Latin American Studies Magical Realism
by
David William Foster, Rosita Scerbo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0212

Introduction

“Magical realism” (or “magic realism”) has given extensive service to the attempt to provide an overarching characterization of Latin American writing, or to identify a mode of Latin American writing that draws a line between what is touted as paradigmatically Latin American and poor imitations of privileged models. This implies how Latin American writing might influence international writing in ways previously thought to be impossible for a literary tradition considered unquestionably and even irremediably secondary. The result has been, perhaps, the sometimes contradictory application of the term and its alacritous utilization to justify lionizing certain Latin American authors (Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Márquez) and to provide a note of exoticization to First World writing. As a qualifier, “magical realism” has been used to explain any plot configuration of human behavior that seems an exception or contradiction or refutation of West European bourgeois rationalism as the dominant mode for explaining how the world and social relations function. The specific use of the word magical implies that such ruptures in the codes of the supposed usual represent a powerful access to phenomena that have hitherto either been ignored or repressed because they do not fit within prevailing explanatory models of the universe. Key here is Borges’s repeated aggressive assertion that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature, thereby relativizing its scientific rigor and liberating vast realms of counterproposals. Central to the debate over magical realism (called other things by other writers, such as Alejo Carpentier’s “marvelous real”) is the extent to which it is one vehicle for representing the conflicted relationship between Latin America and hegemonic Western values (e.g., only through acts of real and symbolic violence is Latin America seen as sociohistorically Western). Or, alternatively, magical realism is seen as a way of inflecting the material and imaginary ways in which Latin America—and, individually, the various Latin American republics— makes a sociohistoric difference. This sort of position is often seen as “exoticising” Latin America for international consumption. Concomitantly, magical realism may be the basis for a particular poetic use of the Spanish language for demonstrating with vivid complexity how Spanish in the Americas cannot be controlled by the paradigms of the Spanish Royal Academy that reduce it to merely questions of dialect variation. The substratum of indigenous languages vies with the superstratum of immigrant languages to provide unique linguistic configurations consonant with unique sociohistoric ones. Finally, the use of “magical realism” to describe a certain manner of non–Latin American writing raises the question of whether such matters are transferable between cultures on deep structural levels, or whether they constitute questionable expropriations. Yet there is no question that the term has been routinely incorporated into Anglo-American literary studies, as witnessed by Maggie Ann Bowles’s Magic Realism (Routledge, 2004) or by the entry on the subject in the Chris Baldick’s Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2015).

Basic Texts

The concept of magical realism enters the parlance of Hispanic literary criticism with a 1955 essay by Ángel Flores (incorporated in Flores 1985). Probably one of the most cited critical essays in Hispanic scholarship, “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” constituted a veritable paradigm shift. The term was subsequently picked up and expanded by major Latin American critics of the day, as in Anderson Imbert 1976 and Menton 1983, both extremely influential in midcentury studies on Latin American narrative. The term has been widely used subsequently, and numerous scholars have sought to synthesize its meanings and influence, with one extremely useful work being Aldama 2013. Planells 1988 investigates the origins of various critical uses of the term, while Ubidia 1997 attempts to systematize the boundaries of the established uses of the term.

  • Aldama, Frederick Luis. “Magical Realism.” In The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature. Edited by Suzanne Bost and Frances R. Aparicio, 334–341. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

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    Aldama provides the transcultural genealogy of the critical concept and aesthetic form of magical realism. He explains when this literary movement came of age, and reviews the way in which several Latin American writers reformulated the concept to propose it as an aesthetic form derived directly and organically from the hybrid nature of Latin American culture and society.

  • Anderson Imbert, Enrique. El realismo mágico y otros ensayos. Caracas, Venezuela: Monte Avila Editores, 1976.

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    The author identifies Latin American literature in the second quarter of the 20th century as the forerunner of magical realism. He emphasizes the importance of the antirealist schemes produced by the authors of the 1930s–1960s and the importance of Jorge Luis Borges, who transformed Buenos Aires’s experiences into improbable fictions. The author compares the writing of Borges with that of García Márquez, who places his improbable fictions in Macondo, the heart of America.

  • Flores, Angel. El realismo mágico en el cuento hispanoamericano. Tlahuapan, Mexico: Premià, 1985.

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    This historical work offers an overview of the main concepts articulated around the term “magical realism.” The author dialogues with the concept proposed by Flores based on the notions theorized by Kafka and Borges, and the one offered by Alejo Carpentier in El reino de este mundo.

  • Menton, Seymour. Magic Realism Rediscovered, 1918–1981. Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1983.

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    Menton outlines how magical realism is a valid and generally applicable notion in both literature and art. The author provides a specific definition of this Latin American literary genre, explaining that this international phenomenon was a clear reaction to the general political and cultural chaos of its time. He focuses his attention on different countries and points out the most noticeable features of magical realism in artistic expressions.

  • Planells, Antonio. “El realismo mágico ante la crítica.” Chasqui: Revista de literatura latinoamericana 17.1 (1988): 9–23.

    DOI: 10.2307/29740037E-mail Citation »

    This study examines the first definitions from Europe and Latin America, discussing the perspectives developed by the major exponents of this literary genre, as well as the different dates associated with the beginning of this movement. At the same time, Planells attempts to focus on the elements and similarities that are shared by all the writers and artists belonging to this genre of narrative fiction.

  • Ubidia, Abdón. “Cinco tesis acerca del realismo mágico.” Hispamérica 26.78 (1997): 101–107.

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    Ubidia points out that Latin American oral traditions and beliefs are the raw material of this literary genre. Magical realism is born where social realism ends and denies the symbolic order of Latin American creolism (i.e., of European roots). The author claims that this cultural and literary movement is not a fantastic literature and is part of a set of related trends with which it maintains differences of perspective.

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