Magic Realism

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Exploration of Latin-American Identity A theme that runs through nearly every magic realist text is the urge to redefine Latin-American identity by forging a point of view specific to the events, history, and culture of that region. Therefore, its history of colonization, the importation of slaves and influx of immigrants, the political tumult after independence, and economic dependency on imperial powers like the United States and England that positioned Latin America as inferior and backwards become subjects of investigation that are rewritten and retold from an alternative point of view. For example, Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World is told by a slave who is witness to numerous catastrophic and traumatic events occurring in Haiti during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Likewise, in The House of the Spirits, Allende attempts to forge a feminine identity within a social and historical framework that covers nearly a century of political conflict. For many writers, magic realist tech- niques were used as an attempt to break with many of their inherited representations by engaging with oral histories of indigenous people, as found in Asturias’s Men of Maize.

Importance of Magic and Myth A defining aspect of magic realist texts is the powerful capabilities of myth and magic to create a version of reality that differentiates itself from what is normally perceived as “real life.” This approach to narrative relies on legends and myths from oral pre-Columbian cultures, family histories (both García Márquez and Allende note the influence of their respective grandmother’s yarnspinning on their writing), the narratives of early explorers and clergy to Latin America, and the spiritual magic of African slaves to the Caribbean region. Drawing from these various influences, magic realist writers redraw the parameters of what is possible by invoking legends and myths that have been passed from one generation to the next and that invoke a loss of some kind with the onset of the modern age. Sometimes it is the loss of traditional values, as in One Hundred Years of Solitude; other times it is the loss of the intimate relationship between humans and animals. These mythical influences form a collective voice that often acts as it does in Men of Maize and The Kingdom of this World, as a resistant force against oppression and exploitation.

A Critique of Rationality and Progress The use of magic and myth in magic realist fiction can be viewed as a critique of rationality and progress. Because many South American countries were economically exploited by countries in the industrialized West, first through slavery and exploration and then through economic imperialism, magic realist writers attempt to subvert the values that dominating cultures privilege in order to justify their exploitation of other cultures. Thus, logic, progression, and linearity are cast aside for a reliance on emotions, the senses, circularity, and ritual. For example, Asturias’s Men of Maize consistently thwarts the notions of progress and rationality by presenting the perspectives of indigenous peoples as being outside of what most consider traditional concepts of time. Rather than present the reader with a linear narrative, Asturias divides his book into six chapters, each exploring an aspect of indigenous beliefs that counter Western conceptions of time, rationality, and progress. Similarly, One Hundred Years of Solitude begins with a sentence that disrupts the sense of time being a logical progression with a distinct past, present, and future: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” The fast-forwarding of time as well as the memory embedded in this...

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future scene reveals time as occurring simultaneously. The notion of progress and its relation to technology is also critiqued inOne Hundred Years of Solitude, particularly in its relationship to economic imperialism. For example, the railroad that is finally established in Macondo is viewed as both a sign of Macondo’s assimilation into the modern world as well as a metaphor for its eventual exploitation by the North American Banana Company.

Questioning of Reality Many magic realist writers use language in innovative ways that raise doubts about the concept of reality as well as art’s ability to imitate it. For many writers who work within the magic realist paradigm, reality is much more ambiguous and complicated than meets the eye. Rather than create a realistic fiction that attempts to mimic the events and outward appearance of the external world, magic realists use a variety of techniques that force the reader to question the nature of reality. For writers like García Márquez and Allende, reality constitutes both real and imagined acts. Thus, a levitating priest, appearances of the dead, and animals that have transcendent powers all take on a matter-of-factness by those who observe these phenomena. For Borges, reality becomes an exploration of multiple universes and existences that tear away assumptions most people share about observed reality. Reality in Fictions is never taken for granted but in fact is often distorted so that what the reader thinks he or she knows is cast into doubt. This approach to understanding the nature of reality assumes that reality is not external from human thought but is created by humans. In this respect, reality and selfhood itself become fragile concepts. For many magic realist writers, existence is a concept that does not have a one-to-one correspondence with observed reality. By subverting the assumption of an observed reality through innovative forms and devices that address the fantastical, magic realist writers relay the message that language itself is unable to provide an accurate depiction of reality.




Critical Essays