This page last revised 23 June 1999
"Magic Realism" is a term used by critics to describe a mingling of the mundane with the fantastic. This may seem a straightforward enough approach unless one happens to be a student of postcolonial studies - or at least, a student of postcolonialism should smell a rat. A brief history of the term is required for us to see why the term should be deemed problematical. In 1925 Franz Roh, a German art critic, used the term to describe a new post-expressionistic form that was emerging. Essentially the art described as "magic realism" was realist but was simultaneously possessed of a strange or dreamlike quality. If one were to seek a literary analog - although it is probably better if one did not - the paintings were a non-verbal equivalent of defamiliarization. Essentially, the magic was derived from the painting technique employed by the associated artists rather than the actual content (ultimately it came to be viewed as a kind of down-market surrealism).
Later, in 1955, Angel Flores applied the term (with some modification - he referred to it as "magical realism") to Spanish-American writing. Flores put forward Borges as the master of this form and suggested Kafka as a Eurpoean equivalent. In this caase magic realism was distinguished by the fact that its practitioners treated the fantastic as normal, without any sense of surprise or amazement. In summary one could say - somewhat tritely - that Flores' version of magic realism was Dickens with weirdness: 19th century realism dotted with fantastical moments beyond spontaneous human combustion. Gradually Flores' definition was expanded, yet simultaneously narrowed to include folkloric elements.
However, this is an over-simplification of the case - these elements came to be regarded as essential. With folklore being considered an integral part of the genre, Borges could no longer be considered a magic realist (instead he could only be considered as part of fantastic literature - although he is now regarded as an essential if early cog in postmodernism's wheel). Perhaps the novel most commonly described as magic realist is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet, if one takes the definition as being strictly one which must include folklore, this novel too is shifted into the realms of fantastic literature. Instead, a critic adhering to the term in this way would say that a Garcia Marquez novel such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or Love in the Time of Cholera, is a magic realist novel.
However, Anglo-American critics have given the term the definition most commonly associated with it, i.e. it is a mixture of the quotidian and the fantastic, both in terms of content and technique. Yet this is to impose a certain paradigm on non-Anglo-American literatures (especially the Spanish-American since the term is most closely associated with it). Essentially, to describe a work of fiction as "magic realist" is to impose a system of order in much the same way a colonial power imposes its idea of order on a subjugated social system. The problem here is that anything which seems uncanny or unfamiliar to Western eyes becomes "magic", while to a native of that culture the events or ways of thinking so described are "real". For the Anglo-American critic, the term becomes a tool which does little more than 'other' the culture a text describes. Additionally, the binarism of magic/realism sets magic as the lesser term when applied by a humanist thinker.
When dealing with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children or The Satanic Verses, for example, can one apply the term with any validity? True, it can be argued that Rushdie is not so steeped in the culture about which he writes as, say, Amos Tutuola is in his, but I think it is fair to say that to call either writer magic realist is a dubious critico-colonial decision, overburdened with a rationalism that niether novelist particularly subscribes to in each of their own methods. So where can the Anglo-American critic find a term to suit this literature presently or commonly defined as magic realist? Numerous alternatives have been thrown in the ring, but most are no better in terms of the problem I have highlighted here ("fantastic realism" springs to mind in this case). There is most certainly a vacuum left without the term, but I feel the term itself is not with out validity when applied by Anglo-American critics to Anglo-American writers (some of the novels of Richard Brautigan could come under this banner, certainly, as could that of John Fowles or Emma Tennant).
As for those writers who are not Anglo-American or 'Western' (whatever that term means for a white Australian) it is difficult to negotite the issue. It seems that what is required for the Anglo-American reader is the temporary disconnection of a westernized way of thinking. Needless to say, a full comprehension may not be possible, whatever term is used, but at least the colonial implications of magic realism and its various mutations would be disengaged. Of course, the dangers faced by a Western critic attempting a trans-cultural reading in which the unfamiliar is treated as normal is a matter to be considered, but not here. Fundamentally, the situation for a postcolonial critic is that of grasping a double-edged sword and the only question is how long can she/he hold on before realizing his/her hand is being deeply cut?
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by David Mullan. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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