Who is magical realism written for anyways?
I started thinking about that after rereading some thoughts I had jotted down after reading Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude a while back.
Despite an early love affair with Salman Rushdie, and conflicting feelings about Marquez, I find myself the holder of a hearty skepticism of the genre after several additional entries in to the canon.
Magical realism is, in terms of genres, a supremely appropriate moniker, one that stands in stark contrast to the overly generic, or the overly specialized, it explains exactly what its readers should expect; fantasy elements overlaid on top of what could have been a more straightforward piece of historical fiction, which seems to me more or less what the term realism is, in this case, a stand-in for.
The choice, however, to include that shroud of magic, of course, is the sticking point and a source of debate for both the genre’s advocates and detractors.
It seems to me that magical realism’s authors attempt to do two things, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes not, depending on the author and the story, in their writing, and it is the innate incongruity of those two things that make magical realism, a genre whose authors seem, if not supremely conflicted themselves, at least guilty of instilling a sense of supreme ambiguity amongst their readers, leaving myself (and I’m certain others) to wonder who these authors are writing for.
First of all, magical realism’s authors attempt to mythologize their history, or culture through their storytelling; to essentially position, usually a non-Western world, in line with its Western religious, literary and/or cultural contemporaries. Much has been written specifically about Marquez’s use of, for example, overtly biblical imagery in his stories, take the four-year flood of Macondo as an illustration. This is the half of the genre’s style which seems to be directed towards an outside audience, which is, perhaps, why Marquez, Allende, et al., have received an unprecedented level of international acclaim. By infusing a story with supernatural elements and utilizing what have become almost globally shared symbols and tropes, authors can rescue an ill-used, or typically ignored people, culture or history, and exhibit it to the world screaming, in a sense, “hey, pay attention to us, we’re not so different you and I.”
It’s certainly effective, magical realism’s authors are some of the most read and most highly regarded authors who worked outside the western world, specifically South America, in the mid to late twentieth century and it does, speaking from experience, resonate with international audiences. It may be partly thanks to style, but it is a style which works in tandem with an incredibly colorful creativity (something regardless of how one feels about Marquez, cannot be contested), to make a people, or event seem important.
But an aura of importance overlaid on an event or history, with no underlying sense of why, doesn’t seem to me, to provide a people, or a reader, anything of long-lasting value. So the Nobel Prize grants Colombia and Marquez international approval, recognizes the country’s literature as “significant” and imparts to western readers everywhere a sense of validation and satisfaction; they’ve stepped outside of the first world and learned that, hey, people in Colombia aren’t all that different from me! But why is this necessary? And at what cost does it come?
Why does Latin American culture, or any, have to operate on the same plane as that of the rest of the world to be considered its equal? Why do we all have to have the same stories, the same ideas, the same feel-good sense of being the same, to recognize another country and/or it’s people as valuable? And how, as American readers, should we take that in? Doesn’t it, in a way, serve to present a face of desperation on the part of the author? That he/she feels there is no other way to communicate with a western audience but to position their own people and country in line with western mythologies? And what does that say about us, living in the western half of the “global village” in which we pride ourselves on being part of, if that really is the only way the rest of the world can get through to us?
I’ve been reading a fascinating volume of essays by author/novelist/critic Tom Parks recently on writing and what it means to be an author in the 21st century and in it he gives substantial space to globalization and its effects on literature. He mentions Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi, who vocally commented on magical realism’s deleterious effects by complaining that “by gaining the approval of powerful readerships abroad, magical realism was preventing South American writers from recounting the more prosaic truths about the continent.”
Parks goes on to relate, or at least ponder the consequences of a publishing world which values and therefore rewards writers writing for outside audiences, those readers outside of their own country/culture, and what that means for the talented writers writing in their own country, for their own country. First of all in the sense of how difficult it will be for those writers in the latter category to get published outside of their native tongue, their subject matter and style being too exotic for most readers to grasp and enjoy, and secondly in the sense of what we, as readers, begin to think we, most likely in error, know.
Do we really know Colombia because we’ve read Marquez? An author whose books are clearly about Colombia and its history, but seem to be intended for, or at least written with potent, unshakeable awareness of, those outside of it?
I mentioned there were two things magical realism’s proponents attempt to accomplish in their story, the first, as summarized above, being the creation of a national mythology, operating under the assumption, necessarily then, that it needs to be mythologized.
Secondly, its authors, at the same time, use fantastical elements and devices in their stories to illustrate a recent history which is, very often in South American and non-Western countries, a very difficult one, and one whose pain and suffering is still all too brutally recent.
It’s an effective and pragmatic approach to tackling a recent, agonizing history, allowing a group of people to begin the slow healing process after war or disaster by subverting actual reality beneath a shimmering haze of symbolism and absurdity. Life is absurd, Marquez seems to be screaming on every page. What more is there to say? It’s not denial or excuse-making, which all too often characterize a country’s reaction to suffering, but a recognition, an acceptance, and a potent gesture towards recovery.
But, while that idea can be conveyed in two sentences, Marquez takes a novel, an exhaustively detailed novel, full of dense symbolism and historical allusion, most of which will be completely lost on a non-Colombian reader.
As we, the international reading community, read novels like those of Marquez, what are we to make of the dense symbolism and historical allusion? And what do the vast majority of readers stand to gain by reading a symbolic reinterpretation of a country with whose history they are generally speaking, entirely unfamiliar? Is it acceptable to simply read for pleasure (should you be amongst those who find reading Marquez and company pleasurable)? Naturally I’m not arguing that reading isn’t in and of itself pleasurable, but is it fair to read purely for pleasure when a book, ostensibly, carries so much cultural and historical significance?
100 Years, with its plethora of characters who seem to refuse the notion that any explanation or verification of facts or existence are necessary, whether out of a desire to rightfully avoid additional trauma, or as a result of the passing of time and its effects on memory, makes sense for a Colombian audience, the history is of course already familiar, so there is no need to painfully reconstruct it factually. The story’s overarching aura of absurdity allows Marquez a conceit from which he can beautifully illustrate the futility of explanation; facts, and their recounting, in Marquez’s world, serve no good purpose for a country, in his case, following a brutal civil war.
But what about the rest of us? What do we lose, if our only knowledge of Colombia is Marquez?
So I’m back to the beginning. Who is the intended audience of magical realism?
If it is the outsider, the international reading community, then what does the story illustrate for its native readers? That their country’s leading voices (at least on the international stage) would seek to equate their own, unique history with that of everyone else? That that, indeed, might be necessary.
If it is for the “insider,” what do we, as the international reading community, stand to gain? What are we, without contextual knowledge, missing? And how much does it matter?