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Outside, Both Of You!

…or why Magic Realism should not be fighting Fantasy

 Arguments about literary genre are never pretty (and hardly ever illuminating) although often necessary for working out a shorthand for what literature is doing (and where it’s going). In the circles I move in, it is Science Fiction and Fantasy (a.k.a. Speculative fiction) that floats our boats – hence our perspective, that of the outsider looking in.

 And Speculative fiction is still seen as an outsider in terms of reputation if not in box-office. Nothing in the literary firmament draws crowds like an SF or Star Trek convention, few authors sell more fiction than the top Fantasy authors do. In terms of popular culture, we are the big beasts, literary fiction that trails in our wake, feeding off the scraps that Fantasy’s bounty bestows. Yet still there is that division, redolent of class antagonisms, that literary fiction is superior to the rest. We outsiders resent this, so we vent our anger accordingly. For every sniffy Marge Atwood who claims not to write SF because there are no ‘talking squid’ in her books, there is the equivalent put-down from genre fans to the ‘highbrow’ literature of ponderous historical novels and misery-lit set in Ireland.

 It is in this context that Magic Realism has caught some of the flak. Fantasy writers feel aggrieved that authors using elements of fantastic literature are lauded while they are not. As Terry Pratchett comments, in a typically pungent aphorism;

 “Magical Realism is a polite way of saying you write Fantasy.”

 And it is my polite intention to prove that Pratchett (one of my favourite authors) is wrong. He is wrong for the best of reasons. His novels are not only best-sellers, but rich satires that at their best reach the heights of literary merit (like say, Sterne, Swift and milquetoast Amis). Yet Pratchett is still a ‘Fantasy author’ and therefore an outsider, a curiosity in the world of literary elites. His situation must be a frustrating, but he certainly should not turn his ire on Magic Realism; the outsider literature par excellence.

 Definitions of MR abound. Bruce Holland Rogers goes through the differences between Fantasy, SF and Magic Realism at a brisk pace. To summarize, Fantasy presents the unreal as real (particularly in the case of heroic fantasy where whole worlds are invented). Creatures of imagination and myth are summoned into existence by the storyteller. Magic Realism sees the real as unreal. In essence, it presents the PoV of people who see the world from a different optic to the western, rational observer and their assumptions of order and reality. Obviously there’s a lot more to unpack and discuss in these definitions (perhaps in a later post?), but I wish to move on from a question of nomenclature to Magic Realism’s role as a purveyor of outsider literature.

 The term Magic Realism was coined in Germany, to define an art movement, yet it was in Latin America that it achieved fruition in literary terms. There it found that the Latin American psyche has long been plagued by its outsider status and struggles with identity. Simon Bolivar encapsulated these anxieties in the 1815 Jamaica Letter:

 “We are but a small human kind… a world apart… neither Indians nor Europeans but a species halfway between the legitimate owners of the land and the Spanish usurpers.”

 This halfway-house reality between Indian and European became a major element in Latin American literature. In the 1930s and 40s a raft of novels was published regarding the lives of traditional communities and their relationship to capitalist, western culture as it encroached upon their lands and society. Romulo Gallegos’s Doña Barbara, Ricardo Guiraldes’s Don Segundo Sombra and Jose Eustasio Rivera’s La Voragine (The Whirlpool), explore these themes from a strictly metropolitan perspective. While these novels brought the Indian reality closer to the attention of the city-dwelling elites, it was two (paradoxically European) literary movements that crystalized the development of what Alejo Carpentier defined as Lo Real Maravilloso.

 First, Social Realism, emerging from the Writer’s Congress of the USSR, became a rallying call for intellectuals of the left intent on changing the nature of the novel itself (regarded as a bourgeois affectation). In terms of the portrayal of the rural Indian and peasant, references to nature’s beauty, charming customs, quirky characters and all the other tropes of the rural idyll were to be replaced with description of harsh realities and material conditions (Much as Emile Zola had developed some fifty years earlier). The most celebrated example of this style is Jorge Icaza’s Huasipungo, described by Gerald Martin as “… perhaps the most brutally laconic and unyielding novel ever published about the conditions of the Indians.” A notorious scene in the book involves the plantation owner and his family forced to give up their horses in a flood and instead ride on the backs of their Indian labourers (common practice among rural elites). Social Realism also raised important questions about the nature of the novel: In nations with high levels of poverty, illiteracy, political violence, corruption and marginalization, who should the author be writing for and about? Whose interests should she serve/represent/champion in their fiction?


Second, Surrealism and the work of writers like Joyce, Kafka and Faulkner became important influences for Latin American writers. The subconscious, with its multi-layered carapace of hidden drives, sublimated urges and pent-up energies, showed that ‘civilized man’ was just a construct that was easy to strip away. Indigenous reality was, in contrast, more real, closer to our essential nature, to a meaningful collective unconscious than western individualism. Alejo Carpentier’s Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps) explored this very theme.

Alejo Carpentier, posing.

Surrealism offered a way to portray other world-views and write from the PoV of the Indigenous other rather than ‘about’ them – through their myths and symbolic dream-time. The best example of this approach is Miguel Angel Asturias’s Hombres De Maiz (Men of Maize). The novel deals with the loss of a Guatemalan Maya community of their lands. Asturias (who had translated the Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh, into French), employed the language, poetry and customs of the Maya to construct narrative. Mayan-style metaphors and story-forms are used to explain a war between two communities, ideologies and economic systems.

 Bringing together these movements (the surreal and the socialist) puts the two key building blocks of Magic Realism in place. Other influences are also at play, of course. From Borges’s seminal (pre post-structural) deconstructions of literary mimesis, to the reframing of historical landscapes – Garcia Marquez’s Macondo being the most ambitious example – helped shape a new genre that kicked the tired old realist novel up its flabby, metropolitan arse.

 And so we come to the Latin American literary ‘boom’ of the 1960s. And here they came; Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar and above all, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all under the banner of Magic Realism (a term most of them had not chosen for themselves). To outsiders it appeared that all this literature had arrived out of nowhere, devoid of context. They gazed at the exotic visions of foreign lands and fantastic tales from a mysterious continent and recoiled. Why, this is just fantasy! Perhaps these outsiders should have looked closer. Perhaps Terry Pratchett should as well.

Gerald Martin Journeys Through The Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the 20th Century (London:Verso, 1989).

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