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Definition: magic realism from Philip's Encyclopedia

Twentieth-century literary form, particularly associated with post-1945 Latin American novelists. It is characterised by realistic and fantastical elements coherently interwoven into a highly subjective worldview. The fantastical is treated as matter-of-fact while everyday elements are described as if miraculous or extraordinary, creating a heightened sense of reality. Originally only highly formal works were described as magical realism, but recently the use of the term has broadened. Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is a classic example of the form.

Summary Article: Magic Realism
from World History Encyclopedia

Magic realism is a literary style that blossomed in Latin America after World War II and spread internationally from the 1960s. Its main characteristic is the combination of realistic elements with unusual situations and supernatural phenomena for the purpose of surprising and bewildering the reader. The elevation of everyday facts and characters, with recourse to exaggerations and marvels, permits the author to produce a fiction in which the local reality is represented and criticized in a way that is potentially accessible to a universal audience.

The expression "magic realism" was minted in 1925 by the German art critic Franz Roh (1890–1965) to praise postexpressionist painters who recovered an interest in faithful artistic representations of reality: with this meaning, it was used in visual arts until the 1950s. Nevertheless, as early as the second half of the 1920s the term was drawn on and popularized in literature by the Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli (1878–1960), who advocated discovering the magic and mythical component of modern everyday life. This is indeed the concept on which literary magic realism developed after World War II in Latin America.

In the prologue of the novel El Reino de Este Mundo (The Kingdom of This World, 1949), the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980) introduced the concept of lo real maravilloso ("the marvelous real") to indicate that Latin America, in particular in the regions where the influence of native and African cultures were especially strong, was characterized by an original atmosphere of magic and spiritualism that made the subcontinent a more vital place than Europe, which in his opinion was dominated by rationality. An early example of this approach to fiction is the novel Pedro Páramo (1955) by the Mexican Juan Rulfo (1917–1986) in which the protagonist, during a search for his lost father, interacts with the dead inhabitants of a ghost town as if they were alive.

The undisputed masterpiece of magic realism, which rendered this literary style world-famous, is Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967) by the Colombian writer and journalist Gabriel García Márquez (b. 1927), who is also the most prominent exponent of the so-called commercial boom of Latin American fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. The domestic saga of the Buendía family in the archetypal village of Macondo (Colombia) showed all the crucial features of the magic realist novel: a break from the traditional unity of time, place, and action that leads to an epic narration; the construction of a family microcosm that was characterized by circularity and repetitiveness through generations; a number of supernatural and improbable elements that informed characters' lives in the most natural way; and a new reading of decisive moments of the national past through symbolic episodes that reversed the traditional interpretations imposed by the elites.

Magic realism continued to inspire Latin American writers well beyond the 1960s, as the international success of more recent novels such as La Casa de los Espíritus (The House of the Spirits, 1982) by the Chilean Isabel Allende (b. 1942) demonstrated. In particular, this innovative style, with its tendency toward a universal symbology, enjoyed a global diffusion in the last two decades of the twentieth century. In a world that had experienced the rapid process of decolonization and in which new nation-states were under construction, magic realism constituted an effective instrument of emancipation from the cultural authority of the West (and, by extension, from its political hegemony) in Asia and Africa as well. In novels such as Midnight's Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) and The Famished Road (1991) by Ben Okri (b. 1959), the problematic colonial heritage of the home countries of the two authors (India and Nigeria, respectively) was represented through the supernatural and spiritual experiences of the protagonists. Works that have much in common with magic realism were also written in Europe and North America by experimental authors who reacted to, and reflected on, epochal collective tragedies of Western history. For instance, in Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959), the German writer Günter Grass (b. 1927) portrays the sufferings provoked by the Nazi regime and World War II through the family ups and downs of an emotionally disturbed dwarf, writing his memoirs while in a sanitarium. In Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison (b. 1931) depicts the troubles that the mysterious, apparently supernatural character of Beloved inflicts on a black family recently escaped from slavery in the United States. Both Morrison and Grass were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in, respectively, 1993 and 1999.

Although magic realism always escaped a univocal definition and never was a structured artistic movement, the stylistic and thematic innovations that it introduced helped to open the global literary market and the Western intellectual scene to the cultural production of the emergent countries of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, giving a contribution to the shaping of contemporary multiculturalism.

Juri Bottura

  • Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004.
  • Hart, Stephen M. A Companion to Latin American Literature. Rochester, NY: Tamesis, 2007.
  • Hart, Stephen M., and Wen-chin, Ouyang, eds. A Companion to Magical Realism. Rochester, NY: Tamesis, 2005.
  • King, John. "The Boom of the Latin American Novel." In The Cambridge Companion to the Latin American Novel, edited by Efraín, Kristal. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
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