Misconceptions about magic realism

“Me refiero aqui al realismo magico como concepto critico -utilizandola terminologia de Rene Wellek- no a la literatura que algunos un poco a la ligera han dado en llamar magicorrealista; y si intento aclarar de una vez par todas los origenes del concepto no lo hago con el propósito de dar con la verdadera ortodoxia magicorrealista. Lo que merece preservarse del realismo magico no es lo central del concepto, pues como se vera, este es un vacio teorico y a veces una nulidad historica, sino sus reflejos, que son sintomas de una problematica mucho mas relevante en la historia de las letras y de las ideas en Hispanoamerica: el dilema de la ubicación de America en la historia universal, que habia sido replanteado por la vanguardia [por Spengler etc.]…”

“…Carpentier empezara a ser estudiado como precursor, teórico y practicante del realismo magico. Resulta ironico, a mi modo de ver, ese postergado rescate, porque en los sesenta, cuando publica El siglo de las luces, Carpentier hace años que no escribe relatos que puedan denominarse magicorrealistas; a no ser que, violentando el concepto se le haga abarcar toda narrativa que no se cifia a los canones mas estrictos del realismo del siglo xix. Debe tenerse presente que, como ya se ha apuntado, todos los relatos fantasticos que Carpentier incluye en Guerra del tiempo datan de los años cuarenta. Pero la confusión que ese tardio rescate de Carpentier consiente no se debe unicamente al desconocimiento de datos como los anteriores, sino a que el realismo magico ha descrito una accidentada y compleja, si bien pobre, trayectoria historica. Dar a esa historia la lisura propia de la fabula equivaldria a convertir en magicorrealista a la critica, pero la unica magia que se lograria conjurar seria la de la mixtificacion.”

–RGE 1974

Books on magic realism include Camayd-Freixas, Parkinson Zamora, and Stephen Hart’s anthology. My point is that everything not ultra-realist and not written in English is read through this exoticizing lens. This confusion, of course was contributed to by Spanish professors like A. Flores and S. Menton in the 1950s, but was already straightened out by RGE in 1974, and our field does other things, but anything that seems exotic to an Anglo-American eye seems to catch the label “magic realist.”

One of the most irritating to me is the reading of El hablador as MR. People do not seem to even realize that Mascarita’s voice is a creation of Vargas Llosa’s, and call it a use of folktale.

Jon McKenzie: “Borges and I” says it all to lit critics: he sees us coming and points us to all those scholars and detectives and philosophers who populate the Library of Babel. National literary traditions, ‘civilization,’ colonialism, the Enlightenment and Marxism and Fascism, he’s framed the apparati of 20th c power-knowledge. Everywhere and nowhere, Borges and the other one, the one called Borges, blindly smile at our attempts to pin him down in time and space, genre and form.

Natalia: When Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize, he was at Princeton offering a seminar. The NYT wrote that he was at Princeton offering a seminar about “Borges and magical realism”. I couldn’t believe, it, Vargas Llosa wouldn’t do that. So I checked, and I was right. He was just offering a seminar on Borges. The rest was an invention of the NYT.

Someone just downloaded something by me on Brazilian modernismo saying they needed it for a course on magical realism, which is a way to restore what the European incursion erased. Anything speculative, fantastic, or Gothic, or folkloric, or whatever, is magical realist. Arguedas is, and Cortázar.

Mayhew: People in English never know about Carpentier, who is more interesting for this than most others, although as RGE points out, he only dealt in magic during the 40s or so. Sylvia Molloy has a good article about magic realism as a stereotype.

Natalia: There are a lot of Power Points on line about Crónica de una muerte anunciada as magical realist.

It started out as an art historical reference for certain Spanish painters in the 1920s (Franz Roh) and it makes sense there, going back to a German trend “New Objectivism.”


I need to get the book Darkening Nation and I cannot afford it. I will use some method. Getting it circuitously via faraway libraries will lead me to more things than buying it would, even if I could afford it.

My book is about racial anxieties, figuring out what place race and racism have in the national and continental imaginaries. As others have pointed out, the identity question is always interesting because the Latin American is both victim and perpetrator, and so on, as we know.


5 thoughts on “Misconceptions about magic realism

  1. My abstract was:

    I’d like to write one about magical realism, a much overused term. In English departments, writers of fantastic (Borges) and experimental (Cortázar) fiction are often taught as “magical realists” à la García Márquez in 100 years of solitude. Writers of the marvelous real (Carpentier) are ignored, while those writing from an indigenous, not “magical” perspective (Arguedas) are considered magicians. Meanwhile, worldwide, anything that is not written in English and is not realism of the most traditional sort, gets called “magic realism” even if the only evidence for this is a Gothic echo like Mr. Rochester’s cry for Jane in Jane Eyre. Some of these misconceptions were actually propagated by U.S. based Spanish professors in the 1950s (Flores, Menton) but had been cleared up by the 1970s (González Echevarría). Yet the English speaking world continues to seek magic in other languages, and to call what they can find in translation, magical. Must we continue to read the world through this exoticizing lens?

  2. Note that it DOES come from Spanish departments: Sara Castro-Klaren wrote a book called “El mundo mágico de JMA” — etc.

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