotypes of colonized peoples represent the hidden face of the colonizers. Thus, the project for the minority woman writer is triply difficult as her image has been reworked in various (sometimes contradictory) ways by the very symbol systems with which she works.

That Morrison, Silko and Kingston have chosen in these novels to focus attention on male protagonists points to a willingness to address the complex interface of racial and sexual identity. However, while creating modulated and multi-dimensional male characters, these authors bifurcate the female personality. Often equally as complex as the men, the women characters tend to fall into two categories, represented by two styles of writing. The magical women enter fantasy, myth, play and power while the mundane women maintain and reproduce daily life. In Song of Solomon, Pilate, Reba, Hagar, Sweet and Circe possess qualities which place them outside of mundane social relations. Whether it be the lack of a navel, the uncanny ability to win prizes, the monthly murderous yearnings, the restorative power of the touch, or the ghostly presence of a survivor, these women transgress the boundaries of material reality providing Milkman access to the largest context of his life, beyond family, community, history, legend. Similarly, in Ceremony, T'seh, Night Swan and Betonie's lover possess the yellow eyes remembered in tribal myth. Tayo's encounters with them—either through story, sex or dream—enable him to complete the ceremony of Laguna restoration. They provide crucial knowledge during the ritual, forging links between the past, the present, the word, the land and the community. In both of these novels, the magical women provide access to life and survival for the protagonist and his community. However, in China Men, the magical women represent mortality and isolation. While the fabulous Hawaiian women make the Great-Grandfather a Sandalwood Mountain King, enabling him to survive his sojourn in the cane fields, the other legendary women threaten the bonds between the community of men by embodying death. Like their real wives, mothers and daughters who circumscribe men's freedom, the Ghost Mate and Hina limit men through death and isolation, or as the ghost of Mad Sao's mother, through guilt and madness.

The mundane women of Song of Solomon and Ceremony surround the protagonists as family members or acquaintances. Usually their personalities are repressed and assimilated, as Ruth Dead or Auntie, and while these women provide for the protagonists' material well-being, they also circumscribe them, impelling the men away from home and towards some resolution of their status as outsiders. In addition, there are a few intimate portraits of women who connect only tangentially to the protagonists' stories, yet whose presence represents the history and consciousness of each culture's women. First Corinthians' story, while narrated in the third person, resembles the form of women's autobiographies. Focusing on her daily routine, it documents her experiences with her lover, her white employer and her family with chilling insight. Similarly, the sections in Ceremony about Gallup, New Mexico, and Helen Jean provide depth and context for Tayo. Both the prostitute who lives under the bridge in Gallup and Helen Jean are trapped by the sexual politics of racism and sexism. Tayo merely observes them briefly during the ceremony yet they color the process as much as the blue shawl and yellow eyes of Night Swan and T'seh.

Again, China Men works out this duality structurally rather than overtly through content. The Mother—the fierce Brave Orchid remembered from The Woman Warrior as the one who “talksstory,” herself a legend—maintains both her Chinese and American families (Kingston, 1976: 24). But, she appears only as a shadow, a traditional Chinese wife. More subtly, the narrative voice of the daughter presents a picture of a young Chinese-American woman growing up among the real and legendary fathers of China and Chinatown and the “demons” and “ghosts” of white America. Her personal stance as narrator of legends, laws, myths and memories recalls both the documentary and fantasy forms of women's autobiographies.cnl


Speaking bilingually, Kingston blurs the narrative voice. The six male characters come to focus through their individual stories while the voice of residual Chinese culture speaks legends and myths, and the echos of American hegemony are heard in the laws. Both China and the Men are modulated through the voice of the narrator who is sometimes the adult woman remembering herself as a child, sometimes the child herself, other times an engaged documentarian or a spinner of fables. In a crucial passage, the narrator recounts a childhood memory of wearing dog tags to school during the nineteen fifties. She remembers hers as marked with “O” referring to her blood type but read by her classmates as signifying “Oriental.” Since the Gypsy and Filipino boys were also “O,” she more broadly defined herself as “Other.” At another point, she addresses her father directly, “What I want from you is for you to tell me that these curses are only common sayings that you did not mean to make me sicken at being female … I want to be able to rely on you, who inked each piece of our home laundry with the word Center, to find out how we landed in a country where we are eccentric people” (1980: 14-15). The “I”/“O” distinction corresponds to her narrative status as insider/outsider. She is simultaneously participant and observer of American culture, Chinese custom, male social relations and the female sub-culture. The “You” from whom she seeks recognition is the voice of the Father, patriarchal culture. Interestingly, she subverts his authority by writing his and his fathers' stories, using the “Four Valuable Things”—ink, ink slab, paper, brush—given to the Father at birth (Kingston, 1980: 27).

The excess which Kingston exhibits in narrative voice is mirrored in Ceremony, where Silko reworks the origin myths of the Laguna through Tayo's dreams and activities. His project is quite literally to remake the world, a world already overdetermined (Althusser, 1977: 101-102). The forces which formerly governed the Laguna world have radically altered and must thus radically alter the stories which create the universe—new information, new substance, must be incorporated into the sacred narratives—including the experience of the Pacific Front or prostitution in Gallup. Mestizo culture, a syncretism based in residual Laguna culture, an imposed Hispanic culture and twentieth century American capitalism has recast aspects of Pueblo life. All the main characters are suspect in the eyes of both traditional culture and American hegemony—they are at all times, to all cultures, outsiders by virtue of their mixed blood. Yet, Josiah's vision of a new breed of cattle, which can survive the desert conditions and produce adequate meat and milk is the material manifestation of the Ceremony's ritual. And, it comes from the stories first, to be repeated again and again beyond the scope of this particular narrative. As Grandma sighs finally, “It seems like I already heard these stories before … only thing is, the names sound different” (Silko, 1977: 273). Technically, Silko uses some of the same devices as Kingston; a multiplicity of voices combine to provide the syntax and context of the story. The reportage about contemporary Laguna experience must be included, as must the traditional poems of the sacred lore. Both Helen Jean and Fly contribute to Tayo's ceremony, filling out his genealogy as the real fathers and the men of the Chinese legends created the context of a young Chinese-American woman's life.

Similarly, in Song of Solomon, from his birth, through his naming, to his final search for his grandfathers' origins, a variety of voices contribute to the development of Milkman's life story. Once again, his genealogy is constructed out of the tales of his immediate family members, friends, strangers, ghosts, and the folk tales of his culture. Like the narrator of China Men and Tayo, Milkman must listen to the stories and decipher the code leading towards a fiction which resembles history. He, too, is an outsider in his community, not because of gender or race, but as a result of his class position. His project, like theirs, is to revise the methods of constructing history, inscribing his voice within the hegemonic culture.

While Kingston expresses ambivalence about her authority as narrator of Chinese-American male culture, she nevertheless inserts herself into the discourse as a dual voice. In addition, she emphasizes the collectivity of Chinese-American culture by creating six protagonists. Indeed, neither Song of Solomon nor Ceremony consistently follows its protagonists, both occasionally digress to chart the stories of other characters. The personal tone of these stories suggests that their narrators seek to articulate other voices within the novels. These multiple voices are necessary to fill out the protagonists' cultural contexts, giving insight into the hidden culture of each minority group. In all three novels, the multiplicity of voices indicates a clash of cultures—oral and literary, male and female, hegemonic and minority. The storytelling process, with its emphasis on openness, repetition and interaction, enables these contradictions to coexist.

The economy of the texts is one of abundance, rather than scarcity; there is always another voice to hear, always another story to tell, extending beyond the boundaries of each text. Just as there are a multiplicity of narrators, there is a plentitude of stories crowding in on each other. Author, fictional and sacred narrator, protagonist and incidental characters provide links between the various stories as the voices harmonize into the “Song” of each novel. For, ultimately, the history of the dispossessed is to be found in the variety of recorded and remembered stories, pieced together from fragments into a narrative forming and informing the sub-culture and the hegemony in which it is found.


All the protagonists of these novels are impelled on a journey back to the sources of their cultures. However, while the novels follow a standard pattern for the male hero—the quest, the journey, the odyssey—the classic westward direction of the journey is reversed, mirroring the cultural inversion experienced by the oppressed minorities in this country. At the end of Ceremony, Tayo comes to realize that the historical migration of his people has been east and south from Asia and so his vision of Josiah's face in the faces of the Japanese soldiers was not coincidental. Similarly, for Milkman, the trip must be back east towards the source, which ultimately lies even further, across the Atlantic in Africa. Again, the collective male heroes of China Men travel east away from civilization toward the “ghosts” and “demons.” For all the heros, confrontation with white America holds the possibility of catastrophe; however, their abilities to recreate a culture combining traditional and alien elements insures their survival. Tayo and Betonie use all the available resources, whether they be native or foreign, to recreate the ceremony of tribal regeneration. For the Dead family, it was the resilience to maintain an alien name, build a farm out of virgin forest, lose it, and reemerge as property holders in the Midwest. The China Men maintain language and continuity despite isolation, lack of family and extraordinary labor.

Dominant American culture is not prominent in any of these novels. Ceremony is set on the Laguna reservation; Song of Solomon is set in the black section of a Michigan city, and later, in the rural black districts of Pennsylvania and Virginia. The China Men travel back and forth between the real and mythic China and Chinatowns of New York, San Francisco, and Stockton. Yet, white American culture permeates each novel, invading the landscape, the community and the consciousness of the characters. Often this cultural imperialism is of popular form—Hollywood movies, commercial products, comic books, newspapers and radio. The telephone books and advertising calendars which litter Betonie's hogan make up the ceremony. The Father in China Men dances down Fifth Avenue in his two hundred dollar suit like Fred Astaire; and before her death, Hagar shops for every designer item of lingerie, make-up and clothing in Song of Solomon.

The cultural contradictions which these three novels both embody and articulate, reflect the contradictions experienced by colonized peoples in relation to the imperial country. The long history of alienation from power in America experienced by racial minorities rests on the peculiar conditions of slavery, genocide, land expropriation and cultural suppression, and on the concommittant ideology of racism. The American experience created a new “race,” Afro-Americans, when thousands of Africans were captured from their various tribal homes and dispersed throughout this nation, creating labor power to help build American economic independence. Similarly, out of the thousands of distinct native tribes another “race,” the Indian, was created as the white settlers systematically removed the native inhabitants from their original lands to the West and, ultimately, to death. The experience of the Chinese in America, while different, was also one of the exploitation of resources. The labor power of the Chinese railroad and sugar plantation workers enabled American capitalism to extend itself across the continent, and into the Pacific Islands. These workers were brought to America under indentured servitude, without family. For instance in 1890, there were only 3,868 Chinese women in America, compared to 103,620 men. Thus, the normal settlement patterns for the European immigrants to America—voluntary migration of families, even whole communities (albeit under pressure, either political, economic or religious) to settle together in urban ghettos or rural communities—was not the experience of any of these racial minority groups.1

If the experience of the man under colonialism is one of extreme alienation, patriarchal culture makes the colonized woman's alienation even more exaggerated. Gender ideology has been perpetuated for women through the terrorism of rape (forced entry), women's economic exploitation (unfree labor), and the silencing of women's voices (destruction of culture).2 Thus, many minority women writers have focused their work on the double jeopardy of racism and sexism as systematic institutions affecting women's perceptions and creations. Through the telling of stories, the giving of names, the multiplicity of language, all three novels emphasize the importance of breaking the silence of alienation, of speaking another way.


It is only through the subversive use of language that minority women authors can being to recreate a literature which speaks of/to the texture of lived experience. In Ceremony, Silko luxuriates in a convoluted syntax, using long sentences, full of subordinate clauses, to impart a sense of the many-layered world of Laguna cosmology—a world which includes the spirits of ancestors, the “ghosts” of white America and the experiences of everybody's daily life. Morrison's reliance on the idioms of Black English and the centrality of black folklore legitimates Afro-American culture as a literary source for herself. Kingston writes with a deceptive simplicity to pierce the thick context of multi-cultural experience. Her sentences perhaps recall the dialects of Chinese immigrants as they attempt to “talkstory” in another language.

Being fluent in none of these languages, I can only speculate about the subtleties locked in bilingual literature. I stand outside the experience and traditions of these authors. Yet, my points of access suggest that each author glories in her multiple identity, attempting to create a truly cross-cultural literature, one which opens the history and language of America to discordant voices.

In a sense, the primary struggle for minority women authors is over the ability to use symbols and symbol systems to produce writing. If the language one uses is the language of oppression, either as the colonizers tongue or the standard form, if the image of the female has been appropriated for use by male authors and artists, if the images of minorities has been stereotyped, a minority woman artist must negotiate a new process of writing to mention the unmentioned, to depict the invisible, to express the depths of rage at false history, and to explore the possibilities of change. By incorporating oral, documentary, and fantastic forms, and by stressing difference and multiplicity, Morrison, Silko and Kingston are reforming history for women and minority readers. These authors construct a magical realism from the anger and power of otherness. Refusing the censorship of deep areas of themselves and their audiences upon which the form of realism is based, they give voice to “all we have” (Silko, 1977: 1), our stories.


  1. Cf. Blauner, 1972: 12-13; Takaki, 1979: 12; Jung, 1971.

  2. Cf. Cabral. See Fanon, 1968 for definitions of colonialism; Barrett, 1980 for an overview of Marxist Feminist theory regarding sexuality, economics and culture.

Acknowledgement: This paper was first presented at the Mankist Literary Group session of the Midwest MLA, November, 1982.


Louis Althusser

1977 “Contradiction and overdetermination.” For Marx. London: New Left Books.

Michelle Barrett

1980 Women's Oppression Today. London: Verso.

Robert Blauner

1972 Racial Oppression in America. New York: Harper & Row.

Amilcar Cabral

1973 Return to the Source. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Carol P. Christ

1980 Diving Deep and Surfacing. Boston: Beacon Press.

Frantz Fanon

1967 Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

1968 The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Clifford Geertz

1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Suzanne Juhasz

1980 “Towards a theory of form in feminist autobiography: Kate Millet's Flying and Sita; Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior.” In Estelle C. Jelinek [ed.] Women's Autobiography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Betty Jung

1971 “Chinese immigration.” In Asian Women. Berkeley: Asian Women's Journal Workshop, n.p.

Ann Kaplan

1974 “Feminist criticism: a survey with analysis of methodological problems,” in University of Michigan Papers in Women's Studies, 1:1.

Maxine Hong Kingston

1976 The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage Books.

1980 China Men. New York: Alfred Knopf.

George Lukacs

1971 History and Class Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Toni Morrison

1977 Song of Solomon. New York: Signet.

Laura Mulvey

1977 “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema,” in Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary [eds.] Women and the Cinema. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Leslie Marmon Silko

1977 Ceremony. New York: Signet.

Donald T. Takaki

1979 Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Raymond Williams

1977 Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellen Willis

1982 “Sisters under the skin?: confronting race and sex,” in Voice Literary Supplement, 8.

Robert Alter (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Magic Realism in the Israeli Novel,” in Prooftexts, John Hopkins University Press, Vol. 16, No. 2, May, 1996, pp. 151-68.

[In the following essay, Alter provides an overview of Israeli novels containing elements of magic realism.]

Until the publication in 1986 of David Grossman's spectacular second novel, See Under: Love, the very conjunction of magic realism and the Israeli novel would have seemed like a contradiction in terms. Since then, the face of Israeli fiction has assumed new, at times surprisingly antic, features, and there have been abundant and exuberant transgressions of the conventions of realism of varying kinds. But it is important to keep in mind that any manifestation of fantasy in Hebrew fiction has to be made against the heavy weight of a dominant tradition of intent realism that goes all the way back to Hebrew writing in nineteenth-century Russia.

It is exemplary of the governing impulse of Hebrew fiction that when Mendele (S. Y. Abramovitsh, 1835-1917) adopted Gogol as an important literary model, he drew exclusively on Gogol the satiric realist, excluding Gogol the fantasist. A nose is a palpable Jewish nose in Mendele, drawn by the novelist to loom over tangled beard and greasy caftan, and by no means meant to detach itself from its realistic physiognomic moorings and to go strolling through the shtetl streets. Characteristically, when the next generation of Hebrew fiction writers rebelled against Mendele and his followers, it was in the name of a grittier, more immediately mimetic realism: they rejected his coy, learned playfulness, and, even more, they rejected the symmetries, the beautifully crafted traditionalism, and the dense allusiveness of his prose. The most powerful practitioner of this early twentieth-century anti-nusah realism was J. H. Brenner, and it is deeply instructive about the later course of Hebrew fiction that he should have been taken up by young writers and critics in the 1960s, and repeatedly since then, not exactly as a formal model but as an ultimate touchstone of uncompromising literary authenticity. The first wave of writers who spoke Hebrew as a native language, the Generation of 1948, had cultivated their own kind of rather drab, morally and ideologically serious realism, at least in part influenced by the Hebrew translations of Soviet Socialist Realism, on which many of them had been nurtured in the socialist youth movements during the 1930s. The New Wave writers of the sixties then found in Brenner an indigenous Hebrew model of realist intentness, and displacing the norm of realism was never much at issue, despite the experiments of the early A. B. Yehoshua (in his first collection of stories, The Death of the Old Man) with dreamlike and surrealist narratives. Yehoshua's career in fact bears witness to the strong centripetal pull of realism on Hebrew writers. After his dalliance with the fantastic macabre in The Death of the Old Man, he moved through the symbolic novellas of “Facing the Forest,” where much was spooky or psychologically strange but nothing violated the laws of nature, to a series of five novels in which, despite the psychological weirdness of some of the characters, every effort is made to honor the contract of realism.

There were, of course, expressions of fantasy in Hebrew fiction before the mid-1980s, but by and large these were marginalized by critics, readers, and even by the community of writers. Yehoshua's early stories drew directly on Agnon's dreamlike fictions in The Book of Deeds, but despite the large claims made for this collection by the critic Baruch Kurzweil, in an effort to strengthen his account of Agnon as a radical modernist recording the acute spiritual disjunctions of modernity, readers have tended to see these stories, and beyond them, the more pervasive neo-Gothic strain in Agnon, as secondary to his real achievement. It is symptomatic that so many critics should insist on the status of his crowning achievement, Just Yesterday (1945), as an “epic” of the Second Aliyah, even though they are perfectly aware that substantial portions of the novel are devoted to the perspective of a ratiocinating dog, who proves to be the book's most reflective character. In another direction, Yitzhak Oren has long explored science-fiction and metaphysical-fiction hypotheses in his stories, and precisely for this reason, he has remained a figure on the margins of Hebrew fiction. It is also well to remember that even after 1986, as some younger writers began to give fantasy a much freer rein, the momentum of the realist tradition in Hebrew prose has scarcely diminished. Yehoshua Kenaz's painfully unblinking representation of geriatric humanity, soiled sheets and all, in The Way to the Cats (1991), scored an impressive succès d'estime; and Victoria (1993), Sami Michael's panoramic account of the life of Baghdad Jewry early in the century, with all its folkways and physical constrictions and familial convolutions, became a runaway bestseller. When one speaks, then, of magic realism in the Israeli novel, what is being described is not a dramatic turning point or the defining direction of a whole new generation but simply one trend among other new trends and persisting old ones. What should be noted is that it is also a trend that would have been unimaginable in the Hebrew novel just a few years ago.

But what is magic realism? The chief provenance of the term, of course, is Latin American fiction, and the name, actually borrowed from a rubric introduced by art historians of the 1920s, was first given general currency by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier in the 1950s (lo real maravilloso). By now, the term has been so overused and loosely used that a good many critics and writers are sick of it. Thus, Michael Kerrigan, writing in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement (5 November 1993), begins a review with this sardonic observation: “For some time, Magic Realism has been brewed under licence in North America and Europe [and, now, we might add, in the eastern Mediterranean]. Latin writers have come to bristle at the very mention of the term, and more sophisticated critics abroad have in their turn assumed a more disdainful attitude.” The burden of what follows will be an attempt to determine whether the term designates a coherent literary phenomenon that might be distinct from other fictional deployments of fantasy, and to see, through a scrutiny of a few recent Israeli examples, what might be the attractions and the pitfalls of this mode of fiction.

Not all fiction with fantastic elements is magic realism, and we will avoid at least some confusions by not following the loose practice of some critics who tend to label any fantasy-fiction written in the later twentieth century as magic realism. What kinds of writing should be excluded? In general, I would say that when a writer constructs a fantastic fictional world that is merely extrapolated from or thematically analogous to the world of familiar experience, and that does not seriously pretend to be a direct representation of it, the “realism” component of the term is not sufficiently present to justify the label. As it stands, J. L. Borges's famous story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” could be plausibly characterized as a piece of magic realism because its fantastic world, where totally different concepts of identity, being, causation, and time obtain, is circumstantially anchored in a real Bueno Aires where two scholarly friends scrutinize a text, purportedly published in New York in 1917, which is “a literal but delinquent reprint of the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1902.” Had Borges plunged us immediately into Tlön's realm of disorienting otherness without the realist frame, the story would have been a metaphysical fantasy but would not qualify as magic realism.

Thus, fiction that seems pervasively dreamlike, that has the sense of arbitrariness and constant unpredictability of the surreal—repeated violations of causality and temporality, unmotivated spatial displacements, and so forth—stands outside the category of magic realism. The Book of Deeds and most of the stories in The Death of the Old Man therefore do not belong to this mode of writing. To put this another way, when the fantasy is free-floating, when the constraints of history and social institution and the laws of nature exert little gravitational force, the realism component of our double-barreled term does not apply. For both similar and opposite reasons, science fiction must be excluded. Similar, when science-fiction worlds are blatantly based on premises about the constitution of reality contrary to those of our own world—say, intelligent beings shaped like pea pods who communicate telepathically—for this formula yields magic without the realism. Opposite, when the future fiction scrupulously preserves the empirical principles observable in our familiar world while equipping its characters with high-powered extrapolations of current technologies, which yields an odd kind of realism without the magic.

A second category of the fantastic that must be excluded from magic realism is the introduction of fantastic sequences that are realistically motivated within the fiction as dreams, hallucinations, and free associations. There has been a good deal of this in recent Hebrew writing because of the pervasive interest in the quirkiness of the inner life of the characters. Here is a characteristic moment in Christ of Fish (1991), an experimental fiction by Yoel Hoffman:

What did she think when she washed her big body? Here are the arms? Here's the navel to which the blood vessels came from Eva Weiss's womb? Here are the heels? And perhaps she set sail in her bathtub ship under the crescent moon and her flesh gleamed in the light of another siderial frame, more distant, until (in a kind of cosmic X ray) the filigrain of the network of nerves was revealed.1

With the verb “set sail” (hifligah), the narrator's imagination goes soaring from the here and now, which in the previous lines is given a strong bodily definition, into the far-flung realm of “another siderial frame” (gerem shemeimi aher) in which the physicality of Eva Weiss's daughter is transmuted into a weird and evocative poetic image, the network of the nerves as a filigrain seen in cosmic X ray. But it is, after all, the imagination of the narrator that manifestly does this work of fantastic transposition. Nothing in the actual chain of narrated events or in the constitution of the fictional world is transformed by the fantasy, which is a free-associative movement clearly triggered by the metaphoric conception of the bathtub as a ship. Fictional realists have always recognized that consciousness imposes all sorts of fantastic structures on reality—think for example, of the prominence of phantasmagoria and hallucination in Flaubert's Sentimental Education—but distorting along fantastic lines the contours of what the fiction presents as objective reality is quite another matter.

What is the characteristic strategy of distortion one encounters in magic realism? Let me suggest that there must be some sort of persuasive, minutely represented realistic frame within which the elements of fantasy are played out. That frame will involve an attempt at the faithful representation of at least some, and perhaps all, of the following: history, politics, social institutions, the family, and the ineluctable aspects of biological existence. All of these tend to be perceived, as they are typically perceived in realism tout court, as constrictions, limits, inevitabilities, as manifestations of a realm that is intractable or perhaps even menacing. Within this frame of realist constrictions, certain laws of physical reality are suspended. Although the break with realist necessity is often flamboyantly obtrusive, it is also delimited in one way or another so that it does not destroy the frame of realism, so that it does not impart a sense that all elements of the represented world are arbitrary and unpredictable. One could say that the violation of the laws of nature in a magic-realist fiction is carried out in a lawlike manner: history, society, the human body continue to exert their relentless compulsions while some hypothesis—or a network of such hypotheses—contrary to what we know of reality is played out in the fictional world as though it, too, manifested a law of nature, like gravity, the irreversibility of completed events, and mortality. In Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, Oskar, the protagonist, successfully implements a decision to remain physically fixed at the age of four. This willed arrested growth is, of course, contrary to what we know empirically about bodily processes, but it is used as a narrative vantage point from which the horrors of the Hitler years are seen all the more sharply, themselves uncompromised by fantastic distortion. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children works with the fantasy-hypothesis that all children born at midnight on August 15, 1947, when Indian independence was declared, can communicate with one another telepathically. This antirealist narrative datum in no way diminishes Rushdie's representation of the virulence of religious strife in this period of historical upheaval or of what he sees as the sinister and oppressive character of Indira Ghandi's rule.

There seems to be no generally accepted convention for how the fantasy-hypothesis is delimited formally. It may be one narrative thread that runs continuously through all the others, as in The Tin Drum. It may recur intermittently—I suspect this is the most common practice—or it may be sequestered in one or more sections of the larger narrative, producing the effect of a realist frame with magic insets. David Grossman's last two novels provide an instructive set of illustrations of the repertory of possibilities for inserting and delimiting fantasy-hypotheses in magic realism. In See Under: Love the first of the four sections of the book is entirely realistic. (Instructively, those Hebrew readers who disapproved of the conjunction of magic realism and the Nazi genocide tended to like this section even though they were unhappy with the rest of the book.) In the second section, the Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, who was actually murdered in the ghetto of Drohobycz by a German officer, as the novel itself reminds us, metamorphoses into a salmon, and a global fantasy takes over the narrative. In the third section, which corresponds more to the practice of Günter Grass, there is a single antirealist hypothesis, that Anshel Wasserman cannot be killed, while the documented historical horrors of the death camp—the lineups, the random shootings, the gas chambers—are represented in all their ferocity. The last section of the novel incorporates a fiction within a fiction, involving the invented heroes of Wasserman's adventure stories, and so here a whole network of fantasies can be spun out. The framework of these fantasies, however, remains the grim historical reality of the systematic mass murder of European Jewry, even in this section undiminished in its hideousness. By contrast, in Grossman's next novel, The Book of Intimate Grammar (1991), realism, following a child's point of view in a manner reminiscent of the opening section of See Under: Love, is the predominant mode, though there is one extended sequence (the demolition of Edna Blum's apartment, to which we shall return) in which we progress by gradual stages from realistically represented obsession to the enactment of fantasy. If the “Bruno” section of See Under: Love illustrates one end of the spectrum of magic realism, where the fantasy-hypothesis begins to take over reality, the opposite end is exemplified in Gavriela Avigur-Rotem's highly engaging first novel, Mozart Was Not a Jew (1992). The novel as a whole is a realistic family saga about two Jewish families from Russia that settle in Argentina early in the century. One of the children has telekinetic powers, but this magic-realist feature surfaces only a few times, plays no important role in the plot, and seems almost a small gesture of literary deference to the Latin American context of the novel.

It remains to be seen why novelists should find it attractive to suspend certain of the laws of nature, either intermittently or pervasively, in fictions that otherwise address historical and cultural realities with considerable urgency. I will propose some tentative answers to that question by scrutinizing a few instances of Hebrew magic realism from the late 1980s and early 1990s. First, however, I would like to avert another possible confusion by stressing that the fantasy component in this mode of fiction is never intended to raise an issue of “decidability” between a realistic and a fantastic fictional world. There are a few eminent instances of stories of another sort that teeter on the brink between realism and fantasy, where in the end the reader cannot decide which way to construe the fiction. The most famous case of this sort is Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, in which the assumption that the governess is delusional and the contradictory assumption that she is actually seeing ghosts seem equally viable hypotheses for reading the story. In the Hebrew tradition, a roughly similar instance occurs in Agnon's “Betrothed,” where the wraithlike appearance of Shoshana at the end of the race of maidens on the beach has been construed by some readers as a natural event (the woman stricken by sleeping sickness arises from her torpor and comes out to claim her betrothed) and by others as a supernatural event, in which the young woman is a kind of revenante claiming Jacob Rechnitz for the realm of the dead she seems to inhabit. Such fictions of hovering decidability are quite different from magic realism. Smadar Shiffman, in a recent article on Meir Shalev's The Blue Mountain (1989), invokes both The Turn of the Screw and “Betrothed” and tries to define a difference in Shalev: “Unlike Todorov and some of his followers, I would like to suggest that this blurring [of reality and fantasy in a writer like Shalev] is conceived of as immanent to the represented world, not as something that, theoretically at least, could be clarified and decided.”2 This is fair enough, but as Shiffman proceeds, she is nevertheless still caught up in Todorov's notion of a readerly “hesitation” about the character of the world represented in the fiction. She thus can claim that Shalev “leaves us suspended in a world that is neither marvelous nor realistic,” a world “filled with so many incredible elements that we can hardly avoid questioning its reality.”3 This formulation strikes me as misconceived. At any rate, it does not jibe with my own reading experience of Shalev or of other magic realists. There are, of course, numerous things that happen in The Blue Mountain, and again in Shalev's second novel, Esau (1991), that we know could not happen in the realm of experience outside fiction. But in keeping with what I have observed about the deployment of lawlike and delimited fantasy-assumptions in magic realism, I don't think there is any sense of suspension between alternatives, and I don't think we are encouraged to question the reality of the represented world.

Esau represents a historical reality in which, for example, hideous acts of violence are perpetrated on the Jews of Palestine in the Arab attacks of 1929, as in fact was the case. It is also one of the givens of the novel that a woman who is raped and has one breast cut off in the attacks should continue to produce milk in her remaining breast until old age and should serve as wet nurse to generations of children. Although Tia Dodoch's eternally engorged breast does not at all correspond to the laws of female physiology, it seems to me that as readers, we accept it as how things work in the novel—as we accept Oskar's arrested growth or the telepathy of the Midnight Children—without any diminished sense of the actual atrocities of 1929, the social evolution from Mandatory Palestine to Israel a decade after statehood, and the inexorability of aging and physical decay, all of which are quite seriously represented in the novel. We read even the most scrupulously realistic novels with an awareness of their double status as faithful representations of the world outside literature and as literary inventions. Emma Bovary may be an utterly plausible image of a certain kind of bourgeois housewife who might be encountered in a hundred provincial towns in mid-nineteenth-century France, but our granting the persuasive power of the character as realist representation is simultaneous with our understanding that she is a figment of Flaubert's imagination. In magic realism, there is a tacit modification of the implicit contract between novelist and reader: the writer's freedom of fictional invention, always assumed by the reader, is extended to encompass certain willful suspensions of the limits that we know are imposed on human existence. These willful suspensions, as I have argued, do not necessarily compromise the realistically represented world of the fiction or ask us to call it into question. Rather, it is as though the novelist were saying: Let us assume a world exactly like our own, with precisely the same historical and moral dilemmas and existential burdens, in which, however, something like permanent lactation or telekinesis or invulnerability to bullets can occur; how might the antirealist element serve to throw the realistically represented world into sharper focus?

Let me begin with an example to which I have already alluded: the invulnerability of Anshel Wasserman in See Under: Love. Each time a German puts a Luger to his forehead and pulls the trigger, all that happens is that Wasserman hears a little buzzing in his ears and the bullet completes its harmless trajectory through his head by ricocheting off one of the walls. Some literalist readers have been quite offended by this invention of Grossman's, feeling that it is frivolous and perhaps even immoral to play around in this way with a moment in history when millions of Jews were in fact appallingly vulnerable to Nazi bullets, blows, and poison gas. On the level of narrative mechanics, Wasserman's invulnerability makes possible a compelling plot development. Because he can't be killed, though he desperately wants to die, he enters into a bizarre anti-Scheherazade pact with the camp commandant, whereby he will present an episode of his adventure stories each night to the commandant, who will reward him for his performance by attempting to shoot him. Thus, Nazi mass-murderer and Jewish victim are locked together in a weirdly engrossing relationship, as could almost never have happened in historical reality. This relationship, however, allows the novelist to explore the submerged humanity of the executive of genocide—surely something that it is worth trying to understand—which Wasserman ends up using to subvert and destroy him. To be an agent of genocide, as many analysts have observed, requires a certain reordering of consciousness so that the assembly-line murderer can perpetrate unspeakable atrocities as a regular work-routine without compunction. Different modes of consciousness are brought into play when the mind is engaged in imaginative literature, and the confrontation of the two orders of consciousness in the strange collaboration of the Hebrew storyteller and the death-camp commandant is deeply instructive.

Beyond this enabling of a revelatory relationship, the fantasy-hypothesis of Wasserman's invulnerability leads us to ponder a troubling dilemma about destruction and survival. Wasserman wants nothing but death for himself because after he has witnessed the murder of both his wife and his only daughter, life has become intolerable. Since the fate of fictional characters is always implicitly exemplary as the fate of actual persons is not, except by interpretive coercion, Wasserman's magic-real predicament also points up the quandary of real Jews, and of the Jewish people collectively, in the face of genocide. Alongside the murdered millions, millions survived, but with the continuing awareness of having lost everything and perhaps everyone, of having seen things that the mind can scarcely bear to think about. On the collective level, the Jewish people has stubbornly survived, and has experienced the dramatic rebirth of national sovereignty in Israel—just as before the Nazi era it managed to survive the onslaughts of the Crusades, the Chmielnitzki massacres in the seventeenth-century Ukraine, the pogroms of the Black Hundreds. The standard Zionist version, with evident reason, celebrates the miracle of Jewish survival. The anti-Scheherazade of Anshel Wasserman suggests a darker side of the consciousness of survival that need not be programmatically affirmed but that should not be evaded: Is survival worth the candle after all to which we have been subjected? After such knowledge, might not the blankness of extinction be a welcome alternative to the continuing anguish of survival? It is the necessary task of imaginative literature to contemplate disturbing ambiguities that cannot be accommodated by the pragmatic frameworks, and the mind-sets they require, of quotidian existence. David Grossman, by endowing his protagonist in lawlike magic-real fashion with a physical constitution that includes an invulnerability to bullets, is able to probe certain aspects of the abysmal historical experience that is his subject. There are obviously other legitimate ways to approach the subject fictionally, but quite a few writers in different countries seem to have concluded that when history becomes abysmal and drastically violates the assumptions of conventional morality, the nature of historical experience may be more adequately represented by abrogating within the fiction some of the laws of nature.

Let us now consider a central magic-real invention in a much more playful novel, Meir Shalev's The Blue Mountain (the original Hebrew title, Roman Rusi [A Russian novel], invokes the dimension of parody as the English title does not). Shalev, of course, is not dealing with anything so disturbing as genocide, but the exuberant and often quite hilarious playfulness of his book does not detract from the deadly seriousness with which he represents the contradictions of the Zionist enterprise, the human costs it exacted, and the ephemerality of all ideological projects under the dissolving aspect of eternity. (This last perspective is hauntingly evoked in the prehistoric cave discovered by the old school-teacher Pinness). The most notable of the novel's delimited suspensions of the laws of empirical reality is the story of Ephraim and his bull, Jean Valjean. Ephraim, serving as a commando in the British army during the Second World War, is so hideously disfigured in an explosion that when he returns to his native village in the Galilee he has to keep his face covered with a mask. The disfigurement drives him into becoming a recluse, and in fact the people of the village feel very leery about him. Ephraim then acquires a calf that becomes his sole bosom-companion, and he carries the calf around with him on his shoulders wherever he goes. Jean Valjean grows to a full-sized bull weighing 1,300 kilograms, and Ephraim continues to carry him around on his shoulders, though he is not otherwise endowed with supernatural strength. The bull meanwhile proves to be the prize stud of the region, inseminating cows far and wide. Eventually, Ephraim with his bull runs off to join a traveling circus. We get a report of his disastrous coupling with the circus's Rubber Lady, and then he disappears from the horizon of the novel's action, leaving only a trail of vague rumors about his continuing peregrinations.

This fantastic story has an obvious literary genealogy. In antiquity a tale circulated about a certain Milo of Crotona, a champion athlete, who took upon himself the physical discipline of walking around with a calf on his shoulders, gaining strength each day as the calf grew until he was able to carry the weight of the full-grown bull. This bit of legendary anecdote is spliced with an allusion to more recent literature: the bull is named after the outcast convict hero of Les Misérables while Ephraim plays the role of Quasimodo, the hunchback of Victor Hugo's other famous novel. There is, finally, also a hint of biblical allusion: Jean Valjean is referred to as Ephraim's “pet calf,” or literally, “the calf of his delight” ['egel sha 'ashu 'av], which points to a famous verse in Jeremiah (31:20) in which the name of Ephraim figures: “Is not Ephraim a dear son to me, a child of delight [yeled sha 'ashu 'im]?” The calf is thus the object of tender love for Ephraim as Israel is for God in Jeremiah, and the wretched outcast Ephraim ought to be the object of God's tender love, but He is conspicuous by His absence in the novel.

The allusiveness of Shalev's brand of magic realism accords nicely with the flaunted awareness in both his novels that the deployment of fictional invention takes place against a dense background of antecedent literary tradition. (Magic realism does not necessarily imply literary self-reflexivity, but the two easily come together.) But beyond the sheer pleasure of playing an elaborate literary game, what is this fantastic business about a man carrying one and a half tons of bull doing in a novel that is intently concerned with the Zionist effort to create a new kind of community on the soil of the Land of Israel?

A recurrent principle of much magic realism is that the physical universe of the fiction is in part governed by psychological rather than physical laws. Thus, in the Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate (1989) by Laura Esquivel, a young woman's pent-up passion, ignited by one of her sister's magic recipes, produces a literal explosion, causing the wooden shower-shed in which she is standing naked to burst into flames. (The novel, by the way, unlike its popular film version, actually introduces each episode with a real Mexican recipe, which functions as a ballast of quotidian physical reality for the book's high-flying fantasies.) The underlying idea is not to present the psychology of the characters analytically—as, say, Proust does—or to represent psychological processes mimetically—as does Joyce—but to extrude psychodynamic forces by extravagantly externalizing them. In The Blue Mountain, Ephraim's status as pariah is confirmed, grotesquely but effectively, by the necessity he feels to take up the calf as his sole companion. His disfigurement has imposed upon him an absolute sexual isolation. The grown bull, fertilizing all the cows of the region, serves as a sexual alter ego to the celibate Ephraim and at the same time as a zoological analogue to Ephraim's cousin Uri, the village's irrepressible cocksman. The maimed ex-commando's terrible separation from the possibility of sexual connection is then forever sealed when his attempted coupling with the Rubber Lady, whose preternatural flexibility seems to promise a world of perverse pleasure, is interrupted by Jean Valjean and turns into a ghastly uncoupling. Ephraim now runs away from the circus as he had run away from the village, and thus he turns into another legendary archetype, a Wandering Dutchman eternally driven from the habitations of men and the ministrations of women by a terrible curse.

The most fantastic aspect of Ephraim's relationship with the bull is, of course, his ability to carry around this superhuman weight. The narrator explains that it was not strength but despair that enabled Ephraim to carry the bull. This psycho-physical explanation makes sense in the hybrid world of the novel. Real history inflicts real wounds in this novel. Ephraim, after all, loses his face fighting for the British in World War II, like real Palestinian Jews who sometimes paid a terrible price, or the ultimate price, as volunteers for combat duty. Similarly, the grenade that kills both the narrator's parents is hardly a fanciful invention of magic realism, for such acts of Arab terrorism were repeatedly carried out against members of the Zionist community from 1936 through to the armed struggle for statehood. Though we obviously understand that no one in that same historical reality of Palestine in the 1940s carried around a ton and a half on his shoulders, the externalized representation of the concentrated power of utter despair is genuinely wrenching. The acuteness of the character's suffering is not undercut by the fantasy but, on the contrary, is made palpable by it.

All this nevertheless remains, a reader may reasonably object, very bizarre. But it seems to me that bizarreness is precisely the thematic point. The Zionist enterprise that is the historical subject of the novel was the most successfully implemented of all the different ideological projects undertaken by Jews grappling with modernity. But ideology is by design systematically rationalist. It comes with a set of causal explanations for why things happen in a certain way in history and with a pragmatic plan for shaping the course of future events according to its understanding of the nature of historical process. Shalev's novel raises questions in a variety of ways, both realistic and fantastic, about the ideological confidence of the Zionist enterprise, suggesting instead that history may be more unmanageable, perhaps even more abysmal, than the Zionist founding fathers were willing to imagine. At the same time, his upbeat ending makes clear that it is by no means his intention simply to invalidate Zionism. The fantastic fate he invents for the disfigured Ephraim is grotesque, uncanny, a manifest violation of conventional notions of how things happen in the real world. The man with a mask on his face and a bull on his shoulders becomes an image of everything that communitarian Zionism, operating on its hopeful ideological premises, cannot assimilate. Our children, after all, were supposed to turn into strong, beautiful, confident avatars of a new kind of Jew, as in a way Ephraim was before his wounding—and not into inconceivable monsters of loneliness and despair. The grotesquely transformed Ephraim is still a human being, a son of the village, and the townsfolk's horrified withdrawal from him, which leads to his self-banishment, is a kind of primal sin of the community, as both the narrator and his embittered grandfather recognize. The fantasy-hypothesis by which the character becomes Quasimodo with the huge bull Jean Valjean on his shoulders exposes the inner contradictions of the community, its inability to cope humanely with the irruption of unanticipated horror into its collective life.

My last example is a sequence of magic realism working at the border of realism. David Grossman's The Book of Intimate Grammar is, as I have already noted, in most respects a realistic novel. Indeed, it seems to me one of the most compelling representations of the emotional and physical anguish of early adolescence in recent fiction anywhere. There is, however, one long episode, occupying nearly a quarter of the book and occurring more or less in its middle, that begins realistically but by stages builds into a set of actions that verge on the fantastic. Edna Blum, a single woman in her thirties who has an apartment in the same housing development as Aharon Kleinfeld, the young protagonist, and his family, comes to Aharon's father with a business proposition: she would like to make some structural modifications in her apartment, and knowing him to be good with his hands, she proposes, for a generous fee, that he undertake to knock down an interior wall. His wife is immediately suspicious of the whole business—with good reason, as the events prove. Mrs. Kleinfeld grudgingly agrees to the deal, but with the stipulation that she will be present to keep an eye on what is going on (she will then bring along her son). Even in the early stages of the project, bizarre features begin to emerge. Edna Blum makes a point of feeding her demolition-man each time he comes, favoring thick sandwiches with lots of spicy meat. The wife, not about to have any of her conjugal prerogatives usurped, makes sure to serve him a heavy meal before each of his stints in Edna's apartment. The two women in this way enter into a weird competition over the man, with obvious implications of claims to sexual possession, by vying to stuff him to the gills.

As the demolition gets under way, its heavy erotic charge for Edna Blum is made vividly clear. Aharon's father stands amid the clouds of flying dust in sleeveless undershirt and work shorts, his body glistening with sweat, his muscles rippling, as he swings the sledgehammer, pounding again and again into the gradually disintegrating wall while Edna watches his every motion, mesmerized. “Three days. The innards of the wall were torn open step by step; and Edna scarcely moved from her place, half sitting, half prone, clinging to the thin, primal terror that pulsed through her, touching a pleasure too sharp to bear.”4 The breaking-down of the wall patently becomes a surrogate for the sexual act to the evidently virginal Edna. When the industrious Mr. Kleinfeld finishes taking down the wall, she proposes, for a still more extravagant sum, that he go to work on a second one. (By this point, the irate Mrs. Kleinfeld vows that she will not set foot again in Edna Blum's apartment.) He agrees, and then, predictably, she proposes a third wall after the second, and then a floor. The mad pact continues until her entire small apartment is reduced to a scene of utter devastation, with nothing left to knock down. Here is how she looks at the end of the process, now bereft of all hope:

Only Edna had begun slowly to turn to stone as she stood. She felt how the stone was pouring into the soles of her feet, rising to her knees, to her thighs, to her parched sex, which the stone filled and enveloped. She still managed to reflect how Mr. Kleinfeld would now have to hew delicately and carefully in order to extricate her from the envelope of marmoreal stone that had formed over her desolate breasts, but her heart, her lips, her brain had already turned to stone.5

The stone, of course, is purely metaphorical and not literal, as it would be in a blatantly magic-realist fiction. But, especially coming from David Grossman, the writer who had turned a man into a fish and had invented a child who lives a life span in a day, is this really an instance of magic realism? There is no fictional rearrangement here of any law of nature: a hired sledgehammer, pounding day after day, would in fact reduce an apartment to rubble, as the novel reports. Let me suggest that a reader's perception of the pressure of fantasy in a narrative is partly determined by the norms of realistic representation established in the narrative as a whole. The extended account of the destruction of Edna Blum's apartment within the world of The Book of Intimate Grammar is rather like the insertion of a long episode from Yehoshua's “Facing the Forest” in his somberly realistic Five Seasons. Throughout the novel, the rules of the child-protagonist's psychological “grammar” are observed with the most persuasive precision: there is scarcely a thought or a gesture that does not seem utterly plausible, motivated with manifest verisimilitude. The social milieu and the historical moment—life in a shikkun (housing development) toward the end of the second decade of statehood—are also evoked with the most meticulous attention to realistic detail. The Edna Blum episode begins in a way that seems perfectly continuous with the realism of the preceding narrative: there is nothing implausible in her proposing to hire a muscular neighbor to take down a wall in her apartment, even if her intentness and her readiness to overpay him may lead us to wonder about her motives. As the demolition proceeds, however, with the rhythmically battered apartment coming to seem more and more an extension of Edna Blum's body, madness takes over, and it is not easy to situate it between the alternatives of acted-out psychosis (realism) and fantasy turned into fact (magic realism). One can, of course, explain Edna as a frustrated woman whose erotic obsession becomes monomaniacal, causing her to disregard all sane considerations of self-preservation, not to speak of propriety. And in fact, after the dust from the last hammer-blow settles, she is carted off by her parents, apparently for psychiatric care. At the same time, one must keep in mind Mr. Kleinfeld's persistent complicity in the madness, which cannot simply be explained by the profit motive and threatens to violate plausibility for an otherwise sane character. This whole Yehoshua-like sequence stands out in its bizarreness against the norms of the surrounding novel. Even without any abrogation of physical laws, it feels very much like that extrusion of psychology into external acts and objects that is a characteristic feature of magic realism. What Grossman gains by switching fictional gears is an amusing, dismaying, extravagant dramatization of submerged psychological impulsions. The mixture of zany inventiveness and mimetic seriousness is precisely the kind of special pleasure, which will be relished by some but not by all, that the magic realists offer their readers.

The reasons why this mode of fiction should now appeal to some younger Israeli writers are multiple, and some may remain obscure. It is also not altogether clear whether such loosing of the steeds of galloping fantasy in the fields of realism may not prove to be a mixed blessing. No doubt, Israeli magic realism is in part a predictable pendulum-swing in Hebrew literary history, a new generation of writers defining itself against the dominant norms of its predecessors by vigorously adopting an antithetical mode of fiction. An active interest in foreign models, both Latin American and Continental, must also be conceded. There are, as several critics have noted, more than a few elements of One Hundred Years of Solitude in The Blue Mountain, and there are ghosts of García Márquez, Grass, perhaps also Rushdie flitting around in the strange world of See Under: Love. But “influence” is always a matter of finding in other literatures formal strategies or thematic emphases that answer the special needs of one's own ideological, cultural, and historical predicament.6 Earlier, I proposed that magic realism is fantasy working within, and against, a realm of constriction and intractability. Israeli reality since the 1950s has repeatedly been felt by writers to be precisely such a realm, though their typical response to it until the last few years did not involve fantasy.

Israel, we should recall, is a tiny state hemmed in by enemies, which makes it rather different from other tiny states, like Denmark and Holland. Or perhaps it might be more pertinent to say that Israel is a tight little island, at once Jewish and Western, surrounded by a bloc of states that are culturally other and that, at least until very recently, have been unwilling to recognize Israel's existence in any way that Israelis could sense as a confirmation of their belonging to the region. Within its tensely drawn perimeters, Israeli society long sought to be ideologically regulative for its members. Moreover, as a small society where everybody seems to know everybody else, from high-school class to army service to power structures—see, for example, Irit Linor's pop fiction, Two Snow-Whites (1993)—it combines universalist aspirations with, as Israelis sometimes say, the provinciality of the shtetl. In the first generation of Statehood writers, this cultural predicament is characteristically reflected in representations of the coercive or at least restrictive peer group.

S. Yizhar's The Days of Ziklag (1958) is the grand culmination of this kind of Hebrew fiction. Within a few years, Hebrew writers, as I had occasion to observe long ago,7 began to play out scenarios of flight or escape in their writing; the exemplary instance of Dalia Ravikovitch's well-known poem “The Blue West” has its elaborate analogues in a wide variety of Israeli novels. One might say that after fantasies of flight beyond the horizon in the generation that came to prominence in the sixties, some younger Hebrew writers are experimenting with imaginative flights of another sort in the very representation of the national here and now.

Every mode of fiction has its own pitfalls, and it is not my intention to argue for the superiority of one over the other. Let me conclude with a brief contrast between two novels, one realist and the other magic-realist, that cope imaginatively with the constrictions of Israeli existence, exhibiting different virtues and different potential problems. Amos Oz's A Perfect Peace (1982), which still seems to me his best novel since My Michael, spells out the scenario of flight. In the first sentence, we are informed that the protagonist, Yonatan Lifshitz, has decided to leave his wife and the kibbutz on which he was born to make a new life for himself somewhere else. The kibbutz is, of course, the tight little island within the tight little island, the apogee of constrictiveness and ideological coercion in Israel, especially as it is seen in the fiction of Amos Oz. Yonatan Lifshitz feels an intolerable burden of expectations of performance placed on him by his father, by the kibbutz, by the movement, by the nation, and he wants out. In the event his attempted escape is not in search of a new life but is rather a gesture toward suicide, crossing the border into Jordan on the way to Petra, on foot and alone, from which, however, the novelist rescues him and returns him, reconciled, to the kibbutz. Oz's representation of the familial, social, and political constrictions of kibbutz life is minutely observed, often with a shrewd satirical eye, and seems quite convincing. After such entrapments, Yonatan's flight has its psychological satisfactions, and the whole sequence of escape to the desert badlands is gripping. The danger of this mode of fiction is that the fantasy of flight, in the fictional enactment, may become melodramatic, or that the opposition between escape and belonging may be worked out too schematically, though I think that Oz manages to avoid both these traps in A Perfect Peace.

The magic realism of Shalev's Esau responds to the constrictiveness of the Israeli condition in an opposite way. The narrator has already made good his escape, having lived much of his adult life in America, from which he returns on an extended visit to the Israeli village where he grew up, to his father, to his twin brother, and to his brother's now devastated wife, who was the girl he loved as an adolescent. The impulse of physical flight is defused here because it is an already accomplished fact that is only a background to what goes on in the novel. Most of the fantasy-hypotheses played out here have to do with the body—that eternally lactating breast, a priapic erection that persists over the years. These fantastic bodily processes stand in dialectic opposition to the novel's stress on aging and physical decay, which, together with the claustral social world of the small Israeli town, are the prime instance here of the realm of the intractable.

Esau is an odd mixture—odder, I think, than The Blue Mountain. It begins with a kind of narrative prologue, set in the nineteenth century and subtitled “A Fabricated Story about People Who Did Not Exist.” This section is extravagantly literary in a self-reflexive mode, abounding in borrowings from and explicit allusions to Rabelais, Fielding, Sterne, Nabokov, and others. Although no physical laws are violated here, the narrative is a continuous chain of weird and bizarre events, involving a pilgrimage to Palestine by a young German duke who is seized and womanhandled by a band of exotic females, and emerges from his night of captivity physically lacerated, with micrographic inscriptions tattooed on his penis. On his return to Germany he commits suicide, joined in the act of self-destruction by an adolescent female cousin who has vowed never to do the same thing twice.

This narrative prologue draws us into the world of Esau in a spirit of zany, grotesque playfulness, and after two readings of the novel, I am not sure that it isn't at least in part a mistake. The novel after the prologue confronts the dilemmas of life in the family (Israeli subspecies)—parental discord, misplaced love, sibling strife, and so forth—with existential seriousness. The play of fantasy in the midst of this seriousness often has a heightening effect of externalizing psychological themes and highlighting existential questions in ways akin to those we observed in our earlier examples from Israeli magic realism, including Shalev's previous novel. Beyond mimesis, the fantasies are also fun, and there is certainly nothing wrong with fiction providing fun for the reader. The inherent danger of fun through fantasy, where there is no reality check, is self-indulgence. There are moments in the narrative prologue when the playfulness seems merely goofy, and as a result the threat of exuberant invention spilling over into silliness is never quite dispelled in the body of the novel proper. Esau does, in fact, set its tale of familial convolutions in a vividly realized Israeli world of local color, tangled human contradiction, and harsh historical necessity; and, on the whole, the deployment of fantasy helps to define that world more sharply. The delicate balance, however, between realism and fantasy that is maintained in The Blue Mountain sometimes wobbles a little here. This is still the world of shared historical and cultural experience, despite all the fantastic elaboration, as is the case in the strongest magic-realist fictions; but there are moments when we begin to wonder whether we are on the verge of getting lost in a fun house of merely literary games. The new Hebrew magic realism has clearly been associated with a moment of energetic renewal in the Israeli novel. The great danger is that it could turn into a set of mannerisms in which fantasy is a crazy mirror reflecting the writer's study, not an instrument to probe history, culture, and the eternal frailties to which flesh is heir.


  1. Yoel Hoffman, Christus shel dagim (Jerusalem, 1991), section 166 (no page numbers). The translation of this, and subsequent, Hebrew texts is mine.

  2. Smadar Shiffman, “Meir Shalev and the Fantastic in Israeli Literature,” Prooftexts 13 (1993): 260.

  3. Shiffman, p. 262.

  4. David Grossman, Sefer hadiqduq hapnimi (Tel Aviv, 1991), p. 157.

  5. Sefer hadiqduq hapnimi, p. 209.

  6. This idea is studied in illuminating detail in Chana Kronfeld's Modernisms on the Margin (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1996).

  7. “A Problem of Horizons,” in my book Defenses of the Imagination (Philadelphia, 1977).

Susan J. Napier (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Magic of Identity: Magic Realism in Modern Japanese Fiction,” in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, Duke University Press, 1995, pp. 451-75.

[In the following essay, Napier maintains that magic realism in Japanese literature is inherently linked with the Japanese crisis of identity regarding modernity and Western influence.]

Akutagawa Ryunosuke's 1920 short story “The Nose” (Hana) concerns an old priest in ancient Japan with an embarrassing problem: his nose is ridiculously, unbelievably, long. Although he realizes that he should be above such mundane matters, the priest feels humiliated by the mockery of others and tries a variety of remedies, eventually succeeding in shrinking his nose down to normal size. Surprisingly, the priest soon finds himself wishing for his old nose again, as everyone mocks him all the more in his new improved condition. One day he wakes up to find a miracle has occurred: his nose has returned to its old larger shape. Satisfied, he whispers to himself “Now no one will laugh at me any more,” his nose blowing softly in the breeze.

“The Nose” is an early but classic story by Akutagawa, one of the most brilliant and versatile of Japan's fantasy writers: it delivers a matter-of-factly surreal world in compact form with a distinctive twist that turns our expectations upside down at the end. Also typical of Akutagawa's work, it is closely based on an old tale, in this case from the tenth-century collection, the Konjaku monogatari. In fact, Akutagawa changes relatively little of the original text. His greatest alteration is simply to allow the reader to see the tale through a modern sensibility, as Borges' Pierre Menard is said to do with Don Quixote.

It is this implicit modern sensibility, on the part of both writer and reader, that makes the story a key example for the purpose of this [essay], making it possible to include it under the category of “magic realism.” Rather than dwelling on the fantastic quality of the nose or its miraculous recovery, Akutagawa's text takes the supernatural for granted and spends more of its space exploring the gamut of human reactions, from the mockery of those around the priest, to the priest's own unexpected disappointment in his newly normal nose. The use of the supernatural and the story's basis in an old tale is also typical of Akutagawa. But it is the variety and often contradictory quality of human emotions explored by the narrative that makes the story both memorable and modern. The story's ending, what might be called the Akutagawan twist, is also “modern,” with its ironic focus that is ultimately realistic rather than escapist.

“The Nose” also exemplifies more general aspects of Japanese fantastic fiction and, indeed, of Japanese fiction overall. As in Gogol's “The Nose,” from which to some extent it derives, the priest's nose is linked to his identity.1 (In fact, when referring to themselves, Japanese people tend to point to the nose.) In Akutagawa's story this nose/identity is not so much lost as radically changed, forced to be something that it is not. The priest's unease is hardly surprising, therefore: not only he, but everyone else, is aware that the normal nose is not his “real” nose.

Allied with this theme of an uneasy new identity is the nose's changing shape, a metamorphosis from grotesque to normal to grotesque again. This negative and in some ways meaningless (as in having no overtly teleological or allegorical function) metamorphosis is, as Rosemary Jackson points out, a process peculiar to modern fantasy, where “there are no delightful transformations … changes are without meaning and progressively without will or desire of the subject.”2 Ironically, it is the priest's pathetic attempt to “will” transformation to normality that ends badly. Only when he accepts his passive state in relation to the forces outside him does the nose miraculously return.

This theme of a constantly and negatively shifting form of identity is a fundamental one in modern Japanese literature, and one that is particularly suited to the genre of the fantastic. What the writer Natsume Soseki described as essentially a “national nervous breakdown” is perhaps an extreme metaphor, but it gives some indication of the enormity and suddenness of the changes since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 opened Japan to the West. Needless to say, Japan's “identity crisis” vis-à-vis the West and modernity is hardly unique among non-Western nations. What is unique, however, is that Japan, unlike virtually any other non-Western nation, was never colonized by Europe. Its development of a new, “modern” identity was implemented by its own leaders under the slogan “Civilization and Enlightenment.”

The motivations behind this government-sponsored development program are complex. They range from an eminently rational fear of Western domination, based on the tragic example of Western imperialism in China, to what might be called an inferiority/superiority complex that led to an obsessive desire to beat the West at its own game by transforming Japan into a first rate capitalist power. Modern Japan has undeniably accomplished that goal but, at least in the eyes of many of its intellectuals, only at the cost of transforming itself into a country where outside harmony hides a variety of interior grotesques. To many writers and intellectuals, modern Japanese culture is a culture whose identity has been warped and transmogrified, not by outside pressures so much as by its own response to outside pressures.3

Nowhere is this problematic process of transformation more clearly etched than in the fantasy literature of modern Japan, not only in its content but in the formal history of its existence over the last hundred years. This is a period in which fantasy went from a genre that at the turn of the century was ignored or made light of as being old fashioned, even embarrassing, to the post-war years where some of the best of contemporary Japan's writers routinely create their own form of magic realism to describe a Japan that mimetic fiction can no longer encapsulate.

To trace the history of magic realism in Japan is thus to comment both on the development of Japanese fiction in general and on the changing notions of the Japanese identity over the last century. In their introduction to Magic Realist Fiction, Hollaman and Young suggest that one of magic realism's “crucial features” is its duality, the provocative and unsettling tension between real and unreal.4 The history of Japanese fiction since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 has also been based on a duality—a conflict between the Western-inspired dominant literary current of naturalism and the various fictional reactions against it. This duality can be read initially in terms of “modern” vs. “traditional,” as we will see in our discussion of turn-of-the-century writer Izumi Kyoka, whose fantastic fiction was disparaged as old fashioned by naturalist writers. As time went on, however, this tension was complicated by both the Japanese version of naturalism and the reactions against it.

Naturalism's doctrine of a brutally objective, “scientific” analysis initially seemed to liberate Japanese writers from the baroquely fantastic melodramas that had characterized literature before the Restoration. In the long run, however, naturalism created its own stranglehold on Japanese fiction, especially in the peculiarly Japanese form of the shishosetsu or “I novel,” a confessional work where literary merit was usually subordinated to the perceived “truthfulness” of the often minute details of the protagonist's life.5 Such a claustrophobic form of literature inevitably spawned reactions against it, ranging over a considerable amount of literary territory, from proletarian novels to neoromantic works.

It is increasingly being recognized, however, that some of the most intriguing and significant literary reactions against naturalism have been in the realm of fantastic literature. Indeed, a surprising number of Japan's greatest writers, including those famous for their powerful mimetic portrayals of modernizing Japan, also used the genre of the fantastic to create visions of a chaotic, fascinating, occasionally marvelous, but more frequently uncanny, fictional world. Such works were even more memorable than their mimetic fictions.

Not all of the fantastic literature written since Japan's opening to the West can be encompassed under the term “magic realism,” but enough of it plays on the intersection between the magic and the real to make it a meaningful category. This essay examines some of the most important of Japan's “magical realist” writers, from the early twentieth century to the present. Although the writers' approaches and results differ considerably, certain key elements remain in common.

One of the most important is also the most general: the fact that the use of the fantastic implies, at some level, the rejection of the real, or at least the rejection of the discourse of realism as the only way of depicting the world. Sometimes this rejection can be overt within the narrative, as when Izumi Kyoka's fantastic characters avenge themselves on the unbelieving modern philistines who have abandoned them. In more recent fiction the rejection may be buried within the surrealist confines of the text itself, as in Abe Kobo's despairing vision of a world so bizarre that it can no longer be apprehended through realistic means or the decision of one of Murakami Haruki's protagonists to live in the “unreal world” created by his own mind rather than return to a dismal reality.

As with the magic realism of Latin America, this Japanese rejection of realism has political overtones, and these overtones are perhaps even more complex than with Latin America, especially for contemporary Japanese. Precisely because the dynamic of modernization has been played out apparently so successfully in Japan, the tension between what is Western/modern and what is Japanese is not necessarily expressed in terms of the duality of real vs. unreal. The problem is not only that the West has access to the language of the real, but that the Japanese themselves are participating in the creation of a new language of modernity.6

The history of fantasy and magic realism in Japan thus becomes almost a mirror image of Japan's relation with the West. In the period shortly after the opening of Japan to the West, the thorough identification of realism with Western culture meant that at the turn of the century a rejection of naturalism and realism in general could be a reactionary or at least conservative gesture, an affirmation of old values at the expense of the new imported ones. During the twenties and thirties, however, it could be argued that the use of fantasy was an escapist one, either to ignore or hide from the ominous political realities of the present. Since the war, the use of fantasy has clearly become a radical one, indicating a rejection, not necessarily of reality per se, but of the government and media-controlled vision of a rosy, harmonious society.

Overall, the most pervasive use of magic realism in modern Japanese literature has been as a means to search for Japanese identity, often through the process of recovering history by resuscitating myth (Oe Kenzaburo, Izumi Kyoka, Inoue Hisashi) or in the image of a mysterious, marvelous woman who may represent old Japan as a maternal figure, forgiving those who have abandoned her (Kyoka) or of a virginal girl (Kawabata) whose purity suggests a lost innocence that can be restored only for a fleeting moment. Writers such as Abe Kobo and, more subtly, Murakami Haruki show this search for identity only to underline its ultimate futility in visions of a grotesque and anonymous modern world.

Given this emphasis on identity or lack of it, it is not surprising that many of these fictions contain variations of metamorphosis. Usually these are negative transformations, as characters degenerate into beasts or grotesques but one also finds what might be termed “blocked metamorphosis” as a major theme, as when a protagonist desperately wants, but cannot ultimately achieve, the desired change (or, as in “The Nose,” when the transformation is a disappointing one).


The theme of metamorphosis, often combined with a problematic past, is an important one in the fiction of Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), considered by many Japanese to be the greatest of modern Japanese writers for his portrayals of agonized intellectuals. In recent years, however, critics have begun turning to Soseki's previously neglected fantasy works—in particular a unique piece of writing called Ten Nights of Dream (Yumejuya, 1908). This is a short collection of ten purported dreams that are evocatively and believably dreamlike and yet at the same time obviously works of art, products of a superior creative mind. Although short, each eerie dream creates a small, dense world, often more nightmarish than dream-like, a world that encapsulates a variety of fears, anxieties, and longings in a peculiarly effective fashion. Perhaps because of their concentrated form, the dreams come across as intensely personal and yet remarkably universal, surreal explorations of the problems of being a modern human being.

Metamorphosis is important in a number of the dream narratives. “The First Night” relates a more traditional, apparently positive form of transformation in which a beautiful woman dies and returns to a faithfully waiting man in the form of a lily. This dream encapsulates a favorite search of many Soseki protagonists for a mysterious ideal woman, often associated with flowers. The transformation into a beautiful flower suggests both purification and aestheticization, a means of turning the woman into a nonthreatening, asexual object that offers a kind of aesthetic relief to many of Soseki's agonized male characters.

Other dreams deal with metamorphoses that are far less positive or, worse, frustrated. In “The Second Night,” for example, a samurai attempts to will himself into enlightenment, a state that he calls “Nothingness.” The more he tries, however, the more “Nothingness” eludes him, leaving him with no alternative but to kill himself.

“The Sixth Night” offers a more overtly fantastic example of this “blocked metamorphosis” in which the dreaming “I” finds himself in a contemporary crowd, watching a thirteenth-century sculptor carving “guardian gods” out of wood. None of the rather vulgar crowd, which consists largely of rickshaw drivers, appear particularly surprised by the sculptor's medieval appearance, preferring to restrict their comments to his skill. One of the rickshaw men explains to the “I” that the sculptor is not so much carving as discovering gods already in the wood. Inspired by this, the “I” returns and assiduously attempts to carve his own gods, only to fail repeatedly. Finally he gives up, realizing that “there were no guardian gods in the wood of today.”7

The dream of the guardian gods is clearer than most of the dreams in its obvious indictment of modernity and its longing for the past. Its final disappointed statement is poignant rather than strident. By placing the longing for the past first in a dream context, and then contrasting this emotion with the everyday commentary of the rickshaw men, Soseki emphasizes the distinction between modern and traditional without extraneous moralizing. This comparatively subtle approach makes the impossibility of ever rediscovering the guardian gods of the past both more understandable and more painful. In this dream the metamorphosis from tree into god can never occur. The time of “delightful” transformations, typical of premodern fantasy, is over.

“The Sixth Night”'s vision of a man who cannot recreate the past is one side of modern Japan's tragedy. “The Third Night,” perhaps the most famous of the dreams, represents the other side, the inability to escape the past. In this dream a man walks through a dark forest carrying a heavy, blind child on his back. The man hopes to find a place to get rid of his burden, but the child seems to understand his thoughts and jeers at him, telling him that he will be even heavier soon. They walk on into a dark forest, the child “shining like a mirror; like a mirror that revealed my past, my present and my future.” Finally they arrive in the heart of the forest in front of a cedar tree, and the child informs him that it was here “exactly one hundred years ago that you murdered me.” The story ends with the I's despairing realization that he had indeed killed a blind man at the root of this cedar tree one hundred years before: “And at that moment, when I knew that I had murdered, the child on my back became as heavy as a god of stone.”8

The metamorphosis in this story is not a blocked one but a negative one, the child who becomes as heavy as “a god of stone” (Jizo in the original), and who can never be escaped. The burden of the past is the real weight that rests on the man's shoulders, some of it relating to Soseki's own miserable childhood and feelings of guilt toward his family. But the stone god on the dreamer's shoulders also suggests both Buddhist Karma and a collective past that cannot be escaped. Where the sculptor of “The Sixth Night” tries to take control of the present and carve out new guardian gods, the actor in “The Third Night” can only move passively, forced (by memory, guilt?) to repeat an experience that he wishes to forget. Caught between a desire to recover the past and a desire to escape it, it is no wonder that so many of Soseki's characters, like the samurai in “The Second Night,” long for Nothingness, either through enlightenment or death.


While Soseki's Ten Nights of Dream seems remarkably modern in the compactness and surreality of its imagery, the works of Izumi Kyoka (1873-1939), Soseki's contemporary and one of Japan's greatest fantasists, hark back to premodern traditions in both subject matter and style. Indeed, some of Kyoka's works are obvious descendants of classical kabuki melodrama such as his “The Tale of the Castle Tower” (Tenshu monogatari), a play full of ghosts, sorcerers, and severed heads, where any trace of realism is completely subordinate to “magic.”

Even such a traditional piece as “The Castle Tower” was not written in a vacuum, however. Kyoka was very much aware of the Japan of Civilization and Enlightenment around him, and of his own contemporaries' preference for naturalism. His determination to write romantic fantasy must, therefore, be seen as a conscious rejection both of the naturalist prose style and the modernity it represented. In some of his most interesting works this rejection took narrative form, involving fantasies where modernity and tradition, in the form of realism and magic, confront each other within the confines of the narrative. This confrontation is most notable in Kyoka's 1900 masterpiece The Monk of Mount Koya (Koya Hijiri), where it is the tension between magic and real that makes the story a particularly powerful work, not only in the text's extraordinary imagery but in its overall vision of a Japan where the old lies in wait to revenge itself on the new.

The Monk of Mount Koya is a variation on the Japanese version of an archetypal quest narrative, kishu ryuritan, the so-called “exile of the young noble,” about a youth who is subjected to various forms of trials and temptations but emerges stronger as a result.9 In this case, however, the youth is a young monk and the country of his exile is really old Japan, the Japan before modernization, a place that is both dangerous and alluring.

The narrative within the narrative begins as the monk reminisces about a youthful journey into the mountains of Shinshu in central Japan. Like many fairy tales, the story is completely realistic until he turns off onto an “old road” in order to warn a medicine peddler whom he had met earlier that the road is in danger of flooding. The monk does not find the peddler, which is actually a relief since he disliked the man's crudeness, but he discovers too late that the road is wild and lonely, leading him into a forest consisting largely of mud, rain, and leeches. In an extraordinary scene, which the monk himself links to a vision of apocalypse, he is attacked by the leeches and loses consciousness in a welter of mud and blood.

When he finally revives and escapes the forest, the monk is only too willing to yield to the ministrations of a beautiful woman who lives in a lonely house near the forest, even though at first glance she appears to have scales and a tail. In an obvious temptation scene the woman takes him bathing in a forest pool but the monk (barely) resists her charms and returns to the house for a night's sleep, although troubled by the noises of a variety of animals that seem to be surrounding the house. The next morning he discovers from the woman's old retainer that she is actually an enchantress who turns men who attempt to seduce her into animals. In fact, the medicine peddler of the previous day has been turned into a horse. The monk has been saved by the woman's compassion for his purity but ironically, he has already fallen in love with her and wishes he could stay with her forever. The story ends on a note of nostalgia as the monk, now grown old, finishes his story in a sentimental fashion making it clear that at some level he is still in love with her.

In certain ways The Monk of Mount Koya may be almost too much like a fairy tale to fit into the category of magic realism. What makes it worthy of inclusion here is the strange intrusion of the highly realistic medicine peddler and his many anonymous forbears, the men who have all been turned into beasts. Although the basic theme of forced metamorphosis by an enchantress is a traditional, indeed, archetypal one, the difference here is that these victims are not simply fairy tale villains but realistic modern men while, in contrast, the woman has many explicit associations with traditional Japan. The men's attempts to take advantage of the woman can, therefore, be read symbolically as the raping of old Japan by the new vulgar men of Meiji who can no longer appreciate her. Their enforced transformation may also be read both as Buddhist allegory—the under-lying affinity of Man with the rest of nature—and as a subtle slap at the Darwinist doctrine of evolution and survival of the fittest that had taken Japan of that period by storm.

The double-edged character of the woman is interesting as well. The monk's initial vision of her as a snake places her in a long line of demonic serpentine female figures in premodern Japanese literature, usually women driven by jealousy to revenge and magic. But in The Monk of Mount Koya the woman's motivations are both more vague and more complicated than those of her classical ancestresses. The fact that she lives at the end of the “old road” strongly associates her with a hidden, old Japan; but this is a Japan that fights back. Obviously, she enjoys having power over men, as is clear when she speaks commandingly to some of the men-beasts around her, but the young monk's innocence brings out the motherly side of her, and she is content simply to bathe him.

This motherliness also associates her with traditional Japan. Maternality has long been considered an essential characteristic of Japanese womanhood, tying in with a distinctive psychology of dependence (amae) in which the Japanese state is seen as playing a kind of maternal role. Kyoka seems to be suggesting that old Japan can still forgive and nurture her citizens, if approached in the right spirit.

What can happen if “she” is not approached correctly is shown in Kyoka's play Demon Pond (Yashagaike), where the spirit-princess of a mountain pond takes revenge on a group of villagers who refuse to believe in magic. In this case she unleashes a flood on the village, killing them all, including a young writer and his wife who have fled Tokyo to become closer to old Japan. Like The Monk of Mount Hijiri this play is more “magic” than “real,” but the characters of the villagers and the young writer are realistic portraits of contemporary Japanese people. The apocalyptic ending is reminiscent of the monk's vision of destruction in the forest. In Demon Pond, however, no one is saved, except perhaps the young writer and his wife who are allowed the dubious distinction of apparently being transformed into the new rulers of Demon Pond. This “backward” metamorphosis is intriguing, another suggestion that the only way to deal with modernity is to escape it, often through violent means.

The savagery of the magic/traditional characters is a notable aspect of Kyoka's work, perhaps an unconscious manifestation of Kyoka's own sense of humiliation and resentment toward the naturalist writers, many of whom dismissed his work as old fashioned. Where Soseki's works both mourn and rage against the past, Kyoka's writings attempt through fantasy to re-empower the past, the “old road” that can lead to both birth and death. It is interesting to note that it has been only in the last decade or so that the magnitude of Kyoka's brilliance has been rediscovered by contemporary Japanese critics, suggesting a former critical unwillingness to see either fantasy or traditional forms in a serious light.

Of course, not all of Kyoka's contemporaries were always so disparaging. Some were able to perceive a certain realism beneath Kyoka's romantic gloom. Indeed, one critic, Masamune Hakucho, emphasized the realism in Kyoka's ghost stories when he pointed out that the reader is made to feel “a sense of rationality within the basic irrationality.”10


In contrast, the stories of our next writer to be considered, the previously mentioned Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927) essentially stand Hakucho's description on its head, discovering the irrational within what appears to be, or is hoped to be, a rational world. The works of Akutagawa encompass both the surrealism of Soseki's The Nights of Dream and the extravagant imagery of Kyoka's works, while at the same time adding a new dimension. This dimension may be described as a fascination with uncertainty, and a concomitant rejection of a knowable “real,” underlined by Akutagawa's brilliant use of the comic and the grotesque.

A superb stylist who wrote short stories almost exclusively, Akutagawa is particularly known in the West for his work “Rashomon” (1915, actually two short stories, the other called “In a Grove” [Yabu no naka], 1922), which was made into the 1950 Kurosawa film of the same name. “In a Grove” illustrates one of Akutagawa's primary techniques, the use of the fantastic to inject a further note of uncertainty into an already unknowable world. In this work, Akutagawa uses a mystery story format, particularly a trial scene, in which victims and perpetrators of a crime are gathered together to ascertain the actual truth of a rape-murder of an aristocratic woman and her husband. Each of the participants left alive gives startlingly different accounts of the incident until finally the woman's murdered husband is summoned from the dead. In a traditional ghost/mystery story, this introduction of the supernatural would lead to the final unraveling of the mystery. In “In a Grove,” however, Akutagawa's fantastic twist is simply one more turn of the screw: the ghost gives a completely different, but obviously prejudiced, version of the events and the final truth is never discovered.

Akutagawa's use of the fantastic as a means to a final awareness of unknowability rather than to a final truth is modern, perhaps even postmodern, in a way that neither Kyoka nor even Soseki could ever be. At the same time, more than any other Japanese writer before or since, Akutagawa made thorough use of ancient Japanese stories, many of them fantastic. Sometimes he changed these stories considerably; at other times, as in “The Nose,” he kept to a reasonably accurate retelling, but simply by recounting them in the modern context with a different emphasis changed their final effect considerably.

At first glance, Akutagawa's works seem far less concerned with the problems of indigenous tradition versus modernity and the West than does either Kyoka's or Soseki's fiction, but in fact they emblematize that tension on a less obvious, perhaps more encompassing level. Akutagawa's fictional influences were not only premodern Japanese literature but also the latest European writers such as Maupassant and Baudelaire. The kind of stories he wrote also varied widely, from mysteries to ghost stories to the satirical novella Kappa (1927), a fantastic, dystopic vision of modern Japan in which the protagonist's final refuge is madness, the insane creation of another world. As in Kappa, many of his works play on the excitement and danger of the creative process. Akutagawa saw himself as an artist first and Japanese second, and tried to believe that the Olympian identity of an artist would raise him above the chaos of the world around him, although his fiction itself sometimes shows the undermining of that desire.

In “The Dragon” (Tatsu), for example, an old priest makes up a story about a dragon rising up from a pond near his temple on a forthcoming date. The entire countryside is taken in and, much to the priest's embarrassment, thousands of people assemble on the appointed day to watch the miraculous event. Bored with waiting, the priest too is beginning to wonder if just possibly something might happen, when a thunderstorm opens up above the pond and he sees a “blurred vision of a black dragon more than one hundred feet long ascending straight into the sky.”11 Others see it too, and the event becomes a well-known miracle. Years later the priest confesses to having made up the story, but no one believes him.

In “The Dragon” Akutagawa plays not only with the pleasures of uncertainty but with the pleasures and powers of fiction. The priest, initially unconscious of his own artistry, is able to create a tale that is ultimately as true and powerful as anything in real life.

“The Dragon” is a lighthearted look at the powers of the imagination but the 1918 “Hell Screen” (Jigokuhen) is a terrifying look at the same subject. “Hell Screen” concerns a brilliant painter whose increasing arrogance leads him to burn to death his young daughter for the sake of the perfect picture of hell. The story is a tour de force of horror leading to a vision of art as the final danger, no longer a refuge from the problems of reality.

Akutagawa's later fiction turns increasingly dark as his protagonists are unable to control their fantastic visions. One of his last stories, the autobiographical “Cogwheels” (Haguruma, 1927), in which the main character is haunted by visions of a man in a raincoat and hallucinations of swirling cogwheels, takes on a hallucinatory and traumatic intensity, somewhere on the boundaries between realism and fantasy. Increasingly, Akutagawa's sense of the unknowability of life led to despair; Akutagawa killed himself at the age of thirty-three. It is not a surprise to find that Akutagawa's suicide note mentions “a vague anxiety about the future” as one of his reasons for killing himself. On a literary level, Akutagawa's “anxiety” was a fruitful one, but on the psychological level he paid a heavy price.


The works of Japan's first Nobel Prize winner, Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), are perhaps best known in the West for portraying an almost stereotypical notion of old Japan, revolving around the tea ceremony, ikebana, and geishas. Although primarily realistic, these works can also be seen as a kind of fantasy of escape, on the part of both protagonists and Kawabata himself, from an increasingly unappealing modern world. Kawabata's sense of a lost Japan resembles Kyoka's or Soseki's feeling, though the tone of his work is more elegaic and resigned than that of the earlier writers. It is also interesting to note that, like Kyoka and Soseki, Kawabata's fiction also often revolves around a quest for an ideal woman, although this woman is usually a combination of virgin and temptress rather than Kyoka's mother-temptress or Soseki's asexual flower woman.

Kawabata never completely rejected the West or modernity, however. He despised much that was modern in Japan, but at the same time he was in many ways an experimental writer whose celebrated “haiku” style owes as much to European literature of the twenties as it does to traditional Japan. His fantasy literature too, although certain aspects of it are uniquely Japanese, owes perhaps more to European Surrealism than it does to any specific Japanese motif.

Limited in output, his fantastic literature is peculiarly memorable, encapsulating two of Kawabata's most basic themes, the search for love and the desire for escape. One of the most distinctive of these fantasies is the story “One Arm” (Kataude, 1961), a classic piece of magic realism in which a young girl calmly lends the story's narrator her arm for the night. The intersection of magic and real is seamless: the narrator is pleased rather than shocked at her gift and happily takes the arm home with him, examining it tenderly and admiring its rosy pinkness. He takes off his own arm and attaches the girl's arm to himself, going tranquilly to sleep with it. The next morning, however, he wakes up screaming and tears the arm off. The story ends with a paean to an ideal of perfect femininity that is also a resigned acknowledgment of the fundamental impossibility of connection between the sexes: “If the dew of woman would but come from between the long nails and the fingertips.”12

“One Arm” makes an interesting comparison with Alfonso Reyes' “Major Aranda's Hand,” because the basic narrative conceit, a severed hand with a life of its own, is the same in both stories.13 However, while Reyes' hand, true to its military heritage, is aggressive and violent before finally “committing suicide” in a case full of army heirlooms, Kawabata's hand remains passive and delicate, an erotic symbol that evokes not only sexuality but love as well. The transitoriness of the loan underlines Kawabata's theme of the inevitability of human loneliness, while the yearning for the perfect woman is also typical of many of his protagonist's quests for an elusive feminine ideal.

“One Arm” also brings up the problem of fragmentation, a subtheme of the idea of blocked metamorphosis. The narrator in his loneliness tries to unite with the arm, but is only able to do so while asleep. Awakening, he realizes its alienness (and his essential solitude) and screams. While Kyoka's monk was able to relax into infantilism while being bathed by the woman, Kawabata's protagonist tries for another type of asexual union but is ultimately frustrated by his own fears.

Other fantasies of Kawabata also explore the temptation and the transience of escape. In “Snow” (Yuki, 1964) an elderly man checks himself in year after year to the same hotel room to lie in bed and see certain nostalgic fantasies connected with childhood and love. “Snow” is an example of Todorov's definition of the fantastic as based on reader hesitation,14 because the reader is never given the chance to decide whether these fantasies actually materialize or whether they are simply an old man's hallucinations. But the images—a father and son lost in an immense snowy landscape like that of a screen painting, a cloud of women arriving on white wings—are marvelous in both senses of the word.

Kawabata also indulged in overt fantasy, as in the 1963 story “Immortality” (Fushi), about a young girl who commits suicide over the loss of her lover, but who faithfully returns to collect him when he himself dies (perhaps by suicide) many years later. This story's rather sentimental happy ending may be due to the fact that the appealing idea of a magical love beyond death overwhelms the tawdry reality of the girl's suicide.

In Kawabata's final unfinished novel Tampopo, magic and reality are once again poised in creative confrontation in a tale of a young girl with a mysterious disease that causes parts of her body to seem to disappear. Although this fragmentation through sickness has echoes of “One Arm,” the emphasis is on psychology rather than the surreal, and both she and the people around her, her mother and her fiancé, are worried rather than delighted. No longer enchanting, this metamorphosis is disturbing, suggesting a world in which reality can no longer be held onto and in which magic cannot be controlled. This sense of being out of synch with the world was undoubtedly personal to Kawabata, who committed suicide in 1972, but it also may represent an implicit criticism of his country, whose people were rushing to remake themselves in ways that were not always healthy, at least in his eyes.


The illustration of modern alienation through fragmentation and metamorphosis achieves its greatest range in the works of Abe Kobo (1925-93). Abe is perhaps the most internationally recognized of the writers mentioned here, probably because of the relentlessly anonymous style he uses to explore modern alienation, a style that owes more to Kafka and Sartre than to any native Japanese writer. Characters and places rarely have names, while the imagery, usually monochromatic or grotesque, is almost the antithesis of Kawabata's determined “Japaneseness” (although, at the same time, much of Abe's work is a brilliant black-humored satire on modern Japan).

Part of the reason for this anonymity may be Abe's unusual background. Growing up in Japanese occupied Manchuria, he made his way through the war torn continent in time to return to Japan to study medicine. The themes of rootlessness, loss, and anonymity in his stories are frequently associated with labyrinthine hospitals or laboratories, nonplaces where the protagonists often end by losing each other or themselves through some grotesque transformation.

Other works simply dwell on the process of transformation itself. One of Abe's most famous early stories, “The Stick” (Bo), features a typical suburban father who leans over a department store roof to get away from his nagging children and falls off. By the time he reaches the ground he finds that he has become a stick. Like Kafka's Gregor Samsa, the stick passively accepts his new state, ultimately enduring the humiliation of being picked up and analyzed by a strange trio, a pair of students and their professor who conclude that the stick is “absolutely banal”15 and who, as punishment, leave it behind to remain forever a stick. The story ends with the stick hearing what might be his children's voices calling, “Daddy, Daddy,” but knowing there is nothing it can do.

“The Stick”'s surreal sense of entrapment and immobility may recall Soseki's Ten Nights of Dream, but it also suggests the rigid world of the postwar Japanese white collar worker, caught in a network of obligations and unable to move freely. Many of Abe's other works deal with this theme of imprisonment in varied and imaginative ways, usually employing the primary technique of a single fantastic twist to be followed by more or less realistic events. Thus, in his 1967 play “Friends” (Tomodachi), a young man is visited by a family who then refuse to leave. The family seem perfectly normal except for their refusal to leave, and their very surface normality makes it impossible for the young man to get either the police or his fiancée to believe that they have trapped him. Eventually, the “friends” put him in a cage and kill him with poisoned milk, insisting all the time that he brought it on himself. The situation “Friends” describes could happen in any country, but its satirization of collective harmony and the importance of the group has particular relevance to some of the most important of Japanese ideals.

In perhaps his most fully realized vision of entrapment, Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna, 1960), Abe posits a man forced to live in a sand-pit at the bottom of a dune village from which it is impossible to escape. This reworking of the myth of Sisyphus is achieved with surprising realism, although once again with a sharp satiric swipe at another of Japan's myths, the happy village. In Woman in the Dunes it is the bestial villagers themselves who have trapped the man in order to get help to sweep out the sand. At the novel's end, the man finally discovers the chance to escape, a rope ladder accidentally left behind, but he is by now inured to his existence in the pit and doesn't climb out, rationalizing that he can escape some other time.

Ultimately, it is of course oneself that one cannot escape, no matter how fantastic a device one invents. This is clear in Abe's novel The Face of Another (Tanin no kao, 1964), where a badly disfigured scientist, his face covered with keloid scars (the same scars as the victims of Hiroshima, incidentally), creates an incredibly realistic face mask. The scientist is disappointed in his primary goal for the mask's creation, which was to allow him to live out a fantasy seduction of his wife. Thinking he has accomplished this, he is horrified when she reveals that she has known his real identity all along. Unwilling to accept his own failure to forge a new identity, the frustrated scientist decides instead to kill his wife.

The violence implicit at the end of Face became increasingly explicit in subsequent works as Abe became more overtly fantastic, with the initial fantasy incident leading to more and more complex and grotesque fantastic events. Perhaps his darkest vision is the 1977 Secret Rendezvous (Mikai), in which a man's wife is kidnapped by an ambulance in the middle of the night. Searching for her at the hospital where he believes she has been taken, the man encounters a grotesque and horrifying array of doctors and patients, including one doctor who dreams of recreating himself as half-horse, half-man in order to restore his sexual potency. This theme of unnatural sexuality, aligned with uncontrollable technology to create bizarre new identities, is intensified in an extraordinary scene toward the end of the novel. In this scene the hospital holds a festival that turns out to be a kind of high-tech Walpurgisnacht where a woman, who may or may not be the narrator's wife, is strapped to a machine that measures orgasms and offers to service any man who is willing.

The narrator never does discover the identity of the woman, and at the novel's end he himself is clearly losing his own identity. In the reader's last vision of him he has retreated into the labyrinthine depths of the hospital with his only friend, a girl patient whose shrinking disease has liquified her bones to the point where she “seem(s) to recede farther and farther from human shape.”16 Embracing what is left of the girl while licking water from the hospital walls in order to survive, the man waits patiently for death, a “tender, secret rendezvous for one.”

Abe's vision is thus increasingly anarchic and despairing. His characters are trapped in worlds of supposed harmony (the village, the family) or healing (the hospital) whose inner core is something dark and horrible. Willed metamorphosis either cannot work or else ends up creating something grotesque, like the half-man, half-horse. Identity is ever more easily lost, either through the machinations of evil others or simple fate, as exemplified by the young girl's wasting disease, similar to that of the sick girl in Kawabata's Tampopo.

Although Abe's early work often had a clear political subtext as in his “Song of a Dead Girl” (Shinda musume no uta), where the ghost of a factory worker forced to turn prostitute comes back to haunt the work site, his later work seems to despair of doing anything more than fantastically illustrating the horrors of a repressive social system. Where Kyoka's forest still held the potential for salvation at its heart, Abe's world leads into labyrinths which only get darker and darker.


One writer who still uses fantasy as part of an overt political agenda is the 1994 Nobel Prize Winner Oe Kenzaburo (1935-), some of whose works are comparable to those of Gabriel García Márquez. More than any of the other writers mentioned here, Oe, like García Márquez, attempts through his fiction to portray the sweep of modern Japanese history in all its contradictions and complexities. In recent years he has increasingly turned down two literary avenues in order to do this: history, in terms of his own version of the “historical novel,” and the fantastic, often combined with the grotesque and even, in his most recent work, science fiction.

Oe's primary fictional country has tended to be a mythicized version of the place where he grew up, the island of Shikoku, the smallest and still most rural of the four large islands that make up the Japanese archipelago. Compared to centers such as Tokyo or Osaka, Shikoku is “marginal,” and Oe exploits this marginality, in terms of both space and character, to limn a world that is a mirror image of the stereotypical picture of Japan as Number One. Oe's fictional Japan is a place marked by confrontation rather than harmony, violence rather than peace, and repression rather than freedom.

His most complex and controversial expression of this vision to date is his 1979 novel The Game of Contemporaneity (Dojidai gemu). The Game of Contemporaneity attempts, like García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, to tell Japanese history from the periphery, in this case through a remote unnamed Shikoku village, founded by a group of samurai escaping from the Tokugawa shogunate. While García Márquez's text implicitly equates the founders of Macondo with Adam and Eve, The Game of Contemporaneity explicitly positions the founders of the village in opposition to the ruling Japanese mythology of the Sun Goddess by suggesting that they are descendants of the “dark gods,” gods expelled from heaven by Ameterasu, the sun goddess and progenitrix of the Japanese imperial house.

Thus, even more obviously than Macondo, Oe's village is in direct confrontation with the established order, an order whose mythology, centering around the Imperial house, Oe excoriates. The Game of Contemporaneity creates an entire countermythology complete with a foundation myth involving a shadowy figure known as the Destroyer, so called because he demolishes a huge mass of rock that was blocking the voyage upstream as the founders of the village fled the shogunate.

The Destroyer appears in and out of the village's history, sometimes in tales and sometimes in dreams, an obviously supernatural figure who is said to die, but then returns, often at a particularly momentous period in the village's history. For example, he helps command, through magic, the village's defense when they go to war in an attempt to secede from Japan. The Destroyer is not always positive, however. At one point forces unleashed by him and his last wife create an enormous upheaval, causing the village to change its social hierarchy completely (an oblique reference to the turmoil of the 1960s). After this, the villagers take revenge on the Destroyer, cut up his body into three hundred parts, and eat him. At the novel's end, however, the narrator believes that the Destroyer has returned to life, although he is still only “the size of a dog” and that he is being cared for by the narrator's twin sister, the shamaness of the village shrine.

The character of the Destroyer is an interesting one, since he is both savior and trickster figure and therefore not a purely positive messiah. Indeed, his very amorphousness may remind us of the figure he is supposed to replace, the Japanese emperor, not to mention the shadowy manipulators behind Japanese factional politics. But, unlike recent emperors or prime ministers, the Destroyer does save his people on various occasions, and the hope of his rebirth, albeit metamorphosed in size, is regarded within the novel as a positive event. The village is in need of this new possibility because it has been on the point of losing its identity under the increasing pressure from what the narrator calls the “Great Japanese Empire,” despite the range of stratagems, some realistic, some fantastic, that the villagers have employed to hide themselves from the central authorities.

One of these strategies is interesting in light of Oe's fictional technique itself. During a period known as the Fifty Day War the village children attempt to fend off the Greater Japanese Empire by creating mazes in the forest into which they lead and lose the empire's armies. Although successful, the scheme has a cost: the children themselves are lost. The narrator, however, refuses to see this as tragic, commenting, instead that: “From the instant the children had entered the closed circle of the maze they had escaped the influence of time and would remain eternally children, walking forever through the primeval forest.”17

The maze in the forest is a reminder of the literary text itself. Oe weaves words to create a fantastic labyrinth against the demands and strictures of the central culture. Unlike Abe's mazelike hospitals and cityscapes, the forest labyrinth remains as a reminder that artifice can be salvation in an increasingly absurd world. The appearance and reappearance of the Destroyer in a variety of forms also suggests the hope of a positive metamorphosis. The village identity may yet remain intact.

Oe's work is less despairing than Abe's in other ways as well. Much of his fiction is saturated by a feeling known in Japanese as “natsukashisa” or nostalgia. The Shikoku village that Oe's fiction repeatedly returns to illustrates both the allure and the danger of natsukashisa. In The Game of Contemporaneity these aspects are concretized in the incestuous longings of the narrator for his twin sister, whom he finally seems resigned to giving up to her more important role as shamaness to the Destroyer. Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, where incest eventually produces the child with the tail of a pig who is then devoured, incest/nostalgia are finally displaced by the potential for genuine rebirth on the part of the village, as symbolized by the grotesquely metamorphosed figure of the Destroyer. In fact, throughout much of Oe's work, metamorphosis and the grotesque are seen as hopeful symbols of change and vitality, a concept that owes much to Oe's reading of Bakhtin.

The Game of Contemporaneity lacks the color and enchantment of One Hundred Years of Solitude, or many of Oe's own novels for that matter, perhaps because its anti-emperor ideological agenda is so strident. It remains a landmark in Japanese literature, however, an attempt to retell Japanese history “from the ground up” by emphasizing the energy and potentiality of the people, encapsulated in the protean figure of the Destroyer. The Game of Contemporaneity has also lead to a whole generation of so-called “new political novels” some of which, such as Inoue Hisashi's monumental The People of Kirikiri (Kirikirijin, 1980), are also characterized by the use of the fantastic.

Inoue's The People of Kirikiri can be seen as another magical realist vision of a country village although, in this case, the magic is kept to the peripheries in the form of a super high-tech hospital, rather like a more benign version of Abe's hospitals. The people are not magical, being remarkably believable modern farmers, but the village itself has fantastic aspects, symbolized by the fact that it is built with buried treasure, an appropriately fairy-tale touch in what is basically a modern novel.

Inoue's and Oe's use of the fantastic village, at a time when Japanese culture has rapidly grown more urban, suggests not only the strength of nostalgia still remaining in the Japanese world but also the increasing need for fantasy through which to express it. Their use of the fantastic to suggest possibilities of Otherness still remaining within their own culture is both highly contemporary, even political, and highly traditional, leading back all the way to Kyoka, who also used the traditional to confront the modern. Other contemporary writers such as Oba Minako (b. 1930) and Nakagami Kenji (1946-1992) have similarly gone back to traditional magic for empowerment. Oba's “Smiles of the Mountain Witch” (Yamauba no bisho) is a brilliant satire on women's place in society, made darker by her heroine's longing to become a mountain witch (a traditional folkloric figure) and retreat from society. Nakagami's violent and provocative “The Immortal” (Fushi, 1984) also uses traditional magical creatures, once powerful but now impotent, to suggest the loss and emptiness endemic to modern society.

The work of these writers is in contrast to certain aspects of Akutagawa and Kawabata's use of the fantastic, which, although implicitly critical of society, is essentially escapist, and also to Abe Kobo's fantasies, which have become less and less political, now seeming only to emphasize the grimness of reality with increasing despair. Oba, Kyoka, Oe, and Inoue share a belief that the Other can be more than a refuge, that it can also be an alternative, and they leave us with a vision of remote villages and valleys where fantasy and a better, stronger Japanese identity are linked forever.


The questions of identity and history, both personal and national, are important themes in the works of our last writer to be considered, Murakami Haruki (1949-). Perhaps the most popular writer of the current younger generation, Murakami's works are particularly good examples of contemporary Japanese magic realism. Set in clearly modern and largely urban settings containing recognizably contemporary characters, and told in an ironic and detached style, Murakami's novels and stories are at the same time permeated with the presence of the marvelous and uncanny. His short story “TV People” (1989) describes a man lounging in his apartment on an ordinary Sunday afternoon when three silent miniaturized people walk in through the front door, set up a television set and silently depart. The protagonist sees them again the next day at his company but in neither case does anyone else seem to see them. The “TV People” come back to him one last time to make an oddly shaped airplane and to tell him that his wife has left him for good. The story ends on a note of resigned despair with the narrator standing helplessly by the telephone thinking: “Maybe somewhere, at some terminal of that awesome megacircuit is my wife. Far, far away, out of my reach. … Which way is front, which way is back? I stand up and try to say something, but no sooner have I got to my feet than the words slip away.”18

“TV People” may usefully be compared to Abe Kobo's previously mentioned play, “Friends.” In both cases the protagonist's apartment is invaded by a group of unearthly Others whose strangeness is apparent only to the protagonist. Both works also satirize the group or corporate identity of the modern Japanese by implicitly setting their protagonist in opposition to the group mentality. The important difference between the two works lies in the protagonist's reactions. In Abe's play the protagonist strives mightily, although futilely, to rid himself of the invaders and to convince his peers of their threatening presence. Although his continued confrontation with the “Friends” ultimately leads to his death, he has at least made a genuine and serious effort to maintain his identity and integrity within an increasingly surreal and sinister world. The main reaction of the protagonist in “TV People,” on the other hand, seems to be largely one of amiable bemusement. When neither his wife nor his colleagues react to the “TV People,” he simply accepts the situation with affable passivity.

Although Abe is usually described as bleakly nihilistic, the final impression given by Murakami's “TV People” may actually be a more despairing one. Murakami's protagonist accepts that his identity is determined by outside forces who tell him what to think and how to react, and he makes no effort to oppose the situation. Like Akutagawa's bemused protagonist in “The Nose,” the protagonist seems to have learned that we have no control over the bizarre manifestations of fate, and he no longer cares “which way is front” or “which way is back.”

The passivity of Murakami's characters has alarmed some older Japanese critics and scholars who see his characters' passive reactions to an increasingly bizarre world as a disturbing reflection of the younger generation's unwillingness to assert themselves, and their concomitant rejection or ignoring of history. Thus, in Murakami's surreal novel Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Sekai no owari to hado boirudo wandarando, 1985), the protagonist chooses at the novel's end to remain in a static unreal world known as the Town, the inhabitants of which possess as their main characteristic a willingness to relinquish their “shadows” or memories.

Murakami's attitude toward history is not always negative, however. His novel A Wild Sheep Chase (Hitsuji o meguru boken, 1982) is a work that may fruitfully be compared to Oe's The Game of Contemporaneity and Inoue's The People of Kirikiri. Like both these novels, A Wild Sheep Chase privileges a rural and marginalized Japanese past, in this case a tiny Hokkaido village established by dispossessed farmers. Unlike the other two works, however, A Wild Sheep Chase also deals at length with another, less romantic, aspect of the Japanese past, the colonization of Manchuria by Japan in the 1920s and the rise to power of right-wing militarists.

The key to both of these pasts is contained in the elusive form of a magic sheep, last seen on a remote farm in Hokkaido, but actually a phantom inhabitant of the brain of a shadowy right-wing power broker. The sheep itself is an amusing but sinister image, reminiscent of the stone child in Soseki's “Third Night,” a burden of the past that is impossible to escape. Through the protagonist's increasingly surreal quest for the phantom sheep, the reader is led to confront previously unacknowledged or downplayed aspects of Japanese history in a manner that is both original and provocative. Murakami's use of the fantastic brings a fresh perspective to many of the problems of urban modernity, most of which are not restricted to Japan. It is perhaps not surprising that his works are popular in the United States as well. The surreal and absurd world of Murakami's characters is a universal one, suggesting that the problems of identity for contemporary Japan are ones shared throughout the modern world.


  1. See Beongcheon Yu's discussion of “The Nose,” in Yu, Akutagawa: An Introduction (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972), pp. 15-17.

  2. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 81.

  3. One fascinating example of this kind of intellectual concern is the spectacular suicide of the writer Mishima Yukio in 1970 and subsequent reactions to it. Mishima's suicide, calling for a restoration of traditional Japanese values, led many Japanese to question or at least problematize the notion of the postwar Japanese success story. Perhaps even more revealing is the continued interest, usually of a negative sort, of Japanese intellectuals in Mishima's death. In a discussion of Mishima's continuing influence after his death, two major Japanese men of letters, Shimada Masahiko and Asada Akira, refer to Mishima variously as a “zombie,” an “android,” and a “monster.” (Shimada Masahiko and Asada Akira, “Mishima: Mozo o mozo suru” [Mishima: Counterfeiting the Counterfeit] in Shimada and Asada, Tenshi ga toru [Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1988], p. 249.) The use of such grotesque and horrific imagery in a discussion of an essentially literary matter evidences the depth of unease with which even contemporary intellectuals confront their historical situation.

  4. David Young and Keith Hollaman, eds., “Introduction” to Magic Realism: An Anthology (New York: Longman, 1984), p. 2.

  5. For a detailed discussion of the watakushishosetsu and the conception of the “real” in Japanese literature, see Edward Fowler, The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishosetsu in Early Twentieth Century Japanese Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

  6. This complex attitude vis-à-vis modernity is also exemplified in Japan's increasingly ambivalent relationship with technology. As Tetsuo Najita describes it, throughout most of the twentieth century technology was seen as an imported Other and, as such, was paradoxically more containable than it now seems in contemporary Japan, where it is viewed as highly problematic. (Tetsuo Najita, “Culture and Technology,” in Postmodernism and Japan, ed. Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian [Duke University Press, 1989], pp. 3-20. Perhaps for this reason, science fiction and fantasy views of technology are extremely bleak, as is evidenced in Abe Kobo's Secret Rendezvous or Murakami Haruki's Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

  7. Natsume Soseki, Ten Nights of Dream (Yumejuya), trans. Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1980), p. 49.

  8. Soseki, pp. 37-38.

  9. For a discussion of this paradigm, see Norma Field, The Splendour of Longing in the Tale of Genji (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 33-35.

  10. Masamune Hakucho, quoted in Donald Keene, Dawn to the West (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), p. 216.

  11. Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Rashomon and Other Stories, trans. Takashi Kojima (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1975), p. 100.

  12. Kawabata Yasunari, House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories (Nemureru bijo), trans. Edward Seidensticker (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1969).

  13. Alfonso Reyes, “Major Aranda's Hand,” in Magic Realism: An Anthology, ed. David Young and Keith Hollaman (New York: Longman, 1984), pp. 347-51.

  14. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), p. 41.

  15. Abe Kobo, “The Stick” (Bo), in A Late Chrysanthemum: Twenty-one Stories from the Japanese, trans. Lane Dunlop (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), p. 172.

  16. Abe Kobo, Secret Rendezvous (Mikai), trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1981), p. 178.

  17. Oe Kenzaburo, Dojidai gemu (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1979), p. 385, my translation.

  18. Murakami Haruki, The Elephant Vanishes, trans. Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Robin (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993), p. 216.

Martha Bayles (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Special Effects, Special Pleading,” in The New Criterion, Vol. 6, No. 5, January, 1988, pp. 34-40.

[In the following essay, Bayles argues that Toni Morrison's use of magic realism led her to ignore her greatest strengths as a novelist and caused her work to be mediocre at best.]

Eighteen years later, as he gazed out over the literary landscape, the swaggering, mustachioed Colombian called Gabriel García Márquez was to recall the remote afternoon when he slipped his magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude, into the wax-cold, ink-smudged hands of a New York Times literary critic whose mother had named him John Leonard, and a great event happened that neither García Márquez's kindly mother nor the white-haired Mrs. Leonard could have foreseen, namely the Colombian's words set the North America's “mind on fire,” causing jewel-bright hardback copies, followed by glittering rows of paperbacks, to replicate like dragon's teeth on the shelves of a thousand bookstores, touching off aesthetic conflagrations in a million gringo skulls that had never, in their wildest fantasies of world domination through advanced technology, dreamed of an enchantment like the new Latin American novel.

Hey, this magic realism stuff is easy, once you get the hang of it.

Toni Morrison would never put it that way. But you can bet she was impressed back in 1970, when her tentative but promising first novel, The Bluest Eye, was blown to obscurity by the firestorm of García Márquez. Almost immediately, she got the hang of magic realism. By 1981 she told The New Republic that “in general I think the South American novelists have the best of it now,” and The New Republic credited her fiction with “a Latin American enchantment.”

From the obscurity of 1970, Morrison has emerged as a literary heavyweight, teaching at prestigious colleges, exerting considerable influence over the direction of black writing as a senior editor at Random House, winning the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award for her third novel, Song of Solomon, starring on the lecture circuit, and topping the best-seller list with each of her last three books. The critics, including Mrs. Leonard's son, have raved themselves hoarse over Morrison's homegrown version of Macondo, García Márquez's enchanted village where modernity has not yet demythologized the world. To my knowledge, no one has asked whether Morrison was wise in constructing such a place out of the materials of the black American experience.

Now there is a clamor of praise for Morrison's latest novel, Beloved. With the notable exception of Stanley Crouch in The New Republic, the reviewers have reached new heights, or depths, of abject adoration. Thomas R. Edwards in The New York Review of Books proclaims Morrison to be “not just an important contemporary novelist but a major figure of our national literature.” Margaret Atwood in The New York Times declares that Beloved assures Morrison's “stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation.” Helen Dudar in The Wall Street Journal calls the novel “an amazing book, the best of [Morrison's] career.” And Colin Walters in The Washington Times states, with a few qualifications, that “‘Beloved’ seems as successful as it is bold and pointed aesthetically toward the future.”

In my heretical opinion, Beloved is a dreadful novel, final proof of Morrison's decline from high promise into fashionable mediocrity. This heresy can be defended, I believe, first by comparing Beloved with The Bluest Eye, and then by examining each of Morrison's intervening novels, so that we may understand how her embrace of magic realism has led her to neglect her strengths and indulge her weaknesses.

The Bluest Eye is a portrait of madness in Pecola Breedlove, the daughter of an impoverished, disintegrating black family living in a small city in Ohio. The book has flaws, but at its best it is an extraordinary fusion of poetic language and moral clarity. The descriptions range from simple precision (a child lying in a cold winter bed “generated a silhouette of warmth”) to striking metaphor (“the tears rushed down his cheeks, to make a bouquet under his chin”). The story is told partly from the viewpoint of one of Pecola's tormentors, a classmate from a prouder, more stable black family who joins in ostracizing the Breedloves as “trifling.” But it also delves into the hard lives of Pecola's parents, especially her father Cholly, himself the product of poverty, racism, and family breakup in the South.

Cholly Breedlove is an important character in Morrison's oeuvre, because she never created another like him. Abandoned in a ditch by his unmarried mother, he is retrieved by an elderly aunt who tries to raise him right. But her death leaves him unwanted, about to be farmed out to begrudging kinfolk. Sexually humiliated by local whites, and fearful that his relatives will reject him, Cholly runs away in quixotic search of the father he never knew. The pages describing this background, and Cholly's eventual meeting with his father—an angry-drunk stranger who hurls curses at Cholly before he can even state his business—are among the most austere and beautiful Morrison has ever written. Equally impressive is the scene in which the mature Cholly staggers home one Saturday afternoon, himself an angry-drunk stranger, to rape his eleven-year-old daughter on the kitchen floor.

Despite his wickedness, Cholly Breedlove should not be confused with a figure like “Mr.———,” the incestuous rapist in The Color Purple who caused such a stir last year when Alice Walker's novel was confected into a movie by Steven Spielberg. Unlike the domineering males in Walker's “womanist” fiction, Cholly is not an ideologically conceived villain. He is an extraordinary sinner whom we are asked to love to the exact degree that we are asked to hate his sin. This equilibrium between condemnation and mercy must have cost Morrison a great deal of pain. The hard theme of The Bluest Eye is the degradation, and self-degradation, of desperate people perpetuating their own misery while being abandoned by the rest of society, including better-off blacks. Needless to say, the theme is even timelier today than it was eighteen years ago.

In the mid-1970s, Morrison helped edit a Random House publication called The Black Book, a black-history “scrapbook” which included a clipping from an 1856 issue of The American Baptist describing an incident in Cincinnati of a runaway slave who attempted to kill her own children rather than surrender them to slave-catchers. After striking two of the children with a shovel, the woman cut the throat of a third, and was in the act of assaulting a fourth when she was apprehended. All but one child survived, as did the woman, to be sent back to a fate she obviously considered worse than death. Morrison has said that this incident haunted her for years before she decided, in 1981, to make it the core of her first historical novel, a tale of slavery and its aftermath now published as Beloved.

We can see how the clear-eyed moralist who created Cholly Breedlove might be challenged by this similar, if more extreme, tale. Like Cholly, the slave woman ties a Gordian knot of good and evil when, victimized herself, she victimizes her own children. That moralist lives on in Beloved to the extent that its theme is the guilt of the slave woman, Sethe. Unlike her historical predecessor, Sethe does not get sold back down the river. Instead she remains in Cincinnati until 1873, when the events of the novel begin to unfold. Despite being free, Sethe and her youngest daughter live a wretched life, cut off from their fellow blacks in a house haunted by the ghost of Beloved, the baby Sethe killed. Their wretchedness seems to be ending when Paul D, another ex-slave, shows up and attempts to become their protector by banishing the ghost. Things go well until the ghost reappears as a grown-up zombie, a mysterious woman the same age Beloved would be if she had lived. Welcomed by her lonely, uncomprehending mother and sister, the reincarnated spirit first gets rid of Paul D, then starts extracting endless favors from Sethe.

Thus summarized, the plot sounds intriguing. But Beloved commits the imitative fallacy by extracting endless favors from its readers. We don't have to feed, bathe, or amuse Beloved, the way Sethe does. But we do have to plow through two hundred and seventy-five pages of self-indulgent prose, like this account of Paul D's effect on women:

Not even trying, he had become the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry. Because with him, in his presence, they could. There was something blessed in his manner. Women saw him and wanted to weep—to tell him that their chest hurt and their knees did too. Strong women and wise saw him and told him things they only told each other: that way past the Change of Life, desire in them had suddenly become enormous, greedy, more savage than when they were fifteen, and that it embarrassed them and made them sad; that secretly they longed to die—to be quit of it—that sleep was more precious to them than any waking day. …

As much as this passage needs an editor's pencil, it might be acceptable if Paul D were convincing as a human being. But he's not. He's just a list of saintly traits, combined with a longer list of sufferings. Obviously, the clipping from The American Baptist was only one item in a bulging file of antebellum atrocities which Morrison decided to cram, willy-nilly, into this novel. Paul D, Sethe, and a few other slaves belonging to the same owner in Kentucky experience a complete catalogue of barbaric practices and ungodly perversions from all over the South, as well as from Brazil and the West Indies. For instance, they are forced to wear a type of iron headgear used to keep starving slaves on vast Caribbean plantations from eating the sugarcane they were cutting. Neither Morrison nor her conscience-stricken admirers bother to ask whether such a device would really have existed on a small farm in tobacco-growing Kentucky.

The denouement occurs when, one fine day, after Sethe has been worn to a husk catering to Beloved, whose true identity she has long since guessed, she sees a white man about to enter her yard. It's only a kindly old abolitionist on his way to fetch Sethe's daughter for a part-time job, but Sethe flashes back two decades to the day when the slave-catchers came. She seizes an ice pick, and for a moment we think she is once again going to attack her own children. But wait—she doesn't lunge at her daughter or Beloved, she lunges at the white man! She doesn't hurt him, though, because this also happens to be the same fine day when the neighbors, who have shunned Sethe for the last twenty years, decide to show up in her front yard. They rush forward to stop her, and when the dust settles, everyone gapes in astonishment because, lo and behold, Beloved has vanished!

Michiko Kakutani, lamenting in The New York Times that the 1987 National Book Award was not given to Beloved, calls the novel “a magisterial and deeply moving meditation not only on the cruelties of a single institution, but on family, history and love.” By “meditation” Miss Kakutani presumably means a series of ideas connected by logic. But what is the logic of this ending? Sethe's neighbors prevent a second murder, but it is not their action that exorcises the guilt-monster Beloved. Rather it is Sethe's decision, at long last, to attack the correct enemy. And that enemy is not slavery, as represented by slave-catchers, but the white race in general, as represented by an old man who happens to have spent his life opposing slavery. Critics made defensive by this novel's encyclopedia of horrors are so eager to find comfort in this portrait of a sympathetic white, they ignore the logic which discounts the man's goodness in favor of the symbolic evil of his whiteness. True, Beloved posits the Gordian knot of a greatly wronged woman who commits a great wrong. But rather than unravel the knot, it simply sunders it with the blade of reverse racism.

Now, what does all this have to do with magic realism? In the 1981 New Republic interview cited above, Morrison boasted of having created a black Macondo: “I write what I have recently begun to call village literature, fiction that is really for the village, for the tribe.” This boast, with its cavalier inclusion of all black people into one “village,” and its equally cavalier exclusion of all white readers from consideration, reflects Morrison's state of mind as she began Beloved. From bravely probing the consciences of even the most pitiable black characters, she had shifted to predictably blaming white racist oppression for every crime committed by the inhabitants of an enchanted village called blackness. The trouble is, there's an inherent contradiction between the theme of white racist oppression and the idea of blackness as an enchanted state.

García Márquez knew what he was doing when he hid Macondo deep in the Colombian interior. In terms of real time and space, Macondo seems to have been founded sometime in the nineteenth century by the adventurous Buendía family, descendants of sixteenth-century Spanish colonials who led a band of pioneers away from their safe coastal city over several impassable, cloud-covered mountain chains to the edge of an impenetrable swamp. In other words, Macondo is removed, by sheer force of will, from all those aspects of the modern world that literary people most love to hate. It represents pure romanticism, a flight into the wilderness by people who have experienced and rejected civilization. By dwelling there long enough—say, one hundred years—the inhabitants recapture the primal sense of wonder which used to animate the universe before science came along and reduced everything to a pile of unfriendly rubble.

Whatever the similarities between Macondo and Aracataca, García Márquez's actual birthplace, it is safe to say that neither resembles Lorain, Ohio, where Toni Morrison was born. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison makes fond use of the rich Southern folklore of Lorain's black migrants. But in those pre-García Márquez days, her fondness for folklore was balanced with humor and skepticism. When Cholly's aunt falls ill, her elderly friends' advice is “prolific, if contradictory.” And when Pecola finally loses her sanity, it's because she visits a “conjure man” who pretends to grant her self-hating wish to have bright blue eyes. It's worth noting, in contrast with Morrison's later romanticization of magic, that this conjure man is both a phony and a pedophile.

Sula, Morrison's second (1973) novel about black life in Lorain, contains much of the precise language and striking metaphor of The Bluest Eye. But it also strains for the sonority of One Hundred Years of Solitude, only to end up sounding as if it, too, had been translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. Worse, it clouds the moral clarity of the first novel by clothing the bleaker aspects of ghetto life in the vivid garments of fantasy. Nowhere does this shift show up more clearly than in the contrast between Cholly and the “trifling” male character in Sula, a graceful panther named Ajax, who dreams of airplanes and releases butterflies—a shamelessly Márquezian touch—in the bedroom of the high-spirited Sula. At one point, while Sula and Ajax are making love, his face is described as having many layers: black on the surface, then gold leaf, then alabaster, then fertile loam. It almost seems stodgy, after admiring such a spellbinding love affair, to ask whether a guy with a gold-leaf face will stick around and support a family.

At this point we can detect a deeper drawback of magic realism for Morrison. By embracing the genre, Morrison also embraces its willful romanticism, which, in the context of black America, leads to the corollary that the most marginal people are the least corrupted by the false values of the dominant white society. From now on, she assumes that the lower a character's social status, the higher his mythic consciousness. The shame, anguish, and pity of characters like Pecola and Cholly can be supplanted by the descendants of Sula and Ajax, proud owners of luxury condos in Macondo.

Morrison's next novel, the prizewinning Song of Solomon, works even harder at enchantment. Milkman Dead, the spoiled son of a black-bourgeois family in Michigan, flees his stifling home for the headier company of his eccentric Aunt Pilate, a penniless but bewitching matriarch who runs a boot-legging operation on the wrong side of town. Milkman starts out seeking a bag of gold which he thinks Pilate is hoarding, but before long he is seeking his family's roots in Virginia, where he discovers such marvels as a conversation between hunters and hounds, and a legendary great-grandfather named Solomon who “lifted his beautiful black ass up in the sky and flew on home.”

Unfortunately, this attempt by Morrison to transform black folklore into painless enchantment comes dangerously close to reviving the spirit of antebellum nostalgia, updated as a Disney cartoon full of yarnspinning “darkies” with droll names. Thus Morrison is at pains to re-introduce the grim facts of oppression via an ominous character named Guitar, a boyhood friend of Milkman's who belongs to a secret society practicing random violence against whites. Guitar spends a lot of time berating Milkman about the brutality being inflicted on the civil-rights movement. He does this, apparently, not because his message has direct bearing on Milkman's quest, but because Song of Solomon needs social and political ballast to keep it from floating up and turning into Song of the South.

In the end, Milkman attempts flight. Pursued by Guitar to the cliff called Solomon's Leap, he commits an act of faith by leaping off. But whether he soars or drops, we never learn, because the novel ends right there. It's almost as if Morrison contrived this ending in order to deal with the conflict between harsh racial reality, as embodied in Guitar, and blackness as enchantment, as embodied in Milkman—only to suspend the contradiction at the last moment because it cannot be resolved.

Morrison is not the first black writer to seek the down-home sources of a distinctive black literary style; such efforts date back to the Harlem Renaissance. But she may be the first to combine black folk culture with the romantic impulses of magic realism, thereby producing an admixture which, among other things, distorts the essence of the downhome tradition. Her fourth novel, Tar Baby, (1981), takes as its central metaphor the old animal fable about Fox setting a trap for Rabbit in the form of a statue of tar. Rabbit gets mad at the statue and tries to beat it up, only to get all four paws and his head stuck. Fox carries Rabbit off, saying “I don't know what hardly to do with you.” Rabbit begs him to do anything he wants, only “please don't throw me there in them briars.” Any red-blooded American, black or white, will recall the ending. Fox throws Rabbit in the briars, and Rabbit kicks up his heels: “Oh ho, here's where I want to be, here's where I was bred and bo'n anyhow.”

Contemporary folklorists argue that these tales had a political subtext, with Rabbit the sly trickster as the slave, and Fox the gullible predator as the master. Accepting this, one might expect Tar Baby to apply the tale to a black-white interaction, especially since it is the first of Morrison's novels to include white characters. Set on a Caribbean island, Tar Baby concerns the Streets, a retired white couple from Philadelphia; Sydney and Ondine, their black servants, also from Philadelphia; Jadine, the servants' niece, who is educated by the Streets as their own; and finally Son, a low-down black sailor who jumps ship, breaks into the Streets' mansion, and seduces the high-toned Jadine. Son, as the free-spirited Rabbit figure, becomes … well, stuck on Jadine, a tempting creature sent out by the white liberal Streets to capture Son and lure him away from his true black identity. The difference with the fable is that Fox wanted to eat Rabbit, while the Streets just want to integrate blacks into their white world. To Son, however, firmly rooted in black mythic consciousness (he comes from a small town in Florida), integration is the same as being devoured. So he escapes into the forest, “lickety-split” (the novel's final word).

Because this is also magic realism, the white folks serve the added function of playing corrupt modernity to the blacks' pure Macondo. You see, the island is full of nature-spirits and departed souls susurrating miraculous messages into any ear capable of hearing. But the capability to hear does not depend on how long people have lived there, how removed they are from scientific consciousness, or any other philosophical consideration of the type found in García Márquez. No, for Morrison, enchantment is color-coded. Jadine, the fashion model with the Ph.D., can hear the murmurings of “the swamp women,” and Son, the world-weary drifter, can join the ghostly march of a centuries-old slave insurrection, for the self-evident reason that both are black. Old Mr. Street just sits in his greenhouse listening to Bach, subjugated nature and recorded music being all the enchantment the white race can handle. And there's no magic at all for Mrs. Street, a typical white bitch who spends her early married life sticking pins and scissors into her infant son. I say “the white race” and “typical” because every character in this book speaks less as a quirky individual than as a looming racial archetype. The wry humor of the old fable is lost in a pretentious jumble of animation and animosity.

There is a folktale at the heart of Beloved, too. Whether or not the animal fables implicitly refer to relations between masters and slaves, another cycle of tales does so explicitly. Called the “Old Marster and John” tales, they were neglected by paternalistic nineteenth-century folklorists such as Joel Chandler Harris, who preferred the apparent harmlessness of Rabbit and his cronies. Beloved contains a particularly good example of these tales, sharp-edged as they frequently are. It's about a slave caught stealing meat, who defends himself by saying that he can't be stealing, since he himself belongs to the master. By eating good meat, he is only using one item of the master's property to improve another.

In Beloved, surprisingly, this well-known tale is not identified as a tale. Rather, Morrison presents it as part of her own narration, a scene occurring between a cruel master and a slave called Sixo. The tale's humor gets blunted when Morrison adds that Sixo's master “beat him anyway to show him that the definitions belong to the definers—not the defined.” And later, Sixo is burned to death for showing too much defiance. Obviously, Morrison is not interested in the tale's depiction of human give and take—the whole point being that the slave does define himself, as both cleverer and more righteous than the master. Clearly, human give and take has no place in Morrison's depiction of slavery as unrelieved genocide.

The main plot of Beloved can be seen as a variant on the same tale: a slave commits a crime, but it's not really a crime because it was committed by a slave. The system, and not the slave, stands unjustly condemned for a deed that would possess another meaning if committed in freedom. To some extent, a similar moral adjustment has to be made in judging the act of a woman in Sethe's position. But there has to be a qualitative difference. Instead of being a sardonic comment on property rights and responsibilities, the story of Sethe is a life-and-death catastrophe, as unlike the tale as one's own child is unlike a piece of meat. Yet by excusing Sethe from lasting blame, Morrison almost equates her infanticide with Sixo's pilfering. In Morrison's mind there seems to be only one crime, that of slavery itself, and no person who lives under it has to answer for anything. So intent is she on showing the inhumanity of the master, she dehumanizes the slave. From the subtle calibration of right and wrong which distinguishes the “Old Marster and John” tales we arrive at the collapse of all moral distinctions.

What Morrison seems to forget is that black American folklore, however intensely rich it may be, is also intensely entangled with white folklore. Indeed, many of the “Old Marster and John” stories have European precedents, just as many white tales have African roots. But that doesn't degrade either. In the case of black folklore, one of its admirable functions was to preserve a sense of dignity and identity among people forced to live in intimate proximity with another people who considered themselves superior. By insisting that her black village be as radically removed from the white world as Macondo is from modernity, Morrison deprives black folklore of one of its most vital functions. She also indulges in the worst kind of romanticism, the kind that would reconstruct people in the name of setting them free.

Laura Moss (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “‘Forget Those Damnfool Realists!’ Salman Rushdie's Self-Parody as the Magic Realist's ‘Last Sigh’,” in ARIEL, Vol. 29, No. 4, October, 1998, pp. 121-39.

[In the following essay, Moss discusses Salman Rushdie's self-referential parody of magic realism in his novels.]

Magic realism is in danger of becoming what the Australian novelist Peter Carey has called a “cheap cliché” (11). Recently it has been so widely employed that it has lost its cachet as an avant garde form. The problem lies in its popularization by writers of divergent skills and the paradoxical critical depreciation of the form, which directly results from such mass popularity. Magic realism is the accepted juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary in a narrative that otherwise appears to be “reliable” and objective, but the extraordinary loses its extraordinariness when it becomes predictable through repetition. It becomes just a writerly trope. Such an emptying of the form has become troublesome for those writers who have come to be associated with magic realism. On one hand, Gabriel García Márquez, often cited as the father of the form, adamantly resists the imposition of the label magic realism on his work, as he argues that such writing is simple narrative trickery. García Márquez maintains that many of his European readers see the magic in his stories but do not see the realism, because “their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn't limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs” (66). On the other hand, Salman Rushdie, whose novel Midnight's Children is often cited as the quintessential postcolonial magic realist novel in “english,” has not rejected the label as firmly.1 In his comments on García Márquez from 1982, for instance, Rushdie defends the form as capable of expressing a “genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness” (Imaginary 301). However, it increasingly seems that Rushdie's patience with the heightened predictability of the literary conventions of magic realism, and its critical reception, could be growing thin. The Moor's Last Sigh is an answer to such disintegrating patience.2

While the novel is arguably magic realist, Rushdie effectively parodies the form to gain critical distance. The Moor's Last Sigh contains incidents and situations from common life which are infused with the extraordinary (for example, synagogue tiles act as ever-changing postcards for the deserted son of a world traveler). However, The Moor's Last Sigh parodies both magic realism and its celebrated magic realist predecessor, Midnight's Children, as it points to the inadequacies of the literary convention Rushdie himself helped to pioneer in an “english language” context.3 The early novel is a primary intertext for the later one precisely so that Rushdie can retain his signature style, point to the popular/critical appropriation of his form of writing and, at the same time, provide a critique of urban Indian politics, as he does in Midnight's Children.

There is an enduring conversation between Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh. Indeed, the dialogue is so loud that it is almost impossible not to eavesdrop. Although the novels were published fourteen years—and a fatwa—apart, the degree to which they interconnect evinces a self-conscious self-referentiality.4 The earlier text echoes synchronically throughout the later one: first by Rushdie's repetition of what has become his signature style, most notably his use of magic realism; secondly in the repetition of a familial narrative voice; and thirdly in the incorporation and development of specific characters from Midnight's Children, most notably A(a)dam Sinai/Braganza/Zogoiby. In typical parodic fashion, Adam, the character representing hope in one novel, becomes the harbinger of doom in the other. The Moor's Last Sigh is in many ways a repetition of Midnight's Children, but it is a repetition with a critical difference—a key element of Linda Hutcheon's definition of parody. The question becomes, when reading The Moor's Last Sigh as a parody of Midnight's Children, what is the critical difference? While magic realism is parodied in the novel, the parody is juxtaposed with an expansion of political awareness in the increased politicization of the narrative; the increased exposure of corruption in corporate India; the increased depiction of the devastation wrought by religious fundamentalism in Bombay, and the increased hopelessness of a secular pluralism. Simply put, the repetition between the novels acts to highlight such critical differences.

While several critics and reviewers have noted the formal and thematic links between the two novels, few have attempted to provide a possible justification for such obvious repetition. The duplications between the texts have generally been denounced as derivative and lacking originality. For example, in the postscript to a book-length study on Rushdie's work, Catherine Cundy registers stylistic and thematic links between the novels but argues that The Moor's Last Sigh is inferior, because it is “less engaged and less heartfelt” than Midnight's Children (115). The criticism launched at Rushdie's latest novel centers on its sequel-like quality (in the most Hollywood manner). However, such criticism neglects to account for the somewhat hackneyed, but intentional, parodic elements that emerge with the intertextuality and are littered throughout the text.

The direct references in The Moor's Last Sigh to specific characters and incidents in Midnight's Children indicate that the novels should be read together. Of García Márquez, Rushdie has said: “It sometimes seems, however, that García Márquez is consciously trying to foster a myth of ‘Garcíaland.’ It's as though García Márquez is asking us to link the books, to consider each in light of the other” (Imaginary 302). Analogously, Rushdie's own echoing of his previous works suggests that he is also trying to foster a myth of “Rushdieland.” In fact, all of Rushdie's six novels reverberate in their shared use of specific narratological features. In The Moor's Last Sigh many aspects of his “signature style” of storytelling are repeated. This style is multi-layered, combining a punning sense of humour; self-reflexive metafiction; fragmented spatio-temporal shifts; a disjointed and non-linear chronology; analepsis and prolepsis; impeding and retarding devices; hyperbolic, twisted, and telescopic language; the exploitation of “real” historical personages beside fictional characters; a picaresque autobiography with a rhetorical narrator; a direct reader address, and a regenerative style of storytelling. “Rushdieland” has a variegated landscape.

Furthermore, the family resemblance between the two narrators is unmistakable, even while their motivations may be contrasted. The narrator of The Moor's Last Sigh is clearly the offspring of the same creative mind as the narrative voice of Midnight's Children. He has inherited Saleem's narrative style, his rhetorical tricks, and his bombastic cynicism in addressing politics. Moraes and Saleem lead parallel Bombay childhoods, in spite of Saleem's ten-year seniority. The primary difference between the narrators lies, not as Cundy suggests, in the depoliticization of Moraes, but rather in his fundamental lack of egotism.5 Such a dearth of conceit signifies that, as a narrator, he is not “responsible” for history as Saleem is; rather, he is subject to its processes. Instead of changing the course of history as Saleem does time and again (even though in the second half of Midnight's Children Saleem loses much of his conceit), Moraes is without substantial political agency.6 The focus shifts from an emphasis on the self-absorbed narrator who directly affects history, as in Midnight's Children, to a concentration on the narrator as a Bombayite being affected by history. As a citizen of “Rushdieland,” Moraes is an ironic inversion of Saleem.

“Rushdieland” is also populated by character-types: the cook who infuses his food with emotions and memories, the grandparents whose stories must be told before the narrator can be born, the compromised servant, the adulterous parents, the anguished sibling(s), and the questionable paternity. The stock characters in The Moor's Last Sigh are accompanied by fictional events that resurface from Methwold's Estates, Saleem's childhood home: Commander Sabarmati, who shot his wife and her lover in Midnight's Children, is reconciled with his wife and lives in Toronto in The Moor's Last Sigh. Dom Minto, the ancient detective, returns as Bombay's leading centenarian private investigator. Even Cyrus Dubash, one of Saleem's boyhood friends, appears in a cameo spot after becoming the “magic child” Lord Khusro Khusrovani Bhagwan, and is consulted about Moraes's accelerated growth. A passing reference, by Moraes, to the “Braganza Brand” lime and mango pickles' growing popularity foreshadows the arrival of the most developed intertextual character, A(a)dam Sinai/Braganza-later-Zogoiby (199).

A(a)dam's history, recounted in The Moor's Last Sigh, is a synopsis of part of the story of Midnight's Children:

It seems he was originally the illegitimate child of a Bombay hooligan and an itinerant magician from Shadipur U.P., and had been unofficially adopted, for a time, by a Bombay man who was missing-believed-dead, having mysteriously disappeared fourteen years ago, not long after his allegedly brutal treatment by government agents during the 1974-77 Emergency.


Although unnamed, Saleem figures prominently here in this overt reference to Midnight's Children. Saleem's story is finally, albeit rather mysteriously, closed. Further, A(a)dam's biological parents, Parvati and Shiva, are named shortly after his introduction into The Moor's Last Sigh (358). After recapping the story of A(a)dam's life in the previous novel, Rushdie links the texts by providing a narrative life for him between the two novels: “since then the boy had been raised in a pink skyscraper by two elderly Goan Christian ladies who had grown wealthy on the success of their popular range of condiments, Braganza Pickles” (Moor's 342). These elderly ladies are, of course, Mary Pereira/Mrs. Braganza, the ayah who switched Saleem and Shiva at birth, and her sister Alice (Midnight's 458). John Ball has suggested that The Moor's Last Sigh brings the political themes of its predecessor “up to date” as it extends Midnight's Children into the 1980s and 1990s. It also brings the individual fictional characters “up to date” in such a climate.

In Midnight's Children, Aadam, as a young child, embodies Saleem's tentative hope for the future: “the sons of the great unmake their parents. But I too, have a son; Aadam Sinai, flying in the face of precedent, will reverse the trend: Sons can be better than their fathers, as well as worse” (Midnight's 333).7Midnight's Children ends with a shadow of a hope manifested in Aadam's birth, growth, and speech, even though such hope is tarnished by his dubious parentage. In The Moor's Last Sigh we find that Adam, who has lost the second a in his name (Aadam—Adam) and has been thus rechristened in honour of the lapsed Edenic figure, neither reverses the trend nor flies in the face of precedent. He bursts into the novel as the eighteen-year-old “boy-wonder” bringing the “birth of a new age” to corporate India (343). Yet, his time as the “twenty-first century kid” is short lived (359). Saleem's adopted son in Midnight's Children becomes the adopted son of Moraes's father, Abraham Zogoiby, in The Moor's Last Sigh and thus usurps Moraes's role as heir apparent. As he is raised in Mrs. Braganza's notably Christian home, Adam's allegorical Christian name signals his already predetermined end. In the rooftop garden of his newly adopted father, Adam causes his own fall. As he exits the text, we hear that he will “rot in jail” on multiple counts of corruption, drug-smuggling, arms dealing, money laundering, and procuring (Moor's 370). In the figure of Adam, Saleem's metaphorical hope for the future of India is truncated.

However, it would appear that Adam's fate was sealed in 1987, eight years prior to the publication of The Moor's Last Sigh, when, in reaction to current political events in Bombay, Rushdie wrote:

I remember when Midnight's Children was first published in 1981, the most common Indian criticism of it was that it was too pessimistic about the future. It's a sad truth that nobody finds the novel's ending pessimistic anymore, because what has happened in India since 1981 is so much darker than I had imagined. If anything, the book's last pages, with their suggestion of a new, more pragmatic generation rising up to take over from the midnight children, now seem absurdly, romantically optimistic.

(Imaginary 33)

Rushdie redresses such romantic optimism through the satiric representation of the pragmatic generation's attempts to modernize corporate India with computers and user-friendly language. Adam, the emblematic, cyber-minded member of generation-X, fails miserably. Rushdie parodies his own naïve optimism in the conclusion to Midnight's Children through the decidedly apocalyptic incorporation of Adam into The Moor's Last Sigh. Not only does Adam fail individually, but his hubris-induced mistakes lead to the destruction of large portions of the city of Bombay.

In his essay “Imaginary Homelands,” written one year after the publication of Midnight's Children, Rushdie writes that the novel is neither as nihilistic nor as despairing as it was originally perceived; rather, the tension in the text lies in the “paradoxical opposition between form and content” of the narrative, where the multitudinous form is the “optimistic counterweight to Saleem's personal tragedy” (16). The paradox to which he draws attention in Midnight's Children resonates throughout The Moor's Last Sigh. Again, the recent novel is a vehicle for Rushdie to update his observations on such an overly optimistic outlook. The narrative, which “teems” with the “non-stop self regeneration” of a multitudinous structure, is juxtaposed with a damning critique of contemporary Indian politics and urban society (16). In this instance, however, such a juxtaposition does not undermine the nihilistic aspects of the text precisely because the novel parodies the site of multiplicity—magic realism.

In the fourteen years between Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh magic realism has gained currency on the world market and been subject to considerable academic debate. The debate begins with the very configuration of the form itself. Some even see such an appellation as a forced imposition of a Western term on a transcultural mode of writing. While I understand this criticism, it seems that for the purposes of this paper, since Rushdie himself uses the term to describe García Márquez's writing (even while García Márquez is vocally against it) he has not always been averse to either the term or the concept.8 Nonetheless, in his recent novel Rushdie clearly employs magic realism with a large grain of salt (or spice in this case).

The German art critic Franz Roh coined the term “Magischer Realismus” in 1925 to characterize the return, in painting, to Realism after Expressionism's more abstract style. For Roh, such art is not just a simple imitation of the real but a “representation of what the real might be” (17). Initially, when the term was introduced into a Spanish literary context from Roh's visual art context, it applied to the fusion of geography, history, myth, politics, culture, language and the oral traditions of South and Central America. Alejo Carpentier, in his 1949 article entitled “On the Marvelous Real in America,” defined “lo real maravilloso” as a “uniquely American form” (75) which reflected the extraordinary reality of the region; consequently, the study of magic realist literature was, until the late 1970s, often limited to Latin American locations.9 More recently, however, the popular form has become adopted by writers globally.

Because of its Latin American literary origins, magic realism has been sometimes viewed as an exemplary form of writing from the “margins.” To this end, Jeanne Delbaere has labelled it as the “energy of the margins” in her essay of that title. By the same token, for Theo D'haen magic realism is a “strain of postmodernism” written by “ex-centrics” speaking from “a place ‘other’ than ‘the’ or ‘a’ center” (194). Yet, for D'haen the margin is anywhere outside of an undefined “privileged center” (195). Similarly, according to Wendy Faris, magic realism is “clearly designed for the entertainment of the readers” (163) as postmodernism often produced in the “peripheral regions of Western culture” (165). The political, social, and historical specificities of the “periphery” are troublingly vague in such a culturally “blind” definition.

Contradictorily, magic realism has also been perceived as more than a strain of postmodernism located in the “periphery.” It has been embued with the ability to carry resistance in order to “move the center” and “decolonize the mind,” to use Ngûgî's phrases (albeit in other contexts).10 In this formulation magic realism is a suitable form for the inclusion of politicized commentary in what Stephen Slemon has seen as a prominent postcolonial discourse. Rushdie's comments on magic realism from 1982 demonstrate an analogous appreciation of the form. Rushdie's awareness of the form's political function is illustrated in his discussion of García Márquez's magic realism:

It deals with what Naipaul has called “half-made” societies, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are somehow more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called “North,” where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what's really going on. In the works of Márquez, as in the world he describes, impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun. It would be a mistake to think of Márquez's literary universe as an invented self-referential closed system. He is not writing about Middle Earth, but about the one we inhabit. Macondo exists. That is its magic.

(Imaginary 301-02)

In the same way, the India of Midnight's Children contains garish depictions of public corruption and extreme illustrations of private anguishes. In his early novel Rushdie uses the magic realism he attributes to García Márquez to uncover the thick layers that cover the surface of power and wealth in India. While this is also true of The Moor's Last Sigh, Rushdie's self-parody questions the efficacy of magic realism at unmasking corruption, if it is overused or used in so many instances void of such a commentary. Again, he parodies his own early idealism through his later repetition. This novel confronts the possibility that magic realism has become a fetishized form of resistance, emptied of any actual resistance value, even as Rushdie harnesses and then subverts the power of the fetish. The multiplicity that is available in the magic realism of Midnight's Children is no longer expedient in the context of The Moor's Last Sigh.

The question of postcoloniality, often problematically set up as a discourse of the multiplicity of the periphery, has elicited mixed responses from many corners including Rushdie himself. In two articles published in the popular press within a year of The Moor's Last Sigh, he argues for and against the idea of the post-colonial present. His comments in The New Yorker, summer 1996, contradict his comments in Time a year later. The first article, “In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again,” Rushdie's chivalrous nod to Sir Philip Sidney, is a response to the exaggerated rumors of the death of the novel as reported by Professor George Steiner in his address to the British Publishers Association the previous year. According to Rushdie, Steiner claims that “it is almost axiomatic today that the great novels are coming from the far rim, from India, from the Caribbean, from Latin America” (49). Rushdie takes issue with this “very Eurocentric lament” (49) as he maintains, importantly, that

instead of the Death of the Novel might it not be simply that a new novel is emerging—a postcolonial novel, a decentered, transnational, interlingual, cross-cultural novel—and that in this new world order, or disorder, we find a better explanation of the contemporary novel's health.

(50; emphasis added)

Rushdie's version of the postcolonial novel “crosses frontiers of knowledge as well as topographical boundaries” (50). While he does not revert to the geographic determinism, or to use Amaryll Chanady's term the “territorialization of the imaginary,” of Carpentier, his definition of the postcolonial novel is in fact still geographically located. It has expanded the borders of “Rushdieland.” The characteristics he notes as distinctly postcolonial are remarkably similar to his own signature characteristics. His definition of the postcolonial novel precludes fiction produced around the globe that is not “decentered,” not “transnational,” not “interlingual,” and not “cross-cultural.” He not only affiliates himself with other writers of the “far rim” (a term he objects to but uses rhetorically), he defines the fiction of those locations in terms of his own style—a style that has all the characteristics of an amorphous magic realism. He is sagaciously marketing a postcolonial product of which his own novel is the primary example—essentially creating a consumer desire for a coterie of novelists whose fiction is comparable to his own. Rushdie's fiction is postcolonial by his own criteria.

In “India at Five-0,” however, the Time magazine article that both celebrates and laments fifty years of post-Independence India. Rushdie claims that the end of “postcolonial India” has come in an age of overwhelming “disenchantment” (22). So while he argues that the postcolonial novel is alive and well in The New Yorker, he claims that the postcolonial age is over in Time. Victor J. Ramraj makes sense of this disjunction as it is manifested in The Moor's Last Sigh by pointing to Moraes's mother's family, the wealthy spice trading da Gamas (particularly Epiphania, Camoens, and Aires), as representing the last of the anglophilic Macaulay minutemen. Following Rushdie's lead in Time, Ramraj further contends that Moraes's immediate family represents the beginning of the end of postcolonialism. Their deaths signal the destruction of the postcolonial age in India. It seems that while the postcolonial age is essentially finished, for Rushdie it may still be documented in the postcolonial novel form. Or, perhaps this notion too is being parodied in this obvious example of a “decentered” and “transcultural” text reminiscent of Midnight's Children. The first half of the novel takes place prior to the Emergency, as it presents a parallel history to the one depicted in Midnight's Children. This time, however, the focus is on the Jewish, Christian, and other marginal (but not marginalized) populations of India. After these parallel histories have been presented Rushdie can proceed to tell the story of post-postcoloniality. It is as if he is filling in the holes of an under-exposed history by using an overexposed form.

In The Moor's Last Sigh Rushdie expands the conventions of magic realism, where the extraordinary is situated predominantly at the level of incident, to the level of characterization. The multiplicity of characters echoes the multitudinous structure of the novel. This too is another element of his self-parody. The Zogoiby family, a “far-from-ordinary clan,” are the extraordinary, the elite of Bombay society (13). They are described in superlatives: the most talented (Aurora is the most accomplished artist in India's history), the most corrupt (Abraham deals in flesh, drugs, and arms for profit), the fastest growing (Moraes's aging process is twice as fast as normal), the strongest (Moraes's club-fist can knock out the meanest opponent or the most obliging servant), the most manipulative (Uma, Moraes's lover, succeeds at having him disowned by his family), the most beautiful (Ina, Moraes's model sister, is voted the role model of the year, beating Indira Gandhi two to one), the most religious (Minnie, Moraes's Catholic sister, joins an Order of Nuns and is chastised for willingly suffering too much), and the most righteous (Mynah, Moraes's activist sister, is the leading young feminist lawyer in the country). While Moraes does not embrace his extraordinariness, he does accept it: “I had to pay for being exceptional: though, as I have said, I had no desire for exceptionality—I wanted to be Clark Kent, not any kind of Superman” (164). In this mock-epic the protagonist requests his own deflation. Instead of desiring comic strip superhero status, as Adam seems to, he desires an unattainable ordinariness. For some, because of an accident of birth (or the writing of a controversial novel), the ordinary is unfeasible. Rushdie's self-parody is firmly entrenched as he indicates that extraordinariness is not always the site of strength. Such a mockery of difference also adds to Rushdie's underlying critique of the proponents of magic realism who envision the form to be politically imbricated, as he himself did.

As magic realism is the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the extraordinary characters are juxtaposed with everyday Bombay life. There is a popular presence in the shadows of the novel. When she arrives in the city, Aurora sketches the quotidian lives of the “people” of Bombay. She goes among them as the “unblinking lizard on the wall of history, watching, watching” and drawing (131). She is a “social realist” artist:

She returned day after day to her chosen scenes, and in slow steps the magic worked, people stopped noticing her; they forgot that she was the great lady descending from a car as big as a house and even had curtains over its windows, and allowed the truth of their lives to return to their faces.


So even Aurora's extraordinariness, like the exceptionality of all the characters, is over time accepted as ordinary. Yet, this acceptance is only an illusion, quickly dispelled in the murder of each member of the Zogoiby family, except Moraes. Although it is more spectacular in The Moor's Last Sigh, such destruction of extraordinariness has its roots in Midnight's Children, where exceptionality is sterilized out of the children born in the midnight hour. The extraordinariness of Moraes, his accelerated growth, and his club hand, become agents of destruction rather than metaphors of social change in The Moor's Last Sigh. Magic realism can not be viewed as a positive counterpoint to the pessimism in the novel when the extraordinary is so thoroughly destroyed in the text.

In the intervening years between the publications of Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh the political situation in India deteriorated (according to Rushdie, who is explicit is his condemnation of Indian politics) with the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, bombings in Bombay, Muslim-Hindu Riots, and the growth of right-wing religious fundamentalism.11 The recent novel is a strong indictment of such contemporary politics. The “Bombay Central” section, in particular, portrays the dissolution of Bombay, Moraes's family, and to a lesser extent, India. In this section, the level of magic realism is minimal. Perhaps the content is too caustic to risk undermining it with even a subtle self-parody. Parody is eclipsed by Juvenalian satire, when Moraes is rescued from a rat-and-cockroach-infested prison to become a corrupt Hindu-fundamentalist politician's hit-man. James Harrison has argued that, in Midnight's Children, Rushdie's “treatment of Indira Gandhi as the Widow ‘out Swifts’ Swift” (46). I would add that his treatment of Bal Thackeray in The Moor's Last Sigh out-Rushdie's Rushdie.

In “Bombay Central” the narrator's family is annihilated. Moraes's mother tumbles to her death; his father and sister explode, separately; the face of his fiancée, Nadia Wadia, is slashed; Bombay is nearly destroyed in bombings, and Moraes becomes a murderer seeking vengeance for his mother's death. The Moor's Last Sigh is haunted by the many members of Saleem's family (his mother, father, two aunts, grandmother, and cousin) who die in the bombing of Karachi in Midnight's Children. Yet, the magnitude of violence enacted in this section is unparalleled in Midnight's Children. It is also even more of a sardonic commentary on the political situation in India than the description of the Widow's act of mass sterilization during the Emergency in the earlier novel. We are left with the widespread destruction of a whole family and a whole city. Still, the section ends with the disfigured former Miss India, Nadia Wadia, speaking of hope: “The city will survive. New towers will rise. Better days will come. Now I am saying it every day. Nadia Wadia, the future beckons. Hearken to its call” (377). We leave the section, and India, with the idea of regeneration delivered in a tone reminiscent of an early 1990s version of a self-help seminar. Yet this illustration of hope hollowly echoes Saleem's hope at the end of Midnight's Children.

Nadia Wadia's speech provides an ironic counterpoint to the devastation wrought on Bombay. In his review of Brazil, Rushdie criticizes Terry Gilliam's film because it presents a one-sided dystopia. Offering only token (and therefore ineffective) individual resistance is, he argues, a romantic trap, because it is “too easy” and therefore futile. For Rushdie, a dystopia is more effectively presented if there is some kind of dissension among the optimists and the pessimists. Nadia Wadia's speech is just such an act of dissension in its optimism. Yet, in this novel, the self-critical element is always at hand, as Rushdie only half-heartedly presents an alternative to the dystopia. The pattern of destruction and a subsequent tongue-in-cheek regeneration resurfaces in Rushdie's parodic work. We glimpse the apocalypse in Book Three of The Moor's Last Sigh. The “hope-filled” ending of the section, however, only parodically presents a post-apocalyptic landscape as an alternative to the dystopia.

The catastrophic content of The Moor's Last Sigh corresponds to Brian Conniff's apocalyptic vision of magic realism. In his discussion of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Conniff asserts that the overall optimism that usually accompanies magic realism has a darker side: “it can depict events strange enough, and oppressive enough, to make apocalypse appear not only credible but inevitable” (168). While an inevitable narrative disintegration is the result of both Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh, there is a more consistent movement toward a destructive climax in the latest novel. This is first evident with Moraes's accelerated growth and subsequently with the general rate of destruction in the text. Rushdie's emphasis on the paradoxical tension between content and form (between optimism and pessimism) in Midnight's Children indicates that it is unlikely that his use of magic realism is to signal catastrophe. This is sufficiently achieved in the novel's ominous content. The Moor's Last Sigh, however, parodies such a paradox as it reaches and transcends an apocalypse. Magic realism in The Moor's Last Sigh mockingly imitates the role of the multitudinous paradoxical counterpart to the menacing content. It cannot hold such unproblematized counterpoint status because of the inevitability of destruction in the novel.

While the third section of The Moor's Last Sigh details the destruction of Bombay, the fourth, and final, section follows Moraes's personal ruin. The novel concludes with a parodic return to the brief moment of speculative optimism offered by Nadia Wadia. Before such a point can be reached, however, the narrator travels through his own slough of despair. In the replicated Alhambra prison tower of Vasco Miranda, his mother's exlover, we learn that the story of Moraes's life has been told in a Scheherazade-like attempt to remain alive. He is imprisoned and made to write his own history to satisfy his captor and prolong his life. While he tells his story, his fellow inmate, Aoi Uë, is forced painstakingly to dismantle a painting to reveal the image hidden underneath. Such a paradox of construction and deconstruction stands in contrast to Rushdie's own avowed paradox of form and content in Midnight's Children.

It is from his position in the imitation Alhambra in Spain that Moraes looks back and remembers his life in Bombay. It is not surprising that Rushdie has created a migrant narrator in The Moor's Last Sigh who relates his story from outside India (as opposed to Saleem who narrated from within Bombay). A key point of difference between the two novels is the latter's movement to a space beyond the nation. Both prisoners in the tower are migrants. One is in self-exile and one is co-opted into it. Unlike Padma's role as listener in Midnight's Children, Aoi's position in the text, as the narrator's immediate audience and confessional judge, provides another migrant's perspective on the issues Rushdie is criticizing. If Midnight's Children is predicated on the metaphor of the birth of India, as Neil ten Kortenaar has argued (45), then The Moor's Last Sigh is predicated on the combined metaphor of the life-cycle of the nation: its premature growth, its subsequent demise, and its movement into a postnational space. While Saleem is a crumbling figure of national allegory, Moraes is forced into a migrant position beyond the nation. For Rushdie, the migrant is subject to multiple perspectives. He “suspects reality: having experienced several ways of being, he understands their illusory nature. To see things plainly, you have to cross a frontier” (Imaginary 125). The multiplicity, then, that could provide a potential balance to the ominous content of the novel, can be found in the postnational stance of the narrator.

The Moor's Last Sigh, however, is far from being a celebration of postnationalism. The description of the metamorphosis of the town of Benengeli after Vasco Miranda's arrival is scathingly critical: “the once-quiet village which had been the Leader's preferred Southern retreat became a nesting place for itinerant layabouts, expatriate vermin, and all the flotsam-jetsam scum of the earth” (327). Similarly, the portrait of the “Street of Parasites” in Benengeli is captious magic realism in its extraordinary lack of individuality (390). Rushdie uses the “plain” sight of the migrant narrator in order to criticize specific national politics and satirize the universalizing face of globalization in its creation of conformist vermin, scum, and parasites. Magic realism is employed in this critique when ordinariness is hyperbolized to create a sense of the extraordinary in the zombification of the characters on the postnational street. It is clear that such multiplicity is not the solution, nor is it a positive counterpoint to ominous content.

The parasitic village is soon replaced by a harsh but natural landscape of rough grass and dried waterways, as Moraes frees himself from the prison tower and nails his “story to the landscape in [his] wake” (433). The novel closes with Moraes's journey from Vasco's imitation Alhambra to the “real” ruins of a “monument to a lost possibility that has nevertheless gone on standing, long after its conquerors have fallen; like a testament to lost but sweetest love, to the love that endures beyond defeat” (433). In having Moraes fulfill his quest, Rushdie, it could appear, is again falling into the romantically optimistic trap for which he criticized himself in Midnight's Children, as he lyrically and metaphorically points to the possibility of endurance and regeneration beyond destruction. In such a reading a reclaimed faith in “hope” is evident in the final words of the novel, as the narrator lies dying by a tombstone with the “hope to awaken, renewed and joyful, into a better time” (434). As with Nadia Wadia's speech that concludes “Bombay Central,” the future beckons.

And as with Nadia Wadia's speech, the ending can also be read parodically. Rushdie emphasizes the futility of persistent hope in his expansive and hyperbolic catalogue of the glories of the Alhambra that impossibly extend “beyond annihilation” (433). He uses several overblown similes in his description of the endurance of “Europe's red fort.” Such a mock-epic catalogue of regeneration beyond destruction stresses Rushdie's movement away from precisely such a pattern. The catalogue culminates in a devastating parody of hybridity, as the enduring Alhambra represents the need “for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of the boundaries of the self” (433). Such a merging of frontiers might just lead to an international Street of Parasites on a grander scale. Again, in a self-reflexive maneuver, Rushdie parodies both himself and contemporary notions linking subjectivity and hybridity. The novel's parodically optimistic ending, like all the parody in the text, once again points to the inadequacies of the conventions of magic realism that Rushdie had previously identified as the carrier of an optimistic counterpoint to the ominous content in Midnight's Children.

Just as Moraes leads his pursuers “X marks the spottily” to the treasure of himself, Midnight's Children leads to The Moor's Last Sigh in the later novel's overt intertextuality (3). Yet, as Rushdie notes of the “assonances in the Márquez oeuvre,” it is “easy to let the similarities overpower the considerable differences of intent and achievement in his books” (303). A key variation between Rushdie's two novels rests in the critical distance the recent novel achieves from the romantic optimism located in the multitudinous structure of the earlier one. Contemporary magic realism may fail as a balance for ominous content precisely because it is tempered by its predictability. With its increasing popularity, magic realism is paradoxically being drained of the potential for multiplicity and perhaps even resistance. The penetrating difference between examples of Peter Carey's “cheap cliché” kind of magic realism and the form of The Moor's Last Sigh lies in Rushdie's juxtaposition of parody and content critical of topics ranging from Indian politics to censorship.12 In Haroun and the Sea of Stories Rushdie describes the process of storytelling in terms of hungry fish swallowing stories floating through the water, digesting them, and producing new ones from fragments of the old: “no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old—it is the new combinations that make them new” (86). It seems that in The Moor's Last Sigh, Rushdie has consumed his own work, regurgitated it, and created a new story from fragments of the old. However, the crisis in Haroun and the Sea of Stories lies in the fact that the Ocean has been polluted by the “filth” of overly diluted stories (75). Perhaps Rushdie uses parody in The Moor's Last Sigh to highlight just such a crisis in his own contemporary Stream of Stories and to rescue his own Ocean in Rushdieland before the environment is so polluted that no fresh stories can be told.


  1. Wendy Faris credits Midnight's Children to be “the novel that exemplifies the mode of magical realism best” (164).

  2. Rushdie has one of his characters, Vasco Miranda, advise Aurora Zogoiby: “Forget those damnfool realists! The real is always hidden—isn't it?—inside a miraculously burning bush! Life is fantastic! Paint that—you owe that to your fantastic, unreal son” (Moor's 174).

  3. Linda Hutcheon argues that “parody develops out of the realization of the literary inadequacies of a certain convention” (Narcissistic 50). Hutcheon's theories of parody developed in A Theory of Parody are most relevant to my argument.

  4. The links between the two texts are more pertinent than is implied by the notion of “intratextuality”—or an echoing of an author within his own work. Strictly speaking, the links between the works of a single author are not often considered intertextual but in this case it is more illuminating to grapple with the possible motivation for overt self-referentiality than with cross-writer referentiality.

  5. The role of the “political” in relation to the narrator is often brought into contestation by critics who compare the novels. For example, Cundy writes: “The political is still in evidence in The Moor's Last Sigh, but the Moor himself is not handcuffed to history in the way Saleem was” (116).

  6. In Midnight's Children. Saleem laments: “Why, alone of all the more-than-five hundred-million, should I have to bear the burden of history?” (382). Saleem's life is set up, from the auspicious moment of his birth, to parallel the country's growth and development. See ten Kortenaar's “Midnight's Children” for a full discussion of Saleem's allegorical role in the novel.

  7. This point is also made by James Harrison in Salman Rushdie: “for Saleem to remove himself from the scene leaves the stage clear for Aadam Sinai to resume the story—and India perhaps to resume the history—that should have taken place” (47). Harrison's reading of Aadam at this point seems particularly optimistic.

  8. See Cundy's discussion of the debate in the “Critical Overview” chapter of Salman Rushdie for comprehensive coverage of the pros and cons of using the term in this context.

  9. Geoff Hancock's 1980 anthology of magic realism in Canada, simply titled Magic Realism, exemplifies the explosion of interest in the form in locations outside of Latin America.

  10. See Ngûgî's collections of essays Moving the Centre and Decolonising the Mind.

  11. Thoughout Imaginary Homelands, for example in “The Assassination of Indira Gandhi,” Rushdie comments on the deterioration of Indian politics.

  12. The Moor's Last Sigh is riddled with comments about the need for artists to have freedom from censorship. See the saga of Aurora's painting. The Kissing of Abbas Ali Baig, as an example (234). The novel also unambiguously refers to Martin Luther's nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg and to Luther's “Here I Stand” speech at the second hearing at Worms when asked whether he defended his books or repudiated their “errors.” Echoing Luther, Moraes states “Here I stand, I couldn't have done it differently” (3). It is clear that Moraes's refusal to repudiate his earlier writing has its parallel in the stands taken by Luther and by Rushdie himself in reference to his reaction to the fatwa placed on him because of The Satanic Verses.

Works Cited

Apulevo Mendoza, Plino, and Gabriel García Márquez. The Frangrance of Guava. Trans. Ann Wright, London: Verso, 1983. 25-59.

Ball, John. “Acid in the Nation's Bloodstream: Satire, Violence, and the Body in The Moor's Last Sigh.” Canadian Association for Commonwealth Language and Literature Studies Conference, Brock University, St. Catherines, Canada, May 1996.

Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. New York: St. Martin Press, 1989.

Carpentier Alejo. “On the Marvellous Real in America.” Zamora and Faris 75-88.

Chanady, Amaryll. “The Territorialization of the Imaginary in Latin America: Self-Affirmation and Resistance to Metropolitan Paradigms.” Zamora and Faris 125-44.

Conniff, Brain. “The Dark Side of Magic Realism.” Modern Fiction Studies 36 (1990): 167-79.

Cundy, Catherine. Salman Rushdie. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1996.

Delbaere, Jeanne. “Magic Realism: The Energy of the Margins.” Postmodern Fiction in Canada. Ed. Theo D'haen and Hans Bertens. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992. 75-104.

D'haen, Theo. “Magical Realism and Postmodernism: Decentering Privileged Centres.” Zamora and Faris 191-208.

Faris, Wendy. “Scheherazade's Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction.” Zamora and Faris 163-91.

Geoff Hancock, Magic Realism. Toronto: Aya Press, 1980.

Harrison, James. Salman Rushdie. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Hutcheon, Linda. Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. New York: Methuen, 1980.

———. A Theory of Parody. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Merivale, Patricia. “Saleem Fathered By Oskar: Intertextual Strategies in Midnight's Children and The Tin Drum.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 21.3 (1990): 5-21.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1986.

———. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Fredom. London: James Currey, 1993.

Ramraj, Victor J. “Moor's Last Sigh: The Beginning of the End of Postcolonialism.” “Competing Realities: Fifty Years of South Asian Writing” Conference, University of Toronto, September, 1997.

Roh, Franz. Nach-Expressionismus, Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten Europäischen Malerei (Post-Expressionism, Magic Realism: Problems of Recent European Art). Leipzig: Klinkhardt and Biermann, 1925.

———. “Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism.” Zamora and Faris 15-32.

Rushdie, Salman. “Gabriel García Márquez.” Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta, 1991. 299-307.

———. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. London: Granta Books, 1990.

———. “Imaginary Homelands.” Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta, 1991. 9-21.

———. “In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again.” The New Yorker June 24, 1996: 48-50, 52, 55.

———. “India at Five-0.” Time Aug. 11, 1997: 22-24.

———. “The Location of BrazilImaginary Homelands. London: Granta, 1991. 118-25.

———. Midnight's Children. 1981. London: Picador, 1982.

———. The Moor's Last Sigh. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.

Slemon, Stephen. “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse.” Canadian Literature 116 (1988): 9-24.

ten Kortenaar, Neil “‘Midnight's Children’ and the Allegory of History.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 26.2 (1995): 41-61.

Woodcock, Bruce. Peter Carey. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1996.

Zamora, Lois Parkinson, and Wendy B. Faris. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham: Duke UP. 1995.

Mary Kinzie (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Succeeding Borges, Escaping Kafka: On the Fiction of Steven Millhauser,” in Salmagundi, No. 92, Fall, 1991, pp. 115-44.

[In the following essay, Kinzie comments on elements of both magic realism and horror in the works of Steven Millhauser.]

“Sinbad shifts in his seat.” So reads a sentence from a remarkable new story by Steven Millhauser, “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad.”1 The diction, demeanor, indeed the whole rhetorical and genre “set” of that sentence is peculiar. Sinbad, the quasi-mythic hero of the Thousand and One Nights, the object (as Millhauser points out) of Scheherazade's meticulous suspensions of plot over the abyss of her death-sentence, and finally a meandering and befuddled narrator (of particular interest to our author) who can remember each voyage in greater detail than any text has ever suggested but who can no longer recall the order in which his voyages occurred—this classic wanderer, erotic experimenter, and sublime storytelling projection is brought down to a cliché of localized realism as he shifts in his seat.

The remark is a clue to the mode of parody in which Millhauser excels—the spoof of contemporary realistic narration in fiction. He incorporates into his metafictional sublime parodic imitations of what has come to be called fictional minimalism. Millhauser does not entirely believe in the perceptual fluctuations that mark minimalism. By this I mean that he does not believe that reality inheres in the portrayal of ordinary worlds by way of a sedulous attention to the rough and unfocused recordings of sense data on the part of moderately sensitive late adolescents. The obsession with adolescence is there in his work, but thinned out and metaphysicalized. Neither does he believe that reality is to be found in a maximal crowding of the fictional scene with numbers of rounded characters. Nor is this author able to relinquish himself to large and subtle movements of plot, as we might find a novelist like Iris Murdoch doing. As a novelist, in fact, Millhauser seems very much the story-writer translated into an ampler vocabulary, instead of one transformed by taking up a different dialect.

No, Millhauser does not recoil from minimalism in the direction of maximalism. Instead, as I see it, he cleverly applies the smaller-scale techniques of fictional realism to a largely notional as opposed to a realistic landscape. His worlds are accumulations of “options,” chances, whimsical possibilities. They are not quite magical in the García Márquezian sense—again, because most of the characters who move about in them are not only flat and unfocused, but also utterly ordinary in their backgrounds and their hopes (showing the typical profiles, in fact, of the characters in the minimalist mode). There is always a rind of banality cushioning the characters from what threatens to become their destiny. Like the stereotyped figure of the hardened traveller in the stories of the nineteenth century, whom writers like Henry James used so comfortably and cannily, Millhauser's narrator-protagonists frequently stand apart from the worlds they witness.2 Their consciousnesses repel self-knowledge like highly burnished shields. There is in these figures a want of psychological relatedness, indeed a want of psychological being, that might otherwise make them attractive to us as mimetic objects of human fate.

And yet Millhauser's work is perfectly riveting. Indeed, I should say that he is original and inspired in his response to the classic materials of story-telling. So in saying that the work or its heroes want psychological being, I am diagnosing, and attempting to account for, the mysterious interest of the states of withdrawnness Millhauser paints. He blurs both the characters' focus and the focusability of the outer landscapes and events. And in these new stories Millhauser has accomplished a remarkable compression of the realistic with the fantastic, creating in effect his own subtle, clever, funny, breathtaking, and delightful mode of magical realism.

Jorge Luis Borges believed that “the basic devices of all fantastic literature are only four in number, the work within the work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time, and the double.”3 The double has clearly fascinated Millhauser; he has explored the abysses of hero-worship and aversion among early adolescents drawn to one another and to an ethos of dread in his novels Edwin Mullhouse and Portrait of a Romantic.4 A variant of the double is the idea of the golem, familiar, Frankenstein, or Pygmalion-creature. Borges, who wrote of such a creation in “The Circular Ruins,” is clearly the model for Millhauser in “The Invention of Robert Herendeen” in the present volume. Between these two fictions, the stylistic resemblances are as striking as the thematic ones:

He comprehended that the effort to mold the incoherent and vertiginous matter dreams are made of was the most arduous task a man could undertake, though he might penetrate all the enigmas of the upper and lower orders: much more arduous than weaving a rope of sand or coining the faceless wind.

(“The Circular Ruins,” Labyrinths)

… my image-making faculty, far from being impaired, was almost disturbingly strong and resulted in vivid, detailed, elaborate eidola, which longed for release.

(“The Invention of Robert Herendeen,” The Barnum Museum)

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality. This magical project had exhausted the entire content of his soul. …


I decided to invent a human being by means of the full and rigorous application of my powers of imagination … I would mentally mold a being whose existence would be sustained by the detail and energy of my relentless dreaming.

(The Barnum Museum)

On the fourteenth night he touched the pulmonary artery with his finger, and then the whole heart, inside and out … then he … set about to envision another of the principal organs. Within a year he reached the skeleton, the eyelids. The innumerable hair was perhaps the most difficult task. He dreamt a complete man, a youth, but this youth could not speak. … Night after night, the man dreamt him as asleep.


I spent two nights and two days imagining her hands, summoning them out of vagueness into the precision of being. On the third night I realized that I had still failed to envision the exact pattern of veins on the back of each hand, the movements of the skin between the fingers, the intricate configuration of creases on each reddish knuckle. It seemed to me that only by an act of fanatical precision could I knit her into existence, rescue her from the continual tug of vagueness.

(The Barnum Museum)

In each case in the paired sets of excerpts above, the writers see the double in terms of enormity, exaggeration, and monstrosity. The rhetorical gravity of the narratives reflects the burden of the theme (as shown in such preoccupied phrasings as “fanatical precision,” “intricate configuration,” “elaborate eidola,” “relentless dreaming”—all, as it happens, composed by Millhauser, but with a distinctively Borgesian tang). In each text we discover the reductio of imagining each small cell and organ and feature, a reduction that simultaneously leads to chaos. At its extreme, this making of a new system of existence is a form of both intellectual parody and heresy. For this reason, images and constructs of infinite regress are favored by the Borgesian imagination, almost as a means of avoiding and indulging in the heretical at one and the same time. In works such as Borges's “A New Refutation of Time,” for example, one is not surprised to find mental conundrums like the tortoise and the hare wittily forced into a reading of psychological time (one might even call it “lyrical time”), whereby an infinite number of infinitesimal partitions are to be placed not only upon physical extension but even upon sensuous and affective experience. These partitions are analogous to such tasks as numbering or even (God help us) naming the granules of sand on earth or the strands of hair on the head of one's capricious but, as yet, inert invention, the golem.

Where Millhauser departs from Borges is in his view of heresy. For Robert Herendeen, it is without doubt a much more cerebral and less sacred matter than for the Borges narrator in “The Circular Ruins” to insert a new creation into the contingent world. As if to flaunt his own agnosticism, Herendeen no sooner completes his female creature than he makes a male counterpart for her who becomes his rival for her affections. (This doubling-of-the-double is one of Millhauser's most pervasive imaginative habits.) Where for Borges the double by itself is enough to upset the balance of unity, Millhauser's characters are often perfectly content to keep on repeating, or slightly improving on, a previous “turn.”

When we extrapolate the golem idea as a variant of the double, we see how Borges arrives at his next category, “the contamination of reality by dream.” As Borges puts it in “Partial Magic in the Quixote,” “Every novel is an ideal plane inserted into … reality” (Labyrinths). The same could be said of an invented creature: Like a work, or like a thought, such a creature is a dream inserted into reality. But a dream whose realization sparks a cancerous and corrupting growth. In vertiginous fashion (as Borges might say), the lineage of the double, passing through the golem, also touches the attraction felt by both these writers for literary tampering.

Creating a new understanding of an existing work is understood by both Borges and Millhauser to be an act of magic. Literary critics, who nowadays strive to rival if not abolish the texts that have come down to us, also aspire to magic. But their spells are tame compared to the reverberations of pleased astonishment—and something not unlike a holy fear—which a true cosmopolite of the imagination can produce as s/he inserts an aberration into a received reality. Borges's fictional creation Pierre Menard, a symboliste poet from Nîmes and a contemporary of Paul Valéry (1871-1945), wishes to compose Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote. He does not aim to copy it, nor does he intend to make himself into some twin of Cervantes's sensibility. Instead, he undertakes to remain a twentieth-century poet who, from an utterly alien standpoint, having forgotten and then poorly remembering the text from a few readings in youth, in time manages to reproduce “word for word and line for line” a few pages of the Quixote. The act is one of “deliberate anachronism,” radiant with implausibility and “erroneous attribution.” Not for a moment can the reader repress the sensation of artifice. In the little of Pierre Menard's text that survives, writes Borges, “Cervantes' text and Menard's are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer” (Labyrinths).

Menard … has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading; this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution. This technique … prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were anterior to the Aeneid. … This technique fills the most placid words with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Celine or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?


Beyond Millhauser's almost incestuous homage to his literary forebear in “The Invention of Robert Herendeen,” the example of Borges's witty and recondite Menard has provoked Millhauser in two of the stories here to delightful tamperings—with A Thousand and One Nights and Through the Looking-Glass. The latter is tampered with in “Alice, Falling,” which presents an interior monologue by Alice as she descends without haste through the White Rabbit's tunnel. It is really the rabbit's home, and on the walls are numerous domestic objects. Using the catalogue technique that occurs under different disguises everywhere in his work, Millhauser (as Alice) lists, speculates about, adjusts, and builds an additional world around the deft accumulations of curios. With plausible period knowledge, Millhauser decorates the White Rabbit's tunnel with a perfect flotsam of Victoriana. The rows of books (including Twenty-Five Village Sermons,Bewick's Birds,The Life and Works of Edwin Landseer,Pope's Homer, and Pilgrim's Progress), remind us of the opus of Pierre Menard (most are apocryphal productions)—not to mention the chronic bookish references, many authentic, that anchor Borges's miniature ficciones. And Millhauser's recurrent and perhaps obsessive style of listing also reminds us of the peculiarly double premise of such assemblages of items: That they form a secret order, that they are thereby exhaustive, and that the world of disordered reality is made clearer by their means.

Another idea, with a darker shading, lurks behind the lists devised by Borges and Millhauser, and that is the apprehension that the lists are idiosyncratic and inexhaustible, like the profusion of another Borges character Funes's memories, like the innumerable hair on the head of the sleeper being “dreamed” into life by the magician in “The Circular Ruins,” or like the redundancy that begins on the six-hundred-and-second night of the Thousand and One Nights, when Scheherazade begins telling the story of her story-telling over from the beginning. (It suffices merely to mention, I expect, how the work-within-the-work and the voyage in time have by now been implicated by the overlapping interests of the two authors.) A horror vacui opens at the idea of the random and eternal reduplication of stories, or of things. And if, in Millhauser's preoccupation with the catalogue, we encounter a more indulgent and welcoming attitude toward the vacuum of repetition, it may have something to do with the younger writer's greater openness to the arena from which Borges so cleverly barred himself, that of realistic narrative. More narrowly considered, Steven Millhauser's preference may tend to the techniques of particulate realism, those of description and setting, which in fiction other than his own are ordinarily marshalled before the action starts: In Millhauser, the real movement of literary originality begins with this preliminary threshold held in a hypnagogic state of abeyance.


So while Millhauser's people are frequently of limited American extraction, they invariably encounter something not entirely “right” about the fit of the world to their experience. There is undoubtedly something wrong about the worlds they encounter, something indefinite, unfinished, yet full of cloudy purpose. There is a certain seductiveness in the lists of the heterogeneous dreck in dime stores and drugstores in Millhauser's novels, and in the ragtag stuff in attics and drawers (Millhauser is positively elegiac about worn and incomplete games of Clue,Monopoly, and Parcheesi, about broken tools and objects of inscrutable origin, and about shabby inserts for old Viewmasters). The touching, the irksome, the obscure, and the formulaic combine in Millhauser's obsession with the ingeniously contrived mechanical toys and dolls in the home of a fourteen-year-old named Eleanor in his 1977 novel Portrait of a Romantic. These curious playthings appear to have been made for Eleanor, or at least lavished upon the child, by adults who have receded from view. One little toy in particular is singled out by Eleanor to exhibit something to the protagonist Arthur Grumm about herself, about himself, or about their intense yet uncertain link to each other. It is a figure of a clown with a white face and blue garments, and preternaturally trembling eyelids. (Here I would beg the reader's indulgence to quote at sufficient length to reproduce something of the mildly monotonous yet undeniably suspenseful precision of Millhauser's descriptive technique.)

Eleanor placed the man carefully in the center of the table. He stood with his legs spread slightly, facing me. His elbows were pressed to his sides, his forearms were extended, and his white, cupped hands were held out palm upwards. The small black eyes gave his white face an expression of intensity that seemed at odds with his clownlike appearance. A white lever one-half inch long protruded from his back. Leaning forward, Eleanor placed in his right hand the red glass ball. Then in his left hand she placed the yellow glass ball. Then reaching around to his back she pushed the lever down. A faint whirring was audible. His head turned to its left, and with a movement of his lids he looked directly at his left hand. Then his head turned to the right, and with a movement of his lids he looked directly at his right hand. There was a pause, as if he were thinking. With a sudden motion he jerked up his right hand, tossing into the air the red glass ball. At once he jerked his left hand to the right, leaving in his right palm the yellow glass ball. He tossed the yellow glass ball into the air and jerked back his left hand to receive the falling red glass ball … and in this manner he kept one ball always in the air.

(Portrait of a Romantic)

What most fascinates the boy Arthur is the movement of the juggler's head and eyes:

With close attention he followed the motion of each ball from the moment it fell into his left hand to the moment it rose from his upward-jerking right, and glancing at the uptossed ball he at once looked back at the hand about to receive the falling ball—all in a startlingly lifelike manner, enhanced by the movements of the lids and the intense look of the jetblack eyes; but a lifelike manner which, far from obscuring the mechanical elements, served only to emphasize them, as if the very effort to overcome the artificial drew attention to the glassiness of the eyes, the jerking motions of the arms, the white wood of the cheeks; so that it was difficult to say whether the pleasure of the observer lay more in the lifelike illusion of the performance or in the perception of the deceiving artifice itself.

(Ibid, my emphasis)

As Eleanor adds the blue and finally the green glass balls to the blue juggler's burden, the toy figure exhibits greater strain until eventually the red glass ball strikes the edge of his hand and falls, throwing off the trajectories of the other marbles, while the juggler continues to jerk his hands and head as if the balls were still in play.

As a metaphor for Millhauser's pyrotechnics, it is hard to know which makes the greater impression on us, the heavy documentary air of the recitation, the statement about the pleasure of lifelikeness versus the pleasure taken in artificiality, or the image of the so intensely described blue figure jaggedly juggling thin air. That we can discriminate these effects (and affects) as we read suggests that we are enjoying all of them in interdependent measure: We are aware of the artifice despite the closely rendered “pointillism” of the style, and, at the same time, aware of the justice of the little juggler as a metaphor for something in our own failed play and yearning for symmetry. At moments such as these, Millhauser approaches not only Borges but Samuel Beckett in the purity, the grimness, and the tenacious extrusion of his prose.

But although Millhauser frequently suspends the reader over expanses of Beckett-like lucidity and grit, his fiction is also moved by murkier impulses. These often have a petit-bourgeois flavor. For example, although Arthur Grumm in Portrait of a Romantic is mesmerized by and even fixated upon these curious toys, he never reaches any conclusions about them, or about Eleanor's fey character, or about her apparently wealthy and indulgent origins—or even about the illnesses that have apparently kept her dreamily at death's door for months. None of the hero Arthur's chums have visible or even imaginable parents. When they appear, they are frozen in tableaux vivants of an almost mannered nostalgia, stiffened by entrancement, and have little interest in rousing themselves. Indeed, these are the sorts of gothic hiatus also favored by writers like Edgar Allan Poe. Yet Millhauser has also clung to the mid-century suburban American settings and persons, as well as to the undramatic props and locales we associate with suburban childhood—school, family outings, involvement with alter egos, first love, suicidal inklings, and a crushing, subtle, uniform, and often comic ennui. In relation to the novel, of course, the absence of the sort of realistic matrix that distinguishes characters and enlivens plot weakens the comic edge of this boredom: Millhauser's iterative palette of tensely dramatic yet redundant acts, places, tastes, and fears can fray, at times—without accumulating any social or visionary contours to replace them. His clear fictive attraction to the saturated longueurs of E. A. Poe (of which the most hypnotic example is perhaps Poe's monotonous panoramic idyll, “The Domain of Arnheim”) is always derailed by Millhauser's impulse to parody the ennui without curtailing the techniques that produce it.

In short, when reading Millhauser we do not suspend our disbelief. We are not caught in a seamless web. We observe the seams that bind his inventions together. But unlike the experience of reading Borges, Poe, or Beckett, in Millhauser's world we can still make out, through the stitching, the vast stretches of novelistic and prosaic redundancy for which he has such a fondness. This fondness serves him best, I think, in cases where the characters remain essentially ordinary but the world becomes obtrusively, tantalizingly bizarre. In his new book of stories, The Barnum Museum, he brilliantly plays with a radical want of fit between the characters and the odd worlds beyond, as in the stories about Lewis Carroll's Alice, the increasingly sinister images on the sepia postcard and, most brilliantly, in the stories of the mysterious Barnum Museum and of Sinbad.

As I mentioned in my first sentence, Millhauser's Sinbad is launching forth on his eighth voyage, namely one about which no texts exist. He is an old man, drowsing in his beautifully appointed garden, erratically moving his mind over the bits and pieces of his life. The eighth journey is an imaginative one, or one at which Sinbad's imagination persistently falters. As previously noted, he can no longer remember the exact order of the adventures. Not only that, he is episodically uncertain about their number. Perhaps there are some he cannot remember? Perhaps his telling about them to his friends introduces falsehoods, so that there are at least two sets of voyages—those he experienced, and those recited? Or, given the propensity of language to falsify recollection, Sinbad wonders about a further sequence: “Are there perhaps three septads: the seven voyages, the memory of the seven voyages, and the telling of the seven voyages?” He conjectures about himself as well: What if he has merely dreamed the voyages? And if he has, did he do so long ago, or has he “imagined them in his old age and placed them back, far back, in a youth barely remembered?” If the voyages are daydreams, must the reality then be his own uneasy exhaustion in this furiously precise garden with its sundial of white marble sunk in a hexagon of red sand? Under this delusion, “The voyages are rings of red light dancing. There are no voyages, only the worm-thick veins on the back of his hand. Only the heavy body, the laboring heart, the blossoms rotting under the sun.” Age confuses Sinbad's reading of his perceptually immediate sensations, as implicit anxiety about death exaggerates the beating of his heart, the working of his veins, the dizziness in his head under a punishing sun, and the frightful and nauseating whiffs of decaying matter. Clearly, such passages also illustrate how imperious the senses can become when the mind wanders off course.

Occasionally, the senses convene—or coagulate—about the impressions of Sinbad's garden, shifting and changing his view. At one moment it is a hellish and oppressive place, where the body can no longer escape from itself; in this guise, Sinbad's garden in Baghdad is a place of rot and cacophony and sameness. But when it is the voyages which appear to him composed of “banal and boring images,” then Sinbad is easily enraptured by the local paradise about him:

The voyages and adventures … cannot compare with the cry of the blackbird, the sunstruck dome of the mosque, the creak of rigging in the harbor ships, the miraculous structure of a pomegranate or a camel, the shouts of the sellers of dried fruits, the beating out of copper basins in the market of the coppersmiths, the trembling blue shadow cast by falling water on a marble fountain's rim, [in short] the immense collection of precise details that compose the city of Baghdad at this moment.

One sees how local geography comes to represent the physical realm, voyages the mental. For “Baghdad” one might programmatically understand “the body.” When Baghdad is a place of respite, creaturely self-absorption, and thrilling clarity in the present moment, the adventures appear remote, cerebral, and grotesque. When Baghdad is repetitious and overly familiar, “the hellish place of all that is known, the place of boredom and despair,” then his adventures seem to Sinbad utterly clear and real, and we raise no demurral at the idea that he might long to escape the body by setting out on an eighth voyage.

The Baghdad garden becomes dreamlike in other ways. In one “panel” of the story, which Millhauser has divided into page-long vignettes and excursions into various voices, Sinbad sees himself reclining in the garden of the present with the marble sundial casting its rippling shadow on the hexagon of red sand. And Sinbad calls out to his other self, “but he stirred not.” And then he recoils in terror, enters his boat, and encounters one of the frog-folk who tells him, “Unhappiest of mortals, that is a demoncity.” Here Sinbad, in his aged present time, a time which post-dates the last voyage, daydreams that he imagines himself in his garden in the present, only to have the frame of the earlier voyages slipped and fitted around the moment: He had only dreamed he was back in his garden imagining himself on an earlier adventure. Or one can conjecture that Sinbad is sucked back into the text of the voyages by recounting (or by having Scheherazade—or Steven Millhauser—recount for him) a more exact and seductive description of what we are given as, and in, the present time of the final return to Baghdad.

In another panel of Millhauser's Sinbad story, the protagonist is adrowse in the garden murmuring with insects and dense with half-rotten blossoms; the garden (we know from other descriptions in other panels) contains a shrilling blackbird. Suddenly but not surprisingly a great bird, the shadow-image of that enormous roc who appears in two of the Sinbad tales, “settles on the sundial and folds its dark blue wings … he steps over to touch its shimmering, warm side. The bird … sweep[s] Sinbad onto its back, and at once rises into the air. Sinbad clutches the thick oily feathers as the bird flies over the city” (my emphasis). This infernal noontide apparition persuades Sinbad of its reality by virtue of those uncannily lifelike details—not unlike the trembling eyelids and intensely black pupils of the white-faced juggling toy in Portrait of a Romantic—which here in Millhauser's version guarantee Sinbad's as yet untold realities:

sometimes he remembers what he has never spoken of: the stepping from sun to shadow and shadow to sun as he circled the white dome of the roc's egg, the grass, crushed by his footsteps, rising slowly behind him, the sudden trickle of perspiration on his cheek, the itching of his left palm scraped on a branch of the tree he had climbed shortly before, his head among the leaves, and there, beyond the great white thing in the distance, a greenish-yellow hill shaped like a slightly crushed turban, a slash of yellow shore, the indigo sea.

But Millhauser's Sinbad (or his Scheherazade) is also capable of supposing that such realistic data can support the opposing view just as well, hence that the Baghdad Sinbad is merely an amazement intruded into the real world of a further individual, another Sinbad, one who recites his story “while beyond the open doorway rocs glide in the blue sky, serpents the size of palm trees glisten in the sun.”

Not a small part of Millhauser's skill is revealed in the overlap between two narrative “schedules.” According to one schedule, an alteration of styles or voices performs a constant refreshment of the prose rhythm—and of the putative reality behind it. The styles of “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad” are (1) the nineteenth-century translators' heavy-handed locutions, which Millhauser has considerably streamlined, but which he thickens on occasion for purposes of parody and surprise; occasionally, this style is one of pathos, e.g., “I could have cried out for weariness and heart-sorrow”; (2) the second style is that of a Borgesian pedant fussing over variants and interpolations; here, too, Millhauser's intelligence and scholarship provide original “twists,” as when he compares the opinions of the mythographers, examines the various illustrations and frontispieces for the tales, or suggests how the story of Sinbad and things Arabian figure in Joyce's Ulysses; (3) and the third style is that capacious style of the present Sinbad describing to us the facts the other stylists are blind to, namely how it feels to exist in his body, and in his memory, and how he is wont to be somewhat confused among the two.

But according to a second “schedule,” each of these three styles is intensified to saturation or absurdity, in a narrative mode that takes each style to something like its own logical end. The third style, for example, the Style of Presence, traces a consciousness in which rot, decay, and sensory oppression increase as the story progresses. In its turn, the first or nineteenth-century style of decorous and orotund narrative flourish is so cleverly and “sincerely” parodied that, as Millhauser takes up episodes of considerable sweep in the climactic last panels, the stylistic artificiality is far less evident. Similarly, in compounding (or is it reducing to its elements?) the second or pedantic style, Millhauser hits upon the story's most brilliant maneuver. He causes the ambiguities of his own complex Sinbad-narrative to intersect with the shimmering certainties of an American boy's discovery of the Arabian tales. First we hear the slightly nasal drone of the Borgesian lecturer pronouncing a magical verdict, “Every reading of a text is limited and contingent … [thus there are] as many voyages as there are readings.” But then Millhauser writes:

From an infinite number of possible readings, let us imagine one. It is a hot summer afternoon in southern Connecticut. Under the tall pines on the bank of the Housatonic, the shady picnic tables look down at the brown-green water. Bright white barrels mark the swimming area. … The boy is lying on his stomach on a blanket next to [his grandmother], not too close, reading a book. … His mother is laying out the paper plates, opening the box of red, yellow, and blue paper cups, taking out the salt and mustard and relish and potato salad and cucumber slices and carrot sticks. His sister is trying to find a way to make her doll sit at the picnic table without falling over. She is trying to lean the doll against the thermos of pink lemonade. Suddenly he discovers great serpents in the valley, serpents the size of palm trees. … the sun burns down on the backs of his legs, the serpents hiss outside the cave, a pinecone the size of a valley diamond lies on the blanket beside his mother's straw beach bag and her white rubber bathing cap. … He would like this moment to last forever.

(my emphasis)

This moment “when the two worlds are held in harmony”—when the impeccably unpoetic diet and decor of an American family picnic find a kind of happy-humble niche—is one of the most breathtaking in Millhauser's surprising oeuvre. Unlike the satirist, who exploits a deliberate oscillation between high-tone and low, however, Millhauser is attempting to bring the odd extremes of his experience together in an utterly underivative way, despite the multiple literary confluences.

Let us accordingly examine another area of Millhauser's knowledge, the enormous world of American childhood pastimes (pre-television). Although many of the stories he has written are set in Europe, and one in the Middle East, the sensibility at the center of almost every work of Millhauser's resembles the archetypal American personality discussed above. It is un-historied, and oddly unsocialized. Indeed, all of the protagonists are essentially left on their own among their toys. “The Barnum Museum” is an elegy for this replete but self-generated and surreal environment in which the elaborate devices to suspend time suggest how heavy time must have hung on the writer's own hands during his remembered youth.

“The Barnum Museum” is about the unimaginative individual's craving for transport from the ordinary. The story posits at its center a roster of characters of bland demeanor with standardized, if ineffable, longings. As in “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad,” the commonplace is a given against which the ingenious, shifting exaggerations run their course. Describing one attraction in the Museum called “the Invisibles,” Millhauser hints at a psychological predisposition in the adults to “yearning, monotony, and bliss”—a triad whose peculiar sequence, with “monotony” protected at its core, provides an important clue to its author's secret method:

It is in the glade that the Invisibles make themselves known. They brush lightly against our arms, bend down the grass blades as they pass, breathe against our cheeks and eyelids, step lightly on our feet. The children shriek in joyful fear, wives cling to their husbands' arms, fathers look about with uncertain smiles. Now and then it happens that a visitor bursts into sobs. …

These clinging wives and diffident fathers are the stereotypes of midcentury American suburbia, for whom monotony will always be at once the stimulus for yearning, and its object. Just as the adults continually surprise in themselves an impulse toward a surrender that is regulated and therapeutic, the strong perimeters of daily law are ever about to dissolve into ghostly aberrations with the banal at their core. So if, by accident, everyone in the town showed up at the Barnum Museum at once (though of course Millhauser, using that faintly overdecorous diction of the formal narrator, describes a situation when “our entire citizenry, by a series of overlapping impulses, will find themselves within these halls”), the city beyond would begin erasing itself, sinking back into a two-dimensional image, rather like that of a film from the postwar period:

For a moment the city will be deserted. … Outside, the streets and buildings will grow vague; street corners will begin to dissolve; unobserved, a garbage-can cover, blown by the wind, will roll silently toward the edge of the world.

The elegiac affection for the fleeting, which Millhauser expresses so eloquently in this passage, forms the counterweight to the reductive and banal in his characterizations. Secretly acknowledging this dichotomy, the author speculates about the contradictory charm of the “mechanical”:

One school of thought maintains that the wonders of the Barnum Museum deliberately invite mechanical explanations that appear satisfactory without quite satisfying, thereby increasing our curiosity and wonder. … Many of us who visit the Hall of Mermaids with a desire to glimpse naked breasts soon find our attention straying to the lower halves, gleaming mysteriously for a moment before vanishing into the black pool.

A quieter variation on the theme of displaced attention produces the rumor that the Museum changes its corridors, the shape of its rooms, not to mention its exhibits—in short, its very terms and architecture—while visitors are wandering about in it:

It is said that if you enter the Barnum Museum by a particular doorway at noon and manage to find your way back by three, the doorway through which you entered will no longer lead to the street, but to a new room, whose doors give glimpses of further rooms and doorways.

Although, when viewed from beyond, the Barnum Museum may occupy the same geographical space as before, within it is subject to variation, vitiation, abridgment.5

The obverse of the law of the mechanical explanation, which satisfies, yet without quite allaying some deeper hunger, is the inevitable exhaustion of wonder, what Steven Millhauser calls “the oppression of astonishment.” “The Barnum Museum” is more replete with fantasy and counter-argument than are Borges stories such as “The Library of Babel” and “The Lottery in Babylon.” But even as one delights in the shiny red boxes that disappear in direct sunlight, the wooden balls from the Black Forest that never come to a stop, the exotic rider on the flying carpet who remains aloft for whole days, “pausing only on the ledges of the upper windows … high up in the great spaces of the hall,” so one is also capable of being wearied by the vertigo of surprise. Millhauser accordingly punctuates his invention with cautions designed, I believe, to forestall boredom by reinterpreting it. Even at these times, the Barnum Museum “bind[s] us to it in yet another way,” by demanding our endurance; he insists on the periodic need to

abandon oneself to desolation. Gaze in despair at the dubious halls, the shabby illusions, the fatuous faces; drink down disillusion; for the museum, in its patience, will survive our heresies, which only bind us to it in another way.

This binding is existential and nostalgic, not casuistical and guilty. Whereas Borges in “The Lottery in Babylon” gives the sinister, omnipotent “Company” complete charge over a network of chance, including the chance of outcomes like murder and betrayal, which links each ticket-holder to the alter ego being hounded or sacrificed, Millhauser by contrast reserves his fictions for gentler doubts and ambiguities. And where the Company in Babylon is infinitely inscrutable, vicious, inaccessible, the directors of the Barnum Museum bemusedly answer to the populace's twin cravings for delusion and incredulity. Borges explores both the cultish and atrocious extensions of ratiocinative mania in his ficciones; Millhauser centers his work on the powdery residue of the almost touching human requirement that one might be amused, distracted, entertained:

If the Barnum Museum is a little suspect, if something of the sly and gimcrack clings to it always, that is simply part of its nature, a fact among other facts. For we are restless, already we are impatient to move through the beckoning doorways … is it possible that the secret of the museum lies precisely here, in its knowledge that we can never be satisfied? And still the hurdy-gurdy plays, the jugglers' bright balls turn in the air, somewhere the griffin stirs in his sleep. Welcome to the Barnum Museum! For us it's enough, for us it is almost enough.

When I had occasion to meet Mr. Millhauser during the writing of this essay, I mentioned to him my conviction that he was wrestling with and trying to extend the literary example of Borges. Neither abashed by my cleverness nor enthusiastic about the association, he said that, although of course he knew the work of Borges, Franz Kafka had exerted a far greater influence on his career as a writer, and that he had passionately “wrestled” with certain of Kafka's works, notably his Letters to Felice.

This information subdued me. Even as I took up another collection of Steven Millhauser's stories, In the Penny Arcade (1986), and read “Cathay,” “August Eschenberg” (the hero of the title makes graceful small automata), “Snowmen,” and the title story, Borges returned again and again to mind—Borges, with his fascination for invented worlds (Tlon, Uqbar, the circular ruins, the library of Babel, the garden of forking paths); homages to the impossible past (Pierre Menard, “The Immortal”); magical apprenticeships; secret moments that defeat time; artificial labyrinths and labyrinthine artifices (and here one would merely set forth to list the entire contents of Labyrinths,Ficciones, and Other Inquisitions). Where was one to insert Kafka into this extensive fraternal bonding between the other two?

Of course, with Kafka in mind, one can return to Millhauser stories such as “The Barnum Museum” and “Cathay” and instantly feel the recollective pressure of the modern master of the parable. One readily discerns the shared obsession with shadowy omnipotence (in Kafka, crushing to the individual), whose character is inscrutable. Not only is the “Company” that runs Borges's Babylon lottery evoked by the Barnum Museum's “directors”: These presences in Millhauser also recall the so-called “high command” which has, from all eternity, planned the building of the Great Wall of China, if only as an unlinked series of partial fortifications. The piecemeal character of the construction in the Kafka story is designed both to inspirit the scholar-foremen (who would be daunted by a job of continuous building) and to symbolize as well the impregnability of China as a political entity (in which no continuous fortifications are immediately necessary). For even if the barbarians on their wild horses should flog their mounts toward the village where the speaker stands, “the land,” writes Kafka, “is too vast and would not let them reach us, they would end their course in the empty air.”6

Already, however, one feels the icy breath from Kafka's imagination that sets him apart from other apprentices of the fantastic and arcane. That sense of menace, of enormity, and of intense personal trial even among the arabesques of whimsy let alone the crude ciphers of the ordinary has never been rendered as poignantly by any other writer. In the works by Steven Millhauser which most powerfully argue the presence of Franz Kafka, there is almost no trace of the existential allegory that persuades us of Kafka's antagonistic pertinence to the modern period; Millhauser is almost exclusively preoccupied with metaphors for a state of aesthetic exhaustion he has both sought to create, and thereby been saddled with. Furthermore, and as a concomitant effect of his leaning toward the problematics of making art under conditions of formal, cultural, and technical vitiation, Millhauser is uncomfortable with the primary mode of Franz Kafka—the parable. However attractive this genre may be as an inherited frame, in its implication of belief and its condition of extremity the parable is precisely the mode of thought that is closed to him.

One gains very quickly a feeling for Millhauser's difference from Kafka. His idiosyncrasy is apparent when one contrasts the ingenious “Barnum Museum,” with its benevolent managers devoted to our pleasure, or the eroticized decorum of “Cathay,” to one of the parables contained in Kafka's story “The Great Wall of China” about the impossibility of transmitting and receiving messages, news, information—parables that only augment their potency when fitted to the fearful contemporary context of overdeveloped broadcast media. Among other things, Kafka is perambulating the idea of how absolute power is made more overwhelming by the abstraction of an interminably vast landscape; this vastness in turn is experienced as temporal, Kafka throughout using the index that, of all human experiences, is the most riddling, exhausting, and fateful—time. He toys with the incessant rumors about the Emperor of the present as distinguished from the “Emperor as such” (an sich). Between the current instance and the timeless form falls the suffocating shadow of non sequitur. The hyper-immediate, in the form of error and irrationality, supplants the idea's infinitely extensible abstract origins. “One hears a great many things … but can gather nothing definite. … And besides, any tidings, even if they did reach us, would arrive far too late”:

The Empire is immortal, but the Emperor himself totters and falls from his throne, yes, whole dynasties sink in the end and breathe their last in one death rattle. Of these struggles and sufferings the people will never know; like tardy arrivals, like strangers in a city, they stand at the end of some densely thronged sidestreet peacefully munching the food they have brought with them, while far away in front, in the market square at the [unreachable] heart of the city, the execution of their ruler is proceeding.

(“The Great Wall of China”)

And in a parabolic world where a hurrying messenger needs more than one lifetime to reach even the outer walls of the palace with the message the Emperor has given him in its inner room—in such a world, it goes without saying that the “heart of the city” would be unreachable from this side street. Note, too, this pressure in Kafka of a reality both vicious and stupid; consider the frequency with which, in his work, individuals are humiliated by public exhibition as they are publicly tormented.

In Millhauser, in contrast, the communal self is curiously tame, regressed, aestheticized. Landscapes of yearning and boredom abound. The absolute is a metaphor for exhausted appetites or exhausted play. The palace of his Empire of the Orient is also “so vast that a man cannot pass through all its chambers in a lifetime,”7 but Millhauser's accent falls on the quaintness of the fancy that there are secret wings of the palace that lead independent lives (almost like gods or mythic beasts or temple monkeys), nurturing lineages of the Empire that have evolved unrecognizable languages. More like Borges than Kafka is the swerving of the mind toward infinite regress; the Emperor patronizes the art of miniature-making—erotic paintings on eyelid and breast, or precise reproductions of the endless palace in a miniature of jade, in which there exists a miniature throne room in which is displayed a second miniature palace of jade and “within this second palace, which can scarcely be seen by the naked eye, the artist has again produced the entire Imperial Palace.” Thus it is fitting that Millhauser's most familiar narrative stance is one of externalizing and exoticizing, not suffering, and that his representative style should be one of hypnotized rehearsal rather than human discovery.

The last story in The Barnum Museum is indicative of both the style and the stance just described. In this work a former cabinetmaker in Vienna who does occasional sleight-of-hand tricks decides in his late twenties to go on the stage as a conjurer. The nineteenth century is ominously coming to an end. Magic shows are popular, the public's appetite for them being in some fashion a reflection of the fin-de-siècle romance:

In the last years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire of the Hapsburgs was nearing the end of its long dissolution, the art of magic flourished as never before. … It was the age of levitations and decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Empire were revealing through the medium of its magicians its secret desire for annihilation.

(“Eisenheim the Illusionist,” The Barnum Museum)

In tune with the theme of loss and the culture's response to loss in varieties of nihilism, Eisenheim perfects a routine called “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” during which children from the audience disappear into a hill on the stage, where they claim to have seen visions either of a golden mountain or of a lurid hell; later—their parents by now quite beside themselves—the children emerge out of a black chest and are restored to their families. Because it treads too close on the hem of taboo, it is one of the many Eisenheim tricks whose very mastery and success prevent him from repeating. I have italicized passages in which Millhauser's quaintly derivative repertorial style is audible:

The Pied Piper of Hamelin never appeared again, but two results had emerged: a certain disturbing quality in Eisenheim's art was now officially acknowledged, and it was rumored that the stern master was being closely watched by Franz Josef's secret police. This last was unlikely, for the Emperor, unlike his notorious grandfather, took little interest in police espionage; but the rumor surrounded Eisenheim like a mist, blurring his sharp outline, darkening his features [among them, a gothically pulsing vein over his left brow] and enhancing his formidable reputation.

Most readers will be sensitive to his curiously ponderous expository style in this excerpt, to its apparent need of the rhythms of catchphrase, and of the unchallenged assumptions about the relation between outer fact and inner furor it carries forward from its exemplars in the nineteenth century. It is as if Millhauser in his narrative guise had not evolved the fully detached “third voice” that the somewhat dandified repertorial mode hints at, yet also as if the authorial “second voice” (that of the poet/writer speaking to us—to continue T. S. Eliot's distinction)—as if this second voice were itself not entirely conversant with the effect it wished to make or with the audience it wished to address. Within this ambiguous narratological terrain, it is clear that Millhauser has determined, at the very least, to extract his theme and his character from the inert context of cliché. Indeed, in his oeuvre this is a fairly standard storytelling procedure—to ground himself in a perceiving consciousness threatened at every turn by the commonplace in thought and expression, and then to perform flirtatious escapes.

I would make two observations about this stylistic gambit. It is not always immune to infection from the mimetic fallacy: Millhauser's texts will often eerily engage in chronic fumbling, manic desultoriness, and exhausted prosaism. But at the same time, I suspect that these qualities of style have emerged—from prolific experiments—as his aesthetic fate. The blots are also the substance and vehicle of the art. In stories like “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” Millhauser makes the contradictory gesture of parodying what he requires—that linguistic atmosphere of banal fluency that surrounds journalism and belles lettres in periods of greatest prose accomplishment. For his style in such stories is a nineteenth-century derivation; practiced at one remove, in the twentieth, the rhetoric is ever so slightly precarious in its flourish:

Eisenheim was not without rivals, whose challenges he invariably met with a decisiveness, some would say ferocity, that left no doubt of his self-esteem.

If Benedetti proved too easy a rival, a far more formidable challenge was posed by the mysterious Passauer. … [He] took the city by storm; and for the first time there was talk that Eisenheim had met his match, perhaps even—was it possible?—his master.

But then, out of the shufflings of the more predictable materials will come marvels of surprise, part of whose ingenuity comes in overstepping the convention of the repertorial genre. During Passauer's final performance, for example, a silver thimble produces unlikely enormities like a small mahogany table and a silver salver, on which, most incredibly, steams a roast duck.8 The repertorial genre is then double-crossed again, not by continued transgression into fairy tale, but by another of Millhauser's excursions (of the sort that prolong the anecdotal texture of his tales) into doublings. Passauer's final performance ends as the magician makes everything on stage disappear, including himself:

Suddenly he burst into a demonic laugh, and reaching up to his face he tore off a rubber mask and revealed himself to be Eisenheim. The collective gasp sounded like a great furnace igniting; someone burst into hysterical sobs. The audience, understanding at last, rose to its feet and cheered the great master of illusion, who himself had been his own greatest rival and had at the end unmasked himself.

Note the effervescent effect of the clichés, like “demonic laugh,” “hysterical sobs,” “collective gasp,” which issue in that fine unbroken sweep of catchphrases in the final sentence. Cliché is not entirely ironic—for that to hold true, other positions of judgment would have to be adumbrated from which to view the objects of incomplete belief. Nor yet is the use of cliché entirely automatic, as if Millhauser were a novice learning (as at some point August Eschenberg and Eisenheim and Robert Herendeen had to learn) the stages of the conjurer's craft. The moments at which Millhauser hints at such designs are interestingly mercurial. For example, the narrator of “Eisenheim the Illusionist” paraphrases a review of the first show the magician gives in the new century, at which he sits at a glass table in a business suit and calls into existence things only he can move and lift, although the observers from the audience can certainly see them. The narrator's paraphrase of the article, quite close to the grain of the style of the story as a whole, concludes:

But no one had detected any mist, no one had seen the necessary beam of light [for the images to have been merely cinematographic]. However Eisenheim had accomplished the illusion, the effect was incomparable; it appeared that he was summoning objects into existence by the sheer effort of his mind. In this the master illusionist was rejecting the modern conjurer's increasing reliance on machinery and returning the spectator to the troubled heart of magic, which yearned beyond the constricting world of ingenuity and artifice toward the dark realm of transgression.

The narrator passes judgment on these views so as to distinguish them—not entirely convincingly—from his own:

The long review, heavy with fin de siècle portentousness and shot through with a secret restlessness or longing, was the first of several that placed Eisenheim beyond the world of conjuring and saw in him an expression of spiritual striving, as if his art could no longer be talked about in the old way.

Yet Millhauser's narrator is devoted to placing and categorizing Eisenheim precisely “in the old way”—comparing his to the approach of earlier magicians, suggesting the traits Eisenheim has in common with the heroes of gothic romance (brooding inwardness; an aversion to public life that nevertheless permits dazzling, quasi-aristocratic showmanship; profound if inscrutable passions; demonic ennui; mysterious superstitions—he refuses to perform at all during the calendar year 1900—and so on). Surely our narrator concurs in discerning in Eisenheim “an expression of spiritual striving” far beyond trickery. And just as surely the author Millhauser sees in his narrator's insight an example of a craving that, however unsatisfiable, is fundamentally banal.

Even as the clichés of “secret” skill and prodigious discipline are expressed in the figure of Eisenheim—clichés explicitly approved by the narrator's rehearsal—an inescapable atmosphere of mental illness pervades the narrative unironically. In such a medium, the contrivances of mirroring and doubling assume rather a willed than a necessary shape. Mirroring and doubling actually provide technical escapes for the writer, permitting Millhauser to “disappear” Passauer/Eisenheim, to change the brooding-flamboyant showman Eisenheim into a “deeper” and more inward mental traveller, and at last to achieve the magician's own erasure (a seemingly pallid result) out of the intensest engagement with mental powers devalued by the parody-fringe of the style (“by the sheer effort of his mind”).

Such were the kinds of aesthetic ambivalence and chaffing double allegiance that began to make sense, for me, of Millhauser's enigmatic allusion to the influence of the Kafka letters. The clue to his fascination had to lie—has to lie—with the idiosyncrasy of Letters to Felice within Franz Kafka's Gesamtwerk (for, clearly, it is not the Kafka of the classic parables of abasement that continues to seduce him). In the first place, this exorbitantly long collection of letters (amounting to something between 280,000 and 300,000 words)9 is a literary work only in a devious and limited sense: It records the attempt of the 30-year-old Kafka from Prague, a neurotic suitor attracted by Zionism but fearful of leaving his parents' apartment, to compel in an unintellectual, robust Jewish secretary named Felice Bauer in Berlin an increasing state of absolute devotedness to himself while at the same time progressively extricating himself from the worldly commitment to her that his epistolary urgency created. Penelope could not have been more ingenious in untying the hopeful stratagems she had encouraged in the hot, idle youngbloods—except that, in Kafka's case, there was at the last a curious kind of consummation of the heart. His sexual intimacy with Felice far along in their acquaintance resembled the paradox-language Kafka insisted on using between them, inasmuch as the maximum physical intimacy coincided with the dissevering of all Felice's hopes—and, indeed, the complicated and mercurial Franz's hopes—for their eventual worldly union in marriage. Unlike a Liebestod, however, the break with the ordinary signalled by their love-making was a release for Kafka into the solitude he required for writing, and a recoil from self-sacrificial consumption in the beloved.

So Letters to Felice registers a seduction, a seven-year-long literary connivance and imbroglio, but with none of the parabolic and eerie transparency of the creative work. Unlike the magisterial modern parables Kafka produced in the first few months of his acquaintance with Felice—among them “The Judgment” and The Metamorphosis—the letters, as Elias Canetti has pointed out,10 are marked by a style of dull, subliterary nagging. Repetitions abound, and a repetitious brooding over repetitions, redundancies, and contradictions (a veritable textual Thousand and One Nights, with neurotic indecisiveness and contradictory aggression doing the work of the garbling and interpolation that also characterize the anonymous song and story cycles).

The psychological state suggested by these letters is solipsism. As in its neurotic manifestation, the solipsistic mode of the letters is one in which the self is fixed on and restricted to a circular preoccupation with its own private pressures, its own inward terrain. Kafka's dialogue with Felice is manic, unsavory, manipulative. As long as Felice replies frequently and fervently, she is neutralized; when she lapses, writes infrequently, fails to read and comment on Kafka's work, or (what is worse) reads other writers (over nearly all of whom he considered himself superior), then Kafka marshals his persuasive, aggressive prowess to get her back into line. He himself actively wrestles with Felice until she submits to caring for and (at a distance) tending to his surprising demands. When such a precarious perch is achieved, Kafka then writhes and thrashes himself free of her. Distance is always enforced—she in Berlin, he in Prague. He avoided meetings with her, as often as not heading off in the opposite direction for his holidays. Against the background of this perversely comforting separation, Kafka engineers the fanatic, shadow intimacy of letters. One is tempted to agree with Canetti's observation that this was a dialogue Kafka was conducting with himself by way of her.

But this is a dialogue with a self incapable of committing itself to another. Those periods in the correspondence with Felice Bauer when Kafka appears to be in love are marked by his insistence on the supreme demands of his art and the insuperability of his personal idiosyncrasies (the need for a solitude as deep as death; the abhorrence of meat, of crowds, of infants, and of heavy furniture)—not to mention his shamelessness. He permitted his mother to hire a private detective to look into Felice's reputation, and laughingly conveys to her in a letter the information gathered by the detective that she was reputed to be a good cook. When he makes the disclosure, Kafka abjures responsibility, claiming to be sorry that she might have been hurt, rather than contrite for having cooperated in hurting her.

In another appalling twist, Kafka turns his epistolary charm on Felice's emissary and friend, Grete Bloch, sent in late 1913 to Prague to re-establish connection between these two oddly matched specimens whose first engagement (of June 1913) had broken off. Grete seems more Kafka's type, better read, more intellectual than Felice. She accomplishes her bridge-mending mission, but Kafka then transfers his confidentiality to her: They appear to have gossiped together about the absent Felice, and Kafka is particularly unpleasant on the subject of Felice's new gold teeth and how the idea of them at first repelled him (until he discovers how touching this “weakness” made her). Kafka lengthily discusses the costume Grete will wear, as if she were the one about to be married and Felice a mere relation or in-law.

Once again, however, the engagement founders, this time with Grete's help. In a Berlin hotel (the Askanische Hof), at an encounter which Kafka punningly called a Gerichtshof (tribunal), Felice and Grete unite to give evidence against Kafka for his misgivings, his unreliability, his resistance (even aversion) to marriage and to Felice. At this tribunal, Kafka says nothing. The humiliation is great, but also (as it were) successful: It disrupts the nuptial arrangements from which his entire temperament shrank.

It strikes one that Kafka may have found the humiliation stylistically sympathetic to those tendencies in his spirit that drove him to complain and to repeat himself. Unlike Jorge Luis Borges, who finds multiplicity abhorrent, Kafka is relieved to escape into doubles and the doublings-of-the-double (Felice and Grete) whom he can then neutralize, turn into self-reflexive ciphers, recast in the armor of his own resistant silence, like creatures not of flesh but mind-forged. These mirrored selves are like eccentric golems embodying the weaknesses of character and the stalled ambitions of the maker. For him to have been publicly exposed as an empty and unresponsive individual validated Kafka's sense that he was empty, bottomless, unsound (and he was certainly a textbook hypochondriac). His essentially redundant nature forces him to cross again and again over the sore spots in his being. So he created the conditions under which conditions themselves could defeat him, repel him, reduce him to an ostensibly unfinished, gaping, unsatisfiably recursive state.

Something of this sort might begin to explain Steven Millhauser's fascination with this work instead of with any of Kafka's transcendent parables of the modern condition: They, after all, possess a kind of spiritual closure, the closure of fear and perfect despair. The Letters to Felice, on the other hand, exhibit a sensibility committed to staying (at least on the plane of social belonging) incomplete and unattached, even inert, while toying with melancholy rehearsals of all that has been squandered. It may even be that in his interest in the correspondence with Felice, Millhauser is confessing his distress (at most a mild and quizzical distress) at finding himself as a fiction writer more interested in the long and delicate insomnia of sameness and redundancy than he is in authentic change.

It is equally credible that Steven Millhauser may inordinately admire the scale on which, in these letters to Felice Bauer and Grete Bloch, Kafka the suitor condemned himself to a cycle of obsessive returns to the precarious crest of a relation that would only resolve again into hellish betrayals. Perhaps Millhauser discovered, in such shabby exigencies, a compelling model for his own art. For the protagonists we most often meet in Millhauser's work are stretched on a wheel of cruel inertia produced by their own ennui, and turned furiously by an inexhaustible need for design. Like all vicious circles, those of his characters are at most interruptible by fantasies of self-cancellation to which the nightmare of their lives prohibits any effective—even ironic—response.


  1. In Millhauser's collection of short stories, The Barnum Museum (New York: Poseidon/Simon & Schuster, 1990).

  2. For James the repertorial mode seems almost a recreation from the massive enlargement of characters' consciousness in the novels of the middle and late periods. In the novels, of course, James requires of himself the opposite attitude: Instead of opacity or density, protagonists or lens-figures had to be raw (whether through inexperience—Isabel Archer—or through will—Lambert Strether), so that impressions about the world entered the novels through their eyes with stunning force. For other users of the rigid-narrator figure, like Borges, as we shall see shortly, the mode can be exploited for other varieties of intellectual play.

  3. Paraphrased by James E. Irby in his introduction to Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, eds., Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges (New York: New Directions, 1962), p. xviii.

  4. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, by Steven Millhauser (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972) and Portrait of a Romantic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977; rpt. Washington Square Press, 1987).

  5. It is also subject to parody. Consider the carnival coarseness of the air ducts placed so as to lift the women's skirts (and the subsequent fad in full skirts among the girls and women); the interest of so many visitors in viewing the mermaids' bare breasts; the Museum's transformation of teenage Hannah Goodwin, formerly distinguished by a poor complexion (“whiteheads”) and painful shyness; the parody of 1960s flower children in the Museum's “eremites … a small and rigidly disciplined sect who are permitted to dwell [there] permanently. … Their hair is short, their dark robes simple and neat, their vows of silence inviolable. They drink water, eat leftover rolls from the outdoor cafes, and … are said to believe that the world … is a delusion … they … were born in our city and its suburbs; they are our children (p. 88, my emphasis).

  6. “The Great Wall of China” [1918], in Franz Kafka, The Great Wall of China: Stories and Reflections, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken, 1970), p. 90.

  7. Steven Millhauser, “Cathay,” In the Penny Arcade [1985] (New York: Washington Square Press, 1987).

  8. We encounter a similar outlandish fancy, which approaches burlesque, in “Cathay” as well, whose miniature Imperial Palace includes miniature copies of all the Emperor's “cups, bowls, and dishes, and even a pair of scissors so tiny that when fully opened they can be concealed behind the leg of a fly” (In the Penny Arcade).

  9. Based on a rough count of the text edited by Erich Heller and Juergen Born and translated by James Stern and Elizabeth Duckworth: Letters to Felice, by Franz Kafka (New York: Schocken, 1973).

  10. Elias Canetti, Kafka's Other Trial [1969], trans. Christopher Middleton (New York: Schocken, 1974).

Chesca Long-Innes (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “The Psychopathology of Post-Colonial Mozambique: Mia Couto's Voices Made Night,” in American Imago, John Hopkins University Press, Vol. 55, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 155-84.

[In the following essay, Long-Innes explores the psychoanalytic implications of Mia Couto's use of magic realism in Voices Made Night.]

Where does this black sun come from? Out of what eerie galaxy do its invisible, lethargic rays reach me, pinning me down to the ground, to my bed, compelling me to silence, to renunciation?

The new world, necessarily political, is unreal. We are living the reality of a new suffering world.

—Julia Kristeva

Mia Couto has recently been acclaimed as “probably the most original Mozambican writer to date,” a significant figure in the new wave of writers moving away from the “documentary approach” that has characterised Lusophone African literature from its beginnings (Gray 1993).1 In place of the tradition of nineteenth century Western realism upon which this literature has long been dependent, Couto, along with one or two others, has begun developing a new literary language based in the African oral tradition and on African transformations of spoken Portuguese. In Portugal, Couto is said to have acquired a reputation as a writer come in from the fringes to “creolise” the metropolitan mainstream. In Mozambique, he is thought to have successfully integrated into his prose the transition of Portuguese from awesome official language to the kind of flexible medium in which speakers of other languages might find themselves at ease (Gray 1993).

Not the least striking dimension of Couto's originality is what critics have identified as the “peculiar blend of fantasy and reality” which runs through all his fiction. His short stories have been described as “straddling the dividing line between reality and fantasy.” Although ostensibly about the lives of ordinary men and women in today's Mozambique, one critic remarks, the stories are “at once detailed in their account of the realities of daily life and (for the most part) fantastic at their core.” The narrative voice sounds “reassuringly common,” the stories are “uncannily familiar,” and they “appear plausible,” but they are at the same time “as magical or fantastic as fairy tales” (Chabal 1996, 78).

Much of the critical energy in recent responses to Mia Couto has focussed on trying to account for this mix, with diverse results. For David Brookshaw (1990), for example, it is Couto's fascination with the role of fantasy in the lives of the poor which motivates his move away from strictly realist modes: “What interests Couto is the power of fantasy, and its ability to rule the lives of those who are alienated by poverty. Fantasy becomes a compensatory mechanism, but equally a destructive, anti-life force …” (11). In Brookshaw's reading, Couto presents us with a world in which belief in the supernatural and in age-old myths and legends motivates the illusions of which his protagonists are victims. These take different forms in different characters, but ultimately their effects are the same—lost in the grip of fantasies and obsessions over which they have little control, Couto's protagonists lose their ability to act in the cause of what is good and to achieve genuine solidarity with their fellow men.

For Patrick Chabal (1996), on the other hand, Couto's fictional blend of fantasy and reality arises out of the “fantastical” nature of Mozambique itself:

Poorly integrated by the Portuguese during the colonial period, badly bruised by the nationalist struggle and torn asunder by civil war since independence, Mozambique is not yet a country in any meaningful sense of the word. Largely shorn of the social cultural attributes of the modern nation-state with which Africans could readily identify, Mozambique is itself part reality and part fiction. And as the reality is so often unpalatable, survival entails living firmly in one's individual fantasy world. One of Mia Couto's characters, the bird seller, says: “My race is myself, Joao Passarinheiro. … My race is me myself. A person is an individual humanity. Each man is his race.”

(79-80; my emphasis)

In Chabal's view, Couto's use of the fantastic is never gratuitous: “It is deeply rooted in the mental world engendered by a society in the process of constructing itself as a modern post-colonial state while being ravaged by one of the most vicious and devastating armed conflicts recently to have stalked the African continent” (79). The dream-like quality of Couto's narratives is further explained by Chabal as a dimension of the author's response to what he perceives as the “death of the imagination” brought about by the violence of life in contemporary Mozambique. As practised by Mia Couto, then, literature becomes an attempt to rekindle the pleasure of the dream, the desire to be others, or simply an other … “Why do we prefer this interior darkness?” asks one of the characters in the most recent collection of stories, Cada Homem e uma Raca. “Perhaps because obscurity brings things together, sews the threads of dispersal. In the comfort of the night, the impossible attains the plausibility of the visible. In this illusion we rest our fantasies” (Chabal 1996, 81).

The standard response to Couto's use of fantasy is to identify it as a literary technique which places his writing squarely within the Latin-American tradition of Magical Realism. In Brenda Cooper's reading (1990), for example, it is their clear relation to this tradition that distinguishes Couto's narratives from what we have come to expect from English-speaking African writers. Magical Realism, she suggests,

arises out of a situation of uneven development attendant upon colonialism. That is to say, a situation in which there is an uneasy cultural welding within societies that are simultaneously the product of capitalist and pre-capitalist modes, scientific and technological, superstitious and magical world views.


Its literary technique is defined, in Cooper's review, as the “presentation of life from the unmediated standpoint of the ordinary people who are the product of this contradictory world.” This technique, she goes on,

attempts to resist cultural imperialism, insert itself into the oral, pre-colonial tradition and thereby give people their own, dignified speaking voices. These are the ‘voices made night’ of the title of Couto's stories and this is the framework in which they can be understood.


Stephen Gray (1993), on the other hand, is sceptical. While he acknowledges the fantastical element in Couto's prose, he suggests we take care not to over-rate it: “Writing as exotic-looking or as ‘Latin’ as Couto's is doomed to be labelled ‘magic realist’,” he writes. “But the case cannot be open and shut … these stories are neither parlour games, nor any baroque, sub-Roman Catholic intellectual conceits” (19). To this critic, Couto's use of fantasy is best understood as a form of stylistic embellishment, the function of which is to temper the impact of fictions “grounded in social realities often too strong to take without some decoration: child abuse, marital cruelty, structural violence” (19).

Indeed, there is no lack of varied and creative critical response to Couto's writing to date. Yet what is missing from even the most interesting of the readings mentioned so far is any explicit sense of its strong and, to my mind, inescapable bearing on the psychoanalytic. The first indication of this lies in the “Author's Foreword,” where he refers to the title of his collection as follows:

The most harrowing thing about poverty is the ignorance it has of itself. Faced by an absence of everything, men abstain from dreams, depriving themselves of the desire to be others. There exists in nothingness that illusion of plenitude which causes life to stop and voices to become night.2

(Couto 1990; my emphasis)

In my view, this early reference to “voices made night” is less an allusion—as Cooper, for one, implies—to the historical silencing of the Mozambican people (which Couto will then set about correcting in his stories) than to the nature of the complex psychic disturbance which inevitably follows upon lives grounded in extreme poverty. Couto's narratives are more concerned with “giving voice” to this than restoring any (implicitly strong and healthy) “voice of the people.” To miss this is to ignore a crucial dimension of both the literary and documentary impact of Couto's fictions, and it is largely due to this oversight, I think, that Cooper (1990) later goes on to express surprise at the way Couto's narratives seem to undercut the very voices he sets out to restore: “Is not the voice of the people ironically undercut even as they speak, given what is ultimately portrayed as the inadequacy of their resources—physical, social and psychological—to cope in the world in which they find themselves?” (91).3 Rather than undercutting the voice of the people, what the authorial voice (such as it is) conveys, is a sense of just how seriously the voice of the people has already been undercut—literally rendered psychotic—by the catastrophically deprived conditions under which Mozambicans have long been forced to live.

In this essay, then, I want to approach Couto's stories in a way which accounts somewhat differently from the interpretations mentioned above for their bizarre relation to the “real.” Drawing on the the theory of psychoanalysis, I want to read them as a psycho-pathology of post-colonial Mozambique,4 in which the society as a whole is figured as caught in the grip of a profound depression or “melancholia” (in the specifically Freudian sense of a disturbance in the subject of the libidinal relation to reality5). My analysis will be based in the same view of depression as that outlined in Julia Kristeva's Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1989), where it is understood as a “discourse with a language to be learned, rather than strictly a pathology to be treated;” as “an abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief that lays claim upon us to the extent of having us lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself” (3). Developing on this, I want to suggest that we can best make sense of Couto's use of the fantastic if we think of it not so much as a product of any “magic realist” poetics, but as “naturalised,” or motivated as a function of the collective neurosis of a society traumatised by its continuing history of poverty and extreme violence.6

Within the complex history of the construction of melancholia as a pathological condition, Kristeva suggests that it is most prevalent in periods of political and religious crisis. Many of the case studies which constitute her extended meditation on the condition of melancholia are thus based in discussions on the works of artists dealing in such historical moments. Holbein's controversial 1522 painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, for example, produced as it was in a period of increasing religious uncertainty, is seen as an “unadorned representation of human death,” conveying to viewers “an unbearable anguish before the death of God” (110). In this painting, unlike most works taking the crucifiction as their subject, Kristeva finds no sign or evidence of the promise of Resurrection, either of the body of Christ or, by extension, of religious faith itself: “The tombstone weighs down on the upper portion of the painting, which is merely twelve inches high, and intensifies the feeling of permanent death: this corpse shall never rise again” (110). It is this sense of absolute hopelessness which leads her to identify the painting as an expression of melancholia.

If Holbein's painting represents for Kristeva a striking case study of melancholia induced by the “death of God,” the works of Marguerite Duras constitute an equally agonizing confrontation with the brutalization of consciousness following the political crisis of the Second World War. For both Kristeva and Duras, never has the power of destructive forces appeared as unquestionable and unavoidable as now, within and without society and the individual: “Auschwitz and Hiroshima have revealed,” Kristeva writes (1989), “that the ‘malady of death,’ as Marguerite Duras might say, informs our most concealed inner recesses. If military and economic realms, as well as political and social bonds, are governed by passion for death, the latter has been revealed to rule even the once noble kingdom of the spirit” (221). For Kristeva, Duras' writing constitutes itself as a “confrontation with the silence of horror in oneself and in the world,” leading her to an “aesthetics of awkwardness” on the one hand, and to a “noncathartic literature” on the other. Whereas the affected rhetoric of literature always seems somewhat “festive,” Kristeva argues, Duras' melancholia manifests itself by “holding in check the rhetorical celebration: warping it, making it grate, strain and limp” (225).

In the dozen or so stories which make up Couto's Voices Made Night, an apparently surreal world depicting the collective neurosis of another deeply traumatised post-war society is set against a background of poverty, violence and political instability. The symptoms of melancholia are split between the multiple levels which constitute the new post-colonial social order of present-day Mozambique, and from which Couto draws his characters.

For the settler in this new order, the melancholic condition manifests itself in an inability to embrace the present or the future. Riveted to the past, the subject finds him/herself possessed by the “strange memory” of the melancholic. In Kristeva's words, “Everything has gone by [the melancholy person] seems to say, but I am faithful to those bygone days, I am nailed down to them, no revolution is possible, there is no future …” (1989, 60). Such are the sentiments of Couto's Ascolino Do Perpetuo Socorro (“How Ascolino Do Perpetuo Socorro Lost His Spouse”), who spends his afternoons “ruminating over memories” on the veranda of his run-down colonial farmhouse, and his evenings drinking himself into oblivion in the local bottle-store. Fixed in an identity purely a product of his own hallucinatory confusion, he “rejects the Mozambican in him,” living instead in the imaginary realm of Goa, his native land: “I am indeed an Indo-Portuguese,” he declares, “Catholic in my faith and in my customs” (60).

Both Ascolino's dress and his language are locked in an era gone by, a moment in the past which, like Goa itself, can only be recovered in the realm of the imaginary. His dress is of the most formal kind, evocative of the colonial heyday—“a suit of white linen, shoes of an identical whiteness, and hat of the selfsame colour” (1990, 29). As for his speech, it founders in what Kristeva (1989) describes as the “spectacular collapse of meaning” which, with depressive persons, separates language from affective experience:

The depressed speak of nothing, they have nothing to speak of: glued to the Thing, they are without objects. … Depressed speech, built up with absurd signs, slackened, scattered, checked sequences, conveys the collapse of meaning into the unnameable where it founders, inaccessible and delightful, to the benefit of affective value riveted to the Thing.


Riveted on the lost object or Thing—the pre-revolutionary colonial moment which is the focus of his desire—Ascolino's speech is a mask: a “beautiful facade” carved out of a “foreign language.” Ceremonious and correct, his discourse is embroidered with the “brocades of old Portugal.” It is essentially empty—unending strings of adverbs which become the “alien, retarded, or vanishing speech” of the depressed: “Notwithstanding, however, nevertheless, perforce. …” The “visitors” Ascolino receives in his home are figments of his imagination, and the love between him and his wife, Epifania—an ephemeral creature figured as the ghost of Catholic sobriety—is entirely without physical substance:

He bowed to his visitors, bestowing upon them long silences and green mangoes with salt. Dona Epifania, his wife, was the one who served them, so thin that one was not even aware she was approaching. When the net doors flapped, one knew she was there. No one had ever witnessed any expression of love pass between them. Did they love each other? If so, they loved without their bodies. Ascolino suffered because of his wife's constant seclusion. He consoled himself but without conviction. Epifania, he was wont to say, is a clam. If opened, it dies, exposed to the air and to the tides. When the others noted his wife's absence, Ascolino would affirm:

Epifane, most sacred spouse indeed. Notvitstanding, howevah, darty years of marriage.

(1990, 29-30)

Ascolino's skewed sense of time, his fixation on an “overinflated, hyperbolic past which fills all the dimensions of psychic continuity,” (Kristeva 1989, 51) is mirrored in the inability of many of Couto's characters to deal with the reality of loss—a crucial factor, according to Freud, in determining the onset of melancholia. In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud (1915) identifies the distinction between the “normal” work of mourning and a pathological lapse into a permanent state of melancholia as a function of the subject's success, or lack thereof, in abandoning his/her libidinal position in relation to the lost object (Kristeva's “Thing”). Both mourning and melancholia, he suggests, arise in reaction to the loss of a loved object. In both cases, “reality-testing” has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido should be withdrawn from its attachment to that object. This demand invariably arouses opposition, and it is as a consequence of this opposition that both the work of mourning and the state of melancholia arise. If the work of mourning is successful, however, this opposition will eventually be overcome:

… it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it.

(S.E. XIV: 244-245)

It is the failure of Couto's characters to regain “respect for reality” and abandon their libidinal position in relation to the lost object which plunges them into a state of melancholia. It also leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by the likes of Zuze Paraza (“The Talking Raven's Last Warning”), a retired painter who is believed to have given birth to a live raven with the power to speak. Rumour has it that the bird “emerged whole from his belly,” and that it “had been so long inside him that it already knew how to talk” (7). Recognizing this as an opportunity to enrich himself, Zuze exploits his compatriots' attachment to their lost loved ones by claiming that the raven is the soul of his dead wife—and an intermediary through which the others might “obtain information about their dear departed” (8). Such is the general preoccupation with death and loss in the village where Zuze establishes his “consulting rooms,” that he is inundated with potential clients:

Requests came flocking in immediately. Zuze no longer had a room, it was an office. He no longer talked to people but conducted a surgery. He gave special concessions, kept a long waiting list of appointments, and then made his clients wait. Payment was made according to a tariff: deceased within the current year, fifty escudos; communication with the deceased from the previous year, one hundred and fifty; those deceased outside the stated period, two hundred and fifty.


Not least amongst Couto's concerns in Voices Made Night is to measure, even if only obliquely, the effects of the all-pervasive presence of death, whether through violence or the ravages of poverty or any other means, on the Mozambican psyche. In “The Talking Raven's Last Warning,” “the deceased” exert an irresistable force on the community as a whole, so much so that they are easily hood-winked by Zuze's exploitative wiles. In “The Fire,” the desire for a hold over the dead which makes Zuze's clients so vulnerable is translated into an old man's defensive desire to control the time of his own death and that of his much loved wife. So thin that he “scarcely had any body left,” the old man falls prey to an obsessive need to conduct his wife's burial, even if it means hastening the moment of her death by actually killing her in order to ensure that he survives her:

The old man approached slowly as was his custom. He had shepherded his sadness before him ever since his youngest sons had left on the road to no return.

My husband is shrinking,’ she thought. ‘He is a shadow.’ A shadow, yes indeed. But only of his soul, for he scarcely had any body left. The old man came nearer and draped his leanness on the neighbouring mat. He raised his head and, without looking at the woman, said:

I'm thinking.

What is it you are thinking, husband?

If you die, how shall I, alone, sick and without strength, how shall I bury you?

He passed his skinny fingers over the straw mat on which he was sitting, and went on:

We are poor, all we have is nothingness. Nor do we have anybody else. I think it better that we start digging your grave now.

The woman, touched, smiled:

How good you are, my husband! I was lucky to have you as the man of my life.

(1990: 1-2)

The old man's compulsion to dig his wife's grave and bury her is figured ironically as a symbolic fire which burns within him and gives his life new purpose—ironic, since what constitutes the “fire,” in reality, is the fever to which his body falls prey after digging long hours in the rain. (“I'm in pain, woman,” he complains after working several days in torrential rain. “I can't get up.” “You're full of fever,” his wife responds. “It's because of the soaking you got.” “No it isn't, woman. It's because I slept near the fire.” “What fire?” she retorts. [3]) In psychoanalytic terms, the “fire” constitutes what Kristeva describes as a “narcissistic support,” a way of “reconstituting an effective cohesion of the self” in the face of the threat of disintegration posed by the constant presence of death. Yet even as the act of digging her grave presents him with a momentary integrity of the self—a momentary protection against fragmentation and disintegration—the physical exertion it requires destroys him, and he is dead long before he has time to complete the task. As for his wife, she makes no attempt to defend herself against her approaching death, but rather desires it. Indeed, it is only in a state of slumber, or symbolic death, that life takes on substance for her at all. For this old woman, as for many of Couto's characters, only dreams can restore the absences by which her life is measured—of her children, of food and sustenance, of the stories and narratives which give it meaning:

When the moon began to light up the trees in the wood, she leant back and fell asleep. She dreamed of times far away from there: her children were present, the dead ones and those still alive, the muchamba was full of crops, her eyes slid over the green of it all. There was the old man in the middle, with his tie on, telling stories, lies for the most part. They were all there, her children and grandchildren. Life itself was there, unrolling, pregnant with promise. In that happy assembly, all believed in the truth of their elders, for they were always right, and no mother opened up her flesh to death. The noises of morning began to summon her out of herself, while she tried hard not to abandon her slumber. She begged night to stay so that her dream might linger, she begged this with the same devotion as when she had beseeched life not to take her children away.

(4-5; my emphasis)

In “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Freud prompts us to accept the idea of a death drive that, appearing as a biological and logical inability to transmit psychic energies and inscriptions, would lead to the disintegration of all libidinal bonds. Freud (1937) refers to it in the following terms:

If we take into consideration the total picture made up of the phenomena of masochism immanent in so many people, the negative therapeutic reaction and the sense of guilt found in so many neurotics we shall no longer be able to adhere to the belief that mental events are exclusively governed by the desire for pleasure. These phenomena are unmistakable evidence of the presence of a power in mental life which we shall call the aggression or destruction drive, and which we trace back to the original death drive of living matter.

(S.E. XXIII: 243)

Narcissistic melancholia, according to Kristeva (1989), would display such a drive in its state of disunity with the life drive (17). Developing her argument in relation not only to Freud, but also to the work of Klein and Winnicot, Kristeva takes particular note of the Kleinian definition of “splitting” introduced in 1946. On the one hand, Kristeva suggests, Klein's definition moves backward from the depressive position toward a more archaic, paranoid, schizoid position. On the other, it distinguishes a “binary” splitting (the distinction between “good” and “bad” object insuring the unity of the self) and a “parcellary” splitting—the latter affecting not only the object but, in return, the very self, which literally “falls into pieces.” It is essential to note, she goes on, that such falling to pieces may be caused either by a drive-related nonintegration impeding the cohesion of the self, or by a disintegration accompanied by anxieties and provoking the schizoid splitting.7

In the first hypothesis, according to Kristeva, nonintegration results from “biological immaturity”—the death drive appears as a “biological unfitness for sequentiality and integration (no memory)” (18). The second hypothesis, she suggests, emphasizes the human being's tendency toward fragmentation and disintegration as an expression of the death drive: “The early ego largely lacks cohesion, and a tendency towards disintegration, a falling into bits … the anxiety of being destroyed from within remains active. It seems to me in keeping with the lack of cohesiveness that under the pressure of this threat the ego tends to fall into pieces” (19). If schizoid fragmentation is a radical, paroxysmal manifestation of parceling, melancholy inhibition (psychomotor retardation, deficiency in sequentiality), Kristeva concludes, can be considered another manifestation of the disintegration of bonds. How so? Kristeva describes it thus:

Following upon the deflection of the death drive, the depressive affect can be interpreted as a defense against parceling. Indeed, sadness reconstitutes an affective cohesion of the self, which restores its unity within the framework of the affect. The depressive mood constitutes itself as a narcissistic support, negative to be sure, but nevertheless presenting the self with an integrity, nonverbal though it might be. Because of that, the depressive affect makes up for symbolic invalidation and interruption (the depressive's “that's meaningless”) and at the same time protects it against proceeding to the suicidal act. That protection, however, is a flimsy one. The depressive denial that destroys the meaning of the symbolic also destroys the act's meaning and leads the subject to commit suicide without anguish of disintegration, as lethal as it is jubilatory, “oceanic.”


For many of Couto's characters, “sadness,” or resignation, itself a form of “depressive denial,” is indeed the only defense against psychic disintegration provoked by too much hardship, and the idea of death preferable to the realities of lives grounded in extreme poverty and violence.8 Thus, in the midst of a flood, in “How Old Jossias was Saved from the Waters,” an old man sits contemplating the rising water level without anxiety. “So much rain had fallen,” Couto writes, “that even the wells were beginning to spit. Even toads and snakes had lost their homes” (66). As the rains continue, and the waters begin to cover the whole area, it becomes clear that all those who remain in it will drown. But when the rescue boat arrives to take Jossias to dry land, he wishes only to be left to die in the flood: “Save me, you say? Save me from what?” (67)

Embedded in this story is a critique directed at the Western aid industry, which “rescues” victims of Third World poverty and violence only to abandon them again once the rescue operation is over.9 It is “life,” not death, from which Jossias wishes to be saved:

Saving someone should be a complete service,” he had concluded. “It's no good lifting someone up and then abandoning them without wanting to know the afterwards of it all. It's not-enough to be alive. Take my word for it, living is more than that.

And so that is how Jossias had come to a conclusion on the matter of dying and not dying.

Now in this particular case, what was the point of moving, and where? Beyond, there is only more water, the place this boat came from is water too. It's not even a boat any more, but an island with a motor. If I have to die then I prefer that death which comes swimming right up to the door of my house. The earth under here already has my hands, my life is buried in this ground, all it needs now is my body, that's all.


The same “oceanic” release from suffering becomes the unconscious obsession of Bento Joao Mussavele (“The Whales of Quissico”), a displaced peasant from Northern Mozambique, now living in Maputo. This is a man whose habitual occupation, we discover as the story begins, is to do nothing but sit, unmoving, in the open air: “He just sat there,” Couto writes in the opening lines. “That's all. Sat stock still, just like that. Time did not lose its temper with him. It left him alone. Bento Joao Mussavele” (1990, 55). One day, Bento surprises everyone by getting up and moving off. He has decided to go back North, to the coast of Quissico, where, he believes, a whale appears periodically to disgorge the First World consumer products so lacking in Mozambique. If he is not sure of the whale's origins, he is nevertheless certain of its existence:

All we know is that it's a big fish which comes to land on the beach. It comes from the direction of the night. It opens its mouth and, boy, if you could see what it's got inside. … It's full of things. Listen, it's like a store, but not the ones you see nowadays. It's like a store from the old days. Full. I swear I'm being serious.


The product, more than anything else, of a hungry man's hallucinatory confusion, the “whale” becomes the subject of debate amongst Bento's friends. Some give it a political explanation, believing it to be a submarine due to unload arms for the bandits, and that Bento is in league with the counter-revolutionaries. Others see it as part of an imperialist plot to lull the people into permanent inaction—an “invention of the imperialists to stultify people and make them always wait for food to arrive from abroad” (1990, 60). Bento's uncle is the most sceptical: “It's all pie in the sky,” he laughs. “There is no whale. … It's those folks who are hungry. Very hungry. They start inventing these apparitions, as if they were wizardry. But they're just figments of the imagination, mirages.…” (56). To Bento, however, it is real, and even after weeks of waiting in vain for its arrival on the beaches of Quissico, he refuses to give up the fantasy of its existence. The story ends with the image of Bento wading feverishly into the sea to drown in pursuit of his obsession:

One night, with the sea roaring in endless anger, Bento awoke with a start. He was trembling as if suffering a bout of malaria. … He went over to the door. The sand had come away from its resting place and seemed like a maddened whip. Suddenly, underneath the little whirlwind of sand, he saw the carpet, the same carpet he had laid in his dream. If it were true, if the carpet were there, then the whale had arrived. He tried to adjust his eyes as if to discharge his emotion, but giddiness overturned his vision, and his hands sought the doorpost for support. He set off through the sand, stark naked, tiny as a seagull with broken wings. He could not hear his own voice, he did not know whether it was he who was shouting. The voice came nearer and nearer. It exploded inside his head. Now he began to wade into the sea. He felt it cold, burning his tense nerves. Further ahead of him there was a dark patch which came and went like the throbbing heart of a hangover. It could only be that elusive whale.


It is precisely the appearance of fantastical creatures such as Bento's whale and Zuze's talking raven which has elicited the term “magic realism” in some critical responses to Couto's writing. Yet there is nothing “magical” or abstract, or even “surreal” about any of these elements, however bizarre they may at first appear. In the end, I would suggest, the label is far more likely to mislead than to enlighten. In an essay on Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, Franco Moretti reflects critically upon the term “magic realism” itself, in a way which might help explain my own scepticism regarding its usefulness in relation to Couto. He begins by suggesting that the phrase itself arises from a mistranslation and, by implication, a misunderstanding of its original use in Spanish. The term first appeared in the prologue to Alejo Carpentier's novel, The Kingdom of this World. Here, Carpentier remarks that on visiting Haiti at the end of 1943, he had found himself in daily contact with something which might be called marvellous reality:

I was treading on land where thousands of men anxious for freedom had believed in the lycanthropic powers of Macandal, to the point where this collective faith produced a miracle on the day of his execution. … I had breathed the atmosphere created by Henri Christophe, a monarch of incredible exploits, far more astonishing than all the cruel kings invented by the surrealists. … At every step I encountered this marvellous reality.

(Moretti 1996, 234)

Lo real maravilloso,” Moretti responds—“Not magical realism, as it has unfortunately been translated (and as it will inevitably continue to be called), but marvellous reality. Not a poetics—a state of affairs.” The difference between the two is substantial. In Haiti, Carpentier is suggesting, surrealism is in the things themselves. It is an everyday, collective fact, one which “restores reality to modernist techniques: which takes the avant garde and sets its feet back on the ground”—an idea Moretti backs up with several examples: If Joyce's Ulysses had separated polyphony from any recognizable “voice,” he argues, in Midnight's Children the opposite happens, and polyphony is “remotivated:” there are many languages in the novel, he points out, simply because India is divided into many cultures, and along with them, many languages. The technical complexity remains, but it is naturalized. In The Death of Artemio Cruz, to cite another example, the stream of consciousness is also motivated by reality: its confusion is attributed to Cruz's dying, and is clarified, moreover, by copius narrative accounts. Similarly, Cortazar's Hopscotch “naturalizes” the category of possibility, Moretti writes, presenting it as the sign of a bohemian lifestyle, while Conversation in the Cathedral naturalizes montage, motivating it with a long, disjointed chat in a bar10 (1996, 234-235).

Developing on this, I'd like to suggest that we can best make sense of the stories in Voices Made Night if we think of them too as “naturalizing” the category of the fantastic, motivating it, in this case, as a function of the collective neurosis of a society traumatised by its continuing history of poverty and arbitrary incursions of extreme violence. Bento's whale and Zuze's raven can then be seen as products not of Couto's magic realist poetics, but of the significance in the national psyche of what Freud calls “psychical reality.”11 As he famously remarks in the “Introductory Lectures,” “… [P]hantasies possess psychical as contrasted with material reality, and we gradually learn to understand that in the world of the neuroses it is psychical reality which is the decisive kind” (1917, 368; italics original).

The important word here is reality. Fundamentally, what is involved is unconscious desire and its associated fantasies—but it is essential, Freud insists, that we do not undervalue the reality of these fantasies in psychic life:

It will be a long time before [the patient] can take in our proposal that we should equate phantasy and reality and not bother to begin with whether the (childhood) experiences under examination are the one or the other. Yet this is clearly the only correct attitude to adopt towards these mental productions. They too possess a reality of a sort. It remains a fact that the patient has created these phantasies for himself, and this fact is of scarcely less importance for his neurosis than if he had really experienced what the phantasies contain.

(S.E. XVI: 368; my emphasis)

For almost all the most memorable characters in Couto's collection, it is indeed psychic rather than material reality that proves decisive. Fantasies originating in the rumours, myths and legends through which rural society constitutes itself gradually take on the force of reality for Couto's characters, often with tragic consequences. In “The Girl with a Twisted Future,” for example, Joseldo Bastante, the village mechanic, seeks solutions to life's problems in the narratives he picks up from customers passing through his garage: “When a traveller passed by, when a car stopped, he would come near and capture conversations” (1990, 77). In this way, he hears news from the city of a young man achieving great success through his ability as a contortionist—“twisting and turning his body like a snake” (77). The lad had been engaged by an impresario to roam the country showing off his skills, and was earning enough money “to fill boxes, suitcases and cooking pots” (77). Joseldo becomes obsessed with the notion that he can create a contortionist out of his daughter, Filomeninha, and in this way, rescue the family as a whole from poverty, and offer a better future to his eleven other children.

Much of this story is devoted to emphasizing the extent to which Joseldo is blinded to material reality by the force of his obsession with turning his daughter into a contortionist. He becomes capable of immense cruelty, tying his daughter to a petrol drum by night in the hope that the shape of her back will mould itself to the curve of the drum, and pouring boiling water over her body in the morning so as to soften her bones and increase their flexibility. Filomeninha is soon reduced to a pathetic figure, “crumpling up for all to see,” her “blood flow irregular, her bones disjointed” (78). After a while, she begins to look like “a hook without any more use, an abandoned rag” (78). Yet, still her father remains blind to the actual consequences of his actions, his senses focussed obsessively on the anticipated arrival of the impresario:

Time passed, and Joseldo was still waiting for the impresario to pass through the town. At the garage, his ears were like antennae listening for news of the showman. In the newspapers, his eyes hunted for clues as to the whereabouts of his saviour. In vain. The impresario was amassing riches in some unknown location.

Meanwhile, Filomeninha was getting worse. She was almost unable to walk. She began to suffer from bouts of vomiting. She seemed to want to cast her body out through her mouth. Her father warned her not to succumb to such weaknesses:

If the impresario turns up he musn't find you in this state. You're supposed to be a contortionist and not a vomitist.

(1990, 78)

The story as a whole offers chilling insights into the familial violence—of which more often than not women and children are the victims—provoked by chronic poverty. That Joseldo takes possession of the body of his daughter in order to use it for profit has an obviously wider significance, and this is not the only story in the collection with feminist implications. The story also highlights the isolation and neglect of small rural communities dependent for their existence not on “native events,” but on “whatever passes through.” It is not least the emptiness of Joseldo's daily life—the very lack of “material reality” by which it is governed—which fuels his obsession:

The weeks went by, heightened by Joseldo Bastante's anguish. In such a place, what happens is whatever passes through. An event is never native. It always comes from outside, it shakes souls, inflames time and then beats a retreat. It goes away so quickly that it doesn't even leave embers with which the residents might rekindle the fire if they so wished. The world possesses places where its timeless rotation stops and rests. This was such a place.

(1990, 78-79)

In the rural imagination, possible relief from suffering is thus seen to be necessarily located “outside” the village, and in this case comes in the form of a mercenary impresario who is elevated in the minds of the villagers, and Joseldo in particular, to the status of a potential saviour. Of course, it is material gain rather than any philanthropic concern which motivates the impresario—a fact which becomes clear when Joseldo finally meets him: “There's no point in wasting my time,” he snaps. “I don't want it. Contortionism is out, it's no longer a sensation.” Now he is after “guys with steel teeth … those sets of teeth you people sometimes have, strong enough to gnaw at wood and chew nails” (1990, 80-81). His attitude towards Joseldo and his daughter is one of contempt and amusement: “The impresario remained sitting in his big chair, amused by that girl, so skinny inside her borrowed dress” (81). Joseldo is thus in the grip of more than one delusion. Not only does he believe that he can force his daughter to become a contortionist, he also places his faith in an outsider clearly out for nothing but his own material gain.

The same sense of futility that fuels Joseldo's deluded response to the impresario marks the existence of Ernesto Timba (“The Birds of God”), and helps foster the illusion that a bird which lands on his boat one day is a “sign from God,” sent to save his family and the village as a whole from drought and starvation. The story opens with Timba sitting alone in his dugout, “measuring his life.” From the age of twelve, we are told, he had done nothing but fish: “Ever in the waft of the current, his shadow had reflected the laws of the river dweller for the last thirty years” (1990, 23). Yet after all this, he has nothing to show for his efforts: Drought has “exhausted the earth,” the seeds “are not fulfilling their promise,” and when he returns home from fishing, he has “nothing to defend himself” from his wife and children, who “impale him” with their eyes. “What life have I lived?”; he asks. “Water, water, just nothing else”; (23). The “burden of thirty years of tiredness” begins to obscure the physical environment, blinding him to the external world, and forcing him to look inward:

Overhead, the mafurreira retained the sun's fierce dispatch. But Timba wasn't listening to the tree, his eyes were peeping into his soul. And it was as if they were blind, for pain is a dust which drains light away. Still higher above, morning called and he caught the smell of the intense blue. ‘If only I belonged to the sky,’; he sighed.


Such is the desperation which nurtures his illusion that he has been chosen by God to deliver his village from hardship. Blinding himself to the needs of his family, he begins to feed his small catch to the “bird from God.” With time he realizes it is lonely, and so finds the bird a female companion. Soon enough, the birds produce chicks, and Timba toils ever harder to feed the growing coop. When his wife, “after many a threat,” eventually leaves him, taking with him all their children, he barely notices their absence—so obsessed is he with the new reality he has created for himself, his new role as “host to God's envoys.” “He thought and thought,” Couto writes:

That sign, that lightning flash of white plumage could only mean that heaven's humour was about to change. If men would agree to dispense their kindness to those messengers from heaven, then the drought would end and the season of rains would begin. It had befallen him, a poor fisherman of the river, to play host to God's envoys. It was his task to show that men could still be good. Yes, that true goodness cannot be measured in times of abundance but when hunger dances in the bodies of men.

(1990, 26)

In almost all the stories mentioned so far, the clear-cut boundaries we take for granted between life and death become blurred or confused. In “The Fire,” the symbolic flame which burns within the old man, and gives his life new purpose, is fuelled by dreams of death—his own along with that of his wife. In “How Old Jossias was Saved from the Waters,” the protagonist weighs up his life and considers it nothing more than a form of living death: “The earth under here already has my hands,” he thinks, “my life is buried in this ground, all it needs now is my body” (1990, 68). In “The Whales of Quissico,” Bento's dream of new life is in fact a delirious dream of death by drowning, of a final oceanic release from suffering as he wades into the sea. In “The Girl with a Twisted Future,” Joseldo's efforts to ensure the survival of his large family result only in the death of his daughter Filomeninha, just as in “The Birds of God,” Ernesto Timba's deluded attempts to save his village as a whole from drought and starvation lead to the abandonment of his family and his own eventual death. For all Couto's characters, death becomes what Kristeva describes as an “inner threshold”—the “impossible meaning” of lives whose burden constantly seems unbearable. Within depression, she writes,

I live a living death, my flesh is wounded, bleeding, cadaverised, my rhythm slowed down or interrupted, time has been erased or bloated, absorbed into sorrow. … Absent from other people's meaning, alien, accidental with respect to naive happiness, I owe a supreme metaphysical lucidity to my depression. On the frontiers of life and death, occasionally I have the arrogant feeling of being witness to the meaninglessness of Being, of revealing the absurdity of bonds and beings.

(1989, 4)

In “The Tale of the Two who Returned from the Dead,” Couto offers a final ironic insight into what it means to exist “on the frontiers of life and death.” In this story, two villagers believed to have perished in a recent flood suddenly turn up alive after some weeks' absence, having finally found their way home after being swept away by the river. They are greeted with deep suspicion, and a debate ensues as to their actual status—dead or alive. They are treated like ghosts, and required to construct a case to prove to the authorities that they are real, substantial living beings, not a pair of apparitions returned from the dead. In the village hall, the two attempt to put their case, but the officials are sceptical:

They explained their story, but failed to prove their truth. … After some consultation the official concluded rapidly:

‘It doesn't matter whether you are completely dead or not. If you're alive, it's worse still. It would have been better to take advantage of the water to die.’;

The other, the one with the tunic that played tug-of-war with its own buttons, added:

‘We can't go along to the administrative cadres of the district and tell them a couple of ghosts have turned up. They'll tell us we've got ourselves mixed up in obscurantism. We could even be punished.’;

‘That's true,’; agreed the other. ‘We did a political orientation course. You are souls, you're not the material reality that I and all the others with us in the new village are.’;

The fat one added emphatically:

‘To feed you, we'd have to ask for an increase in our quota. How would we justify that? By telling them we've got two souls to feed?’;

And there the conversation ended.

(1990, 72-73)

The story is part social criticism—a satirical attack on the inflexibility and corruption of local bureaucracy. Its heroes are the intellectuals: Samuel the teacher, who persuades the two to insist on their right to be counted amongst the living and to receive their quota of rations, and the journalist, who threatens to expose the corruption of the local officials. It is also an indirect comment on the disintegration of boundaries for present-day Mozambicans, those living—to borrow Kristeva's phrase again—on “the frontiers of life and death.” Alive or dead—there is little to distinguish the two in a world marked more by absence than presence, more by alienation than any sense of belonging.

Beyond a psychopathology of the individual—and by extension the community as a whole—as manifested in Couto's characters, Voices Made Night is at the same time symptomatic, in my view, of a broader contemporary crisis of speech and thought, a crisis of representation brought on in the wake of World War II—an era in which for Kristeva, as mentioned earlier, “never has the power of destructive forces appeared as unquestionable and unavoidable as now, within and without society and the individual” (1989, 221). Kristeva identifies several levels of damage following the Second World War: First, there is the material or physical damage wrought by weapons of destruction (the atomic bomb, for one) the like of which is unprecedented in history. Second, there is an accompanying upsurge, or simply a more obvious display, of disorders whose diagnoses are being refined by psychiatry—psychosis, depression, manic-depressive states, borderline states, false selves and so on. Yet what is at stake following the cataclysmic events of recent history (of which the colonial legacy and wars of decolonisation are part), is not so much the material and human levels of destruction wrought by the events themselves—the “spectacular aspect of death's eruption … nor the falling apart of conscious identity and rational behaviour ending in institutional aspects of psychosis” (223). What scenes and images of mass destruction damage most, for Kristeva, are our systems of perception and representation:

As if overtaxed or destroyed by too powerful a breaker, our symbolic means find themselves hollowed out, nearly wiped out, paralyzed. On the edge of silence the word “nothing” emerges, a discreet defense in the face of so much disorder, both internal and external, incommensurable. Never has its representation been assumed by so few symbolic means.


In “La Crise de l'esprit,” Valery compares the disaster affecting the spirit following the First World War to what a physicist observes in a kiln heated to incandescence: “if our eyes endured, they would see nothing. No luminous disparity would remain, nothing would distinguish one point in space from another. This tremendous, trapped energy would end up in invisibility, in imperceptible equality.12 One of the major challenges of literature and art is henceforth located in the invisibility of the crisis—how to make visible in words that which seems impossibly beyond their reach: “Both religious and political,” Kristeva writes, “the crisis finds its radical rendering in the crisis of signification” (1989, 222).

Mia Couto's response is to depict political horror as absorbed by private suffering into the subject's psychic microcosm. In no sense, however, does this amount to an evasion of the political, or an escape into the intellectual or aesthetic conceits of “magic realism.” At stake here is no mere question of technique, nor any reflection of an inescapable divide between the private and the political. The political events of contemporary history in Mozambique, overwhelming and outrageous as they have been, are assimilated to the extent of being measured by the suffering they have caused. Yet Couto's emphasis on private suffering has elicited more than one critical response from commentators to date. As mentioned before, Cooper (1990), for one, objects to what she sees as a contradictory attempt in Couto's writing to “give people their own dignified speaking voices” while at the same time “undercutting” these voices through the pessimistic tone of the narrative as a whole:

It seems to me that the absent authorial voice becomes an inevitable presence as the people's nightmare of ignorance, poverty, cruelty and war is unqualified and allowed to degenerate into pessimism and hopelessness. Is not the voice of the people ironically undercut even as they speak, given what is ultimately portrayed as the inadequacy of their resources—physical, social and psychological—to cope in the world in which they find themselves?


In a later essay by Fionna Goncalves (1995), Couto stands accused of undermining the human potential of his characters by a tendency to “inscribe Mozambican subjects as victims arrested in contorted postures of delusion and despair” (60).

A comparison with Ariel Dorfman's reading of García Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude seems pertinent here. Responding to the apocalyptic tone of the novel as a whole, Dorfman asks, Why does it have to end this way? Why is destruction the final destiny of the Buendias? One answer, he suggests, is that the conclusion has already been written when Marquez begins to tell the story—that he is

looking back and seeing that these hundred years have led to disasters and loneliness instead of expansion and joy. … Melquíades (whoever he really is) has already written the story of the Buendías—they are trapped in a past that cannot ever be changed. And yet when we open the novel, though the signs are everywhere, the terrible consummation does not seem that foregone. On the contrary, what has undoubtedly drawn readers to One Hundred Years of Solitude is its exuberant vitality, its sense that life was made for laughter and love, each generation renewing its pledge of innocence and youth as if the stagnation and futility awaiting their descendants were mere illusions.

(1991, 206)

What Cooper refers to at one point in her review as the “deceptively light tone” of the collection as whole is motivated, I think, in much the same way. Though based in delusions, the rich and creative life of the imagination of almost all Couto's characters prevents them from being inscribed simply as pathetic victims of circumstance. At the same time, what Cooper describes as the “people's nightmare of ignorance, poverty, cruelty and war,” is far from “unqualified,” as she suggests. To read it as such is to miss the documentary dimension of the stories, and their constant allusions, both direct and indirect, to the political and historical realities underlying each of the narratives.

Far from undermining the human potential of his characters, in Couto's stories the shattered private domain regains a grave and solemn dignity that demonstrates the severing of public life from reality, while allocating to history the responsibility for having triggered the madness within it. “Today's milestone is human madness,” Kristeva (1989) writes: “Politics is part of it, particularly in its lethal outbursts. … The modern political domain is massively, in totalitarian fashion, social, leveling, exhausting. Hence madness is a space of antisocial, apolitical, and paradoxically free individuation” (235). Having suffered both silence and continuous marginalisation, ordinary Mozambicans find ways, through Couto's narrative voice, to keep their own versions of history alive. At the same time, Couto is careful not to invent solutions that the people—his people—have not yet found themselves. To do so would be to distort and misrepresent the gravity of the problems facing the society he depicts. Madness, melancholia, call it what you will—the condition is not a function of weakness or defeatism. It is a way of coping with existence, as Kristeva's study makes abundantly clear.13 While acknowledging the incontestable suffering to which they have been exposed, Couto's villagers are simultaneously living the retelling of their lives, the conversion of the present into history, and hence into the future. As Dorfman (1991) remarks, in the essay mentioned earlier:

The immediate exaggeration of what is happening to us forces those circumstances into memory, ensures that they will not be forgotten, that a “plague of insomnia” will not attack our descendants and allow them to sidestep the relationship between things and their names. People in misdeveloped twisted lands may not be able to dominate what really happens to them; but they can at least control the stories they tell about how they want what happened to them remembered. This does not make them masters of themselves. For that, they would have to go beyond mere flashes of clairvoyance, they would have to find a way of grasping permanently the knowledge which comes from seeing the entire sweep of their lives. …


Madness and melancholia are involuntary last resorts for Couto's characters in the battle against total fragmentation and disintegration. At the literary level, they are also a way into recorded history, in versions controlled by the psychical reality of the people themselves, however confusing or disturbing this may be for the Western imagination to absorb or accept. Difficult though it may be to do so, we need to acknowledge this reality. This essay is based in the conviction that the theory of psychoanalysis can help us do just that—help us gain access, that is, through putting it to work in the reading of literary forms, to psychic realities beyond the range of our own experience. Only once this has been done—once the tragic psychic consequence of recent history in countries such as Mozambique have been understood and accepted, in all their monstrous intractability—can we even begin to hope to look forward to a time in which they will not be allowed to recur.


  1. For an extensive discussion on Mia Couto's work in the broad context of Lusophone African literary history, see Chabal 1996.

  2. This, and all future quotations are from the Heinemann edition, English language translation by David Brookshaw, first published by Heinemann International in the African Writers Series, 1990. The collection was first published in Portuguese by Editorial Caminho as Vozes Anoitecidas in 1986.

  3. I will return to this objection—and others in which it is echoed—towards the end of the essay.

  4. In “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern,” Homi Bhabha (1994) suggests (with reference to Habermas) that the “post-colonial project … seeks to explore those social pathologies—‘loss of meaning, conditions of anomie’—that no longer simply ‘cluster around class antagonism, [but] break up into widely scattered historical contingencies’” (171). This essay will be concerned with the social pathology generated by the catastrophic events of recent history in post-colonial Mozambique.

  5. Later in the essay I refer to Freud's “Mourning and Melancholia,” in which he identifies the distinction between the normal work of mourning and a pathological lapse into melancholia as a function of the success, or lack thereof, in the subject's attempt to abandon his/her libidinal position in relation to a lost object. “… [I]t is a matter of general observation,” he writes, “that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis” (S.E. XIV: 244; my emphasis).

  6. My use here of the word “naturalised” will be explained later in the essay. It is taken from a chapter on Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Franco Moretti's Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez (1996).

  7. For the original explanation in full, see Klein 1952, cited in Kristeva 1989, 18.

  8. There are many excellent studies describing the tragedy and complexity of the Mozambican crisis. The following would be a good place to start: Robert Gersony (1988) “Summary of Mozambican Refugee Accounts,” US State Dept. Bureau of Refugee Programs, April (this has been reprinted in various publications, notably in Mozambique—A Tale of Terror (1989) African-European Institute, available from AWEPAA, Prins Hendrikkade, 48, 1012 AC Amsterdam): Reginald Green (1989) “Poverty in Mozambique,” paper prepared for Unicef and the Ministry of Finance, also known as “Estudo SDA” and “the Green report;” Joseph Hanlon (1984) Mozambique: The Revolution Under Fire, London: Zed. For a sympathetic yet critical and unsentimental journalistic accourt, see William Finnegan (1992) A Complicated War: the Harrowing of Mozambique, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

  9. In Mozambique—Who Calls the Shots? (Indiana University Press, 1991) Joseph Hanlon raises central questions about aid by looking at Mozambique. By 1991, Mozambique had become the poorest and most aid-dependent country in the world. In this study, Hanlon shows how destabilization, structural adjustment and aid are linked. In the Health sector, for example, rapid expansion of the health service had helped make the government popular. As part of destabilization, one third of all clinics were destroyed. The government was not allowed to rebuild them because of IMF-imposed spending limits. Donor governments then gave funds to their NGOs who set up independent health units like mission hospitals. Hanlon's study shows how, in order to deal with the crisis of poverty, Mozambique has been forced to allow donors to rebuild the country in their own image.

  10. Ariel Dorfman (1991) is equally sceptical about the term “magic realism.” In Some Write to the Future, referring to García Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, he has the following to say: “The presence of the marvellous is—like the language of the novel itself—not an artificial addition or injection into reality—which is why I object so much to the term ‘magical realism.’ That term attempts to explain what happens in novels such as these as a merely literary strategy rather than a cultural experience that comes from the way people in Latin America cope with their existence” (210).

  11. We should bear in mind here Laplanche and Pontalis' point that when Freud speaks of psychical reality he is not simply referring to the proper field of psychology, conceived as having its own order of reality and as being open to scientific investigation: he means everything in the psyche that takes on the force of reality for the subject (See Laplanche and Pontalis (1988) on Psychical Reality).

  12. See Paul Valery. 1957. “La Crise de l'esprit.” Variete. In Oeuvres. Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, Paris: Gallimard. 1: 988. Cited in Kristeva (1989, 222).

  13. See, for example, Kristeva's discussion (1989) in the section entitled Integration/Nonintegration/Disintegtration (18-21), and my reference to this earlier in the essay: “Indeed, sadness reconstitutes an affective cohesion of the self, which restores its unity within the framework of the affect. The depressive mood constitutes itself as a narcissistic support, negative to be sure, but nevertheless presenting the self with an integrity, nonverbal though it may be” (19).


Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Brookshaw, David R. 1990. Contemporary Prose Fiction in Mozambique: From the Defence of Utopia to the Search for an Aesthetic Truth. Occasional lecture series No. 6. Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies: University of Bristol.

Chabal, Patrick. Editor. 1996. The Postcolonial Literature of Lusophone Africa. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

Cooper, Brenda. 1990. “Review of Voices Made Night.” Social Dynamics. 16.2: 91-95.

Couto, Mia. 1990[1986]. Voices Made Night. Translated by David Brookshaw. Oxford: Heinemann.

Dorfman, Ariel. 1991. Some Write to the Future: Essays on Contemporary Latin American Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1917e[1915]. “Mourning and Melancholia.” S.E. 14: 237-58.

———. 1917. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Part III. S.E. 16.

———. 1937c. “Analysis Terminable and Interminable.” S.E. 23: 209-53.

Goncalves, Fionna. 1995. “Narrative Strategies in Mia Couto's Terra Sonambula.Current Writing. 7.1: 60-69.

Gray, Stephen. 1993. “Mia Couto: No Open and Shut Case.” Mail and Guardian Book Week, Supplement to The Weekly Mail and Guardian. August 27 to September 2.

Klein, Melanie. 1952. Developments in Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press.

Kristeva, Julia. 1989. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Laplanche, J. and J.-B. Pontalis. 1988. The Language of Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac Books.

Moretti, Franco. 1996. Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to Garcia Marquez. Translated by Quintin Hoare. London: Verso.

Liam Connell (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Discarding Magic Realism: Modernism, Anthropology, and Critical Practice,” in ARIEL, Vol. 29, No. 2, April, 1998, pp. 95-110.

[In the following essay, Connell argues against the use of the term “magic realism,” maintaining that it serves to stereotype the works of certain writers as primitive and “Third World.”;]

The formal characteristics of a literature described as Magic Realist are hard to distinguish from the formal characteristics of early-twentieth-century Modernism; to that end, attempts to keep these movements distinct through the categorization of one sort of literature as modern and another as magical, as well the various attempts to define the genre through a series of extra-literary criteria, merely serve to codify a set of prejudices about Western European and non-Western societies and their respective modes of thinking.1 That is to say that non-Western societies are persistently characterized through a series of indicators which are categorized as primitive—one of which is a residual belief in myth, magic, and the use of ritual. Western nations by contrast are characterized as progressive, developing, modern. They then are allowed literary forms called Modernism, where their non-Western counterparts can only write Magic Realism.

The fact that this article was originally given as a paper at a conference devoted entirely to “Magic Realism” is one indication of the term's proliferation within the academy;2 if not of a consensus over its meaning. It is therefore worth making clear who it is that uses the term before looking more clearly at attempts to define its scope. At the University of Kent conference, three presentations were given by writers who, in other contexts, might be described as Magic Realists: Gaele Mgowe, Githa Hariharan, and Nuruddin Farah. Not one of these writers applied the term to their own work; Hariharan expressed a preference for the phrase, “the secret undercurrent to everyday life,” and Farah voiced an open hostility towards the designation. This writerly hostility notwithstanding it is frequently pointed out that the term has its origins in Alejo Carpentier's coinage3 of lo real maravilloso in an effort to distance himself from a surrealist project which he, although previously a practitioner (Spindler 76), had come to perceive as nothing “more than a literary ruse” (Carpentier, The Kingdom xi). It is important for my argument to underscore that Carpentier uses maravilloso rather than magico, and that critics who wilfully mistranslate Carpentier's phrase—or, by not translating, imply a simple correspondence between “the marvellous reality” and Magic Realism—not only obscure a genealogy which includes a Surrealist interest in the marvellous (Breton, What Is Surrealism?) but also invoke a number of cultural attributes which follow from the magical—of which I have already said something—and which are not, I think, similarly associated with the marvellous.

There is a similar movement in Timothy Brennan's work Salman Rushdie and the Third World where he comments of The Jaguar Smile that: “The Anglicisation of ‘magical realism’ and the saleable ‘Third Worldism’ it represents, required the adoption of a specific attitude toward the colonial legacy” (65). The quote “magical realism” is never attributed, suggesting that the inverted commas signal rather a discomfort with the phrase. Yet, despite usefully signalling a significant impulse behind its increasingly frequent usage, that is saleable “Third Worldism,” his application of “magic realism” to Rushdie is not justified by Rushdie's own words and represents an unacknowledged slippage from the writer's identification of Latin American anti-realism.4

Of Carpentier's formulation of lo real maravilloso, it should be noted that the Prologue to The Kingdom of This World closely resembles the schismatic manifestos of Surrealism. This suggests something of his metropolitan tastes, and we should not underestimate the fact that its starting point is the same “Voodoo” in which Breton found “one of Surrealism's poles of interest” (Breton, Conversations 161). This is of particular significance since Carpentier precisely rejects the juxtapositions of the Surrealist movement in favour of a representation of a reality in which such juxtapositions already, inherently exist. Jean Franco has argued that Carpentier “discovered” the marvellous in “Afro-Cuban popular culture” (318). While Carpentier does indeed valorize Cuban dance, the fact that it is in Haitian Voodoo that he initially encounters the marvellous should alert us to the fact that it is not to his reality that this designation is applied; and the question needs to be asked, to whom does it appear this way? If, as he signals, the key to this amazing reality is “faith,” a literal belief in the miracles that appear before us, it is worth pointing out that it is not Carpentier who believes in Voodoo, much as he is delighted by it. It is crucial that we ask what precisely is in play when Carpentier claims Haitian Voodoo—or, in a Nietzschean turn of phrase, from an interview 1984, “the magical, dionysian heritage of the black” (Carpentier, “Latin American Novel” 108)—as a representation of his own cultural position. In discussing Caribbean culture, Stuart Hall has remarked:

Visiting the French Caribbean for the first time, I also saw at once how different Martinique is from, say, Jamaica: and this is … a profound difference of culture and history. And the difference matters. It positions Martiniquains and Jamaicans as both the same and different.


Yet this difference is precisely what Carpentier effaces through his eclectic selection of cultural snap-shots from all over the Caribbean and South America in search of “what is universal” in “the genuine archetype” of “Latin American Man” (106-07).

This raises a secondary question, one which it is not possible to answer here but which does much to support my main argument. It is not uncommon to locate Magic Realism within traditional forms of non-Western culture, and as such as a site of resistance against the homogenizing tendencies of modernization: for instance, locating the origins of Rushdie's narrative technique in traditional Indian oral and literary culture (Ashcroft 183-84). While it need hardly be said that there is nothing finally radical about tradition in and of itself, it is also worth pointing out that it is not only so-called Magic Realists who have found uses for traditional forms of non-Western culture. Aijaz Ahmad has tellingly commented on the similarity between “Rushdie's kind of imagination” and the “peculiar ‘universalism’ of The Waste Land” (128). How are we to distinguish Rushdie's from Eliot's use of traditional Indian culture without descending into essentialized categories of true, genuine, or authentic cultural expression? It is my firm contention that it is precisely this sort of essentialism which characterizes the use of the term Magic Realism. Moreover, it is a phrase which is more commonly the property of the literary critic than of the writers that they survey, and it is for this reason that critical practice will be the chief concern of this essay.

The similarity of the formal properties of Modernism and Magic Realism has been amply recognized. García Márquez himself credits Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner, and, significantly, Joyce as literary influences (Levitt 78). In frequently cited discussion of the genre, Fredric Jameson offers a useful definition: “magic realism depends on a content which betrays the overlap or the coexistence of precapitalist with nascent capitalist or technological features” (311). If Modernism is thought of less as an historical period and more as a type of literature dealing with modernization, then the inclusion of established Magic Realist texts becomes more obvious.

This is certainly true of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which seems less concerned with history per se than with a specific history detailing the process of modernization in Maconda. Much of the effect of the novel relies upon depicting the technological encroachment of modernization as truly magical. So, for example, “José Arcadio Buendía did not have a moment's rest. Fascinated by an immediate reality that came to be more fantastic than the vast universe of his imagination, he lost all interest in the alchemist's laboratory” (Márquez 38).

While the “fantastic” objects of the gypsies (such as magnets, magnifying glasses, and ice) surpass the mythic quality of alchemy, it is telling that the officials of the banana factory perform actions that seem the most magical. They are also able to erase completely any memory of the massacre, a feat paralleled only by the mysterious disease of insomnia earlier in the novel. Their lawyers, moreover, are able to “dismiss” the workers' “demands with decisions that seemed like acts of magic” (245; emphasis added). These “acts of magic” are of course merely the acts of law and capital; yet their presentation in this manner would seem to suggest that the main concern of One Hundred Years of Solitude is precisely the disorientating effect of rapid modernization which occupied a number of more readily acknowledged Modernists.

It is perhaps surprising then that conventional accounts of the two genres tend to sustain a clearly marked distinction between them. For instance, Malcolm Bradbury's 1976 survey of Modernism—republished as a revised edition in 1991 and still a significant contribution to a critical analysis of early-twentieth-century Modernism—is entitled, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930. For Bradbury then Modernism is the preserve of Europe, despite the inevitable inclusion of a large number of North American writers. Bradbury's account becomes even more revealing when he suggests of the Modernists that “what such artists have achieved can be considered … the ultimate achievement of artistic possibility in the twentieth century, part of the progress and evolution of the arts towards sophistication and completion” (25; emphasis added). Here, Modernism becomes synonymous with development, and the phrase “progress and evolution” becomes an almost totemic account of Western history. Modernism appears to be a science that moves ever forward. Accounts of Magic Realism are quite different.

I want to look first at The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English; while this example may appear trite, it encapsulates the canonization of Magic Realism within a critical vocabulary, and, since at least a part of what is at stake here are pedagogic practices, it needs to be recognized that this is exactly the sort of resource that students are likely to turn to on first encountering the term. This guide begins with a formal description of the genre: “[It] is characterised by a juxtaposition of apparently reliable, realistic reportage and extravagant fantasy” (Ousby, “Magic Realism”).

The very broad nature of this definition, which is in no way untypical of attempts to define Magic Realism along formal lines (Williamson 45), allows the inclusion of a wide number of textual forms, including texts not usually thought of as Magic Realist. Indeed, Ian Connell uses a similar formulation when discussing certain types of tabloid journalism. This perhaps explains why one of the characteristics of the debate surrounding the genre is a reluctance to restrict any definition to merely formal properties. For example, in the Film and TV Studies Discussion List on the internet, correspondence dealing with Magic Realism attempts to extend the definition to certain social characteristics surrounding the production of the text. Following a request by Jonathan Beasley Murray,

… its method was first conceived, more importantly, as a response to the nature of South American reality. In countries previously ruled despotically as colonies and subsequently negotiating independence with no long-established institutions of freedoms, the fact that information can easily be manipulated or even commandeered by power groups makes truth a far more provisional, relative entity.

This in itself is a stereotype about non-Western forms of political organization, based on the assumption that Western European democracy permits forms of articulation which are not available to writers struggling under the weight of oppressive regimes. There may be some truth in this, but it is important to be aware of the restrictions that are placed also upon Western writers. Considered within the context of the black-lists of McCarthyism and American anti-Communism stretching back at least to the 1930s, or the prohibition prior to 1961 on Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, or the book-burning of Fascism, the practices of Modernism begin to appear as negotiations of the constraints on free expression. What is important here is that against all evidence, these events are presented as excesses or as exceptions to the otherwise calm progression of Western civilization. In contrast to which such broad generalizations as that made by the Cambridge Guide present this as the very condition of non-Western political organization.

To distinguish Magic Realism as the product of an oppressive social environment is to ignore the similar impact of Western society on its cultural production. For example, it is immensely significant that Joyce was writing during the period of Irish Independence and against the dominance of English culture in Ireland. Joyce's neologisms make more sense to me when viewed within a context that recognizes similar literary practices in Césaire's Negritude. It is worth noting Césaire's own links with the Modernism of 1930s Surrealism. Furthermore, René Depestre—himself involved with both Surrealism and Negritude—draws a line from Negritude, which he links to a broader Modernism, to the Magic Realism of Carpentier and García Márquez, among others (Clifford 179).

Nevertheless, most of the criticism of Magic Realism seeks to distinguish it from Modernism. William Spindler, in “Magic Realism: A Typology” (1993), offers a definition of what he calls “anthropological Magic Realism,” in what must surely be an unacknowledged borrowing from Jameson. Carpentier's conception of Magic Realism, Spindler says, “presents two contrasting views of the world (one rational, modern and discursive; the other magical, traditional and intuitive) as if they were not contradictory” (76). For Spindler, the first of these views is clearly associated with Europe, the second with non-European folk-culture. Yet this raises certain questions.

First, what do we mean by “traditional” views of the world? I have already raised questions about posing tradition as the liberated other of modernity and it is worth examining some of the assumptions that are attendant on its being used in this way. James Clifford has argued, in The Predicament of Culture, that interest in “traditional” art forms tends to locate such art production as anterior, as existing prior to, and without reference to, the modern world. Not only does this obscure the fact that art is still being made by such peoples, but it also serves to “locate ‘tribal’ people in a nonhistorical time and ourselves in a different historical time,” a practice that comes somewhere close to my own concerns about Magic Realism (Clifford 202). In turn, Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that art which is identified as “traditional” quite often proves actually to be modern art made specifically for the Western market. Myth and ritual in particular have been prone to this kind of representational stasis. Conventionally they have been seen as mere reflections of society, that is, as ossified representations of tradition, intended to preserve cultural attitudes. Against this, anthropologists like Victor Turner view ritual as much more dynamic, even catalytic. For him, as Kathleen Ashley observes, they become practices capable of initiating change and responding to events external to themselves: “an inexhaustible matrix of concepts, a fount of definition” (xvii).

The second question which Spindler's comments provoke is, why is it necessary to see these two views as contradictory? Within the chronology of a Frazerian view of social evolution, magic exists in a trajectory—through religion, to science. Modern rationalism and pre-modern thinking are thus clearly incompatible. Spindler obviously subscribes to this view, which is even more apparent when he attempts some anthropological work of his own:

The survival in popular culture of a magical or mythical Weltan-schauung which coexists with the rational mentality generated by modernity is not an exclusively Spanish-American phenomenon. It can be found in areas of the Caribbean, Asia and Africa where writers … have resorted to Magic Realism when dealing, in English or French, with similar concerns to those of the Spanish American writers.

(Spindler 81)

Here Spindler indulges in an act of categorization which seeks to define Magic Realism as a culturally specific project, by identifying for his readers those (non-modern) societies where myth and magic persist and where Magic Realism might be expected to occur.

There are several objections to this type of analysis. It needs to be recognized that models of Western rationalism may not actually describe Western modes of thinking and it is certainly possible to conceive of instances where both these orders of knowledge are simultaneously possible. If we look at modern Western societies, we can see numerous forms of myth being readily utilized—whether it is the wearing of crystals, performing Tai Chi, practising transcendental meditation, or even the literal belief in Christianity. These are not acts of preservation nor attempts to conserve tradition but, to recall Turner's explanation of “ritual,” they are active ways of negotiating new situations, in this instance modernization. It is not coincidence that this is the very activity which, I am arguing, is the defining characteristic of Magic Realism.

Perhaps more important, in arguing against Frazer, Marcel Mauss goes somewhat further in A General Theory of Magic, suggesting that while magic and science can clearly coexist, the distinctions made between them cannot be sustained:

Though we may feel ourselves to be very far removed from magic, we are still very much bound up with it. Our ideas of good and bad luck, or quintessence … are very close to the idea of magic itself. Neither technology, science, nor the directing principles of our reason are quite free from their original taint. We are not being daring … if we suggest that a good part of all those non-positive mystical and poetical elements in our notions of force, causation, effect and substance could be traced back to the old habits of mind in which magic was born and which the human mind is slow to throw off.

(Mauss 144)

This view is supported by Lévi-Strauss, when he argues that both

science and magic … require the same sort of mental operations and they differ not so much in kind as in the different types of phenomena to which they are applied.

(Lévi-Strauss 13)

He goes on to demonstrate that the mythical beliefs of so-called primitive epistemology are quite as logical as Western rationalism; it is simply that the “axes” upon which that logic operates are different and therefore not easily recognized (35-74). Formal definitions of Magic Realism fundamentally depend on the dissimilarity of the two modes of thinking because they have tended to focus on an effect derived from the incongruity of myth and rationalism. However, if Mauss and Lévi-Strauss are to be believed when they indicate that these modes do not exist in isolation at opposite ends of an evolutionary schema, such definitions of Magic Realism begin to appear considerably less informative. Finally, it is important to acknowledge the fundamental critique developed by Horkheimer and Adorno concerning the sustained opposition of myth and science that characterizes the Enlightenment. They too take up the anthropology of Mauss to suggest that, despite its claims to the contrary, science and by extension the entirety of Western rationalism is finally dependent upon precisely the same formulation as the mythic: “The principle of immanence, the explanation of every event as repetition that the Enlightenment upholds against mythic imagination is the principle of myth itself” (Horkheimer 12).

The very range of disciplines that these theorists represent does much to question the attempts made by literary critics to distinguish Magic Realism as representing a distinct epistemology. An example is Jameson's assertion that what differentiates Magic Realism is the expression of an anthropological attitude which confronts the modern with a non-modern epistemology and which, following Carpentier, takes on an “anthropological perspective … a kind of narrative raw material derived essentially from peasant society” (302). Jameson fails to explain how we may distinguish Carpentier's use of this “anthropological perspective” from that of mainstream European Modernists, who frequently used anthropology to similarly exploit mythical modes of thinking.5 It is instructive to note that James Clifford details the inter-connectedness of French Surrealism and ethnology, in the chapter entitled “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” particularly under the unconventional tutelage of Mauss (117-51). Clifford prefaces his chapter with a quotation from Max Ernst's “What is the Mechanism of Collage,” which describes collage as the “coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them” (117). This definition might also go some way to encapsulating the “Mechanism” of Magic Realism. Indeed, Clifford's own claim that the “surrealist ‘ethnographer’” treated culture “as a contested reality” is reminiscent of the definition of Magic Realism offered by The Cambridge Guide.

Of course, the anthropological material which is most often cited as being used by Modernist writers, especially those writing in English, and most famously in Eliot's The Waste Land, is James Frazer's The Golden Bough. The identification of Frazer with the Modernists might tend to support the evolutionary view of Modernism offered by Bradbury, as well as the attempts made to distinguish Modernism from Magic Realism. Yet we should not automatically assume that the Modernists shared Frazer's evolutionary paradigm. Perhaps the key to understanding their use of Frazer lies in the nature of anthropology itself. As a field of study, anthropology occupies an ambiguous territory and might be said, particularly in the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth-century variety that Frazer typifies, to straddle the dividing line between science and myth. It clearly attempts to construct itself as a scientific discipline, studying social organization, yet its substance is often the description of ritual and mythology. A work like The Golden Bough frequently reads more like fiction than science. Indeed, John Vickery suggests, in The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough (1973), suggests that Frazer's preface to the third edition indicates that such a blurring of the “scientific” with the artistic may have been intentional (7).

My use here of anthropology is intended to exclude the development of twentieth-century ethnography, with its emphasis on participant observation, which clearly sought to re-affirm the distinction between the scientific observation of the trained field-worker and the impressionistic insights of the amateur witness. Yet it would appear that even Malinowski felt it necessary to offer his readers some sense of the impression that his visit left upon him, as Valerie Wheeler details:

Malinowski wrote to James Frazer that he had “come to realise the paramount importance of vividness and colour in descriptions of life.” … In Argonauts of the Western Pacific he gives a traveller's account of his arrival in the Trobriand Islands, but in the ethnographic present of “an imaginary first visit.”


This is obviously a long way away from Magic Realism but it does point to a compromise between the demands of a scientific discourse and the demands of narrative engagement with the material described, even in the work of a writer whose very project depends on the construction of anthropology as an objective and scientific discipline. It is perhaps significant that Turner, in a manner reminiscent of Frazer's discursive ambiguity, moved over to anthropology from professional literary study. Indeed, in an essay on “The Literary Roots of Victor Turner's Anthropology,” Edith Turner suggests that he “was out there in the same world as our new literature [sic] giants, Kenzaburo Oe, Günther Grass, [and] Gabriel García Márquez—a baroque collection of culture producers, as odd as the carver of Gothic cathedrals” (169).

It is precisely this collapse of scientific objectivity into the literary which most obviously signals the disparity between Frazer's anthropology and its literary use. For instance, Warwick Gould says of Yeats, a keen folklorist who was widely conversant with Frazer's writing, that

Yeats read Frazer contra Frazer. Repeatedly he went to Frazer's splendid array of comparative evidences in order to use them to an end which flew in the face of Frazer's beliefs and conclusions.

(Gould 121)

Gould goes on to suggest that for Yeats, the loss of this mythic material rather than representing the triumph of progress, represented a challenge to the modern world, which had become fragmentary and which needed to recover such material in order to become whole.

In an essay on the influence of Lévy-Bruhl on Eliot and Joyce, David Spurr suggests that Frazer served Eliot merely as a source “of mythic material” and that it was Lévy-Bruhl who “provided a theoretical framework for this material” (270). Eliot seems to acknowledge the dual nature of anthropology by allowing it to theorize his writing, while he simultaneously revels in the mythic accounts that it provides. Lévy-Bruhl's theories of the prelogical mind and the mentalitie primitive propose that the division between reality and dreams, past and future, the same and the other did not exist in the primitive mind, and it was these theories which informed the structure of Eliot's work. Lévy-Bruhl argued that in contrast to Frazer's evolutionary conception this mode of thinking was not simply an ill-completed version of later (Western) modes, and, as a response to criticism, notably from Lévi-Strauss, he gradually came to concede that “Modern civilization carries with it a ‘residue’ of the mystical and the prelogical” (269). This view, which was supported explicitly by Eliot (141), is clearly a rejection of the types of evolutionary paradigm as characterized by Frazer. As Spurr suggests of Eliot, the use of Lévy-Bruhl's theories to inform a theoretical position from which to write, allows the possibility of a literature which could represent both the mythical and the rational “as if they were not contradictory”—precisely mirroring those practices which are supposed to distinguish Magic Realism.

It may seem that there is an obvious difference between the practice of borrowing mythical material from anthropological texts and that of reinvigorating the writer's indigenous cultural material. However, such a difference is hard to account for without essentializing the writer's relationship to culture. Moreover, as I have pointed out with reference to Carpentier, so-called Magic Realism is not a simple expression of that relationship. It is important also to be vigilant against making the mistake of thinking that just because García Márquez is Colombian, he believes in the myths that he uses. It is also critical that we recognize that the fantastic events narrated in texts described as Magic Realist often do not have the status of systemic myths. They are not magic in the truly anthropological sense—which Mauss defines as “traditional facts … actions” that are repeated, “eminently transmissible and … sanctioned by public opinion”—because they are often events which occur only once and to one individual (19). Therefore, the distinction between a Freudian Surrealism based on the individual psyche and a Jungian Magic Realism based on a collective unconscious, as postulated by Spindler, seems misleading (Spindler 76). In point of fact, it is perfectly plausible, to suggest a Freudian psychoanalytic reading of Midnight's Children, in particular Saleem's acquisition of his powers at the point at which he sees his mother naked. What is more, if, as Spindler and other critics have claimed, Magic Realism is produced by societies that still possess a residual belief in the mythic, it seems surprising that the myths represented within these texts are so infrequently social: they are much more typically individual.

In suggesting a possible basis for distinguishing the writing of Magic Realism from that of European Modernism, I am not saying that this contrast resides in an epistemic difference born out of a fundamental opposition between Western and non-Western modes of thought. Definitions of Magic Realism that suggest this seriously mistake Western modernity for a rationalist epistemology that is radically different from modes of thinking which retain a belief in magic, and in so doing conflate the non-Western with the premodern. In this view, Magic Realism depends upon a dynamic confrontation of one epistemological system with its irreconcilable other, in a manner which denies that contradiction. Such a ready polarizing of these modes of thinking is possible only when the co-existence of the rational with the intuitive in Western epistemology is denied. Indeed, it may well be the case that anthropology, the very language of cultural comparison, encodes this confrontation. Furthermore, to a significant extent, the practices of European Modernism depended upon just such a slippage between rationalist and non-rationalist thought. Situating Magic Realism in a distinct epistemology which is organically linked to the persistence of mythic material—as well as an unproblematic use of “traditional” cultural forms—fundamentally essentializes these writers and writing practices.

While it is fair to say that the writers who are categorized as Magic Realists are writing forms of Modernism, this assertion is potentially reductive, suggesting once again that they are simply reinscribing pre-existing Western forms. In no way am I proposing that they are only re-working the prior literary project of European writers. What I am suggesting, as a response to Jameson's proposition that “magic realism depends on a content which betrays the overlap or the coexistence of precapitalist with nascent capitalist or technological features,” is that we are dealing, in both cases, with attempts to negotiate rapid modernization. It is paradoxically in this similarity that I would seek to locate the difference. While both sets of writing are responding to the same occurrence—a rapid technological modernization—the material and historical conditions, and the relationship of power to that modernization, are irreconcilably different; again, it is instructive to remember that the owner of García Márquez's banana-factory is the foreigner Mr. Jack Brown. What I am arguing for, then, is a rejection of essentialist or organicist notions of culture in favour of a vision of cultural production which seeks its explanations in the material conditions of its production. Obviously this endeavour is subject to caricature and distortion, such as the overly simple attribution of Magic Realism to systems of governmental oppression. Nevertheless, a sophisticated materialist criticism seems to me a more worthy project than attempts at a broader classification of texts into convenient and marketable categories such as Magic Realism.


  1. Obviously the terms Western and non-Western are problematic, not least because they presume homogeneity which cannot be sustained. However, my use of the terms is intended to distinguish what might be described as a metropolitan-Hellenism from cultural positions that exist at the periphery of an increasingly global hegemony.

  2. This article was originally given under the title “Modernism as Magic Realism” at the conference on Magic Realism, University of Kent at Canterbury, 28 October 1995. I would like to thank the Department of English at University of Southampton for their rigorous questioning when this paper was delivered at a graduate seminar.

  3. The German art critic Franz Roh is credited with the term “Magischer Realismus” (112). Roh applied it in 1924 to the inter-war art of the Weimar Republic painters. It is significant for my argument that he associates the term with primitivism. See also H. H. Arnason, who suggests that Roh uses the term for a form of naturalistic surrealism in painting.

  4. As someone who does not read Spanish, I am sensitive to the fact that the only Latin American books that I encounter are those deemed sufficiently marketable to merit translation. Although much of García Márquez is not as “magic realist” as One Hundred Years of Solitude, it is designated as such because it is within this category that his work is marketed in the West.

  5. As a posting to future work, I might say that I am beginning to see the use of anthropology by High Modernism as absolutely central to moderate writers' proclivity to distinguish their confrontation with modernization from the prior reaction of Romanticism.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London: Verso, 1992.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 336-57.

Arnason, H. H. History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Ashley, Kathleen M., ed. Victor Turner and the Construction of Cultural Criticism: Between Language and Anthropology. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature: 1890-1930. London: Penguin, 1991.

Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of Nation. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.

Breton, André. What is Surrealism?: Selected Writings. Ed. Franklin Rosemont. London: Pluto Press, 1978.

———. Conversations: The Autobiography of Surrealism, with André Parinaud and Others. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. New York: Marlowe, 1993.

Carpentier, Alejo. “The Latin American Novel.” Trans. Ann Wright. New Left Review. 154 (1985): 99-111.

———. The Kingdom of This World. Trans. Harriet de Onis. London: André Deutsch, 1990.

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.

Connell, Ian. “Personalities in the Popular Media.” Journalism and Popular Culture. Ed. Peter Dahlgren and Colin Sparks. London: Sage, 1992. 64-83.

Eliot, T. S. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1933.

Franco, Jean. An Introduction to Spanish American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

García Márquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. Basingstoke: Picador, 1978.

Gould, Warwick. “Frazer, Yeats and the Reconstruction of Folklore.” Sir James Frazer and the Literary Imagination: Essays in Affinity and Influence. Ed. Robert Fraser. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990. 121-53.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994. 392-403.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Criterion, 1989.

Jameson, Fredric. “On Magic Realism in Film.” Critical Inquiry 12 (1986): 301-25.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1972.

Levitt, Morton P. “From Realism to Magic Realism: The Meticulous Modernist Fictions of García Márquez.” Critical Perspectives on Gabriel García Márquez. Ed. Bradley A. Shaw and Nora Vera-Godwin. Lincoln, NE: Society of Spanish and Spanish American Studies, 1986: 73-89.

Martin, Gerald. “On ‘Magical’ and Social Realism in García Márquez.” Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings. Ed. Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 95-116.

Mauss, Marcel. A General Theory of Magic. Trans. Robert Brain. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Ouseby, Ian, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Roh, Franz. German Art in the 20th Century. Trans. Catherine Hutter. Greenich, CT: NY Graphic Society, 1968.

Spindler, William. “Magic Realism: A Typology.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 29 (1993): 75-85.

Spurr, David. “Myths of Anthropology: Eliot, Joyce, Lévy-Bruhl.” PMLA 109:2 (1994): 266-80.

Turner, Edith. “The Literary Roots of Victor Turner's Anthropology.” Cultural Criticism: Between Language and Anthropology. Ed. Kathleen M. Ashley. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 163-69.

Vickery, John B. The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

Wheeler, Valerie. “Traveler's Tales: Observations on the Travel Book and Ethnography.” Anthropological Quarterly 59:2 (1986): 52-63.

Williamson, Edwin. “Magical Realism and the Theme of Incest in One Hundred Years of Solitude.Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings. Ed. Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 45-63.

Representative Works

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Isabel Allende
La casa de los espíritus [The House of the Spirits] (novel) 1982
Los cuentos de Eva Luna [The Stories of Eva Luna] (short stories) 1990
El plan infinito (novel) 1991

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones (short stories) 1962
Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (short stories and essays) 1964

Alejo Carpentier
The Lost Steps (novel) 1953
El reino de esté mundo [The Kingdom of This World] (novel) 1949

Leonora Carrington
Le Cornet acoustique [The Hearing Trumpet] (novel) 1974
The Stone Door (novel) 1978

Angela Carter
Shadow Dance (novel) 1966; also published as Honeybuzzard 1967
The Magic Toyshop (novel) 1968
Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (short stories) 1974; also published as Fireworks: Nine Stories in Various Guises, 1981
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (short stories) 1980

Julio Cortázar
Final del juego (short stories) 1956

Mia Couto
Voices Made Night (novel) 1986

José de la Cuadra
Los Sangurimas (novel) 1934

Laura Esquivel
Like Water for Chocolate (novel) 1989

Timothy Findley
Not Wanted on the Voyage (novel) 1984
The Telling of Lies (novel) 1986

Carlos Fuentes
Terra Nostra (novel) 1975

Gabriel García Márquez
Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] (novel) 1970
The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother (novella) 1984

David Grossman
See Under: Love (novel) 1986

Jack Hodgins
Spit Delaney's Island (short stories) 1976
The Invention of the World (novel) 1977

Alice Hoffman
Property Of (novel) 1977
Illumination Night (novel) 1987
At Risk (novel) 1988
Seventh Heaven (novel) 1990
Turtle Moon (novel) 1993
Second Nature (novel) 1994
Practical Magic (novel) 1995

Susan Kerslake
Middlewatch (novel) 1976

Maxine Hong Kingston
China Men (novel) 1980

W. P. Kinsella
Shoeless Joe (novel) 1983
The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (novel) 1986

Robert Kroetsch
What the Crow Said (novel) 1983

Ann-Marie MacDonald
Fall on Your Knees (novel) 1996

Gwendolyn MacEwen
Noman (short stories) 1972

Steven Millhauser
Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer (novel) 1972
Portrait of a Romantic (novel) 1977
In the Penny Arcade (short stories) 1986
The Barnum Museum (short stories) 1990

Toni Morrison
Song of Solomon (novel) 1977
Beloved (novel) 1988

Gloria Naylor
Mama Day (novel) 1988

Ben Okri
The Famished Road (novel) 1991

Michael Ondaatje
Running in the Family (novel) 1982

Salman Rushdie
Midnight's Children (novel) 1981

André Schwarz-Bart
Le dernier des Justes [The Last of the Just] (novel) 1959

Ntozake Shange
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (novel) 1982

Leslie Marmon Silko
Ceremony (novel) 1977

D. M. Thomas
The White Hotel (novel) 1981

Mario Vargas Llosa
The Green House (novel) 1966

Seymour Menton (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: “The Last of the Just: Between Borges and Garcia Marquez,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 59, No. 4, Autumn, 1985, pp. 517-24.

[In the following essay, Menton discusses the influence of Latin-American magic-realist writers on André Schwarz-Bart's novel Le dernier des Justes.]

André Schwarz-Bart's Le dernier des Justes (The Last of the Just), an outstanding novel of the Holocaust and recipient of the 1959 French Prix Goncourt, is not only a prime example of magic realism but also provides a link between two of the tendency's most famous Latin American practitioners, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. Hailed by critics upon its publication, The Last of the Just as late as 1963 was called by Pierre de Boisdeffre one of the most significant novels of the preceding twenty years, along with The Plague by Albert Camus. However, in the ensuing twenty years, Schwarz-Bart's novel seems to have fallen victim to the same plight as its main characters. The Levy family is persecuted by the Germans for being Jews while the French government will not admit them because they are Germans. French critics and literary historians of the past two decades have tended to ignore the novel almost completely, possibly because it is not in the mainstream of French literature,1 whereas Holocaust critics and literary historians have tended to deprecate it on religious and historical grounds. Perhaps the clearest explanation of why The Last of the Just has not been appreciated as a great work of art by Holocaust critics is given by Edward Alexander in the introduction to his 1979 book The Resonance of Dust: Essays on Holocaust Literature and Jewish Fate: “In the aftermath of the Holocaust the historical situation of the Jewish people is so desperate that an evaluation of Holocaust literature in merely literary terms is an unaffordable luxury.”2 Be that as it may, if the Schwartz-Bart novel is to be rediscovered and appreciated in the 1980s and beyond, it must be on the basis of its literary qualities. By establishing its debt to the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges and by analyzing its similarities to García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, I hope to demonstrate that the artistry of The Last of the Just may best be understood within the context of magic realism, a term that originated with the German art critic Franz Roh in 1925, and a tendency whose international character is traced in my own study, Magic Realism Rediscovered, 1918-81.3

Schwarz-Bart (b. 1928), a voracious and self-educated reader, undoubtedly discovered Borges in the 1950s before or during the four years that he worked on his novel. The French translation of Borges's Ficciones was first published in 1952 by the prestigious firm of Gallimard and was enthusiastically acclaimed by French intellectuals.4 Moreover, the fact that two of Borges's stories, “The Secret Miracle” and “Deutsches Requiem,” deal directly with the Holocaust whereas others such as “The Aleph,” “Death and the Compass,” and “Emma Zunz” reveal a general fascination with Jewish culture could hardly have escaped Schwarz-Bart's attention.

Coincidentally, Gabriel García Márquez (b. 1927) lived in Paris between 1955 and 1957 as a struggling young writer. Although there is no proof that García Márquez met Schwarz-Bart during that period, or even that he read The Last of the Just before completing One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the two novels share an impressive series of magic-realist traits. Furthermore, one unique stylistic detail in the Colombian novel may well have been inspired by its French predecessor, which was published in Spanish in 1959 by Seix Barral in Barcelona. As the banana workers' corpses are being hauled by train to the sea, José Arcadio Segundo sees “los muertos hombres, los muertos mujeres, los muertos niños.”5 In The Last of the Just, as Ernie Levy travels in the overcrowded train to Auschwitz, he gently picks up the body of a child who has just died and places it “au dessus du monceau grandissant d'hommes juifs, de femmes juives, d'enfants juifs.”6 Of course, the juxtaposition of the masculine noun muertos with the feminine noun mujeres used as an adjective makes the García Márquez phrase even more outstanding.

Although The Last of the Just is primarily a Bildungsroman that traces the history of Ernie Levy and his immediate family, the first of the novel's eight parts sketches in a bare eighteen pages the lives of the Levy's twelve spiritual ancestors from 1185 to 1792. It is this part that bears the unmistakable imprint of Borges.

Like “Theme of the Traitor and Hero,” “History of the Warrior and the Captive,” “The Sect of the Phoenix,” and other Borges stories, part 1 of The Last of the Just is narrated in an apparently straightforward, unadorned essayistic style. Erudite references, authentic or imaginary, give an impression of encyclopedialike historical veracity. Beginning with the 1185 mass suicide of twenty-six Jews in the besieged watch-tower of York, England, the tragic history of the Jews for the following six centuries is exemplified by a series of episodes in a variety of countries involving the legendary Lamed-Vovniks.7 The latter are the thirty-six Just Men whose function in the world, at times unbeknownst to them, is to absorb the suffering and grief of mankind: “If just one of them were lacking, the suffering of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn and humanity would suffocate with a single cry” (LJ, 5).

As in Borges's “Secret Miracle” and “Garden of Forking Paths,” Schwarz-Bart prevents his readers from becoming emotionally involved with his tragic victims through a variety of distancing devices. The story of the York suicide is presented alternately by the omniscient narrator and “an eyewitness, the Benedictine Dom Bracton” (3). Schwarz-Bart, like Borges in “Theme of the Traitor and Hero,” makes his readers question the possibility of ascertaining historical reality by referring to the different versions of the survival of Rabbi Yom Tov's son: “Here we reach the point at which history penetrates legend and is absorbed by it, for exact details are lacking and the opinions of the chroniclers are divergent” (5).

By limiting his history of the Jews to one representative Lamed-Vovnik in each generation, Schwarz-Bart personalizes the sufferings of the Jews, but, faithful to his approach, he maintains the distancing by continuing to refer to a variety of chronicles. The charming Ephraim Levy was killed by a hurled stone in Germany, yet “he is hardly mentioned in the chronicles; the scribes seem to avoid him. Judah ben Aredeth devotes barely eight lines to him. But Simeon Reubeni of Mantua, the gentle Italian chronicler, evokes ‘the undulating curls of Ephraim Levy’” (14).

Obliged by the text to think rather than feel, the reader cannot help but notice the incongruous, magic-realist juxtaposition of precise dates with the view of history's unreliability. In the very first paragraph of the novel the narrator astonishes and amuses the reader, as in Borges's “Theme of the Traitor and Hero,” by leaping abruptly from the vague to the precise: “The true history of Ernie Levy begins much earlier, toward the year 1000 of our era, in the old Anglican city of York. More precisely, on March 11, 1185” (3). Likewise, in the case of Rabbi Yom Tov's grandson, the narrator tells us that “the circumstances of the seventh trial are little known” (8) but then proceeds to disclose that Manasseh Levy was killed on 7 May 1279: “Before a gallery of some of the most beautiful women in London, he had to suffer the passion of the wafer by means of a Venetian dagger, thrice blessed and thrice plunged into his throat” (8).

The matter-of-fact tone in which the above horror and others are narrated is typical of Borges and of magic realism in general. Objective and dispassionate as the narrator attempts to be, his frequent use of irony, reflecting his declared condition as a friend of Ernie Levy, provides an escape hatch for his concealed emotions. In England, Jews “were daily accused of sorcery, ritual murder, the poisoning of wells, and other affabilities” (8). In Portugal, “John III charitably offered the exiles a sojourn of eight months in return for a mutually agreeable entrance fee. But seven months later, by a singular aberration, that same sovereign decreed that he would now spare the lives of those Jews leaving his realms without delay, and this in return for a mutually agreeable exit fee” (12).

As part 1 of the novel draws to a close, the distancing techniques diminish, and a full three pages are devoted to Chaim, called the Messenger, a talented dancer associated with the Hasidic movement of Baal Shem Tov in late eighteenth-century Poland. The omniscient narrator describes Chaim's physical appearance, his modesty, and his penchant for learning. He tells without mediation how Chaim left Kiev for a Silesian village, where he lived among the followers of Baal Shem Tov. When Chaim disappears from the village in order not to receive reverence and adulation from the Hasidim who have discovered that he is one of the thirty-six Just Men, the narrator does separate himself briefly from Chaim: “Many chronicles point out that he preached only reluctantly. … He became so popular a figure that a number of stories identify him with the Baal Shem Tov himself. … In the abundance of ancient parchments we cannot separate entirely the commonplace from the miraculous” (20).

However, starting with the next sentence, the omniscient narrator assumes complete responsibility for continuing Chaim's story. After two sentences devoted to Chaim's wanderings, the narrator turns him into a real novelistic character (very unlike Borges's characters) by providing the reader with sufficient details to provoke an emotional response. The night of his arrival in the small Polish town of Zemyock, Chaim faints at the door of a Jewish house: “His face and his boots were so worn, so hardened by the cold … it was necessary to amputate his legs at the knee” (21). Part 1 ends with the dramatic recognition of the reluctant Chaim as one of the thirty-six by the old rabbi of Zemyock: “And advancing, he embraced his horrified successor” (21).

Although the narrator periodically resorts to some distancing devices in the other seven parts of The Last of the Just,8 they serve only to provide a momentary respite from the tragic story of Chaim's descendants. The predominant Borgesian style of part 1 reappears only infrequently. Parts 2-8 are more in the vein of the romance, with several notable similarities to One Hundred Years of Solitude. The town of Zemyock resembles García Márquez's Macondo in its magic, utopian isolation from the rest of the world. During its mythical period, Macondo is so isolated from the rest of the world that the Buendía family and the other founders live in Arcadian bliss. Business, religion, and government are absent, and all houses are equidistant from the river and enjoy the same angles of sunlight. Unaware of the discoveries and explorations of Columbus, Vespucci, and Magellan, José Arcadio Buendía proves “scientifically” that the world is round.

No less miraculous is Zemyock, which was “so peaceful a town, so sheltered from the world, that there even a Just Man could die only in his bed!” (LJ, 28). Coming as it does directly after the narration of six centuries of endless persecution, this statement is indeed amazing. The explanation lies in the fact that “there was neither a nobleman nor a priest for at least a league in any direction” (28). The timelessness of this situation is spelled out by the narrator with a touch of Borgesian self-contradiction (“perhaps”): “From time immemorial, perhaps more than a hundred years, the faithful here had died gently” (28). However, inevitably, as in Macondo, historical time impinges on mythical time toward the end of the nineteenth century: “While the sands of the days ran on, gently, grain by grain, the Jews of Zemyock persisted in thinking that the measurable time of man had ceased to exist in Sinai. … From those sublime heights, no one had eyes to see what destiny was weaving in the time of the Christians—a newborn industrial Poland, nibbling away squarely at the primarily artisan's life of the Jews” (34).

In contrast with the nearby city of Bialystok, Zemyock is called “that bazaar of dreams” (68). However, its magic isolation from the rest of Europe, comparable to that of Macondo from Colombia's highlands, ends with World War I and the Russian Revolution: “The year he [Benjamin] returned to his home town, a war broke out somewhere in Europe. The gentle souls of Zemyock were informed of this only in the month of February, 1915, by letters arriving from Paris, Berlin and New York” (71). When the White Guard Cossacks capture the town, the Levy family flees to the top of the Hill of the Three Wells. Benjamin looks back at Zemyock, and the narrator describes his ultrasharp, static, magic-realist vision of the town, which could well have been painted by the German Franz Radziwill.

He was first struck by the beauty of the countryside. A ring of fog circled the little valley halfway up, and the green slopes trailed off into the shrouding gray to re-emerge fifty yards below. Black figures swarmed over the neighboring hills like so many ants. The pink roofs of the town stood out with a blinding sharpness within the ring of fog. Benjamin was looking for the open space of the church square when he heard the cries. Then he saw many blackish flakes seemingly born of the pink roofs as if by magic; the cries were now (thinned as they were by distance) like the ludicrous cheeping of a nest of baby birds. Above it all the sky remained motionless and blue. Benjamin opened his mouth to scream and then changed his mind. The air was absolutely still.


The absence of such a bird's-eye view of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude is probably due to the town's flat terrain or perhaps to the more dynamic and less introspective, less lyrical nature of the Colombian novel.

Whereas the action of One Hundred Years of Solitude is confined basically to Macondo, Zemyock is only the starting point, albeit a most important one, in the tragic odyssey of the Levy family. Unlike “lo real maravilloso” (the marvelous real) of Carpentier and Asturias, where the magic is inherent in the voodoo culture of Haiti or the Mayan culture of Guatemala, there is nothing inherently magic about Zemyock, Berlin, Stillenstadt, Paris, Drancy, or Auschwitz; it is the author's magic-realist vision that envelops each place in a magic aura. When the young tailor Benjamin leaves Zemyock for Germany, he is lodged by the Committee of Rescue and Emigration in an abandoned synagogue in Berlin with hundreds of other refugees waiting for an apartment. A very unpleasant situation is invested with a touch of magic by the division of the great halls of the synagogue into “apartments” by chalk lines which the people do not cross without first “knocking.” After Benjamin's friend Yankel invites him to come in, the former's action—“raising a foot modestly, he set it down on the other side of the chalk circle” (89)—is delightfully simple and somewhat tragicomic.

From Berlin, Benjamin moves to the fictitious Stillenstadt (literally, “Quiet City”), where he opens a tailor shop. It is in this quiet town that the violence of the Nazis erupts in the early 1930s. The narrator's magic-realist description of the town, which evokes such magic-realist paintings (“doll houses” is the key phrase) as Carl Grossberg's Bridge over Schwarzbach Street in Wuppertal, Auguste Herbin's Notre-Dame, and Grant Wood's Paul Revere's Ride, makes the future Nazi violence that much more astonishing: “Stillenstadt was one of those charming German cities of an age gone by. With its thousands of doll houses, pink-tiled, bedecked with potted flowers, it seemed a living manifestation of that old Germanic sentimentality which penetrated and bound all things intimately—even as the spittle of the swallow by an invisible thread holds together the twigs that make its nest” (102).

The city's charm stems partially from the special role of its chestnut trees. Ernie Levy's revelation of his mission in the world as a Lamed-Vovnik is identified with the chestnut tree in the family yard: “Glowing with enthusiasm, he ran to the window, which he opened wide on the chestnut tree in the yard, the neighboring roofs, the swallows in the almost tactile flight of bats, the blue of the sky, so close” (177). That same chestnut tree later witnesses Ernie's attempted suicide. Herr Kremer, the German teacher who risks his job and his life to defend his Jewish students, articulates the magic-realist vision of the world through the chestnut tree in front of his sixth-floor apartment window, a vision that is strikingly similar to the one expressed in Julio Cortázar's short story “A Yellow Flower.”

Turning his gaze to the open window, he discovered the blue of the sky like a promise. The tip of the chestnut tree was blossoming. He approached the window and plucked a leaf which he inspected in his palm; it was glistening in all its fresh green pith. He leaned out the window and received the revelation of the chestnut tree, whose myriads of leaves rustled in the wind like a head of wild hair. He had lost everything, but some things went on without him—the sky, the earth, the trees, little children. “And if I die,” he thought tenderly, “all that will not depart the earth.” It seemed to him that he had just invented the world. Of a sudden he felt extraordinarily happy—he did not know why.


With the rise to power of the Nazis, the Levy family escapes to Paris, but the fall of France in May 1940 leads to the internment and ultimate death of Ernie's parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters. By the spring of 1943, all Jews are required to wear an identifying yellow star on their jackets. Threatened with certain extinction, Ernie and his beloved Golda decide to enjoy a beautiful spring day in Paris without wearing their telltale jackets. Their astonishingly carefree, dreamlike walk culminates in their unexpectedly coming upon the Mouton-Duvernet Square, described in true magic-realist fashion.

Tempted then by the neighborhood charm of an alleyway, they emerged at the Avenue du Maine and saw an enchanting little plaza, a true oasis surrounded by sunstruck buildings that, with all their shutters closed, seemed to have fallen into a final sleep. They took their time choosing a bench. Golda set down her basket, and in the immemorial attitude of lovers in Paris they watched—without seeing them—the children, housemaids and old ladies who were also soaking in the happiness of the Square Mouton-Duvernet.


Their happiness is short-lived, as Golda is soon taken off to the internment camp at Drancy, a suburb of Paris. Once again the narrator creates a feeling of disbelief and amazement by juxtaposing the tranquillity of suburban Paris, reflected in its “small, snug homes” and a leisurely cyclist, with the huge concentration camp.

Ernie followed the ticket-taker's directions, walked for a long time, saw a mass of concrete rising to dominate the low roofs around it, turned off on a badly paved road and was suddenly standing before the huge double block of buildings that seemed to have sprung fully armed from the vast emptiness of back-yard gardens and vacant lots among which it stood like a bronze fortress. A cyclist coming up behind him passed at a leisurely pace, riding halfway between the barbed-wire wall and the small, snug homes opposite the concentration camp.


When the train arrives at Auschwitz, the narrator uses the dawn ironically to paint a final picture of the outside world, the very real world, in spite of its appearances: “Beneath the blackish heights of the dawn, the plaza, trampled by hundreds of Jewish feet, also seemed unreal” (368). The ultimate in improbable juxtapositions is the presence of a pathetic orchestra welcoming the condemned to the gas chambers: “On one of those open trucks he even noticed a group of men apparently wearing pajamas, each of whom was holding a musical instrument. They composed a kind of peripatetic orchestra waiting farcically on the truck, wind instruments to their lips, drumsticks and cymbals raised, ready to blare forth” (369).

Ernie Levy, the last of the Just Men, dies in the gas chamber. Never again will the race of Just Men suffer for the sins of humanity. Aureliano Babilonia, the last of the Buendía lineage, is likewise swept away by an apocalyptic wind. Never again will a race condemned to such solitude have a second opportunity on earth. Whereas García Márquez is heralding the arrival of the future ideal communist society, Schwarz-Bart is implying that the Jews of the future cannot rely on God to protect them. They too must build a new society in order to survive.

Although the moralistic endings of both novels imply a criticism of the world view expressed respectively by the Buendías and the Levys (with the notable exception of Ernie), both authors are very adept at creating delightfully unforgettable characters, who, in spite of their many differences, are also quite similar. In general the male characters of One Hundred Years of Solitude tend to be carbon copies of one another, as indicated by their all being named José Arcadio or Aureliano—a reflection of the author's cyclical view of history. On the other hand, The Last of the Just concentrates much more on the biography of only one character, Ernie Levy, who is clearly differentiated from his father Benjamin and his grandfather Mordecai and whose complete life is traced in great detail from birth to death. Nevertheless, the use of archetypal patterns, unexpected changes in character, plus other specific similarities may not indicate García Márquez's direct indebtedness to Schwarz-Bart, but they do strengthen the case for their both forming part of the magic-realist tendency.

Mordecai, like José Arcadio Buendía, is both the physical giant and the introspective intellectual. Although his religious principles do not condone violence, he is insulted and kicked by the Polish potato pickers so much that he finally thrashes one of his tormentors, thus earning for himself a reputation as the unique “tough Jew” (39) of Zemyock. After marrying Judith, Mordecai spends the rest of his life as a pious Jew. When his son Benjamin rejects the values of the Lamed-Vovniks, Mordecai withdraws into solitude, as does José Arcadio Buendía after being tied to the chestnut tree. The imagery used to describe Mordecai could well be applied to the founder of Macondo: “That old elephant, Judith always said of her husband from then on, that old solitary, that rock” (119). Only one more time does Mordecai's physical strength manifest itself. As in the episode with the Polish peasants, Mordecai resorts to violence with the utmost reluctance. In 1938, in Stillenstadt, as the Nazis are about to rush up the stairway, young Ernie grabs an iron bar to protect the sacred scrolls of the Law: “Seeing this, the patriarch [Mordecai] stepped toward him and slapped him. ‘To save your life,’ he said, ‘would you lose all reason to live?’” (269). However, a few moments later, Mordecai himself

… held the iron bar high above his head, and his phylacteries and laces and prayer shawl fell to the floor in his anger. “Because we never give up our books,” he cried with awesome strength. “Never, never, never!

“We prefer to give up our lives,” he added while the iron bar, swung like an ax, split the door with a deafening crash. “We'll give you our lives, ha-ha,” he finished in that same delirious tone, mingling violence and an incomprehensible note of despair. … “But the shame of it, at my age, the shame of it.”


In a totally different context, but with the same degree of intensity, José Arcadio Buendía smashes the alchemy laboratory when it refuses to yield the gold that he was trying to manufacture.

Just as Mordecai assumes archetypal significance by being referred to as the patriarch, Judith becomes the archetypal woman, like Ursula, when the narrator refers to her as Mother Judith (122) at the time of her grandson Ernie's birth. Ernie's mother is totally effaced by Judith much in the same way that Santa Sofía de la Piedad and Fernanda are effaced by Ursula: “Children respect only the supreme authority. Mordecai was always wise enough to efface himself before Herr Benjamin Levy in their presence, but it was not so with Mother Judith, who became mother-in-chief as soon as the children were old enough to obey her. Fräulein Blumenthal found herself relegated to nourishment” (123).

Both matriarchs succeed their husbands as the governing force in the family. Ursula establishes her hegemony over José Arcadio Buendía by refusing to abandon Macondo early in the novel. The final paragraph of part 2 of The Last of the Just attests to a similar reversal of roles: “In his doubt, he [Mordecai] allowed Benjamin to exile himself abroad. And if he had not permitted it, his declining authority could never have stood up against the thenceforth inflexible will of Judith” (79). When Judith next sees Benjamin as a successful tailor in Stillenstadt, he becomes a totally different person for her: “She could get nothing more out of him and was suddenly aware that she did not know him, that she had never known him” (111). Similarly, Ursula discovers through her blind clairvoyance that, contrary to her previous opinion, Colonel Aureliano “was simply a man incapable of love” whereas Amaranta was “the most tender woman who had ever existed” (OH, 233).

Judith's nonrecognition of Benjamin indicates his radical change from a Lamed-Vovnik redeemer to the “Gentleman of Berlin,” the name of his shop in Stillenstadt. His birth, after Judith had had three miscarriages, was clearly miraculous. He survived when the midwife reached into his mouth and “withdrew a clot of blood the size of a hazelnut” (LJ, 63). He was so small that Mordecai likened him to a mosquito. After three other normal-size sons were born, “Mordecai neglected the mosquito's religious instruction, consecrating the greater part of his time to the three later sons, who were already beyond their elder brother in size as well as knowledge” (64). At the age of eight, Benjamin was apprenticed to a tailor in Bialystock. Five years later, his Bar Mitzvah ceremony strengthens his characterization as a future Lamed-Vovnik. He shocks his parents by grasping “the dangling hand” (66) of the old Just Man and placing it on his own head. When Mordecai apologizes for Benjamin's not knowing anything about the Pentateuch, the old Just Man asks, “And I, what do I know of the Pentateuch?” (67), and kisses Benjamin's hand. The narrator describes Benjamin's instant public recognition with tongue in cheek: “They all wanted to inspect the hand that the Just Man had kissed. A yellow aureole was still visible upon it, a vestige of the old mouth stained with tobacco, and they made the child swear not to wash as long it was still there” (67).

Benjamin's character as a good, innocent, potential Just Man continues its normal path through his flight from the brothel in Bialystok, his miraculous escape from the Cossacks with Mordecai and Judith while his three “normal” brothers are murdered, his discussions with the disenchanted Galician redhead in the Berlin synagogue and “apartment house,” his being mocked by his more assimilated fellow tailors in Berlin, and his defense in the Stillenstadt synagogue of the falsely repentant apostate. However, after his parents join him in Stillenstadt, Benjamin tells Mordecai that he no longer believes in the Lamed-Vov legend: “You know very well that to be a Lamed-Vovnik is worth hardly anything in this world—and maybe not even in the next” (119). Once Benjamin's son Ernie is born, the narrator refers to the former as “Herr Benjamin Levy” (123), thus abruptly depriving him of his role as Just Man.

The last two-thirds of Schwarz-Bart's novel focuses on the life of Ernie Levy, which makes him even more of a protagonist than Colonel Aureliano Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Although the differences between the two characters are much greater than the similarities, they do have in common some interesting traits and experiences. As boys, Ernie and Aureliano are both clairvoyant introverts with a magic quality in their eyes. After birth, Ernie's eyes, “which were blue for three weeks, soon shifted to a midnight blue sprinkled with brilliant stellar sparks” (128). After his heroic defiance of the Nazis, he “discovers” his mother for the first time: “… her long hands whose mysterious sharp whiteness he noticed for the first time. … Woebegone, Ernie's eyes drank in his mother's features, unable to find in them a reflection of her interior face. But suddenly he had a dazzling insight into Fräulein Blumenthal's soul: it was a delicate fish” (179). Similarly, Aureliano was born with his eyes open, “examining the faces of the people with a fearless curiosity” (OH, 23). At age three, he stares intensely at a pot of boiling soup, and his words “It's going to spill” (23) actually seem to make the pot move from the center of the table. His statement “Somebody is coming” (46) mysteriously heralds the arrival of Rebeca. Both youngsters are more interested in intellectual matters than are their physical older brothers. José Arcadio, Aureliano's brother, is the unforgettable super-macho. Ernie's brother Moritz, from the day of his birth, “sported a good round belly that was like an expression of his animal joy of living” (125) and is considered a pagan by his grandparents, in total opposition to the Lamed-Vov tradition.

Moritz was a ringleader—he invented games and loved nothing so much as mock warfare on the banks of the Schlosse. When he prowled among the reeds, a half-drawn bow against his thigh, he knew that his destiny was not what they thought it at home. And when they undressed to dive into the river, the clothes of the presumed Moritz Levy disappeared, revealing a naked savage in a menacing forest of reeds. He attacked the enemy enthusiastically. And when the two of them slid into the mud, he could have wished the shouts genuine, the knives real metal.

(LJ, 126)

Nevertheless, in true magic-realist fashion, it is the antlike Enrie, the “heroic flea” (172), and not Moritz who saves the Jewish congregation of Stillenstadt by stepping forward in defiance of the Nazi SA, just as Aureliano and not José Arcadio becomes the staunch defender of the Liberal cause, the leader of “thirty-two armed uprisings” (104). Ernie and Aureliano later become disenchanted with their causes and abruptly, albeit temporarily, undergo radical changes in behavior. After receiving news of the Levy family's internment in the Nazi death camp, Ernie rejects his Lamed-Vov destiny violently and works at becoming a dog. He takes on the surname of Bastard, grows a moustache, changes his gloomy slouch of a walk into a frisky pace, goes to Marseille and works as a cashier in the black market, barks, gallops on all fours, eats raw meat, refuses to let himself fall in love, brawls, attends Mass, and displays “a herculean passion” (294) for a French prisoner's wife, the owner of a small farm. Ernie's transformation is portrayed explicitly in Rabelaisian terms: “Now he was beginning to look like a fat, good-natured, gluttonous Rabelaisian personality” (290). Super-macho José Arcadio and Aureliano Segundo in One Hundred Years of Solitude are also Rabelaisian characters, and García Márquez openly acknowledged his debt to the sixteenth-century French author by having his alter ego Gabriel take Rabelais's complete works with him to Paris.

Ernie's eventual resurrection as a Lamed-Vovnik occurs through his eyes. When a Christian blacksmith tells Ernie that he knew he was Jewish because his eyes resembled those of the Jewish children taken in buses to the Drancy internment camp, Ernie “hears” the cries of the patriarch Mordecai and Mother Judith, which penetrate his “tough shell of doghood” (299). After a severe emotional crisis, Ernie is once again able to cry, and part 6 closes with the words “… his heart, sweetly, opened to the light, as it had long ago” (302).

Although Colonel Aureliano's transformation is not quite so dramatic, he too loses his ideals and then regains them. When civil war breaks out in Colombia, Aureliano at first maintains his integrity by refusing to participate. However, when he witnesses the electoral fraud perpetrated by the Conservatives and the murder of innocent bystanders, he goes to war on the side of the Liberals, in whose ideals he sincerely believes. He later realizes, however, that regardless of their stated political dogmas, the Liberal and Conservative politicians and landowners are in cahoots with one another. As Aureliano's fame increases, he himself realizes that he is “fighting because of pride” (OH, 133) and “power” (162). He becomes so hardened and embittered by the constant fighting that he even has his own friend General Moncada executed and condemns Gerineldo Márquez to death. Moncada had warned him: “‘At this rate,’ he concluded, ‘you'll not only be the most despotic and bloody dictator in our history, but you'll shoot my dear friend Ursula in an attempt to pacify your conscience’” (154). After Colonel Aureliano sacks the home of Moncada's widow, Gerineldo Márquez tells him: “You're rotting alive” (159). His own mother Ursula no longer recognizes him and threatens to kill him with her own hands if he proceeds with Gerineldo's execution. Coincidentally, the Colonel's resurrection, like Ernie's, is accomplished by breaking the shell: “Colonel Aureliano Buendía scratched for many hours trying to break the hard shell of his solitude” (163). After an all-night vigil, he succeeds in recovering his idealism and starts to fight for his own liberation. From that point until his death, he is loyal to his ideals. He never ceases to distrust the politicians, and he objects so strongly to the tactics of the U.S. banana company that in his old age he threatens to start another war to drive it out. His threat, however, is presented as being pathetic and ends tragically with the death of his seventeen illegitimate sons.

The relationship between Mother Judith and Benjamin's wife Leah Blumenthal anticipates in a small degree that between the Buendía family and Aureliano Segundo's wife Fernanda del Carpio. Fräulein Blumenthal, as she is called by her husband Benjamin and the narrator even after bearing several children, is endowed with “slender white hands” and takes great precautions “in order not to chip a fingernail or scratch the precious ermine of a patch of skin. Judith announced that her daughter-in-law handled all things with tweezers” (LJ, 120). In One Hundred Years of Solitude Fernanda del Carpio's aristocratic manners and airs are more offensive to the entire Buendía family. Colonel Aureliano protests against the changes introduced in the house by Fernanda: “We're becoming people of quality. … At this rate we'll end up fighting against the Conservative regime again, but this time to install a king in its place” (OH, 201). Amaranta uses a form of pig Latin to declare boldly that Fernanda is “onefos ofosif thofosif whosufu cantantant statantand thefesef smufumellu ofosif therisir owfisown shifisifit” (199). Fernanda also plays a much more important role in the Colombian novel than does Fräulein Blumenthal in The Last of the Just. The latter is so relatively insignificant that she also resembles Santa Sofía de la Piedad, who, in spite of being the mother of Remedios the Beautiful and the twins Aureliano Segundo and José Arcadio Segundo, has practically no impact on her children's lives or on the novel in general.

The unexpected elements in characterization and the “magic” settings combine to produce unforgettable magic-realist scenes in both novels. José Arcadio Segundo's miraculous escape from the banana massacre is similar to the Levys' escape from the Cossacks' attack on Zemyock. Mother Judith, in the tradition of her biblical namesake, saves her husband and son by knocking over their assailant with a blow to his face and then by killing him with his own saber à la David and Goliath. Judith's heroics are cast in the magic-realist mold by the use of the following techniques:

1. The episode is seen through the eyes of a child, Benjamin.

2. The landscape is described, as previously noted, “with a blinding sharpness” (LJ, 73) and “the air was absolutely still” (73). Magic-realist painters often refer to painting in an airless, vacuumlike setting.

3. The sharp contrast between light and shadow is reminiscent of De Chirico's paintings: “A thin ray of sunlight projected the Cossack's shadow almost to Benjamin's feet” (76).

4. Reality is made to appear like a dream: Judith's “dreamlike hand rose, its index finger, in beckoning movement, reminding him of a child playing hide-and-seek” (73).

5. The oxymoron image of the wigless Judith, “an aged infant” (74), was to be further developed in One Hundred Years of Solitude when the aged Ursula shrinks little by little until she looks “like a newborn old woman” (OH, 315).

6. The narrator, in true Borgesian style, disclaims his omniscience: “What followed was unclear. Taking a step forward, his mother Judith had swung her left fist (or perhaps simply the powerful flat of her hand) against the Cossack's face” (LJ, 77).

7. Judith's violent cutting off of the Cossack's hand is narrated in an objective, matter-of-fact manner with reference to an everyday occurrence: “Benjamin saw the wide blade of the saber cut through a wrist, which dropped away from the forearm with the passivity of a piece of kitchen meat” (77).

8. Reality itself is questioned. As in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain and Dino Buzzati's Tartar Steppe, the question arises as to which of the two worlds is the real one. From Benjamin's point of view, “there was that world down below—and this one. Which was real?” (74). Was the flight from Zemyock a dream? The question is still not resolved even after Judith has killed the Cossack: “When his father Mordecai rushed to his mother Judith, it seemed to Benjamin that a layer of skin had been peeled from his eyes. Was all that real? He could not yet believe it” (77).

Years later, when the child Ernie saves the Jews of Stillenstadt from the Nazis, some of the same techniques are used. Ernie's tiny size is contrasted to that of the menacing Nazi officer by the De Chirico-like interplay of light and shadow: “The child was already standing before the terrible ‘brown shirt,’ so small that he seemed servile at the man's feet, so puny that in the cruel splendor of sunlight on the stones of the courtyard the man's shadow covered him entirely” (163). The whole scene takes on a make-believe, biblical, and static aura by a thinly veiled allusion to the story of David and Goliath as seen through an old manuscript: “What followed took place far away, in one of those dreamworlds of ancient legend to which the sparkling sunlight, beaming its mysteries on each detail of the scene, added the lively color of an old illuminated manuscript” (164).

Moments earlier, just as Ernie steps forward to confront the Nazi, time is suspended, as in Borges's “Secret Miracle” when Jaromir Hladik is about to be executed, and as in One Hundred Years of Solitude when the banana workers were about to be massacred. As Ernie stands before the Nazi, frozen in time, the point of view shifts to the patriarch Mordecai, who meditates for two pages on “the holocaust since the beginning of time” (162) and “the dizzying significance of being Jewish” (163), before the action resumes with the annoyed Nazi's casually knocking Ernie to the ground and marching his men away.

Dramatic rescues are not the only scenes presented in a magic-realist manner. When Ernie runs away from home after being falsely accused of molesting the Christian grocer's daughter, the unexpected appearance of the “magic child” recalls Uslar Pietri's short story “The Rain” and Truman Capote's “Miriam.” The peasant boy, dressed in Tyrolean shorts and wearing an enormous helmet, appears “standing in the moonlit clarity of the yard” (193) and speaks, like Capote's child protagonists, in a precociously self-confident manner. His description is preceded by his matter-of-fact advice to the thirsty Ernie, who is trying to drink water spilling from a pipe into a trough: “You don't drink it that way. I'll show you” (193). The peasant boy's magic quality is strengthened by his seeming “not the least bit surprised by the fugitive's astonishing adventures” (193). He also proceeds to show Ernie in pantomime and with nonchalance how to defend himself against dogs and wolves and then provides Ernie with food before returning to his home. As the two boys part, the whole episode takes on a dreamlike air: “The peasant boy had disappeared, and his village was entirely drowned in the night; it no longer seemed to be a human agglomeration. The countryside itself had melted mysteriously into the sky; trees floated in the soft air” (194).

The peasant boy's totally unexpected friendly attitude is not only typical of magic realism but is totally in keeping with the history as well as the faith of the Jewish people. If the Jews are God's chosen people, why have they suffered so much? As Mother Judith declares picturesquely in 1939, “What a great God is ours, … and how oddly he runs the world!” (275). The narrator himself abandons all pretense of objectivity on the last page of the novel when he addresses the reader directly in truly magic-realist self-contradictory terms. He expresses his anger at the Jewish God by interspersing the names of concentration camps and cities of oppression in a repeated prayer of praise: “And praised. Auschwitz. Be. Maidanek. The Lord. Treblinka. And praised. Buchenwald. …” (374). On the other hand, the bitter prayer is followed directly by a tender affirmation of faith in a typical magic-realist breezeless and cloudless space.

Yes, at times one's heart could break in sorrow. But often too, preferably in the evening, I can't help thinking that Ernie Levy, dead six million times, is still alive somewhere, I don't know where. … Yesterday, as I stood in the street trembling in despair, rooted to the spot, a drop of pity fell from above upon my face. But there was no breeze in the air, no cloud in the sky. … There was only a presence.


In spite of the many similarities between these two novels, their fates have been very different. One Hundred Years of Solitude became an instant popular and critical success upon publication, and its fame has continued to grow, culminating in García Márquez's designation as winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1982. The Last of the Just, on the other hand, was duly recognized and acclaimed in 1959 as the recipient of the Prix Goncourt, but since 1963 it has all but disappeared from critical studies devoted to contemporary French literature. Although the historians of Holocaust literature do comment on it, they are more concerned with its ideological “failings” than with its artistic achievements. If The Last of the Just should ultimately become appreciated not via its French or Holocaust connections but rather via its Latin American connections with Borges and García Márquez, Ernie Levy's magic-realist “amazement that there was no rhyme or reason to the universe” (283) would be further substantiated.


  1. See Bersani, Autrand, Lecarme, and Vercier, La littérature en France depuis 1945, Paris, Bordas, 1970; Claude Bonnefoy et al., Dictionnaire de littérature française contemporaine, Paris, Delarge, 1970; Jacques Brenner, Histoire de la littérature française de 1940 à nos jours, Paris, Fayard, 1978; Harry T. Moore, Twentieth-Century French Literature since World War II, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1966; Gaëtan Picon, Panorama de la nouvelle littérature française, Paris, Gallimard, 1976 (see WLT 52:1, p. 82); and Christopher Robinson, French Literature in the Twentieth Century, Totowa, N.J., Barnes & Noble, 1980.

  2. Edward Alexander, The Resonance of Dust: Essays on Holocaust Literature and Jewish Fate, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1979, p. xv. See also Sidra de Koven Ezrahi, By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980; Cynthia Haft, The Theme of Nazi Concentration Camps in French Literature, The Hague, Mouton, 1973; Laurence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, New Haven, Ct., Yale University Press, 1975; and Alvin Rosenfeld, A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1980. For reviews of the Alexander, Ezrahi, and Langer books respectively, see WLT 55:1, p. 183, WLT 55:2, p. 378, and BA 50:3, p. 724.

  3. Seymour Menton, Magic Realism Rediscovered, 1918-81, Philadelphia, Art Alliance, 1983.

  4. See Michael Carrouges, “Le gai savoir de Jorge Luis Borges,” Preuves, 13 (1952), pp. 47-49; René Etiemble, “Un homme à tuer: Jorge Luis Borges cosmopolite,” Temps Modernes, 83 (1952), pp. 512-26; Paul Benichou, “Le monde de Jorge Luis Borges,” Critique, 1952; Paul Benichou, “Le monde et l'esprit chez Jorge Luis Borges,” Lettres Nouvelles, 21 (1954), pp. 680-99.

  5. Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad, 3rd ed., Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 1967, p. 260. English citations are from One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gregory Rabassa, tr., New York, Avon, 1971, and use the abbreviation OH. On García Márquez, see the special issue of BA (47:3, pp. 439-505) following his selection as the 1972 Neustadt Prize laureate, and also WLT 56:1, pp. 48-51.

  6. André Schwarz-Bart, Le dernier des Justes, Paris, Seuil, 1959, p. 355. English citations are from The Last of the Just, Stephen Becker, tr., New York, Atheneum, 1973, and use the abbreviation LJ.

  7. The Hebrew letter lamed is the symbol for 30; the letter vov is the symbol for 6.

  8. “On November 6, 1938, a Jewish adolescent, Herschel Grynszpan, whose parents had just been deported to Zbonszyn, bought a revolver, had its use demonstrated to him, went to the German Embassy in Paris and shot to death, as an expiatory victim, the First Secretary, Ernst von Rath” (LJ, 262). A few other similar examples, with precise dates, refer to historical events of the “outside” world.

Geoff Hancock (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Magic or Realism: The Marvellous in Canadian Fiction,” in Magic Realism and Canadian Literature: Essays and Stories, edited by Peter Hinchcliffe and Ed Jewinski, University of Waterloo Press, 1986, pp. 30-48.

[In the following essay, Hancock provides an overview of magic realism in Canadian writing, arguing that Canada's vast wilderness and archeological history encourage a sense of the marvelous in its writers and artists.]

The extraordinary events I'm about to describe actually happened to me. As a western Canadian, whose home town was New Westminster, B.C., I experienced the improbable on a daily basis. You might expect logging, fishing, mining, but you would be amazed by the magic, myth and metaphor in the midst of such everyday occurrence.

As I thought about my remarkable personal life, I realized the strength of memory. My memory tells me I have experienced the incredible. Memory, as you know, contains two streams of images: the conscious and the unconscious. The images in my memory mix the probable and improbable. I realized at an early age that the source of magic realism is the realization that literature does not end at the point where our mental habits usually locate books, on a linear plane, like the real external world.

As I recall my past, I see magic realism in nostalgic terms. Like Julio Cortázar, I ache with “the nostalgia of not being capable of fully opening the door which on so many occasions I have seen set ajar for only a few seconds.” Like the famous Kwakiutl carvers of B.C., Mungo Martin and Bill Reid, whose images of wolf, sea-otter, bear and hawk on their totems are nostalgic as well, I recall the marvellous experience of my ancestors. B.C. is isolated enough that the magic realist concept of insularity provides a freedom where events can take place without problematic contact with what more Puritanical Canadians would call “the real”.

As a child I was surrounded by fantastic reality. I saw a funeral every day of my life. My parents lived next to a cemetery, and there amidst the tombstones we flew kites, walked the dog, learned to ride bikes, ski, and later to drive cars. Next to the cemetery was the castlelike fortress of the B.C. Penitentiary, where guards were warned not to shoot at escaping prisoners for fear of shooting us, playing with our toys on the front lawn. And next to that, Woodlands School for Retarded Children. Sheila Watson's father was Superintendent there, and my mother was a psychiatric nurse. Sheila Watson's The Double Hook took Canadian literature a great mythical step forward, but her past was in this odd place.

Our next door neighbour was a professional wrestler, Bad Boy Shields. While he was a perennial loser in his matches, he was my introduction to that morality play for the working classes, professional wrestling. The commedia dell'arte battle between good and evil was fought between such heroes as the giant Haystack Calhoun, the dwarf Sky High Low, Canada's Greatest Athlete, Gene Kiniski, and such villains as The Masked Avenger, Mr. X, and Abdullah the Butcher.

The boundary between reality and illusion was always blurred when hometown movie star, Raymond Burr, better known in those days as television's Perry Mason, gave speeches of hope and promise at highschool homecoming. The greatest magician in the world, Leon Mandrake, is from New Westminster, where he has since retired.

Not four blocks away, at the foot of steep Alberta Street, past the brewery and the broomstick factory, was the mile-wide Fraser River. Who would have believed that the oolichan, those oily smelt that the Indians called candlefish, would migrate past my house by the millions? Who would believe that immense sturgeon, weighing a ton or more and a dozen feet long, were also netted not ten minutes from our house? A photo of such a creature, dwarfing a pickup truck, was on the placemat of a local restaurant and haunted me for years.

On the horizon was the perennial snow cone of an 11,000-foot-high dormant volcano. Each year we were warned of imminent eruption. Spotter planes would see steam melting snow in the crater. Mount Baker never erupted after all, but its sister Mount St. Helen's did. Mount Baker is in the North Cascades Wilderness Area, only seventy miles from New Westminster but never surveyed from the ground. Some people find it hard to believe that this territory is the home of the hairy Sasquatch. But then such people probably don't believe in the Okanagan Lake serpent Ogopogo, either.

New Westminster is also known as the Royal City, so named by Queen Victoria. For a short time, the city was the provincial capital. For over a century, New Westminster had the largest May Day celebration in the British Commonwealth. Not that workers' day holiday, with military parades, and platoons of tanks and rocketry, but the old-fashioned spring jubilation, which included maypole dancing and the coronation of a seven-year-old as Queen of the May. These quick examples of hometown history suggest how my own view of reality was shaped.

It is not surprising, then, that my earliest literary enthusiasms were for eccentric writers. I had moved without knowing it from “the idea of the poet” to “the adventure of the poetic vision.” I remember the character in Keith Maillard's Two Strand River when he first sees a totem pole in the endless B.C. rain. That's how I felt, a witness privileged to be part of all these miraculous things: the fantastic, the abnormal, the primitive, the monstrous. The landscape was animated by its potential. My wider view of reality was already in place. I did not have to read Miguel Angel Asturias to find the marvellous. I had been living in Guatemala all along. There was no difference between the Colombia of Gabriel García Márquez and the British Columbia of my own experience.

I found, however, that to be witness to my own experience takes courage and imagination. To confront my home and native land, with its own psychic energy, on literary terms as exciting as magic realism meant I had to shake off previous assumptions that Canada was a dull place and that life could not be a fiction.

British Columbia used to be marked “Parts Unknown” on explorers' maps. Perhaps it still should be. Even the official government tourist ads suggest that metaphors of the marvellous are still in place: “Super, Natural B.C.” How uncannily close in spirit to the symbolist phrase “Super-Naturalism,” first used by Gérard de Nerval, and considered by André Breton as a possible name for his new movement, Surrealism.

B.C.'s startling imagery lends itself to the flamboyant rhetorical devices of magic realism. Alejo Carpentier, writing of Latin America, said writers were like Adams, their duty to “baptize all that surrounds them.” Jack Hodgins echoes this when he says B.C. writers are like “Adams gone mad in Eden. …” The duty of our writers is to name things, to write themselves into existence.

British Columbia is less a state of nature than a state of mind. Writers do more than describe the landscape tradition. In J. Michael Yates's The Great Bear Lake Meditations, man as pure consciousness becomes the landscape. What about the effect of all that rain? “Isobel's Monologue While Watching It Rain in Macondo” is merely a trickle compared to a season in Ocean Falls. In Stephen Guppy's story “Another Sad Day at the Edge of the Empire,” which re-evaluates colonialism from the perspective of Greek myth, the magic occurs when the rain stops. Nature seems to triumph over any system of rational thought in B.C. Here nature is the metaphor for mankind.

Yet the magic realists do more than write out of a supercharged landscape tradition. The personalities that live here—the fishermen, lumber barons, larger-than-life politicians—provide rich and wonderful models. Magic realism draws upon these folkloric characters. It cannot exist without a complex human community with folklore and legends as a precondition for its existence. Jack Hodgins' wonderful stories and novels need a firm basis in actuality before the fictions can aspire to mythical status.

B.C. also has 12,000 years of archeological history. Its native cultures are as rich in their own way as the Mayan, the Aztec and the Toltec cultures, which also use the devices of a pre-literate people to make visible their complex social and cosmological order. Northwest Indian art was likewise integrated; its unique visual impact was part of the cultural context and natural environment of a fishing, hunting and gathering people.

While B.C. might claim to be only 150 years old (in the European sense), we are still on a voyage of self-discovery. We have to learn to recognize our mythology as well as our history. Magic realism reminds us that our memory is in a state of crisis. How do we preserve the past, especially when it depends upon spoken words or painted images? Writing, as Borges reminds us in “Funes the Memorius,” is selective and simplified, like memory; history becomes the words that are written, as you must believe the extraordinary story of B.C. that I have just told you. So the past becomes a text, a version of the full truth that can never be told—a deception. Magic realism reminds us that our history is a fiction that exists only in the books that have been written about it.

The native mythology of the west is hard to recover because native myths were private property, fiercely guarded. It was a privilege to use song and dance, masks and images. They had to be handed on with proper ritual. For example, the elaborate animal motifs of the Haida and Kwakiutl were used on transformational masks. They enabled the personality of a superior being to descend to the physical world. Emily Carr in Klee Wyck and her other writings said, “Myth is real.” D'Sonoqua the Indian goddess, Hokhow the bird monster, Bukwas the wild man of the woods, Eagle Spirit and Shark were all real for her.

Stephen Guppy writes to me: “One of the things we have in common with people in parts of Latin America is our culture, such as it is, is based on a collision between the European intellectual tradition and the ‘mythic’ perspective of a relatively large native Indian populace … with a rich and quite sophisticated oral literature. This collision between cultures … is mirrored in the structure of much magic realist fiction, in which the miraculous events and symbolic characters we associate with the myth or folktale are depicted in the realistic style of a 19th-century European novel. Thus the juxtaposition of realism and fantasy, or mythos and logos, if you like, which characterizes magic realist fiction, mirrors the superimposition of European culture on the North and South American landscape.”

These patterns are seen in fictions as varied as Susan Musgrave's The Charcoal Burners, George McWhirter's Coming to Grips with Lucy, Seán Virgo's White Lies and Other Fictions, Charles Lillard's poems Voice of My Shaman, James Houston's Eagle Song, Anne Cameron's Dreamspeaker, Andreas Schroeder's The Late Man and his novel Dustship Glory, and Michael Bullock's The Man with Flowers through His Hands.

Many years later I remembered that afternoon when my father first took me to Stanley Park to see the totem poles, and like the colonel in One Hundred Years of Solitude I faced the firing squad of my imagination. Any confrontation with “primitive” art fires upon the imagination. In these cultures the most important individual is the shaman, magician or medicine man. In literate cultures, as poet Michael Bullock says, writers are shamans who dream for their community. They use the magic power of words to bend invisible spirits to their wills. No clear distinction is made between magic, art, religion, other voices, or other worlds. An ordinary Sunday in Vancouver, a trip to the park, can be an encounter with magic.

Magic realism and “primitive art” are connected. Literature, like ritual, has a configuration of the mind to “possess” what is not present in itself. Ritual, ceremony, and fiction have this in common: a mental association is projected onto the world.

Primitive art, painting, and magic realism all stress the importance of “painted” or “written” images. This enhances the memory of the shaman and his initiates. These images are more than hunting “magic” to capture game. They remind us how close we are to primitive thinking. Images are totemistic or metamorphic. They are the secret structures of our imagination. We want, say the images; we covet, we desire. Magic realism is linked with painting for good reasons. The truth always presents itself to us in pictures. But paint is not the only way of activating the world.

Prose is itself a vision. Stories seem to occur in a three-dimensional space, and impress themselves on the reader as a scene or a latent dynamic image. The space is pictorial, descriptive. The scenes or images are filled with movement. In some ways, magic realism is like Cubist painting. Objects are not painted as seen, but “as thought,” with everything perceived at once. Cubism introduced the idea of collage, juxtaposition, contrast of images. Audrey Thomas exploits this trope in her collage novel Blown Figures. The artist aims for new visions, not just imitations. Magic realism shows the difficulty of distinguishing what is real from what is fantastic. It's all a trick of perspective; magic realism goes beyond copying reality to inventing it.

Although the magic realists and writers of the marvellous in Canada cannot be seen as a single group, writers from coast to coast have all raised questions about the nature of “the real”. Hubert Evan's Mist on the River (1954) is one of the earliest Canadian novels to show the influence of the native imagination. The first major book of pre-magic realism is Howard O'Hagan's Tay John, a remarkable achievement that touches upon mythology and magic as energetically as it shows the weakness of realism and naturalism. Robertson Davies, especially in the Deptford trilogy, associates magic and mystery with the process of self-discovery. In Fifth Business his main character, Magnus Eisengrim, complains, as did André Breton, “people want to marvel at something, yet the whole spirit of our time is not to let them do it.” The surrealist painter Giorgio Di Chirico wrote in Le Fils de l'ingenieur, “He lived in two rooms which he had covered from ceiling to floor with the most strange and troubling designs that made certain distinguished critics repeat for the thousandth time, ‘it is nothing but literature.’” Sixty years later that same judgment might be applied to Timothy Findley's troubling fictional structure Famous Last Words. The novel is itself the message on the wall. Robert Kroetsch, in such novels as What the Crow Said and Badlands fuses the natural world of Alberta with comic hyperbole that undercuts the official intentions of CanLit.

Magic realism and the marvellous have ascended to spectacular heights in Quebec. This conference would require another day just to investigate the work of our French-language colleagues. As it is, my introductory remarks in Invisible Fictions from Quebec (House of Anansi), give an overview of how Quebeckers have found literary liberation in fiction of the marvellous. Another valuable resource is André Bourassa's Surrealism and Quebec Literature: History of a Cultural Revolution (University of Toronto Press). A short reading list of marvellous Quebec fiction would certainly include Roch Carrier's The Garden of Delights; Jacques Ferron's The Penniless Redeemer; Denys Chabot's Eldorado On Ice and his Governor General's award-winning novel Moon Country; Michel Tremblay's The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, as well as other novels in his Mont Royal cycle; Marie Clair Blais' Mad Shadows; Gérard Bessette's Les Antropoids, a novel of tribes, of origins, of lost language; Anne Hébert's Héloise; the poetry of Emile Nelligan, Canada's own Rimbaud; and greatest of all, Monsieur Melville, the seven-volume masterpiece by Victor-Lévy Beaulieu. Quebec's fiction of the marvellous focusses all the concerns and obsessions of the Québecois writer surrounded by English North America. Quebeckers have found in the marvellous a means of creating their own invisible country.


But what exactly is “magic realism”? Part of the problem of definition is that the subject is wider than literature. A few features can be identified: exaggerated comic effects; hyperbole treated as fact; a labyrinthine awareness of other books; the use of fantasy to cast doubt on the nature of reality; an absurd re-creation of “history”; a meta-fictional awareness of the process of fiction making; a reminder of the mysteriousness of the literary imagination at work; a collective sense of a folkloric past.

Alejo Carpentier has suggested that the marvellous is not universal, but exclusively Latin American. He calls the marvellous the subconscious of Latin America. He writes that the narrative force of the marvellous comes from those places most difficult to reach, such as the Amazon hideaway of The Lost Steps, his most famous novel. For Carpentier, the marvellous Latin American reality is based on “primitive faith” that includes an acceptance of the superstitious as part of daily life. Fantasy and reality, he suggests, merge “by virtue of the exultation of spirit.”

Yet as I look at my shelf filled with Canadian examples, I see that miracles are not found only in Latin America. Perhaps we need a different set of premises. Yet the Latin American examples are useful for Canadian writers looking for a different means of self-expression, if only as a place to start. As I thought about the idea of magic realism, I realized I had many questions, some of which I could not answer to my satisfaction.

Is magic realism ultimately religious: mythology and dogma? If so, can only the religious believe in such fictions? Does magic in a technological society provide a distancing effect? How can we prove the marvellous to be “true” in an emotional or psychic sense? Is there a link, through magic, to the wider universe? Are writers really like shamans, existing somewhere between a human community and the cosmic forces? Between affirmation and denial? Between order and disorder?

Carpentier noted, as a self criticism, that he was always on the outside looking in. A space needed “intrusion” to be discovered. The Indians and places of his marvellous America became objects of discovery, and he as writer in turn became a self-conscious intellectual conquistador who failed to become part of what he recorded.

Other critics of Carpentier, such as Juan Carlos Onetti, a confirmed urban writer, have complained that there should be a division between the real and the fiction. Magic realism is a reminder, Onetti argues, that the product of language is man-made and not natural. Other critics of the fantastic and marvellous in Latin America have complained that art is placed before social commitment. Social realists also argue that magic realist characters are caricatures rather than fully formed psychological creations. Such critics further argue that hyperbole and literary gamesmanship become a safe replacement for political discourse in nations ruled by dictators.

To put these arguments another way, magic realism raises the same problems as always for the fiction writer: can we know the truth, and if so, how will we tell it?

Magic realism may have a confident tone, but does it have a prophetic voice? Language is part of a shared understanding. The commitment of a writer comes from a strong social and moral identity. Can the reader of magic realist fiction experience such books in the same way as the author? Psychic capacity is part of our experience of the marvellous. The archetypes of dreams contain aspects of the “reality” we all share. Can the marvellous be a way of truly awakening us, of closing that gap between our waking and our sleeping selves?

Magic realism raises fundamental questions. How do we know ourselves and our society? How do we deal with that knowledge in our bones? Are we in exile from our roots by choice or by necessity? How do we de-colonize our imaginations?

The surrealist aesthetic claimed that knowledge was born of the revelation that was found only in the marvellous. As André Breton said, “Indeed, only the marvellous was beautiful.” To be beautiful, it had to be convulsive. Like the magic realists, the surrealists questioned the purpose of literature, its meaning, and its function. The surrealist revolution was based on the fact that new myths come from the imaginary. Using Freud as a springboard, automatic writing, and the power of love, the surrealists created an entry into the marvellous.

While surrealism is best known for its roots in Dada (1916), and the First and Second Surrealist Manifestoes (1924 and 1930), André Breton continued publishing until his death in 1966 in Paris. He was always interested in the occult, publishing Arcane 17, a study of Tarot cards (1945). But he was also attracted to magic which embodied the highest moral and intellectual aims: changing one's life. Magic was preferable to science and religion (which Breton mistrusted) because it attempted to conquer and control the natural and supernatural forces of the world. Magic was also secret and irrational, above the ordinary laws of experience. As a means of liberating the mind, the magic mentality was fundamental, stretching back into antiquity. The words mage and magie originate in a Mesopotamian phoneme meaning “deep.”

Breton admired those poets and visionaries who aspired to supreme knowledge. He especially admired magicians as creative, not imitative. He was drawn to the esoteric teachings of the German poet Novalis. His three basic concepts, central to magic realism, were that the outer world was subject to the mind; that the world was a book of symbols suggesting another reality; and that man is a microcosm of the universe, containing all its knowledge. The occult preserved myth as a valid product of the magic mentality.

Breton's concern with the magical origin of all art was published in 1957 as L'Art magique. This was a survey of the primal origins of magic and religion, beginning with prehistoric art, and extending through Mesopotamia and Egypt. Breton felt that art had lost its magic force in Cretan and Greek sculpture, which emphasized human and not fantastic figures. Over the centuries, magic went underground in an adversary position against Christianity. But it was accessible to those who looked at the “magic paintings” of Brueghel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch, to name only two. Such subjects as The Last Judgment with its demonic forces, the Witches' Sabbath and the wild monsters tempting St. Anthony were all part of the history of magic art. This secret tradition extends to the Gothic works of Goya, and the magical themes found in Gaugin and Rousseau, then it becomes explicit again in the Cubists and the surrealist painters.

Breton's visit to “the lost magic paradise” of Haiti and Mexico in 1938 impressed him with the vitality of primitive art untainted by Christianity, an idea that subsequently influenced Alejo Carpentier's essay on “the marvellous real.” If magic art could be so vital in certain rich periods of the past, Breton argued in his final chapters, then so it could be in the future.

Surrealism was also based on the power of playfulness. The writer becomes a god in these games, filling the bleaker side of reality with fun. This is also a reminder that writers, as image makers, are responsible for human success. W. P. Kinsella, in Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa and The Thrill of the Grass, assimilates some of these elements of the marvellous in his magical stories about baseball. Rudy Wiebe tells a new version of the Alberta oil fields in “The Angel of the Tar Sands.” While his story is not a Marxist interpretation of society as the surrealists would hope, Wiebe hints that humans would be more fully integrated into society if they accepted the marvellous. The marvellous contains the essence of life itself. Approaching surreality, we find ourselves at some primal point containing all myth, ritual, and art.

By some accident of birth and intuition, I find myself in the labyrinth of an impossible definition. Neither historian, academic nor professor, I rely on personal visions and belief more than on standard critical analysis. My pre-text, or intuitive phase, occurs before a text, or reasoning phase. I am glad that some mysteries are left and that some explanations are not simple. Sometimes I know how Carl Jung felt, looking for parts of his personality which had become invisible under the pressure of being European. This conference on magic realism is another attempt to answer the question, “What is Reality?”

Reason and logic can explain only part of the truth. Then the illogical, irrational, mysterious and marvellous beckon. I was not easily amazed until I became a student of Taoist meditation and Tai Chi. Knowledge of herbology, inner alchemy, energy fields, chakras and martial arts provides skills that enhance my human potential. But my inner reality has not found a home in current literary criticism. The fifty-year-old “new criticism” with close textual analysis still dominates Canadian teaching, leaving no room for basic, personal responses to literature.

René Magritte's painting of an eye looking out of a cloud seems emblematic of the surreal. But the “eye-tunnel” is also an ancient form of yogic practice. Under deep meditation, an eye appears. In that inner vision, and through the eye-tunnel, you may see clear pictures of your ultimate goals and insights. Joseph Campbell has said that myth is an inner journey. Myths offer a step-by-step guide to the birth of the spirit. Reality is wider than we realize; for the writer, myth expresses itself in images.

I am drawn to sorcery, witchcraft, black magic, crystal healing, Tarot cards, the human aura and the I Ching. Consciousness raising can be achieved through astrology and palmistry. When I travelled through Iran and Afghanistan as a student, I realized that knowledge can be learned in lost cities guarded by demons. You don't have to be a peasant to believe in shamans, magic, and metamorphosis. Magic realism contains some elements of a mystical quest. Those glimpsed ideals, which so often end in failure, generate much energy in magic realist fiction. Jack Hodgins' early ideas for The Invention of the World centred around a Utopian colony on Vancouver Island. In magic realism history often seems to be rejected in favour of an archetypal vision of humankind with more lasting meaning.

Certainly there is a link between my interest in the ancient meanings of the earth, the sun, the moon, feminist wisdom and myths, prepatrichiarchal religions, and my interest in fiction of the marvellous. Julio Cortázar writes, “our daily reality masks a second reality which is neither mysterious nor theological, yet due to a long series of mistakes it has remained under a culture prefabricated by culture, culture with great achievements, but only profound distortions.” Likewise, André Breton was “determined to deal drastically with that hatred of the marvellous which is rampant in some people.” A desire to document the inadequacy of such societies as ours—technological, bank-centred—is responsible for some elements of the marvellous. The marvellous, the magic, and the fantastic also remind us that much of our way of life is a bad fiction, created by the limited imaginations of poor fiction makers such as politicians, corporate tycoons, multinational conglomerates, and carpetbaggers.

Esoteric practices and eastern religions are alternatives to western time and space. The western tradition states, “I think, therefore I am.” But the eastern advice is, “I am whatever I think I am.” Reality is what we make it. Freedom of the imagination is a necessary requirement of magic realism.

So now you are convinced. You have seen that the world is filled with marvellous phenomena, and that everything about you has the potential to be a work of art. Aritha Van Herk writes, “de-sire will make us shake off the impotence of realisms … abandon well known contexts for a better one, explore the fullest range of human possibility.” She also adds, “and to make better fiction.” The 1980s is a decade of translation, of transculturalization, of creative writing departments. All this creative activity has meant that theory is now a component of fiction, including magic realism. Writers have new symbolic figures to admire: Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett and others who have seen reality as a combination of myth, fiction, history, theory and hyperbole.

So now you are ready to become a magic realist. The image is the central device of magic realism. As the nineteenth-century philosopher Taine said, the image is a condensation of the real, the very fabric of our mental life. Images revitalize language: new metaphors, new surprises. With surprise come those elements so keen to the surrealists, disorientation and mental subversion. But not all of this is new. It is important to remember that magic realism is a synthesis of much that happened in avant garde literary history, as well as the conventions of centuries of narrative romance and iconoclastic fiction.

If we are to catalogue the imagery of magic realism, let us start with André Breton's classification. First, Breton wrote, is the contradictory image, “the movement of non-existent curtains in the windows of future houses.” Some images have hidden terms. Other images are unsuccessful because they deviate. The hallucinatory image is confronted by a concrete image that expresses an abstraction, “eternity found in a wristwatch.” Negative images “negate” physical properties, such as “the earth was blue like an orange.” Finally, some images produce laughter. The experience of magic realism is the vitality of language expressed in images. This quality also lends itself to translation with little loss of meaning.

Yet magic realism is also a fantastic reflection of something that once happened, however distorted it may be in the retelling. The fiction is based on “actuality” as far as that can be understood; no symbols intrude. The writer accumulates precise details around a probable event, or a probable legend, or a likely hyperbole. Virgil Burnett does this with his mythical history of a medieval French town in Towers at the Edge of the World. Jack Hodgins' Spit Delaney's Island reveals the consequences of a man's passion for an old locomotive. David Donnell in The Blue Ontario Hemingway Boat Race suggests what might happen to conservative Toronto should it break loose from its site and drift towards Buffalo during a sailboat regatta. Jane Urquhart's forthcoming novel The Whirlpool recreates nineteenth-century Niagara Falls, when daredevils attempted the first of many fatal rides in barrels over the falls. In magic realism the literary imagination enters a community through its popular cultural events: festivals, fairs, loggers' weddings, carnivals, rodeos. Magic realism has grass-roots origins. What is most marvellous is also most human.

Magic realism is also preoccupied with formal presentation of fiction as a work of art. Magic realist fictions always incorporate technical innovations. Levels of language, layers of formal and informal diction, doubles, transformations, stories-within-stories, a blurring of that border between fiction and reality, are all contained within a formally presented and shaped book. The author gets away with such labyrinthine constructions by unifying the narrative with a voice that never questions what it tells. Everything is permitted to the writer as long as he is capable of making it believable, says Gabriel García Márquez.

There are dozens of Canadian novels and stories with no explanation except what is presented. The Kissing Man by George Elliott; One Cook, Once Dreaming by Derk Wynand; Putzi, I Love You, You Little Square, by John Marlyn (told from the perspective of a fetus that refuses to be born); the mythological delights of most of Gwendolyn MacEwen's fiction and poetry in such works as Magic Animals,Julian the Magician,King of Egypt, King of Dreams; the short stories in Noman; Robin Skelton's The Man Who Sang in His Sleep; Brian Moore's The Great Victorian Collection, where a dream comes true and a fantasy cannot be controlled; many of Leon Rooke's stories, such as “Hanging Out with the Magi,” and The Magician in Love; George McWhirter's early collection of mythological tales, Bodyworks, and elements in his later collections, Coming to Grips with Lucy and God's Eye; some of Barry Dempster's stories in Real Places and Imaginary Men (especially “The Butterfly Addiction,” which tells how a swarm of butterflies changed the personality of a town); even some of Christopher Dewdney's prose poems in Predators of the Adoration. All of these show how far we have progressed from that nineteenth-century concept of “a heightened sense of reality.” We cast doubts upon thought, language, and even the ability of the mind to know any reality beyond itself. The marvellous is part of the structure, style, and aesthetic state produced by a book. The appeal of such fictions as Rikki Ducornet's The Butcher's Tales, or Tom Henighan's Tourists from Algol: Stories of the Unexpected, or Michael Bullock's Green Beginnings, Black Endings, or Ludwig Zeller's Alphacollages is that anything can happen that the author is capable of imagining. Such fictions demonstrate how fictitious even the most “realistic” writing really is.

If I had enough time (several months), and enough pages (several hundred), I could elaborate upon the crisis in reality and the corresponding crisis in the literary imagination. What is evident is that “the real” is breaking down, or as R. D. Laing would say, breaking through. What we once thought of as “unreal” is becoming more and more the only “true” or “equally valid” reality. I would direct the reader with the time and stamina to several scholarly studies: Kathryn Hume's Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature; Christine Brooke-Rose's A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic; Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre; Mario Vargas Llosa's García Márquez: historia de un deicidio; Irene Bessière's Le Récit fantastique: la poétique de l'incertain; Linda Hutcheon's Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox; and Roger Caillois' Au Couer du fantastique.

Every generation finds its own version of reality. As a critical stance, the marvellous writers suggest that traditional approaches to Canadian literature are stiff, inflexible, inadequate. If magic realism and the marvellous did not exist, a generation of Canadian writers would have invented them. Fiction that breaks the boundaries of reality includes Michael Ondaatje's “autobiography” Running in the Family, especially the scene with the grandmother in the flood; Graeme Gibson's Perpetual Motion, with the endless flocks of passenger pigeons, the mastodon bones, and the motion machine; Susan Kerslake's Middlewatch, with its myths and archetypes; and Margaret Atwood's Murder in the Dark, short fables for a desperate time.

Canada, like Carpentier's “marvellous America,” is a natural world. In literary terms, it is scarcely born. Many writers out west have a concern with origins. Lionel Kearns writes of Captain Cook in his poems and images collected as Convergences; George Bowering fictionalizes Captain Vancouver in Burning Water; Brian Fawcett investigates The Secret Journals of Alexander MacKenzie, and Jack Hodgins writes The Invention of the World. The early explorers are subjects of fiction that retraces our own “lost steps.” Such fiction returns to the source of forgotten memories that set in motion the whole of our modern history, and perhaps it may recover truths that have been degraded by the onslaught of commercial activity, environmental pollution, and a decline of the ideal which the New World once promised.

Make the connection. André Breton, Antonin Artaud, and Benjamin Peret had their concept of “le merveilleux.” The play of the imagination and a delight in invention were attempts to recreate that mythical time when being and reality were one. Alejo Carpentier writes of “lo real maravilloso” and the magic power of words to transform human existence. Carpentier, like the French, saw the power of the moment when two dissimilar elements—the jungle and the city, Indian and Spanish society—are juxtaposed in a way that creates something new. Carpentier saw Latin America as a narrative romance, except that it was real. He suggested that the magic realist writer make up a story, based on the juxtapositions, rather than merely copy what is observed.

“History” is not linear. It is fragmented, disrupted, secretive, a fabrication, dependent upon each historian. Magic realists disrupt history even more by placing Biblical myths, timeless myths and pagan allusions at the service of the narrative. A lush natural setting, as overgrown as B.C., undermines culture and linear reason. Stephen Guppy says, “Oral history becomes the real history in an unrecognized or disorganized place.” History is rooted in real event, but expands in the storytelling. Reality becomes what is passed on in the telling.

In all discussions of magic realism, the storyteller, the maker, the inventor, the narrator, is as central as the images and hyperbole. The narrator is a reminder of the deep faith of an oral culture, presupposing a belief shared by hearers and tellers. Such confidence also excludes uncertainty. Magic realists affirm the art of making fiction at the same time that they connect their marvellous tales to the roots of a society.

As Jack Hodgins says in The Barclay Family Theatre, “You don't have the history, the sense that everything that happened is happening on top of layers of things that have already happened.” With the exaggeration of magic realism, writers are not limited by the linear perceptions of time, the cause and effect of plot, or the accuracy of fact. A historical pattern cannot be comfortably overlaid against the physical. Time becomes distorted; precise dates mingle with the mythic qualities of a place.

Latin American writers went to Europe expecting miracles and they were disappointed. They felt an authorial superiority. When they returned home, they knew they had to tell their own stories. Canadian fiction, as an expression of a culture with its own integrity, can be true to itself. The marvellous might answer our perennial questions about our preoccupation with identity and finding out “Where is here?” Fiction that highlights qualities submerged by rationalism might unveil our new reality. Magic realism can combine the reality and fantasy of Canada in a single mode.

The boundaries of place, whether it is Macondo or Vancouver Island, become historically and geographically elastic. The magic realists of Vancouver Island, such as Jack Hodgins, Stephen Guppy, Mildred Tremblay, or even Joe Rosenblatt and his talking fish Uncle Nathan in Brides of the Stream, suddenly exorcize the past, exhort the present. In their books, Canada's history and fiction reveal themselves as so many dreams and so many mirrors. Robert Kroetsch calls this un-inventing to invent.

This invention is not fabrication. Sometimes actual “reality” matches our desires. In today's Globe and Mail I read about Willow Bunch, Saskatchewan, where a farmer was turned back from the elevator with two truckloads of grasshopper carcasses. That same town is famous as home of the eight-foot three-inch giant Edouard Beaupré, who died of a lung hemorrhage in 1904. Writers have to work hard to invent this kind of reality where the marvellous exists in the actual. But then, this is is exactly what Geoffrey Ursell was doing in his fabular account of Saskatchewan, Perdue, or, How the West Was Lost.

A good source of the Latin American theory of magic realism is found in Roberto Gonzáles Echeverría's Alejo Carpentier: The Pilgrim at Home. “What is the whole history of Latin America but a chronicle of the marvellous real?” the Cuban writer said after a trip to Europe and Haiti in the 1920s.

Gonzáles Echeverría correctly observes that magic realism as a critical concept is based on questions broader than literature. He also notes three different phases of magic realism. The first, defined by a German art critic, Franz Roh, in 1925, referred to painting. “Magic” was used as nineteenth-century Europeans defined it to refer to rituals and beliefs not shared by them.

The second phase was the Surrealist, as defined by André Breton and his followers. This was the marvellous of art and politics, a Marxist interpretation of society, a belief in total liberty. This was the marvellous that brought the Unconscious into the world of art and letters, where it has remained ever since.

The third phase occurred in Latin America in the 1940s. Latin American writers quarreled about the competing claims of realism, engagé literature, existentialism, and magic realism. The methods of the marvellous appealed to those with a European sensibility. They wanted to be “other” in those postwar years. They wanted to see the world from a perspective not their own. This was also a time of interest in ethnography and primitive painting. The sensibility of this period was sharply defined in an important essay by Angel Flores in 1955. In this essay, Flores celebrated the coming of the avant garde in Latin American literature. Magic realism flourished during the movement known as “The Boom” in the 1960s. This period introduced many of the most prominent Latin American writers to the rest of the world, and culminated in Gabriel García Márquez winning the Nobel Prize for his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude.


Yet, what is magic realism? It is not surrealism, nor is it fantastic literature. It is not science fiction. Nor is it always taken seriously by its own practitioners. The term confuses levels of objectivity within its own fictions. Nor is there always an obvious relationship between the three major phases discussed by Gonzáles Echeverría.

Two major conflicting views have been expressed at this conference. One view favours “hyper-realism.” Painters such as Andrew Wyeth, Christopher and Mary Pratt, or Ken Danby portray “reality” with such intense perception and clear unwavering light that it breaks down into molecules. The most commonplace scene becomes unreal. This is also what some critics mean when Alice Munro is called a magic realist for her sharply etched evocations of Ontario rural life.

But the imagery of these writers and painters lacks the improbable. When Alex Colville's horse races down a track towards a speeding locomotive, the painter understands the tension between opposing elements. Winnipeg's Arthur Horsfall paints fire hydrants on fire, giant eggshells on Lake Louise, and telephone wires strung from the shoulders of cowboys on an Alberta highway. Humour, improbability, a realistic style combine in an unsettling manner. Robert Kroetsch uses this same device when he sends a herd of horses through a department store in The Studhorse Man. A lyrical and imaginative telling also reminds us that the conflict in magic realism is often between nature and civilized society.

In 1932, Jorge Luis Borges wrote an important essay, “Narrative Art and Magic.” He suggested that the narrative process itself was magical. Fiction did not have to develop by the cause and effect of plot. Magic took place in the reader. The ending to a fiction could be whatever a writer wanted it to be. Endings did not have to follow an external logic. Magic was a state of mind, an element of faith. Since narrative offered different versions of the self, even theology could be seen as a form of fantastic literature, as fiction both false and doubtful.

Borges introduced an important element of magic realism when he wrote about “pre-figuration” or “prophesying the future.” In magic realism, foreshadowing replaces objective reality. Imagining the future becomes an important cornerstone of magic realism. One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, is a book that was imagined before it was written. The idea of the book duplicates the process of writing it. The destruction of the book was foretold in advance. Robert Kroetsch uses this device in What the Crow Said. His newspaperman character, Liebhaber, decides to run stories in advance of the events.

This basic concept challenges the nature of reality in fiction. Some critics, such as Carter Wheelock, even suggest that the prophecy motif is not “magic realism” but “new realism.” The prophecy is the key to the nature of unrealistic fiction. The goal of the “new realism” is to disconnect from everyday reality for the aesthetic effect in the reader. Magic realism is all aesthetics, all effects, all structure. In this way, as well, magic realism is linked to primitive art. Writers, like cave painters, don't want to avoid reality. They don't produce “un-reality” for its own sake. Instead, they create an alternative to the physical concept of the world. The readers possess not “what is there,” but, “what they hope to see.” Borges has even said, “Unreality is a necessary condition for art.”

The implications of these insights for Canadian fiction are profound. Technique, formal design, mise en scène (images that contain the text in microcosm), even the context for the fiction are affected by magic realism. Writers are reminded that the fantastic, the mythic, and the magical are necessary ingredients, as they have been since the earliest sources of narrative. Magic realism reveals many levels of human reality: historical, social, mythical, individual, collective.

The reader is as affected as the writer. The “truth” of fiction is not in the meaning or the verisimilitude of the details. Truth is something that completes the reader's apprehension. The “unreal” prophecy is part of the paradigm of the magic realist book. So the text is perceived as it is. The climax of the narrative has no other reason than the one assigned to it by the text. Such a theory can be elaborated further into the depths of narratology. Fiction reveals a mind looking at itself. A perfect magic realist book, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, is a total fictional universe, written from within. The novel even includes its own reader, Aureliano Babilonia, who disappears in the last line. The real creator is nonexistent, or at least invisible, and the reader is eliminated as the book disappears: the final magical act of a magical book.

The past twenty years in Canada have seen the effects of translation, immigrant writing, international travel, and writers' conferences. Canadian fiction owes much to other literatures, including the myths of ourselves, our oral traditions, our multicultural diversity, and how these are expressed by our leading literary figures.

But magic realism and the marvellous have a unique quality of their own. Magic realism has uncovered poetic traditions previously ignored in Canada. From the numerous examples I have given as part of my ideal table of contents, it is clear that the marvellous has strengthened our definition of ourselves. Surrealism and magic realism contain not only mystery, but also anticipation, a projection into the future. The roots of the marvellous aim at satisfying human desires frustrated by fragmentary or erroneous systems of politics, science and religion. The fictions I have mentioned are embryos of a prophecy. They contain the elements of a future fiction which will satisfy our deeper human desires. Magic realism has a quality of affirmation and renewal which has enriched Canadian fiction, and it has brought us here together today.


Jorge Luis Borges. “Narrative Art and Magic.” Borges, a Reader. ed. Emir Rodriguez and Alistair Reid. New York: Dutton, 1981.

Julio Cortázar. “The Present State of Fiction in Latin America.” The Final Island. ed. J. Alazraki and I. Ivask. University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Angel Flores. “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction.” Hispania, XXXXVIII, No. 2 (May, 1955).

D.P. Gallagher. Modern Latin American Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Herbert S. Gershman. The Surrealist Revolution in France. University of Michigan Press, 1969.

Geoff Hancock. “Magic Realism, or, the Future of Fiction.” Canadian Fiction Magazine, No. 24-25 (Spring-Summer, 1977).

Geoff Hancock, ed. Magic Realism. Toronto: Aya Press, 1980.

Linda Kenyon. “An Interview with Robert Kroetsch.” The New Quarterly: Special Issue on Magic Realism, V, No. 1 (Spring, 1985).

Keith Maillard. “Susan Kerslake's Middlewatch as Magic Realism.” Canadian Literature, No. 92 (Spring, 1982).

Emma Marras. “Robert Bly's Reading of South American Poets: A Challenge to North American Poetic Practice.” Translation Review, No. 4 (1984).

Michael Ondaatje. “García Márquez and the Bus to Aracataca.” Figures in a Ground. ed. D. Bessai and D. Jackel. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978.

Bernard Selinger. Review of Geoffrey Ursell, Perdue, or, How the West Was Lost. Wascana Review, 19, No. 1 (Spring, 1984).

Carter Wheelock. “Borges, Cortázar and the Aesthetic of the Vacant Mind.” International Fiction Review, 12, No. 1 (Winter, 1985).

Stephen Hart (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “Magical Realism in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Cien Anos de Soledad,” in INTI, Nos. 16 & 17, Fall 1982 & Spring 1983, pp. 37-52.

[In the following essay, Hart examines Gabriel García Márquez's novel Cien años de soledad in an attempt to simplify and reinterpret the idea of magic realism.]

Ce qu'il y a d'admirable dans le fantastique, c'est qu'il n'y a plus de fantastique: il n'y a que le réel.

—André Breton1

It was in an article by Ángel Flores published in 1955 that the term magical realism—originally used by a German critic to characterise a type of Expressionist art—was first employed as a yard-stick to measure, compare and evaluate modern Latin American fiction. In this article, Flores pointed out that one of the distinguishing features of magical realism is its ability to transform ‘the common and the everyday into the awesome and the unreal’.2 Flores' article also stressed the connections between magical realism and examples of European art such as Kafka's novels and Chirico's paintings. Flores' article, however, soon came under attack from various sources. In an article published in 1967, Luis Leal attempted to show that Flores' various statements about magical realism were ill-founded. The main aim of Leal's article is to see magical-realist artists—the examples he gives are Arturo Uslar Pietri, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier, Lino Novás Calvo, Juan Rulfo, Félix Pita Rodríguez, and Nicolás Guillén—as part of a movement which is exclusively Spanish American in orientation and flavour. He thereby cuts the movement of magical realism—and the various artists that represent it—from any European antecedents, one of which is surrealism. At one stage in his article, Leal makes the following statement about the difference that separates magical realism from surrealism and realism:

El mágico realista no trata de copiar (como lo hacen los realistas) o de vulnerar (como lo hacen los surrealistas) la realidad circundante, sino de captar el misterio que palpita en las cosas.3

While Leal's comment on the basic difference between realism and magical realism is true enough, he has forced the idea a little in his strict separation of surrealism and magical realism. Gerald J. Langowski, for example, has pointed out that Leal's demarcation of boundaries with regard to surrealism and magical realism is too rigorous, since it ignores the very real impact surrealism had on the writers mentioned by Leal, especially Asturias and Carpentier.4 The main problem arising from Leal's thesis derives from his use of the verb ‘vulnerar’ (damage) in reference to what the surrealists did with reality. It is surely a misquotation to argue that the surrealists were intent purely on damaging reality. In their search for ‘le fonctionnement réel de la pensé’, as Breton called it,5 the surrealists may have transformed the empirical laws of the universe we take for granted, but they certainly did not merely damage reality. Leal raises an interesting point about the similarity/dissimilarity of surrealism and magical realism which, if analysed in greater detail, will bring us to a greater awareness of the distinctiveness of magical realism.

It is clear firstly, that surrealism and magical realism join hands in their appreciation of the value of fantasy, and its paradoxical ability to unlock the secrets of the real world. Carpentier and Asturias, for example, two writers often placed in the mainstream of magical realism, have each expressed their interest in surrealism. Surrealism led Carpentier to see ‘aspectos de la vida americana que no había advertido’, as he confessed.6 Asturias once explained the attraction surrealism had for him in a conversation with Luis López Alvarez:

Para nosotros el surrealismo representó (y ésta es la primera vez que lo diga, pero creo que tengo que decirlo) el encontrar en nosotros mismos no lo europeo, sino lo indígena y lo americano, por ser una escuela freudiana en la que lo que actuaba no era la conciencia, sino el inconsciente. Nosotros el inconsciente lo teníamos bien guardadito bajo toda la conciencia occidental.7

The attraction felt between magical-realists and surrealists was immediate and mutual. Antonin Artaud and André Breton were both fascinated by Mexico which they visited at different times.8 Robert Desnos visited Cuba in 1927 and, by lending his passport to Alejo Carpentier enabled the latter to escape from the island where he had recently served a prison sentence for political agitation.9

If the interests and subject-matter of these two literary movements were often similar, the presentation of that subject-matter was rarely so. The surrealist formula, as it stood, was unable to adapt itself to expression in the form of a realist novel. Thus, whereas many of the surrealists in France at the inception of the movement in 1924 turned their hand without a great deal of effort to poetry (among whom the most outstanding were Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, Paul Eluard, Pierre Reverdy and Saint-Jean Perse), none were able to write a single good novel. The two main novels written in France in the 20s which can be truly called surrealist—namely, Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris (1926) and Breton's Nadja (1928)—can hardly be considered great works of art. Nor indeed can Agustín Espinosa's Crimen (1934), which was the only contemporary example of a Spanish surrealist novel. The reason for the signal failure of surrealism to produce one outstanding novel lay with its founder's self-avowed contempt for realism (without which, even if in subverted form, the novel cannot survive). In his Manifeste du surréalisme published in 1924, Breton ridiculed none other than Dostoyevsky, arguably one of the greatest of all the realist novelists. Quoting a descriptive passage from Crime and Punishment (1866), Breton writes:

Et les descriptions! Rien n'est comparable au néant de celles-ci; ce n'est que superpositions d'images de catalogue, l'auteur en prend de plus en plus à son aise, il saisit l'occasion de me glisser ses cartes postales, il cherche à me faire tomber d'accord avec lui sur des lieux communs.10

Breton's contempt for the commonplace, clichés, and postcards, as he puts it, of the realist novel is not shared to the same degree by the magical-realist novelists. For, as the word itself implies, magical realism does not turn its back on reality as Breton and his followers were compelled to do. The difference between magical realism and surrealism is, thus, not to be understood in terms of the cultural gap separating Spanish America from Europe. The difference between the two movements is rather one of degree of familiarity with the realist mode—which is non-existent in surrealism but very alive in magical realism.

The crucial concern with the real as well as the magical which is the hallmark of magical realism, as opposed to surrealism—has been successful in Spanish America above all because the mixture proved, paradoxically, more able to express the social reality of the Sub-Continent than any one of the constituents working in isolation. A. Valbuena Briones has pointed out that ‘para dar sentido a la realidad americana se necesita una dimensión ilusoria, una fantasía o un mito’,11 and Professor Jean Franco has made the following perceptive comment:

Realism and naturalism have produced few good novels in Spanish America. Reality is too complex and bizarre, society too dispersed, for the Balzacian style to be successful. On the other hand, certain writers who had used fantasy and allowed the imagination free play came nearer to a true picture of society.12

While both these comments are substantially true, it is well to bear in mind that they are true in the sense that the successful Spanish American novelist enables us to see the fantastic within the real and not apart from it. Leal's ultimate definition of magical realism hits the nail on the head. As he writes:

Tengamos presente que en estas obras de realismo mágico el autor no tiene necesidad de justificar lo misterioso de los acontecimientos, como le es necesario al escritor de cuentos fantásticos. En la literatura fantástica lo sobrenatural irrumpe en un mundo sujeto a la razón. En el realismo mágico «el misterio no desciende al mundo representado, sino que se esconde y palpita tras él». Para captar los misterios de la realidad el escritor magicorrealista exalta sus sentidos hasta un estado límite que le permite adivinar los inadvertidos matices del mundo externo, ese multiforme mundo en que vivimos.13

In the magical-realist novel, mystery palpitates with the real rather than descending sporadically upon it.

We have seen, thus, the main ways in which, as a point of definition, the magical-realist novel differs from the exercise of pure fantasy. The distinctive quality of the magical-realist novel will become clearer if we look at the question from the vantage-point offered by realist fiction. This proves an illuminating focus upon the realist novel, especially since the offshoot known as the ‘terror’ or ‘Gothic’ novel, was not without its fantastic events. Yet, in novels of this type, the supernatural tends to burst into a world which is otherwise subject to empirical and logical laws. This is precisely what happens in a short story La Vénus d'Ille (1837), written by the French novelist Prosper Mérimée. The basic intrigue of this short story centres around the possibility that the protagonist M. Alphonse is murdered on his wedding night by a statue of Venus seeking revenge since, in jest, M. Alphonse had placed his wedding ring on the statue's finger rather than his bride's. The French novelist is careful never to describe this supernatural event. Through the mind of the narrator, we hear heavy footsteps on the stairs leading to and from the husband's bedroom on the night of the murder. We are also presented with the garbled account of the bride who claims that she saw the statue murdering her husband. All of these details and events are recorded in the detached and quasi-ironic style of the narrator. La Vénus d'Ille, thus, works quite consciously on two different levels. One of these levels is the world of the narrator who casts a sceptical veil over the accounts recorded, and whose world is empirical and real. The second of these levels is the supernatural world which erupts just once into the natural world with catastrophic consequences. It is precisely this disjunction between the normal and the praeternatural world which is absent from the magical-realist novel. In the universe of magical realism, the supernatural plane does not irrupt at certain crucial junctures into the empirical world. Rather, the supernatural is never absent from the magical-realist universe and, indeed, it is always visible to all. In this particular world, nothing is supernatural or paranormal without being at the same time real, and vice-versa.

Having established that the world of magical realism is at once natural and supernatural, I intend to discuss García Márquez's masterpiece Cien años de soledad (1967) in the light of this idea. In stating this, I am hardly saying anything new about magical realism, merely elucidating the inter-relation of its constituent parts. This disarmingly simple idea, however, has slowly been lost to view under the weight of new critical studies on the role of magical realism in modern Spanish American fiction. One of the reasons for the growing confusion and imprecision surrounding the use of this term derives from the arrival of a competitive term ‘lo real maravilloso’. In discussing the merits and demerits of each term, critics have often lost sight of the simplicity of the original definition. Before discussing García Márquez's fiction, therefore, we must look afresh at the problems involved.

The expression ‘lo real maravilloso’ was first coined by Carpentier in the prologue he wrote for his novel El reino de este mundo published in 1949:

Lo maravilloso comienza a serlo de manera inequívoca cuando surge de una inesperada alteración de la realidad (el milagro), de una revelación privilegiada de la realidad, de una iluminación inhabitual o singularmente favorecedora de las inadvertidas riquezas de la realidad, de una ampliación de las escalas y categorías de la realidad, percibidas con particular intensidad en virtud de una exaltación del espíritu que lo conduce a un ‘estado límite’. Para empezar, la sensación de lo maravilloso presupone una fe.14

This passage which is at once revealing and categorical has been used in a recent study by José Antonio Bravo as a key to unlock the secrets of the fiction of García Márquez, Carpentier and Juan Rulfo. The real problem with Bravo's study is that he adopts the term ‘lo real maravilloso’ quite uncritically. He says quite simply in the introduction to his study:

Preferimos la nominación que da el autor cubano, a otras que se manejan más o menos con la misma intención: lo mágico maravilloso, el realismo mágico, lo mágico milagroso, el realismo maravilloso.15

Bravo's choice of the three authors under discussion is likewise made uncritically:

Las novelas sometidas al análisis han sido elegidas, preferentemente, por razones de consenso: han alcanzado grandes tirajes, han sido premiadas y traducidas, corresponden a autores de conocido prestigio y, por sobre todo, muestran una atmósfera que llama la atención.16

The various reasons Bravo adduces for selecting Cien años de soledad,El reino de este mundo and Pedro Páramo are really no more than a statement of the popularity of the works, which is in itself hardly a convincing reason. Secondly, his contention that these novels have an atmosphere ‘que llama la atención’ (!) is not conclusive evidence that they will necessarily be suitable for discussion under the rubric of ‘lo real maravilloso’. Bravo's study suffers considerably as a result of the lack of critical focus which mars the introduction. The choice of the term ‘lo real maravilloso’ as a guide line for Bravo's thesis is also unfortunate in that it is a singularly inappropriate term to use with regard to García Márquez's fiction. As we shall see, ‘lo real maravilloso’ has quite different connotations from magical realism.

Juan Barroso VIII, in his study of El reino de este mundo and El siglo de las luces, traces thoroughly the use of the two terms ‘el realismo mágico’ and ‘lo real maravilloso’ in modern critical thought, and then makes the following distinction between them:

El realismo mágico es la combinación de temas que reflejan la realidad dentro de una exactitud y hondura detallística con técnicas que aunque rompen con las leyes de causalidad, acoplan apropiadamente los temas dentro de la unidad total de la obra. Cuando los temas tratados son americanos, se ofrece la variante de ‘lo real maravilloso’.17

Barroso VIII's conclusion is, thus, that there is no substantial difference between magical realism and ‘lo real maravilloso’. However, if the subject matter is specifically American, then the latter term is to be preferred. The distinction Barroso VIII draws between the two terms is, however, specious. All of the writers, mainly novelists, who are associated with the current of magical realism are Spanish Americans who deal above all with American reality. Barroso VIII's definition is also unfortunate in that he refers to themes, exactness, details, causality and unity without once mentioning the idea of the marvellous, or the magical. It is clear that, if a distinction between the two terms is to be made, it must be performed by looking again at the evidence available.

If we return to Carpentier's definition of ‘lo real maravilloso’ quoted above, a few salient features emerge. Firstly, it is clear that the experience Carpentier is referring to, since it is couched in the language of divine revelation (Carpentier refers to ‘miracle’, ‘spiritual exaltation’, and ‘faith’), has much in common with the religious experience. This emphasis, I might point out immediately, is itself totally absent from magical realism. Yet, perhaps the single greatest difference between ‘lo real maravilloso’ and magical realism concerns the role that the supernatural plays in each. According to Carpentier's definition of ‘lo real maravilloso’, the experience of the marvellous is unexpected and unusual. It involves ‘una inesperada alteración de la realidad’, or, as Carpentier rephrases the idea, ‘una iluminación inhabitual’. Nothing could in fact be further from magical realism. In the magical-realist world, as I have argued above, the marvellous or magical is never presented as something unexpected or unusual. While Carpentier's fiction operates on a dynamic interplay of the marvellous and the real, with the miracle—imaged variously as nature, revolution, or the sexual act18—bursting into the real, García Márquez's fictional universe erodes any distinction between the marvellous and the real. It is in this sense that we can say that, in Cien años de soledad, reality is not real if it is not simultaneously magical.

In assessing the role of magical realism in modern Spanish American fiction, critics have often shown how writers such as Carpentier, Asturias and García Márquez are able to integrate Amerindian myths within a picture of everyday life.19 I intend to survey the mixture of realism and the magical in Cien años de soledad, however, by a close analysis of certain key passages of the novel, paying special attention to how realistic details are integrated into a magical universe. In a thoughtful article, ‘Novedad y anacronismo de Cien años de soledad’, Emir Rodríguez Monegal quotes a long passage from the novel—which centres around the murder of José Arcadio—and then analyses its uniqueness. As it would be impractical to quote the passage in full, I shall quote an extract which conveys, I believe, the essential characteristics of the whole episode. It runs as follows:

Un hilo de sangre salió por debajo de la puerta, atravesó la sala, salió a la calle, siguió en un curso directo por los andenes disparejos, descendió escalinatas y subió pretiles, pasó de largo por la Calle de los Turcos, dobló una esquina a la derecha y otra a la izquierda, volteó en ángulo recto frente a la casa de los Buendía, pasó por debajo de la puerta cerrada, atravesó la sala de visita pegado a las paredes para no manchar los tapices, siguió por la otra sala, eludió en una curva amplia la mesa del comedor, avanzó por el corredor de las begonias y pasó sin ser visto por debajo de la silla de Amaranta que daba una lección de aritmética a Aureliano José, y se metió por el granero y apareció en la cocina donde Ursula se disponía a partir treinta y seis huevos para el pan.

(p. 118)20

Of the passage from which this extract is taken, Monegal makes the following comment:

Los elementos sobre o extranaturales se apoderan de la narración: lo descriptivo, lo dramático, lo psicológico, pasan a segundo plano o importan poco.21

While it is clear from even a brief perusal of García Márquez's fiction that ‘lo psicológico’ is not of paramount importance, one cannot help questioning Monegal's suggestion that ‘lo descriptivo’ and ‘lo dramático’ also pass into the background behind the supernatural elements. Surely, García Márquez's fiction—and the passage quoted testifies to this—is not only dramatic, but also highly sensitive to the value and importance of description. If we look carefully at the extract quoted above, we shall see that García Márquez's text is not only fantastic but also highly detailed in a naturalistic sense. It tells us, for example, that the paving stones which the trail of blood crossed were ‘uneven’, that the name of the road it followed was ‘Calle de los Turcos’, that it hugged the walls in the parlour ‘para no manchar los tapices’. The passage also informs us that when the trail of blood came right into the Buendía house, Amaranta was giving Aureliano José a maths lesson. We are even told how many eggs Ursula was getting ready to break in the kitchen (thirty-six). All of these details are not merely padding. They serve as a means of investing the fantastic event of the self-propelled trail of blood with a sheen of verisimilitude.

It is in the first chapter of Cien años de soledad that we meet with perhaps the most impressive example of this novelistic technique in which the supernatural is presented in a natural, matter-of-fact manner. The relevant passage, which describes José Arcadio searching desperately for Melquíades, and also how a taciturn Armenian is able to make himself invisible by drinking a magic portion, runs as follows:

Se había tomado [ie the taciturn Armenian] de un golpe una copa de la sustancia ambarina, cuando José Arcadio Buendía se abrió paso a empujones por entre el grupo absorto que presenciaba el espectáculo, y alcanzó a hacer la pregunta. El gitano lo envolvió en el clima atónito de su mirada, antes de convertirse en un charco de alquitrán pestilente y humeante sobre el cual quedó flotando la resonancia de su respuesta «Melquíades murió». Aturdido por la noticia, José Arcadio Buendía permaneció inmóvil, tratando de sobreponerse a la aflicción, hasta que el grupo se dispersó reclamando por otros artificios y el charco del armenio taciturno se evaporó por completo.

(p. 22)

What is most striking about this passage is not the fact that the taciturn Armenian is able to vanish at will into a puff of smoke like a genie in The Arabian Nights (although this is incredible enough), but rather José Arcadio's blasé attitude while witnessing this event. He is deeply moved and transfixed, but this is because of the news of Melquíades' death. José Arcadio is not alone in failing to ascribe any importance to the taciturn Armenian's disappearing act. The group who had gathered to see his trick are, if anything, disappointed, since they disperse ‘reclamando por otros artificios’. These naturalistic details tend to displace the focus of the narrative away from the fantastic as valuable or noteworthy in itself. This device tends to make the most magical happenings seem believable.

García Márquez gradually draws his reader into his magical-realist universe by presenting him with a fantastic event which is subsequently elaborated upon according to purely rational criteria. Such is the case with the episode in which Meme arrives home from school and greets her parents with the news that she has invited four nuns and seventy-eight school friends to stay at home for a week. The event is, in itself, unbelievable, but García Márquez gradually draws more and more events from this matrix event, which render the original event more believable. The unexpected number of guests leads the family, for example, to make vast accommodation arrangements:

Fue preciso pedir camas y hamacas a los vecinos, establecer turnos en la mesa, fijar horarios para el baño y conseguir cuarenta taburetes prestados para que las niñas de uniformes azules y botines de hombre no anduvieran todo el día revolteando de un lado a otro. La invitación fue un fracaso, porque las ruidosas colegiales apenas acababan de desayunar cuando ya tenían que empezar los turnos para el almuerzo, y luego para la cena, y en toda la semana sólo pudieron hacer un paseo a las plantaciones.

(p. 223)

García Márquez infers logical conclusions from this illogical event. The setting up of rotas and timetables is a logical consequence of the congregation of large numbers of people who all want to use the same facilities. New situations produce new problems which in turn give rise to new ideas:

La noche de su llegada, las estudiantes se embrollaron de tal modo tratando de ir al excusado antes de acostarse, que a la una de la madrugada todavía estaban entrando las últimas. Fernando compró entonces setenta y dos bacinillas, pero sólo consiguió convertir en un problema matinal el problema nocturno, porque desde el amanecer había frente al excusado una larga fila de muchachas, cada una con su bacinilla en la mano, esperando turno para lavarla.

(pp. 223-224)

Fantastic, or supernatural events, such as self-propelled trail of blood, a disappearing Armenian, or seventy-two school children coming to stay for a week, are elaborated in Cien años de soledad according to the rational causality of events we normally associate with the realist novel. It is precisely in this original device that this novel derives its charm and universal appeal.

García Márquez's fictional world is a water-tight universe where everything obeys its own logic. The consistency of the world that the Columbian novelist presents us with is suggested by the fact that, not only is the supernatural depicted as if it were natural, but the natural is presented as if it were supernatural. Márquez's fictional world, therefore, neither follows the laws of the supernatural exclusively nor the laws of the natural exclusively, but bodies forth a dynamic fusion of both. The growth of the scientific spirit of enquiry in the West, which has dominated all fields of knowledge for the past three centuries, has tended to make us think of the world as an objective phenomenon which can be tested and understood according to rational and empirical criteria. Cien años de soledad, however, deliberately subverts this trend towards rational objectivity. For it presents the laws of the universe, and particularly the laws of science and history, not as if they were objective and self-evident facts, but instead as if they were unnatural and strange productions of man's mind. Márquez's device by which he reveals what is assumed to be natural as praeternatural is not an intrinsically new idea. It has, indeed, an illustrious precedent in Dante's Inferno. In Dante's divine poem, an act like breathing which is by definition natural is depicted as if it were something strange and marvellous, for we see it through the eyes of the inhabitants of Hell who look with amazement at Dante's moving rib-cage.22 In Cien años de soledad, García Márquez does a very similar thing, but he makes us wonder not at rib-cages but at the scientific laws of matter and history.

The first chapter of the novel brings the arrival of the gypsies who introduce the community to natural or man-made objects such as the magnet, the telescope, the magnifying glass, and even false teeth. Márquez's presentation of the magnet is typical. The properties of the magnet, though known to man since time immemorial, were seen in the popular imagination as essentially magical until they were explained rationally and coherently by physicists such as Faraday (1791-1867) and Tyndall (1820-1893). García Márquez forces the reader to experience the magnet as something strange and unfamiliar by describing it through the startled gaze of the naive observer:

Fue [ie Melquíades] de casa en casa arrastrando dos lingotes metálicos, y todo el mundo se espantó al ver que los calderos, las pailas, las tenazas, y los anafes se caían de su sitio, y las maderas crujían por la desesperación de los clavos y los tornillos tratando de desenclavarse, y aun los objetos perdidos desde hacía mucho tiempo aparecían por donde más se les había buscado, y se arrastraban en desbandada turbulenta detrás de los fierros mágicos de Melquíades.

(p. 9)

To the innocent eye, the magnet might well seem to possess these awesome properties. Melquíades' explanation of the magnet's properties has all the spurious but convincing logic of the primitive who saw everything animistically:

«Las cosas tienen vida propia—pregonaba el gitano con áspero acento—, todo es cuestión de despertarles el ánima.»

(p. 9)

This animistic explanation is also, we might note, implicit in García Márquez's description of the power of the magnets. Especially worthy of note are the details that the wood was creaking ‘por la desesperación de los clavos’, and that the screws are described as ‘tratando de desenclavarse’. The telescope, invented by Galileo in 1609, is also presented in García Márquez's text as if it were a creation of the imagination. Likewise, José Arcadio's idea to use the magnifying glass as a weapon is based on a scientific invention. Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) is said to have postponed the fall of Syracuse by reflecting the sun's rays at, and thereby destroying, Marcellus' fleet which was attacking the city. Once again, a story based on truth is made to sound like a ludicrous idea. One of the most arresting examples of García Márquez's ability to depict scientific fact as if it were unbridled fantasy occurs when José Arcadio emerges from his study having made the significant through pre-Ptolemaic discovery that the world is round. The conversion of the natural into the supernatural is, in fact contrived by the skillful interpellation of Úrsula's down-to-earth scepticism:

—La tierra es redonda como una naranja.

Úrsula perdió la paciencia. «Si has de volverte loco, vuélvete tú solo», gritó. «Pero no trates de inculcar a los niños tus ideas de gitano.»

(p. 12)

One of the most significant stages of scientific discovery—in which man advanced from his animistic world-view to an understanding of the movement of the stars—is presented as if it were a fairytale.

Later on in the novel, when the commodities of technological advancement associated with the modern era, such as electricity, the cinema, the record player and the telephone, arrive in Macondo, they are greeted with gasps of amazement by the inhabitants. These technological commodities are not only ‘magical’, but they call into question the boundaries between the real and the fantastic:

Era como si Dios hubiera resuelto poner a prueba toda capacidad de asombro, y mantuviera a los habitantes de Macondo en un permanente vaivén entre el alborozo y el desencanto, la duda y la revelación, hasta el extremo de que ya nadie podía saber a ciencia cierta dónde estaban los límites de la realidad.

(p. 195)

In García Márquez's world, scientific discoveries are as believable as a magician's ability to disappear at will, neither more nor less so.

As a backdrop against which the personal fate of each member of the Buendía family is silhouetted lies the historical antagonism of Conservatives and Liberals which often erupts into civil war. In Columbia, in which Cien años de soledad is set, the struggle between the Conservative and Liberal parties, though buried in the very bedrock of historical experience, rose to a head mainly in the second half of the 19th century.23 This period of history is largely covered by the middle sections of the novel. Yet García Márquez chooses to avoid describing the ideals which the Liberals were struggling to promote and those the Conservatives were just as intent on defending. The ideals with which Liberalism is associated, in Latin America and elsewhere—namely, universal education, land reform, social and political equality, freedom of the press, etc.—were of no interest to García Márquez as he composed his novel. The basic differences between the Conservatives and the Liberals become, in García Márquez's hands, huge and fantastic. Aureliano has the matter explained to him by his father-in-law:

Los liberales, le decía, eran masones; gente de mala índole, partidaria de ahorcar a los curas, de implantar el matrimonio civil y el divorcio, de reconocer iguales derechos a los hijos naturales que a los legítimos; y de despedazar al país en un sistema federal que despojara de poderes a la autoridad suprema. Los conservadores, en cambio, que habían recibido el poder directamente de Dios, propugnaban por la estabilidad del orden público y la moral familiar; eran los defensores de la fe de Cristo, del principio de autoridad, y no estaban dispuestos a permitir que el país fuera descuartizado en entidades autónomas.

(p. 88)

While Aureliano's father-in-law rightly points to how the Liberals and Conservatives are divided on the issue of religion and state control, he ultimately explains the difference between them in an exaggerated manner. Since the views of each party are merely stated and not explained, they thereby seem arbitrary and fantastic. After this discussion with his father-in-law, Aureliano is filled with wonder, since ‘no entendía cómo se llegaba al extremo de hacer una guerra por cosas que no podían tocarse con las manos’ (p. 88). This down-to-earth approach tends to make the ideas dreamlike and almost unreal, which is precisely the effect García Márquez wishes to achieve.

It might be argued that the Columbian's deflation of the ideological context behind the controversy between Liberals and Conservatives is nothing new. When Aureliano, for example, admits to Coronel Gerineldo Márquez (a character who is the namesake of his creator) that he is fighting the war not for the Liberals but for his own pride (p. 121), he is, in fact, making the sort of comment that mutatis mutandis might have occurred to any one of the numerous disillusioned and ruthless characters who fill the documentary novels written about social conflict in Latin America. Indeed, Mariano Azuela in his classic about the Mexican Revolution Los de abajo (1915) tended, by excluding any sympathetic view of the ideological issues at stake and by concentrating on the brute facts of warfare, to give a dim view of the reasons for social upheaval. Although García Márquez, like Azuela, diverts the reader's attention away from the ideological battle, his intention for doing so is very different from the Mexican's. García Márquez is not trying to pull the carpet from beneath the buttress of positive values the reader might project into the war; rather he is presenting us with a universe that is at once real but also fantastic. The reason why one conscript whom Aureliano questions is fighting the war against the Conservatives is unlikely ever to be found in a history book:

—¿Es que se puede casar con una tía?—preguntó él, asombrado.—No sólo se puede—le contestó un soldado—, sino que estamos haciendo esta guerra contra los curas para que uno pueda casar con su propia madre.

(p. 132)

As we see, in a variety of ways, García Márquez unveils a world that is simultaneously magical and real. By treating the supernatural as if it were a natural occurrence, and by describing natural phenomena such as scientific inventions and political conflicts as if they were supernatural, the Colombian novelist manages to create a world in which the boundaries between the marvellous and the quotidian, the mythical and the real, are dissolved. Yet, we should beware of seeing Cien años de soledad as merely a work of fiction. Its imaginative powers often bring it uncomfortably close to the empiric laws of our own universe. Thus, the episode in which three thousand banana plantation workers on strike are collected in the station at Macondo and gunned down by the army, though seeming at first glance fantastic, follows closely a similar massacre of workers at Ciénaga, Colombia in 1928 on the orders of General Carlos Cortés Vargas.24 In real life, as García Márquez found out to his great amazement, ten years after the event, nobody could remember exactly what happened. In the novel, the general reaction is: ‘no hubo muertos’ (p. 261). The comment made by the authorities to the accusation of mass murder of political undesirables has more than a superficial similarity with the government reports which, even nowadays, are released by Spanish American régimes:

«Seguro que fue un sueño—insistían los oficiales—. En Macondo no ha pasado nada, ni está pasando ni pasará nunca. Éste es un pueblo feliz.»

(p. 263)


  1. Mainfestes du surréalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), p. 24.

  2. ‘Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction’, Hispania, vol. XXXVIII, no. 2 (May 1955), pp. 187-192 (p. 190).

  3. ‘El realismo mágico en la literatura hispanoamericana’, Cuadernos Americanos, vol. CLIII, no. 4 (July-August 1967), pp. 230-235 (p. 234).

  4. El surrealismo en la ficción hispanoamericana (Madrid: Gredos, 1982), pp. 35-36.

  5. Manifestes du surréalisme, p. 37.

  6. Quoted by Gerald J. Langowoski, El surrealismo en la ficción hispanoamericana, p. 89.

  7. Luis López Alvarez, Conversaciones con Miguel Ángel Asturias (Madrid: Editorial Magisterio Español, 1974), p. 80.

  8. Luis Mario Schneider, México y el surrealismo (1925-1950) (Mexico City: Artes y Libros, 1978), passim.

  9. Gerald J. Langowski, El surrealismo en la ficción hispanoamericana, pp. 88-89.

  10. Mainfestes du surréalisme, pp. 15-16.

  11. ‘Una cala en el realismo mágico’, Cuadernos Americanos, vol. CLXVI, no. 5 (September-October 1969), pp. 233-241 (p. 233).

  12. An Introduction to Spanish American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 300.

  13. ‘El realismo mágico en la literatura hispanoamericana’, pp. 234-235.

  14. Tientos y diferencias (Montevideo: Arca, 1967), p. 108.

  15. Lo real maravilloso en la narrativa latinoamericana actual. «Cien años de soledad», «El reino de este mundo», «Pedro Páramo»; (Lima: Editoriales Unidas, 1978), p. 6.

  16. Lo real maravilloso en la narrativa latinoamericana actual, p. 6.

  17. «Realismo mágico» y «Lo real maravilloso» en «El reino de este mundo» y «El siglo de las luces»; (Miami, Florida: Ediciones Universal, 1977), p. 65.

  18. J. Labanyi, ‘Nature and the Historical Process in Carpentier's El siglo de las luces’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, vol. LVII (1980), pp. 55-66.

  19. See Suzanne Jill Levine, ‘Lo real maravilloso de Carpentier a García Márquez’, Eco, no. XX (April 1970), pp. 563-576; see also her article ‘Pedro Páramo. Cien años de soledad: un paralelo’, in Homenaje a G. García Márquez. Variaciones interpretivas an torno a su obra, edited by Helmy F. Giacoman (New York: Las Américas, 1972), pp. 279-293.

  20. All page references embedded in the text are to Cien años de soledad, 5th edition (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1968).

  21. Homenaje a G. García Márquez, pp. 13-42 (p. 31).

  22. Patrick Boyde, Dante Philomythes and Philosopher. Man in the Cosmos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 44-47.

  23. J. León Helguera, ‘The Problem of Liberalism Versus Conservatism in Colombia: 1849-85’, in Latin American History: Select Problems, edited by Frederick B. Pike (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1969), pp. 223-258.

  24. Mario Vargas Llosa, García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1971), pp. 16-20. See also the well-documented study by Lucila Inés Mena, La función de la historia en «Cien años de soledad»; (Esplugas de Llobregat, Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1979), pp. 66-85.

John Burt Foster, Jr. (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Magic Realism in The White Hotel: Compensatory Vision and the Transformation of Classic Realism,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 205-19.

[In the following essay, Foster maintains that D. M. Thomas's novel The White Hotel “stands at one extreme end” of magic realism and therefore encourages a new critical understanding of the literary and artistic movement.]

The title of a recent book on magic realism in painting reads like an urgent appeal to students of twentieth-century culture. As we look back at the wildly jumbled terrain pushed up by all the modern movements in literature and art, suddenly Seymour Menton sends the message, Magic Realism Rediscovered.1 To judge from Menton's discussion of painting, this concept deserves a place of its own in the historical-typological vocabulary with which we isolate distinctive trends and try to emphasize their main defining features.2 Because magic realism refers to an international cultural tendency, it is broader than any single group of writers and/or painters, such as Vorticism, Acmeism or De Stijl. At the same time, it lacks the all-encompassing cultural scope of categories like modernism, the avant garde, or postmodernism. Magic realism seems ultimately to belong with such intermediate terms as surrealism, expressionism, and futurism, all of which designate movements with a significant presence in several national cultures but with no pretension to characterize an entire epoch.

In a broader sense, students of culture in all periods should welcome magic realism as a rediscovery. As a term originally developed in painting and then extended to writing, it epitomizes one basic approach to an international view of literature. For critics and historians seeking to transcend any single national tradition, art history offered a tempting model of how to proceed. Just as art historians, freed by the nature of their subject from the constraint of linguistic boundaries, could identify and define international period styles in art, so students of literature hoped to correlate different literary traditions and arrive at overarching historical categories. Not post-structuralist theory and the linguistic model, which have guided recent efforts to define literature on the basis of rigorously argued conditions of possibility, but a more empirical approach, through stylistic and cultural periodization, provided the key for a general account of the literary. This approach looked to Heinrich Wölfflin's Principles of Art History as its single greatest prototype.3 And here is where magic realism assumes a special symptomatic importance: as a critical term, it dates back to this very intellectual milieu. Faced in the 1920s with the cooler, more objective art that emerged after expressionism, the German art historian Franz Roh characterized the new painting by using the dialectical method of opposing criteria which Wölfflin had originally applied to the shift from Renaissance to Baroque.4 For literary and cultural historians, therefore, the present interest in magic realism gives a new currency to problems of historical thought and periodization that are deeply embedded in their disciplines.

The issue of magic realism thus takes us back to the recurrent dilemma of history versus theory. Debate would probably show the mutual interdependence of theoretical positions and historical insights, but such a debate is not my purpose in this essay. Instead, I propose to examine the implications of one specific case. I will assume that cultural history on an international scale is both possible and necessary despite its difficulty; that it cannot dispense with periods and movements; and, more specifically, that it is useful to have an historical label like magic realism. In that case, new critical tasks come to the fore: as part of defining what the label means, we need to test its applicability in widely varied cultural contexts, and to try to grasp its relation to other historical terms. In both of these areas my choice of a specific case, D. M. Thomas's recent novel The White Hotel, provides special insight. We shall see later the important ways in which the main character's psychological illness illuminates the relation between magic realism and the classic realism of the nineteenth-century novel. But first we have to consider how The White Hotel relates to magic realism itself. Instead of being a classic example like paintings by Henri Rousseau or de Chirico, or novels such as García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude,5 Thomas's novel is eccentric. It stands at one extreme limit of the movement, and thus sharpens critical understanding by forcing us to re-examine conceptual boundaries and assumptions.


If we review the unusually varied array of cultural signposts with which Thomas greets his readers, none of them has much to do with magic realism. In the epigraph, which quotes some lines about the Irish Civil War by the later, modernist Yeats, the author presents himself as a British man of letters. By referring to the outburst of political hatred evoked by Yeats, he sets the stage for the harsh events of modern European history to be treated in The White Hotel.6 Meanwhile, at the back of the title page, Thomas includes a special note of acknowledgement which recalls his position as an admirer and translator of Russian literature. In the scene which presents an episode from the Jewish Holocaust, he has drawn on the documentary realism of Kuznetsov's Babi Yar (1970), especially on Dina Pronicheva's eyewitness account of mass executions in the Babi Yar ravine of Kiev.7 But poetic modernism and documentary realism do not make Thomas a magic realist, and it is hard to square the British Isles and Russia with a movement that has flourished on the European continent, in Latin America, and in the United States.

Even more problematic is Thomas's emphasis on Freud. Sandwiched between the acknowledgement of Kuznetsov and the Yeatsian epigraph, a special “Author's Note” draws attention to the role that “the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis” plays in The White Hotel.8 And Thomas begins the novel itself with a prologue consisting of fictitious letters by and about Freud, conceives of Part III as a Freudian case history of the heroine Frau Lisa, and eventually has her refer to the Wolf Man as “a kind of Christ figure of our age.”9 These attitudes place Thomas and the magic realists on opposite sides of a major divide in twentieth-century speculative psychology. As Menton explains, “The juxtaposition of magic and realism is clearly an artistic reflection of the psychological-philosophical ideas of Carl Jung,”10 and of course Jung became a major critic and opponent of Freud's. By contrast, an interest in “individual Freudian case-studies” is “more typical of surrealism,”11 and thus represents another modern movement entirely. No meaningful direct connection, either artistic or intellectual, seems to join The White Hotel with magic realism.

This impression changes, however, if we turn from the novel's cultural affiliations to its historical subject matter. Unlike the epigraph from Yeats, which viewed recent European history through the lens of immediate national experience, Thomas chooses a story that is not British but Russian and central European. His heroine, Frau Lisa, whose mother is a Polish Catholic and whose father is a Russian Jew, grows up in Odessa, then spends some years in St. Petersburg, and finally moves to Vienna where she marries an Austrian German just before World War I. This marriage soon breaks up, and she is suffering from a severe case of hysteria by the time Freud treats her in 1919 and 1920. Frau Lisa then pursues a musical career until circumstances bring her back to Russia in the 1930s, when she marries and settles in Kiev.

Missing from this summary is the changing tempo of the narrative, which leads to a reshaping of Thomas's historical material. If some episodes are treated in great detail, others are drastically abridged, with the result that The White Hotel tends to focus on key events in the German-speaking world. For example, the Russian Revolution of 1905 is not described directly or in any detail, since it figures in the story only as the source of a heavily censored trauma in the heroine's memory. On the other hand, as the setting for Frau Lisa's breakdown and Freud's cure, the Austrian experience of World War I and its aftermath receives full attention during several sections of the novel. Later on, the rise of Stalin remains in the background, told not shown, though its effects on Kiev in the 1930s are readily apparent. After Hitler's invasion, by contrast, the arrival of German occupying troops is a dramatic event, and then the final solution begins, as rendered in searingly direct narration. Frau Lisa dies at the ravine of Babi Yar, the victim of a mass execution organized by a Nazi Einsatzgruppe.

Thomas's decision to highlight the central European experience is significant, because in doing so he has recreated the distinctive historical conditions which originally led to the emergence of magic realism. As Menton suggestively argues, magic realism grew out of the “tremendous despair” and the “crushing defeats” that, in different ways obviously with different groups, molded the lives of people in and around the German-speaking countries during the two world wars.12 These special conditions have since been universalized. The origins of magic realism in an intractable and agonizing historical situation help account for the movement's current vitality, at least in painting, which Menton interprets as a response to the Cold War and a threatened atomic holocaust.13 In other words, magic realism has as its unspoken historical premise the same or similar experiences of extremity—of random victimization, of powerlessness, of hysteria and panic before unmanageable events—as the ones Thomas dramatically foregrounds in the German sections of The White Hotel.

Even more important than these historical parallels, Thomas and the magic realists both reacted in the same way to extremity. As Menton explains, the magic realists characteristically responded to the harshness of modern history by developing a compensatory vision. They sought to create in their art a “peace and tranquillity” that had been destroyed by events.14 This aim closely mirrors Jung's doctrine of the collective unconscious, which works through artists and other spiritual leaders of any given period in an effort to heal “its bias, its particular prejudice, and its psychic ailment.” Or, in Northrop Frye's restatement of the Jungian position, literature and art have the psychic function of “driving toward a renewing transformation in the teeth of all probability.”15

A similar improbable effort to rectify the irremediable characterizes the controversial final section of The White Hotel. At the end of the previous section, following a bleak recital of the horrors of Babi Yar, an omniscient voice has broken in, invoking psychological and spiritual values reminiscent of Jung: “But all this had nothing to do with the guest, the soul, the lovesick bride, the daughter of Jerusalem.”16 Then, in the final section, in a realm of dream or afterlife that stands beyond history, the murdered victims of Babi Yar do take the yearned-for train trip falsely promised by the Nazis as a way of assembling them for execution. Moreover, though the section is called “The Camp” and initially seems to evoke later stages of the Jewish Holocaust, their destination is a genuine place of healing. Finally, in the midst of this Jungian compensatory vision, Freud reappears. But now his authority is greatly reduced: his diagnosis of Frau Lisa's hysteria no longer seems valid, and he himself looks “dreadfully ill and unhappy.”17 Here, though the final effect of “The Camp” is too fantastic to qualify as magic realism in Menton's terms,18 Thomas has at least adopted a basic premise of Jung and the magic realists. And, in showing that he is not a Freudian on all points, he has resolved the question left hanging in the prologue to The White Hotel. Despite the Freudian “Author's Note,” Thomas nonetheless began the novel by raising the issue of Jung's challenge to Freud, by means of a curiously noncommittal letter describing tensions between the two psychologists on their American trip of 1909.19

On balance, therefore, The White Hotel does have one important point of contact with magic realism. To be sure, the novel's position with respect to this broad tendency in twentieth-century culture is basically eccentric: too many of Thomas's main affiliations, and especially his dominant psychological outlook, lie elsewhere. Still, when the book moves in the last section toward a compensatory response to the harshness of central European history, it has re-enacted both the original experience that produced magic realism and the characteristic gesture with which magic realists confronted that experience.


Within the overarching compensatory vision that aligns The White Hotel with magic realism, one prominent and even startling motif permits a further sharpening of critical understanding. I am referring to Thomas's depiction of Frau Lisa's psychological illness, which comes to suggest crucial historical meanings as her story unfolds. These historical meanings give a sharp new twist to an important strategy in the nineteenth-century realistic novel. This transformation of earlier fiction will illuminate the process of cultural change, and will clarify the distinction between the elements of magic realism in The White Hotel and some basic asumptions of classic realists like Stendhal and Tolstoy.

Frau Lisa originally came to Freud with hysterical symptoms that included sharp pains in her left breast and near her pelvis. In the two sections of the novel that record her fantasies—the poetic “Don Giovanni” and her reworking and expansion of the same material in prose for “The Gastein Journal”—these symptoms express themselves in various ways, as grotesque images of breasts and wombs or as secondary characters with injuries to these organs. Even more prominent among her fantasies are accidents involving falls from a great height and burial alive in avalanches. But Freud's analysis of Frau Lisa in “Frau Anna G.,” though helpful to her in many ways, fails to explain either these catastrophes or her hysterical symptoms. His method as an interpreter is aetiological, and because he searches for an original trauma from which all else developed, he does not consider the future. This future-oriented meaning for Frau Lisa's symptoms and fantasies is, of course, her death at Babi Yar. While lined up with other victims on a narrow ledge, she first avoids being shot by jumping into the ravine. Then, as she lies injured from the fall, a robber kicks her violently in the breast and pelvis; finally, just before her death, she faces being buried alive. Her hysteria turns out to include a subliminal foreknowledge of her fate, and so the symptoms she asked Freud to treat actually represented physiological clairvoyance. Appropriately enough, as the novel closes with the compensatory vision of the camp, we learn that her sojourn there has succeeded in healing the sharp pains that marked her encounter with modern history.

This motif of Frau Lisa's physiological clairvoyance is Thomas's version of “felt history,” a term I use to designate one powerful way that literature can depict history. Felt history must be distinguished from official history with its attention to leaders, its overview of events, or its analysis of underlying trends. And it should also be distinguished from emotions or feelings, since the psychological effects of history are usually less dramatic and revealing than its immediate feel, its physical impact on the body and the sense. In essence, then, felt history refers to the eloquent gestures and images with which a character or lyric persona registers the direct pressure of events, whether enlarging and buoyant or limiting and harsh. In this broad sense, of course, any critic who is judicious in defining the historical context of a work could interpret most literature as felt history. But the term has special relevance for nineteenth-century realism and its successors. Because this fiction has such strong historicizing ambitions of its own, it refers explicitly to various social, political, and economic issues which, taken together, build up an elaborate historical context within the work itself. Then, as this context reacts directly on the characters in the novel, history and literature have an opportunity to come together with unique specificity and force. In nineteenth-century realism, felt history can be more than an interpretive construction by the critic; it becomes an integral part of one's reading experience.

Brief discussion of several realist works whose characters undergo harsh historical experiences will at once illustrate this concept and provide parallels with which to gauge Thomas's achievement in The White Hotel. Among the early models for realism, certainly Stendhal's The Red and the Black succeeds brilliantly in realizing the possibilities of felt history. This “Chronicle of 1830,” as Stendhal calls it in the subtitle, gives a reasonably full picture of a specific historical milieu: from the provinces in Part I to Paris in Part II, we see Restoration France, with its uneasy aristocrats, its reactionary cabals, and its massive repression of the revolutionary and Napoleonic past. But a panoramic view of this kind does not capture the feel of history. The full moral squalor of the Restoration only becomes explicit in the scene where Mathilde de la Mole, the cynosure and apex of the whole society, catches sight of the Count Altamira at a magnificent ball. He is a political exile from Naples, condemned for his role in a liberal conspiracy, and Mathilde reflects sardonically that unlike the honors of Restoration France at least his death sentence was a distinction that could not be bought.20

As the novel ends and Stendhal's hero Julien Sorel is beheaded, this witty sally by a bored and impertinent young noblewoman has become prophetic. To be sure, Stendhal describes the execution itself in an understated, summarizing phrase: “Everything proceeded simply, decently, and without the slightest affectation on his part.”21 But the abrupt turn in Julien's fortunes, from general acknowledgement as a nobleman to an accusation of murder, has produced an equivalent feeling of violent termination at the level of narrative tempo. So sudden a reversal can be as shocking as the most graphic description, and not surprisingly the end of The Red and the Black has generated much controversy. From our perspective, however, Stendhal's narrative technique has brilliantly conveyed the feel of the descending guillotine, itself a manifestation of the pressure of the times on Julien Sorel. For, during his trial, Julien's open references to Restoration anxieties about the social order have driven home the point that his death bears witness to a fearful and repressive epoch.

Like Stendhal, whom he admired, Tolstoy creates a broad historical picture of the contemporary world in Anna Karenina. He portrays a society in transition: in the wake of Tsar Alexander's great reforms of the 1860s, Russia is being Westernized and modernized. As in the older Russia of Tolstoy's previous novel War and Peace, the upper classes imitate European models in everything from food and conceptions of marriage to the use of foreign languages in conversation and the importation of recent intellectual fashions. But in Anna Karenina, as a result of liberation of the serfs and other reforms, the influences from abroad now include such fundamental changes as modern Western notions of citizenship, legal procedure, and ownership. At the same time, economic development is creating new industries and entrepreneurs and covering the country with railroads, leading to a decline of the landed gentry, the class to which Tolstoy's main characters belong.

Though explicit, all of these historical factors remain in the background of Anna Karenina. Throughout War and Peace Tolstoy had fought a running battle with official history, and in the famous opening to this novel—“All happy families are alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—he announces his intention of focusing on private life. Nevertheless, the historical situation does break into the family sphere. This is especially true with Anna, whose terrifying nightmares express more than submerged guilt at her tangled emotional involvements with the two Alexies, one her husband Karenin, the other her lover Vronsky. Thus, in her recurrent dream of a Russian peasant who bends over some iron and mumbles in French, the obscurely menacing images correlate with issues presented elsewhere, most notably the accounts of agricultural problems after the liberation of the serfs, the references to new industrial ventures, and the scenes portraying Russian dependence on European models.22 The result is an imaginatively powerful but ominous vision of the large transitions that frame the various family dramas.

Anna's nightmares qualify as felt history because, by translating Westernization into vivid images, they dramatize the psychic costs of social change. The final scene of her suicide (an anecdote of a similar death had given Tolstoy the original idea for the novel) is even more graphic. Though Tolstoy refuses to linger over the details, he does succeed in showing the crude impact of historical forces as they overwhelm the personality. First he emphasizes that Anna crosses herself before throwing herself beneath a passing train, a gesture that momentarily restores her sense of the richness of life. But her eyes remain fixed on the wheels of the passing cars, whose hypnotic effect stifles this new openness to life. So she jumps anyway, and as she dies her psychic inertia reappears as a physical presence, in the “huge and relentless” force of the train that crushes her.23 To the extent that railroads have come to epitomize the new Russia in the world of this novel, Anna's suicide is the culminating and decisive expression of felt history. Of course, her death is above all a moving human tragedy, and also suggests more than Tolstoy intended about the situation of women in Western culture. Even on the historical level, Anna's case does not exhaust the range of responses portrayed by Tolstoy. But if her brother Stiva Oblonsky can nonchalantly follow the flow of events, and if the hero Levin manages to stand against the current, Anna has been swept away and thus reveals the pressure of the times the most directly.

For another example of felt history we should turn to Thomas Mann. Mann, of course, is a pivotal figure in the history of the novel, for he is a twentieth-century innovator often linked with modernists like Joyce and Proust but also closely tied to nineteenth-century realism, and to Tolstoy in particular. For our purposes he is especially important because his historical subject matter closely parallels The White Hotel. Just as Frau Lisa foresuffers the Holocaust, so several of Mann's stories and novels convey his sense of possible disaster in Germany and Central Europe.

Death in Venice is the key work. Though published in 1912, this story begins prophetically by alluding to diplomatic crises that threaten a European war and ends by depicting an utterly demoralized society. City officials in Venice have decided to cover up a cholera epidemic that would hurt the tourist trade, but their lowered public standards spread through the city, resulting in increased crime, debauchery, and murder. And Mann's hero Aschenbach, the descendant of officials himself and an honored representative of modern Germany, condones and, in his dreams at least, participates in this sinister Saturnalia. This premonition of social crisis becomes direct experience in the scene where a Neapolitan street-singer, insolent and vaguely criminal, performs before Aschenbach and other tourists at the Grand Hotel. As a finale he sings a laughing song that aggressively mocks the audience yet sweeps it along with him, dissolving all social and moral distinctions to produce a nihilistic mood that Mann calls “unfounded hilarity.”24 The street-singer's infectious yet destructive laughter has translated the cholera epidemic and its implications of social collapse into a vivid psychic-physiological experience. This emphasis on eloquent bodily sensation, though less immediately life-threatening than Julien's decapitation or Anna's suicide beneath the train, has continued the tradition of felt history.

Thirty-five years later, in his novel Doctor Faustus, Mann himself confirmed the prophetic implications of this scene. The novel tells the story of the fictitious German composer Adrian Leverkühn, who lives through the years of crisis during and after World War I but goes insane before the rise of the Nazis. These later events do enter the book, however, through the narrator, a close friend of Leverkühn's who has decided to write his biography during World War II and who comments freely on his own situation. In the novel Mann presents the inner meaning of recent German history as demonic, particularly when he focuses on Leverkühn's imagined interview with the devil, which occurs at the very middle of Doctor Faustus.25 The devil appears to Leverkühn in three shapes, the first one being a pimp, whose insolent and vaguely criminal manner recalls the street-singer in Death in Venice. But in the end he takes the form of a theologian, whose discourse on the tortures of hell correlates with historical material elsewhere in the novel to evoke the worst features of the Nazi regime: “Every compassion, every grace, every sparing, every last trace of consideration for the incredulous, imploring objection that you verily cannot do so unto a soul: it is done, it happens. …”26 Only the sufferings of the damned can capture the feel of this epoch of extremity. The theologian has proclaimed the fulfillment of that dissolution of traditional restraints and that advent of nihilism once merely suggested by the street-singer's aggressive laughter.

In its relation to nineteenth-century realism, Flaubert's Madame Bovary is just as problematic as Mann's work. But felt history does figure prominently in a famous realistic reading of the novel, written by a critic who, like Mann, became an exile from Nazi Germany. I am referring to Erich Auerbach, whose classic study Mimesis does not actually use the phrase “felt history” but nonetheless illustrates the concept very well. Auerbach's discussion of Madame Bovary focuses on a paragraph at the end of Part I where Emma's dissatisfaction with her marriage seems to crystallize. She is at the dinner table, and direct sense impressions dominate—a smoking stove, a creaking door, the oozing walls, the damp floor tiles. These impressions then coalesce to reveal a special psychological state in which vague lethargy passes over into definite repulsion: “with the steam from the boiled beef, there rose from the depths of her soul other exhalations as it were of disgust.”27 Having shown this close connection between Emma's mood and the images around her, Auerbach then goes on to argue that even though Flaubert is less explicit than other realists in referring to official history, still he does register the pressure of his times. His novels provide real “insight into the problematic nature and the hollowness of nineteenth century bourgeois culture,” for they portray a “political, economic, and social subsoil” that “appears comparatively stable and at the same time intolerably charged with tension.”28 Auerbach concludes that Flaubert's power as a realist lies in his ability to communicate the “concealed threat” on two levels at once, “both in the individual occurrence and in his total picture of the times.”29 In short, Auerbach has linked Emma's incipient feelings of disgust, as expressed most vividly by the images at the dinner-table, with the inner nature of her epoch as portrayed throughout in Madame Bovary. It is precisely this interaction of specific sense impressions with a broad historical context that defines the tradition of felt history.


These memorable instances of felt history in realistic fiction immediately raise questions about Thomas's achievement. Despite his success in conveying the intense horror of the Holocaust, largely through a skillful use of Dina Pronicheva's experiences as told in Kuznetsov's Babi Yar, Thomas's portrayal of Frau Lisa's death can seem overly crude and strident as an image for the pressures of history. In part, simple differences in historical vision or knowledge help account for the distinctive tone of this scene. Flaubert's epoch of boredom has to appear subtle and low key alongside an epoch of extremity, while Mann's forebodings about the German future in Death in Venice are necessarily less graphic than Thomas's certainty after the fact. And yet, because Auerbach and Mann themselves lived through the success of the Nazis, their insights into the sources of extremity are more detailed and provocative. Thus Auerbach can present Flaubert as the diagnostician of middle-class boredom charged with threatening possibilities, while in Doctor Faustus Mann acknowledges the relevance of his earlier picture of demoralization and nihilism spreading infectiously through an entire society. Both of these writers maintain a sense of historical process, while Thomas risks overawing the reader with the horrifying result.

Moreover, Thomas's description of the violence inflicted on Frau Lisa at Babi Yar—which includes not only the blows to her body already mentioned but also a gruesome bayonet rape—is brutally explicit. He has deliberately chosen this approach, for comparison with the documentary material in Kuznetsov shows that Dina Pronicheva experienced no such rape.30 Here a contrast with Tolstoy and Stendhal is illuminating. Though Anna's and Julien's deaths are equally painful to imagine, the details are left to the reader, whose strong sense of shock springs rather from abrupt reversals of mood or expectation: that last ineffective flash of love for life before Anna dies, and that sudden change in the plot of The Red and the Black. Defenders of Thomas's method might argue that Frau Lisa's encounter with history has to be brutal if it is to represent a scene of mass execution like Babi Yar, or even the Holocaust as a whole. And it is also true that such violence against a woman connects meaningfully and ingeniously with the Jungian and Yeatsian affiliations of The White Hotel. Thus the bayonet rape suggests a psyche at sharp variance with Jung's androgynous ideal, and recalls his view of contemporary history as the product of radical dislocations in the spirit.31 At the same time, the rape also fits with Yeats's schematization of history in terms of annunciations made to women, with Frau Lisa replacing Leda and Mary as the harbinger of a new epoch that particularizes the “rough beast” of “The Second Coming.”32 Despite these arguments in Thomas's favor, however, doubts persist concerning his handling of felt history. Tolstoy and Stendhal were able to communicate an irremediable harshness in historical experience without having to resort to raw sex and violence.

In several other respects, however, the juxtaposition of classic realism with The White Hotel is less problematic, for it suggests a line of descent leading from nineteenth-century fiction to the magic realists. This line of descent demonstrates the relevance of a Nietzschean or Foucauldian cultural genealogy, with its successive reinterpretations and transformations.33 For, whatever Thomas's conscious intentions, when he appropriates the tradition of felt history, he radically alters the basic assumptions on which it rests. Thus Frau Lisa's physiological clairvoyance is essentially occult, in that it represents a way of perceiving history that claims to reveal an otherwise hidden future. Here Auerbach provides a telling counter example, for during his analysis of Madame Bovary he goes out of his way to deny the apparent mysticism of felt history in that novel. When Flaubert links Emma's sensations at the dining table with the hollowness and tension of her epoch, Auerbach insists that his approach—“like all true mysticism, based upon reason, experience, and discipline”—depends on “a self-forgetful absorption in the subjects of reality which transforms them. …”34 In other words, for Auerbach Flaubert's historical insight did not derive from special prophetic powers but from the lucidity and fullness with which he apprehended the contemporary world. Emma's feelings in that oppressive dining room are both a product and an index of current conditions, so that, through her, readers can discover the basic mood of mid-nineteenth-century France. Similarly, Mathilde de la Mole's fascination with death sentences, Mann's intuitions of social disaster, and even Anna's ominous nightmares begin as projections of contemporary social experience as rendered in their novels. They only become prophetic by virtue of their immersion in the present. By contrast, Thomas's story hinges on Frau Lisa's symptoms being a detailed and explicit premonition of Babi Yar, but does not show with equal detail how this outcome was conditioned by the contemporary world in which her symptoms first appeared. Appropriately enough, in the move from realism to The White Hotel, the epistemological assumptions of felt history have become magical.

In the last section of the novel, where Thomas adopts the compensatory vision which parallels a basic impulse of the magic realists, he again transforms realism. As a realm beyond death, the camp differs strikingly from the final responses to felt history presented in realist novels. Thus Madame Bovary ends with the sardonic vision of a world where nothing has changed; Homais triumphs, the very character who epitomized the provincial milieu Emma found so stifling. Or, when Aschenbach dies on the beach in Venice, shattered by his riotous dreams and infected with cholera, Mann cuts the story off as abruptly as Stendhal. And Aschenbach's last vision of Tadzio as “a pale and lovely summoner” leaves only the most ambiguous hints of some other reality. Even in Anna Karenina, where Levin continues his quest for spiritual meaning after Anna's suicide, his search remains fixed in this world. The novel closes with his decision to pursue an ethical struggle depending on his own efforts: “My life, my whole life … has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.”35 Among the great classic realists, with their focus on secular experience, there can be no miraculous cures like Frau Lisa's for the wounds of felt history.

Thus, whatever our doubts about the full artistic success of The White Hotel, it does provide historical insight on several levels. As a boundary work, Thomas's novel cannot possibly suggest the whole sweep and richness of magic realism; there is nothing quintessential about it. But it does illuminate how this artistic tendency relates to the general history of its time, and to special issues from both intellectual and literary history. In its reliance on compensatory vision as a basic narrative strategy, the ending of The White Hotel closely parallels the response of magic realists to the extremities of modern history in central Europe. In intellectual terms, meanwhile, the turn to compensatory vision qualifies Thomas's normally Freudian outlook, and at least on this issue aligns him with the Jungian affinities of the magic realists. Most important, however, Frau Lisa's physiological clairvoyance pinpoints a major shift in literary assumptions from nineteenth-century classic realism to magic realism, as new attitudes toward epistemology and historical experience transform the author's handling of felt history. Telltale swerves like this one in a single motif help identify the values and presuppositions involved in cultural change, showing that comparative analyses of specific instances are often just as productive as more broadly speculative approaches. In the end, of course, neither history nor theory exists in isolation but rather each necessarily complements the other, often in unacknowledged ways, in any critic's effort to understand culture.


  1. Seymour Menton, Magic Realism Rediscovered, 1918-1981 (Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1983). Menton, who is a professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature, conceives of the book as an indispensable first step in establishing the validity of magic realism as a general cultural term. Thus, though he focuses on magic realism in painting, he also mentions writers like Kafka, Borgès, Robbe-Grillet, and García Márquez.

  2. For a theoretical discussion of the historical-typological method, see Claudio Guillén, Literature as System: Essays Toward the Theory of Literary History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), especially the essays in section V. Guillén places period and movement terms “somewhere between the order of chronology and that of an atemporal typology” (pp. 437-438) and emphasizes “the elucidation of structures in history” (p. 375). For applications of this approach to twentieth-century culture, see Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968) and Matei Calinescu, Faces of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1977).

  3. For the classic statement, see René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1948), pp. 120-123. Discussion, both favorable and critical, of the relations between art history and literary history appears in New Literary History, 3 (Spring, 1972). Marshall Brown provides a searching assessment of Principles of Art History in “The Classic is the Baroque: On the Principle of Wölfflin's Art History,” Critical Inquiry, 9(2), 379-404.

  4. Menton, pp. 9, 17-19. Examples of Roh's criteria would be contrasts between dynamic and static, thick color texture and thin paint surface, or ecstatic and sober subjects. His efforts to distinguish magic realism from expressionism are highlighted by the title of his 1925 book, Nachexpressionismus, magischer Realismus. Later in his career Roh would also stress the differences between magic realism and surrealism.

  5. Menton, pp. 57, 45, 22.

  6. D.M. Thomas, The White Hotel (New York: Viking, 1981), p. xi. Thomas quotes the lines “We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart's grown brutal from the fare;/More substance in our enmities/Than in our love” from “The Stare's Nest by My Window” in “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” which Yeats wrote in 1921-22 and which now appears in The Tower. Given Thomas's emphasis on compensation outside of history, as discussed below, he significantly omits Yeats's last lines from his epigraph. These lines pray for an end to political bitterness, taking a viewpoint within history: “O honey-bees,/Come build in the empty house of the stare.”

  7. Thomas, p. vi.

  8. Thomas, pp. vii-viii.

  9. Thomas, pp. 3-12, 89-144, 193.

  10. Menton, p. 13.

  11. Menton, p. 35.

  12. Menton, p. 10.

  13. Menton, pp. 14, 86. Menton does not discuss the historical context of Latin American fiction in Magic Realism Rediscovered.

  14. Menton, p. 10.

  15. Similar ideas may be found throughout Jung and Frye. For the passages quoted here, see Carl Jung, “Psychology and Literature,” Modern Man in Search of a Soul, reprinted in Modern Literary Criticism, 1900-1970, Lawrence J. Lipking and A. Walton Litz, eds. (New York: Atheneum, 1972), p. 428; and Northrop Frye, “The Return from the Sea,” A Natural Perspective, Lipking and Litz, p. 243.

  16. Thomas, p. 253.

  17. Thomas, pp. 260-261.

  18. For Menton (p. 13), magic realism focuses on “the strange, the uncanny, the eerie, and the dreamlike—but not the fantastic.”

  19. The letter includes the explicit statement, by Jung, that “Freud had lost his authority as far as he was concerned” (Thomas, p. 6). For a more detailed interpretation, from a different critical perspective, of the Freud-Jung tension throughout the novel, see Marsha Kinder's discussion in “The Spirit of The White Hotel,Humanities in Society, 4 (Spring-Summer 1981), 143-170, esp. 147-150.

  20. Stendhal, The Red and the Black, Part II, chapter 8.

  21. Stendhal, Part II, chapter 45, Robert M. Adams, trans.

  22. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Pt. IV, Ch. 3. This is the fullest account of the dream, which is also mentioned elsewhere in the novel.

  23. Tolstoy, Pt. VII, Ch. 31, Louise and Aylmer Maude, trans.

  24. Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, chapter 5, H. T. Lowe-Porter, trans.

  25. Mann, Doctor Faustus, chapter 25. If we count the three parts of chapter 34 as separate chapters, this chapter comes at the middle of a 49-chapter novel.

  26. Doctor Faustus, chapter 25, H. T. Lowe-Porter, trans.

  27. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Willard R. Trask, trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953), p. 483. Compare Madame Bovary, Pt. I, Ch. 9.

  28. Auerbach, pp. 490, 491.

  29. Auerbach, p. 491.

  30. A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov), Babi Yar: A document in the form of a novel, David Floyd, trans. (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1970), pp. 109-111.

  31. On the Jungian notion of androgyny in magic realism, compare Menton, p. 35, where he analyzes the paintings of Anton Räderscheidt in terms of the effort to overcome dislocation.

  32. For Yeats's theory of historical epochs based on annunciations to women, see William Butler Yeats, A Vision (New York: Macmillan, 1937), especially Book V, “Dove or Swan,” pp. 267-302. For the place of “The Second Coming” in his scheme, see pp. 262-263.

  33. For an especially pointed expression of Nietzsche's method, which holds that “whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed and redirected,” see Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Essay II, section 12. Michel Foucault has discussed the genealogical method in the context of Nietzsche's developing thought, but his essay is regrettably somewhat diffuse and does not fully explain Nietzsche's relevance to Foucault's own practice as a cultural historian. See Michael Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Donald F. Bouchard, ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 139-164.

  34. Auerbach, p. 486.

  35. Anna Karenina, Part VIII, chapter 19, Louise and Aylmer Maude, trans.

Joseph J. Benevento (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “An Introduction to the Realities of Fiction: Teaching Magic Realism in Three Stories by Borges, Fuentes, and Marquez,” in Kansas Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer, 1984, pp. 125-31.

[In the following essay, Benevento suggests strategies for teaching about magic realism in the works of three preeminent Latin-American writers.]

As David Young and Keith Hollaman note in their introduction to the anthology Magical Realist Fiction, “The term ‘magical realism’ as applied to fiction has begun to have a certain currency since the recent award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Gabriel García Márquez.”1 Certainly García Márquez's novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is, as David W. Foster argues, an elaboration of the basic premises of magic realism.2 However, García Márquez's “definitive novel of Latin America” (Foster, 41), though perhaps the best known example, is by no means the only work of magic realism available to North American audiences. Indeed, there are currently a number of short stories and novels available to us in translation that present magic realism at its best.

A simple definition of magic realism is probably not possible. It can be viewed as a “hybrid that somehow manages to combine the ‘truthful’ and ‘verifiable’ aspects of realism with the ‘magical’ effects we associate with myth, folktale and tall story” (Young and Hollaman, 1). However, while the term “hybrid” often suggests a compromise or mating of two distinct entities, magic realism often seems to be both fully magical and realistic at once. For example in One Hundred Years of Solitude the most realistic depictions of small-town life or of political massacres are presented alongside accounts of rainfall that lasts for years or of characters who are pursued by butterflies or who levitate to heaven. Even the origin of the term “magic realism” (or “magical realism” or “the marvelous real”) is not entirely clear. Young and Hollaman argue that it “has been used (in the first instance, perhaps, by Angel Flores in 1954) to characterize the work of Borges and writers who followed him” (1). However, Foster opens his article on “Latin American Documentary Drama” with a quotation from the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier which defines “the marvelous real” in a way which Foster suggests leads directly to the marvelous reality of García Márquez's novel (41).

The exact origin of the term is not nearly as important as its overall present use. Magic realism redefines the limits of the fantasy story, integrating its premises into the most realistic depictions of life as it is. Virtually all of the most important twentieth-century Latin American fiction writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, Alejo Carpentier, and Gabriel García Márquez, have been magic realists of one sort or another. Since many of their works are now available in translation, and the special mix of the real and of the magical that makes magic realism what it is also makes it an especially attractive kind of fiction to employ in any fiction class, magic realism can be a valuable tool for presenting the essence of what fiction is, particularly in an introductory class.

The student who understands the underpinnings of stories by men such as Borges, Fuentes, or García Márquez comprehends that there can be no neat demarcations between fact and fiction or between the real and the fantastic. In good fiction, life and art coexist in a strange, tenuous, and magical partnership that cannot be readily dissolved by a return to the “real world.” In addition, because magic realism combines the most current and experimental narrative techniques and the most intricate attempts at verisimilitude with the special “spell narrative casts when it is perfectly implausible” (Young and Hollaman, 3) it is a mode that both delights and challenges the beginning literature student. I have used stories by Borges, Fuentes, Cortázar and García Márquez while teaching introductory classes in fiction and literature at both Michigan State and at Northeast Missouri State, and I have always found students particularly responsive to the works, in part because these stories have been so different. After all, though magic realism is certainly distinct from science fiction or fantasy or from the ghost story, it has enough in common with such modes to be of particular interest to today's students who continue to enroll heavily in courses in science fiction or mystery, while enrollments in some other literature courses decline. Magic realism is a kind of fiction that will almost certainly interest and engage students, while also helping them attain graphic and specific insight into such basics of fiction as plot, point of view, setting, and symbol.

Three of the stories most characteristic of magic realism and available in more than one of the more popular anthologies such as Fiction 100 or The Norton Introduction to Literature3 are Borges' “The Garden of Forking Paths,” Fuentes' “Aura,” and García Márquez's “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Each of these tales is, in fact, partially a metaphor or allegory of the fictional mode itself. Borges' story focuses attention on the reader's role and on the probabilities of fiction. Fuentes' “Aura” forces the reader to consider point of view and characterization in a highly focused way. García Márquez's fable is an allegoric representation of the world of magic realism itself, which explains to the reader how impossible it is to categorize either art or reality.

Jorge Luis Borges, certainly one of the most important living writers, has provided many stories which have served as forerunners or blueprints of the whole magic realism movement. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is an excellent story for an introductory course, though at first it seems like an unlikely choice as a “model” story because of its complexity and the ostensible implausibility of its plot. However, once the implicit meanings are unraveled through class discussion, it serves as a guideline for much of the subsequent reading in a class.

In an introductory literature course that I taught recently, I had assigned several conventionally popular short stories, such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” and I had received fairly conventional responses from my students. However, on the day I arrived in class for our discussion of “The Garden of Forking Paths” I noticed that my students had arranged all of their desks against one wall, leaving a row of empty seats against the opposite wall. In response to my bemused look one of my students informed me that “Everyone who understood today's story is sitting on that side of the class” (the side with the empty desks). I took a look around the room, got my own chair, and placed it with my students, on the side of less than perfect understanding. After we had a good laugh over their initiative and my response to it, we were able to approach the story in a way that the other stories had not seemed to encourage. Though they were confused, their actions also pointed out that they were challenged and interested, and we went on to have one of the best discussions of the semester. We began to unravel the plot and try to get at what Borges might have meant, but we also realized that one, neat solution might not be possible or even desirable.

The basic plot of “The Garden of Forking Paths” seems almost bizarre at first reading. A Chinese spy for the Germans during World War I in England is about to be captured before he can let the Germans know the site of the British munitions plant. He decides upon a strange solution; he goes to a phone book and selects a person whose last name is the same as the town which holds the munitions. He then goes to this man's house planning to kill him, so that when he is captured and his name is linked to the selected man in an apparently motiveless crime, the Germans will know that this was his way of relaying the site's location to them. Incredibly enough, the plan eventually works. However, the specific details of its enactment turn out to be even more bizarre than the plan itself.

The man selected from the phone directory by the spy is Stephen Albert, who, incredibly enough, is a sinologist. Far more incredibly, he is the man who has finally figured out the true significance of a book written long ago by one of the spy's ancestors, Ts'ui Pên. Albert has discerned what no one before him could, that Ts'ui Pên's avowed intention to create a labyrinth and to write a novel were in fact one notion: his “Garden of Forking Paths” was a labyrinth within a novel. The incredible coincidence that the spy has to murder the one man who has revered and understood his ancestor more than any other person on earth is ostensibly the worst kind of “improbable possibility.” In Aristotelian terms one might suggest that Borges' story is a classic example of an implausible plot. However, the real magic of Borges' story is that it redefines the borders of the improbable and introduces a different concept of time.

The book of Ts'ui Pên offers a rationale not only for Borges' story but also for much of the magic realism that it would help to engender. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a kind of blueprint for the work of men such as Fuentes and García Márquez. Ts'ui Pên's work is a novel in which there is no linear or normal chronological pattern. A character can be killed in one chapter and reappear in the next. The reason for this is that life and time are both conceived of as a series of infinite choices, in which all choices, all possibilities, eventually and inevitably come to pass. As Albert explains: “In all fictional works each time a man is confronted with several alternatives he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui Pên he chooses simultaneously all of them. He creates in this way diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.” Life is thereby seen as a series of infinite possibilities and so too is art. The reader must consider all possibilities; there no longer can be a “road not taken.” Hence no coincidence, no matter how seemingly bizarre, can be incredible, according to the logic of this “garden.”

The strange circumstances that lead the spy to kill Albert are no more or less absurd than the many other possible worlds in which the two men would never even have met. Borges is not an absurdist; instead his fiction redefines the real and what is really probable. Everything and anything that can be imagined really can happen, and the reader must be prepared for all contingencies. This message allows a new kind of legitimacy to the fantastic and implicitly suggests that the most incredible of tales has every bit as much right to our ‘'willing suspension of disbelief” as the most conventionally realistic story. Any reader who accepts the premises of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is, by definition, more open to the potentials and possibilities of fiction, and more aware of the role the reader must play in deciding upon which path to take in the interpretation of a given story.

When we discussed what Borges had done in this story, I could see that my students enjoyed the idea of a story that had no set ending, and I could see that they were intrigued by the mix of verisimilitude (the story has footnotes and is supposedly an uncovered diary with a few pages missing) and elements of the fantastic. They seemed entirely prepared to allow the author to create a fictional world that would not have to conform to narrow or normal expectations, but which might instead determine its own rules of authenticity by the force of its narrative pattern. In this way Borges did more to suspend my students' disbelief than any lectures on the subject ever could have done.

Carlos Fuentes' “Aura” creates a seductive atmosphere which not only overwhelms the main character but also each one of the readers of this strange tale. Fuentes employs a second person point of view which inevitably makes each reader as much a part of the story as the ostensible protagonist, Felipe Montero. For when the narrator says, “and for the first time in years you dream,” he is surely speaking to each one of his readers as well who are caught up in the “aura” of his work. The rare use of the second person viewpoint is an excellent opportunity to teach students the value of point of view, which can sometimes be overlooked in omniscient or even in some first person narratives. Fuentes almost forces us to become “accomplice readers,” the kinds of readers that Julio Cortázar insisted would be necessary for the new kind of fiction being written in Latin America. We are certainly caught up in the magic of the story, but the second person reference, the repeated, “you,” makes us feel its reality as well.

“Aura” begins when the protagonist reads a job description in the newspaper that seems “addressed to you and nobody else … All that's missing is your name.” From the first, then, each reader is implicitly invited to fill in his name as well. Upon making inquiries, the protagonist soon gets caught up in the strange world of a very old woman who wants him to revise and publish the memoirs of her long dead husband. She is eccentric, but the money offered is substantial, and the old woman's beautiful niece, Aura, is a further incentive to stay. Captivated by Aura's beauty, the protagonist agrees to stay in the house to do the assigned work on the memoirs. With each hour that passes, he becomes more enchanted by Aura's beauty.

However, the strange atmosphere of the old house becomes more pronounced. At night Aura comes to the protagonist's bedroom and they become lovers, though the encounters have a strange, dreamlike quality, and Aura appears to be older each time. The old woman seems to exert a strange power over Aura, as if she could only do what the woman willed her to do. Instead of being suspicious, however, “you” become more in love with Aura and more determined to rescue her from the old lady.

However, “you” discover through reading the memoirs and by examining some old photographs that Aura looks exactly as the old woman did when she was young. More amazingly, “you” discover that the husband looked exactly like “you.” By the powers of a kind of black magic the old woman has been able to resurrect the aura of her youth, though she cannot keep Aura young for very long, and eventually she fades entirely. However, by this time “you” are totally captured by the bewitchment, and the protagonist makes love to the old woman herself, while she promises that they will bring Aura back together. The main character has become lost in the vision, the magic and madness of the old woman, so much that in the end he cannot distinguish himself from the old woman's husband.

The eerieness of the final scene in which the protagonist embraces the old hag, unable to distinguish between the real and the fantastic, is of course augmented tremendously by “your” direct inclusion in the narrative line of the story. Each reader inevitably becomes one with the protagonist and identifies with him as he himself identified with the old woman's husband.

Most obviously, “Aura” is an effective story to employ in a course because it demonstrates quite graphically the effect that point of view can have on the interpretation and understanding of a story. Its hypnotic effect, so appropriate to the tale of a man slowly bewitched, is the perfect example of an author making the right narrative choices. However, this story is just as certainly about what any good work of fiction must do. Just as Felipe Montero realizes that he fits the picture of the husband, you the reader realize that you fit the picture of the protagonist; you identify with the character directly. In any work of fiction we become involved with the characters and/or point of view. We are always caught in the “aura” of the work, while also bringing our specific selves to the work. Our inclusion in “Aura” is far more direct, but in all fiction a large part of its potential magic is in how much we can identify with the characters and situations presented. Indeed, if the essence of the work affects us intimately enough, we may lose forever our inclination to discriminate sharply between the real and the imaginary. The vision can then begin to take shape; the aura becomes real.

Invariably, when I have used this story in the classroom I have discovered that the questions of both point of view and reader participation become focused in a way that more conventional stories cannot always bring about. However, once the magic of “Aura” has worked on a class, students seem more able and more willing to reflect on how point of view can take us into its premises and biases, in stories ranging from “Rip Van Winkle” to “The Barnhouse Effect.”

Students who are being introduced to literature often have a compelling need to try to “understand” each work fully. In part this phenomenon can be attributed to their fear of exams, but it can also be traced to a fairly natural desire to avoid confusion and ambiguity. Magic realism forces students to rethink comforting but ultimately unsatisfactory answers. For example, García Márquez's “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” challenges our implicit desire for safe or explainable fantasies.

The story is subtitled “A Tale for Children,” and its skeletal plot seems to favor that assessment. An old “angel” falls from the sky near the home of a poor, beleaguered couple who have a very sick child. During his stay with them the child gets well and the family comes into financial prosperity. Eventually the angel grows new wings and flies away. On the basis of that description one would certainly feel safe to say that the story is a kind of modern fairy tale. However, anyone who reads the story swiftly loses any such sense of complacency, and is instead befuddled by it at every turn.

The old man is by no means a typical angel, if indeed he is an angel at all. He is disheveled and weak, speaks an incomprehensible tongue and makes little attempt to communicate, is infested with parasites, and has ugly, vulture-like wings. In short, he bears little resemblance to any of the angels of mythic convention. The villagers offer various explanations of this incongruous creature, while the young couple, Pelayo and Elisenda, eventually decide to make good on the attention he attracts by charging five cents admission to view him, locked safely, if uncomfortably, in their chicken coop. His notoriety, however, is short-lived; he is soon displaced in the public eye by a carnival attraction that rolls into town, a woman who claims to have been turned into a tarantula. This woman is more than willing to explain how she reached her strange state, so she is far more attractive to the villagers than a sullen angel who grants no miracles.

The people in this story want an explanation for the bizarre, and they readily accept the spider-woman's explanation, no matter how ridiculous (she claims to have been transformed by God as punishment for having gone out against her parents' will) because it is conventionally sound (the gods have a long history of changing people into animals). The contradiction of explainable or comfortable fantasy is brought home clearly by the old man who clearly is fantastic, but who offers no explanations. And so it is with a sense of genuine relief that the couple discover the old man's gradual growth of new wings and witness his renewed power of flight and his escape back into the sky.

This story defies simple categorization, just as the old man himself does. It purports to be a child's tale, a simple excursion into the realm of the clearly imaginary, but it becomes instead a difficult tale of a strange old man whom no one can figure out, though the priest and the “neighbor woman who knew everything about life and death” pretend to understand him. The truly amazing thing about this strange being is that he so soon loses his incredible status. As the narrator informs us, “They looked at him so long and so closely” that they soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. In addition, the doctor who initially examines the man and his wings out of curiosity concludes, “They seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn't understand why other men didn't have them too.” The old man is a mix of the familiar and the fantastic and his effect upon us is to make the incredible familiar and perhaps the familiar incredible.

When I have used this story in class a few students have chosen in their assigned papers to compare and contrast it with Franz Kafka's “A Hunger Artist.” Both are stories about strange old men who are enclosed public attractions until their audiences lose interest and they face neglect. A prime contrast that my students have been able to discern, however, is that Kafka's hunger artist is clearly a man with a purpose who seeks recognition and is clearly a human being, no matter how strange. The winged old man fits no known categories, does not try to communicate, even in the end (unlike Kafka's hero), and he never can be explained, either as an angel or a hoax or as anything else. He remains enigmatic from beginning to end. As Young and Hollaman point out, “We must take him as a given, accepted but not explained” (5). García Márquez refuses all “reasonable” explanations. Science fiction or fairy tale are explainable fantasy on some level; the first implies that some day or in some world these things can be real, and fairy tales are real enough for children. The old man cannot be explained by the church or science or by a child's fantasy; he is real until the moment he flies away. Only then can we “imagine” that he never existed.

The old man is, therefore, very much like magic realism itself. He has fantastic qualities, but also some very ordinary, even unattractive features. Neither can be easily classified, and that is annoying. Like magic realism, the old man cannot be expected to conform to the ordinary person's expectations of the fantastic. A fantastic tale that fits expectations should be a contradiction in terms. Magic realism insists that it is foolish and inappropriate to look for a consistency in literature that has never been present in the “real world.”

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the old man and about magic realism is that they both fly, tentatively at first, but eventually they soar beyond the normal field of vision. The maddening mix of the real and the fantastic that is magic realism is aptly represented by the fantastic commonality of the old man.

Magic realism and much of good fiction insists upon thwarting the reader's ordinary expectations. The good reader does not want safe or predictable answers, and magic realism never supplies them. The works of Borges, Fuentes, and García Márquez and other authors of magic realism can be valuable tools in any introductory literature course because they introduce students to a most enriching way of viewing the fictional world. These stories familiarize students with the province of fiction and of art even as they puzzle and entertain them. They are a most viable means of introducing students to the realities of fiction, the role that fiction plays in broadening our range of beliefs and possibilities. They focus our attention on the intimate bond between fiction and the real world, in part by suggesting what an ultimate “fiction” any neat or orderly version of the real world must be.


  1. David Young and Keith Hollaman, Magic Realist Fiction: An Anthology (New York: Longman, Inc., 1984), 1.

  2. David William Foster, “Latin American Documentary Drama,” PMLA 99 (January 1984): 41-55.

  3. James Pickering, ed., Fiction 100 (New York: MacMillan, 1982); & Carl E. Bain, Jerome Beaty, & W. Paul Hunter, eds., The Norton Introduction to Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981).

José David Saldivar (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Real and the Marvelous in Charleston, South Carolina: Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo,” in Genealogy and Literature, edited by Lee Quinby, University of Minnesota Press, 1991, pp. 175-92.

[In the following essay, Saldivar traces the magic realism in the works of Ntozake Shange to both Latin-American and Afro-Caribbean influences.]

It is probably true that critics of African and Afro-American literature were trained to think of the institution of literature essentially as a set of Western texts.

—Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Signifying Monkey

Ntozake Shange has been widely praised for her oppositional feminist “combat-breathing” poetics in her explosive Broadway choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1976) and for her powerful “lyricism” in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982), but her use of Afro-Caribbean and Latin American magic realism has received little attention, owing to an inadequate understanding of a vast and rich literary and cultural movement in the Americas that began over forty years ago.1

The reasons for this state of affairs are complex. Henry Louis Gates correctly claims that critics of African American texts are trained to think of “the institution of literature essentially as a set of Western texts.”2 W. Lawrence Hogue contends that a primary reason for the dearth of comparative cultural pan-American studies is that most critics in the United States are “silent on the production … of texts.”3 In Discourse and the Other: The Production of the Afro-American Text (1986), Hogue critically judges various African American interpretive practices, ranging from Amiri Baraka's “advocacy of a nationalist Afro-American literature” (11) in the 1960s to Robert Stepto's protostructuralist attempts in the 1970s “to isolate an Afro-American cultural myth, the pregeneric myth, and [use] it to define an Afro-American literary tradition” (13). Hogue also analyzes the more recent attempts by Houston Baker Jr. and Barbara Christian, who in their critical practices have created what Hogue calls a powerful but incomplete “theory of the Afro-American literary tradition.” Although Hogue is generally sympathetic to Baker's early “anthropology of art,” he points out the following problem in Baker's seminal study of African American literature, The Journey Back: “He [Baker] ignores the fact that Afro-American myths, stereotypes, and cultural forms are not innocent, that they are bound culturally and historically—even within Afro-American reality—and therefore have political and ideological functions” (15). More important for Hogue, “Baker's anthropology of art is silent on literary production” (16). Hogue's self-conscious analysis is itself silent on Baker's sophisticated and powerful reading of the “blues vernacular” in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (1984) and his magisterial reading of Caliban's “triple play” in Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987).

Hogue turns his Foucauldian hermeneutics of suspicion to Barbara Christian's groundbreaking book, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Although Hogue praises Christian's attempt to account for how “certain ideological and literary forces” produce the image of black women in American society, he finds troubling “gaps” and “silences” in her discourse. He contends: “Without discussing the issue of literary production, Christian's critical practice cannot fully explain how images of black women are tied to the production of literary texts, or why certain black women novelists are published and promoted, others published and excluded, and still others aborted at editors' and publishers' desks” (19). Like the earlier studies of Baraka, Stepto, and Baker, Hogue believes that Christian's analysis of “canon formation” is unconsciously “informed by an external ideological discourse” (20). In contradistinction to Baraka, Stepto, Baker, and Christian, Hogue argues that certain African American writers are published and promoted in the mainstream canon “because they reproduce certain sanctioned … stereotypes and conventions. Others [are] published and ignored because they fail to reproduce sanctioned literary myths and conventions” (21).

Instructive gaps and silences in Hogue's lucid analysis of contemporary African American women's fiction, however, can be found. In his chapter “Sixties' Social Movements, the Literary Establishment, and the Production of the Afro-American Text,” he asserts that the radical “feminist discourse” of the 1970s “produced texts such as Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Sula, Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland and The Color Purple, Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls, and Gayl Jones's Corregidora that produced new myths about black women” (62). Unfortunately, what Hogue's Foucauldian analysis was not in a position to recognize was how some African American writers such as Morrison and Shange were profoundly engaged in a bold cultural conversation with the Afro-Caribbean and Latin American tradition of magic realism. A writer such as Shange thus creates texts that are “double voiced,” to use Gates's term, in the sense that her literary antecedents are both black and mestizo (African American and Latin American) novelists.4 By examining the historical and ideological intertextual forces that produced her magic realism in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, we can supplement previous studies of African American literary production. Shange's new narrative is a “mulatta” text, with a two-toned heritage. She speaks in an always distinct and resonant voice, a voice that “signifies” on black male vernacular and mestizo Latin American magic realist traditions.

Shange has been actively engaged during the 1980s and into the 1990s with a group of committed artists and intellectuals associated with the Casa de las Américas. She has traveled extensively throughout the Americas and has read her works in Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Her books A Daughter's Geography (1983) and See No Evil (1984) speak eloquently of her political interests in Castro's and the Sandinistas' revolutions.

In an interview at the University of Houston in 1985, Shange insists that she moved to Texas “to escape the celebrity status” she received after the successful Broadway production of For Colored Girls and to be closer to the Latin American cultures of resistance.5 In Houston, she tells us, she could “find another version of reality” (2). In Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, she is directly concerned with this different “version of reality,” whose depth and complexity cannot be fully presented by existing U.S. ideological and literary labels and categories. Her novel is concerned with both the Afro-Caribbean and Latin American mythical thought systems outside those appropriated by the dominant official Western society. Before discussing the merits and demerits of magic realism in Shange's new narrative, we must look afresh at the problems, theoretical and historical, involved in lo real maravilloso (marvelous realism) and el realismo mágico (magic realism).


What is the history of the Americas but the chronicle of lo real maravilloso?

—Alejo Carpentier

Magic realism … is to be grasped as a possible alternative to the narrative logic of contemporary postmodernism.

—Fredric Jameson, “On Magic Realism in Film”

It is generally accepted that the magic realist movement led by Carpentier, García Márquez, Fuentes, and, more recently, Allende has had a powerful influence in the 1980s on a diverse group of U.S. writers: Gary So