Magical Realism has forever impacted Latin American literature. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is perhaps the most famous author but there are plenty of others inside and outside of Latin America such as Allende, Rushdie, Murakami and Morrison. As Magical Realism has spread around the world, the question of what exactly is Magical Realism has come into question. Furthermore, there even involves quite a bit of discussions about pre and post colonialism and what exactly does that mean for countries outside of not only Latin America but also Africa? There’s also some confusion about the origins of Magical Realism, where it came from and exactly what it is. This short paper will mainly be a light overview of Magical Realism, its origin, its expansion and even what it potentially may be.
While the term “magical realism” is often attributed to art critic Franz Roh, the phrase is actually a bit older. Other academics have related the phrase to Novalis who wrote about “magischer idealismus”, or, magical idealism.1 However, it should be noted that Novalis was coming at the term from a philosophical point of view while Roh was looking on toward artwork. And Roh wasn’t the only one. Otto Dix used the term in the same year, 1925, also meant for artwork.2 Some of this may have to do with some familiarity of German philosophy. While it’s uncertain how much these critics knew of Novalis, if anything at all, the original term seems to have come from him, even if the definition had changed over time.3 Karimov noted that the first time magical realism was used in the literary sense was by Edmond Jalo [sic] [Edmond Jaloux] in 1931.4 But the question of defining magical realism and what it was had remained to be determined.
Moving on from the coining of the term, the origins for the genre seem to have been attributed to a few selected sources. The first is pro-fascist writer, Massimo Bontempelli, who came out of Italy. To provide a hint on Bontempelli’s works, Witt in 2001 saw, “…the creation of new myths [are] imperious due to the contemporary historical and political situation: World War I created a ‘tabula rasa’ from which a new era is beginning.”5 Bontempelli’s considerations are important because these early definitions are what was used to establish the initial ideas of magical realism. It should also be understood that these early ideas on magical realism were also early ideas of fascism with the combination of myth, legend and the actual. As an aside, the same thing was occurring in Spain around 1927 with Jose Ortega y Gasset and his journal, Revista de Occidente, however this journal had a wider appeal around the world.6
The term Magical Realism would show up again in literature in 1949 in Arturo Uslar Pietri’s publication, Letras y Hombres de Venezuela.7 And magical realism was still a confusing term. For one group of people it would mean one thing, for another it would be something entirely different. Then the expansion of magical realism grew beyond Europe, then beyond Latin America, beyond political factions, it essentially morphed into what it had described. It was a nebulous idea based in reality. Angel Flores would later write that magical realism was “the inception of a genuinely Latin American Fiction”8 which is an interesting statement considering the basic origins that had been laid down just a few decades before.
Furthermore, the idea of Magical Realism, of combining fantasy with reality, isn’t an entirely new idea. In fact, if we consider it for longer than a few moments, we’ll realize many instances throughout history where reality is mixed with fiction or fanciful ideas. The idea of ghosts9 is quite a natural one. And fantasy elements meshing with reality occurred many times throughout history. If Magical Realism, however, is distinctly Latin American, it is only because the term is far too narrow and because the Latin American section of Magical Realism is distinct due to Latin American myths. To show the distinctness of Latin American Magical Realism, Marquez gave his noble prize speech, “…with an account of the ‘meticulous log’ kept by Magellan’s navigator Antonia Pigafetta, in the course of this fateful exploration of the ‘Southern American continent,’ the imaginative Florentine recorded such oddities as ‘a monstrosity of an animal with the head and ears of a mule, the body of a camel, the hooves of a deer, and the neigh of a horse.'”10 But what of the other regions of the world such as Europe, Africa, or Asia whose authors also delve into Magical Realism? It is hardly a form that Latin America owns. It may have been raised there in some of its formative years, but it surely wasn’t born there.
If we look across time and water, Africa has adopted Magical Realism heavily. This has happened so much so that many critics or those who desire to define what exactly is Magical Realism, they see it as a pre-colonial vs. post-colonial world while never really defining when or how the pre or post colonial worlds are separated, meanwhile neglecting Japan, Canada and any regions that hadn’t been properly colonized. Zakes Mda, an Africa writer who has been accused of Latin American influences, responded by writing that, “Some critics have called my work magic realism. They say it was influenced by Latin-Americans. But I must tell you that the Latin-Americans have nothing to do with my work. First of all they did not invent the mode of magic realism. They merely popularized it. Secondly, I had been writing in this mode long before I heard of the Latin-Americans…”11 Mda went on to add that he wrote in the way he did because he’s part of a magical culture.
If anything, Magical Realism, at least its origins, do come from Europe and is distinctly European. While Marquez cited a log from Magallan’s travels, Magellan was Portuguese and the author of the log was Italian. It’s already been established that Magical Realism came out of Europe and both Asturias and Carpentier argued about Magical Realism’s Surrealist European roots.12 Furthermore, the Europeans brought along their ideas of what Karmiov called, “…[the] pursuit of an unrealizable dream…” and added, “…the conquerors set off in search of the source of eternal youth, or the kingdom of the Amazons, or the golden cities, or El Dorado in its countless variants.”13
Naturally Magical Realism would’ve had a much more difficult time expanding without Latin America or the colonized territories. As mentioned, Surrealism was a European offshoot but it wasn’t the only art form that was celebrated in Europe as Magical Realism had been in Latin America or Africa. Its initial adoption and expansion principally in Latin America and Africa could have come out of colonization.14 Faris adds that Magical Realism is narrative primitivism and may have been expanded upon because the “colonized” writes in the “colonizers” native language.15 Although we should understand that names like Marquez and Borges aren’t exactly native indian names. Perhaps we ought to look deeper into societies where there were actually subjugated peoples and understand their literature and how it pertains to Magical Realism, if it does at all, before we toss around phrases like “colonizer” and the “colonized.” Just as pre and post colonialism doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t a clear definition, as there currently isn’t when we consider magical realism, the same goes for colonizer and colonized. Is a colonized person one who was born in a pre-colonized world and is full-blooded native? Or are they allowed to have mixed blood in the colonized land? We could add further discourse by talking about those who were full-blooded descendants of the colonizers but who grew up and lived much later in the colonized land. The entire idea of the pre and post colonized world of Magical Realism and who ought to be accepted within these worlds falls apart with a critical eye; certain regions of the world must also be ignored. Of course, in our overly-politicized world a cigar can’t just be a cigar and a literary form can’t just be a literary form. Instead we must apply meanings to the form which do not exist as a whole to the idea. Naturally, we can find famous authors and their works writing about colonial ideas but that does not necessarily mean that the entire genre is based in colonialism.
It is noteworthy to state that the moniker of Magical Realism doesn’t belong to Latin America or this style of literature at all. Harry Garuba, focusing on Africa’s definition of it, has called it “anamist realism.”16 This is much more apt as it does remove the European argument along with the pre/post colonial worlds. The myths, legends, and if appropriate, magic all remains, as do the realist aspects these authors choose to utilize.
What is Magical Realism? Apparently its something different to everyone. As is its history along with the reasons for its existence. The trouble with the term Magical Realism is that it is now too broad. It encompasses too much and is now also too political. It ought to remain as a catch-all, as some genres have become, but the problems truly begin to arise once it expanded and it was further compounded by the “pre” and “post” colonial world, whatever that is supposed to mean. Magical Realism, while it was aided with the discovery and eventual expansion and adoption in Latin America, cannot nor will it ever be as narrowly defined as critics desire. Rooms must be added within the house of Magical Realism for without them it will always be a blob of meanings which change depending on who is speaking.
2. Revista Interamericana Review Vol IV No 3 Fall 1974
6. https://books.google.com.ec/books?hl=en&lr=lang_en&id=Ccpg141y4WoC&oi=fnd&pg=PA147&dq=Jos%C3%A9+Ortega+y+Gasset%E2%80%99s+Revista+de+Occidente&ots=tJjHZTVeyd&sig=GJAOr1lpfmKlF2KOf24VjgaiGpo&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Jos%C3%A9%20Ortega%20y%20Gasset%E2%80%99s%20Revista%20de%20Occidente&f=false (147)
9. https://books.google.com.ec/books?hl=en&lr=&id=DZjWCwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=magical+realism+origin&ots=gTxoEyxkdf&sig=uHZB4C_cMLToXAIoGzzqDtUKtB4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=magical%20realism%20origin&f=false (pp29-30)