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Magic Realism

Entry updated 17 April 2023. Tagged: Theme.

A term originally used to describe a form of literature most commonly associated with twentieth-century Latin America, most notably in the works of Isabel Allende (1942-    ), Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974), Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980), Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005), Gabriel García Márquez (1928-2014) and Juan Rulfo (1918-1986). English-language practitioners include Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter, John Hawkes (1925-1998), Salman Rushdie, and many others.

Contrary to the antirealistic assumptions of high Modernism (Henry James [1843-1916], Ezra Pound [1885-1972] and T S Eliot [1888-1965]) or the fable-producing, self-referential texts of metafiction (John Barth and Italo Calvino), Magic Realism does not necessarily doubt either the actuality of a real world or the ability of literary language to describe that world, an interpretation strongly supported by what was the first influential use of something like the term, in Carpentier's introduction to his novel, El reino de este mundo (1949; trans Harriet de Onis as The Kingdom of this World 1957), where he refers to "lo real maravilloso" ["marvellous reality"]. This formulation, whose use might have bypassed the absorption of the term into the domain of "realism", makes it clear that Carpentier was speaking of an apprehension of the whole of reality, rather than of a particular (already outmoded, and confinedly anglophone) fictional genre. His formulation assumes that in order to comprehend the world, the world must be addressed as fabulous, without any implication that the fabulousness of the world was in any sense extrinsic: that the world might be better conveyed figuratively than (in line with his formulation) as an exact description of it. When Fiona Sampson describes the poetry of W S Merwin (1927-2019) as embodying "a kind of close attention [to the world] ... indistinguishable from rapture" (23 August 2014 Guardian), she is describing Merwin as a Magic Realist. It is in this sense that the term beds into any serious attempt to define Fantastika as a whole.

For further discussion of the broad tendencies of twentieth-century literature from which Magic Realism partially dissents, see Fabulation and the longer entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. [SB/JC]

see also: Afrofuturism; Postmodernism and SF.


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