|Magischer Realismus or magic realism, was coined in Germany in the 1920s in relation to the painting of the Weimar Republic that tried to capture the mystery of life behind surface reality. Lo real maravilloso or marvellous realism, was introduced in Latin America during the 1940s as an expression of the mixture of realist and magical views of life in the context of the differing cultures of Latin America expressed through its art and literature. Realismo mágico or magical realism was introduced in the 1950s in relation to Latin American fiction, but has since been adopted as the main term used to refer to all narrative fiction that includes magical happenings in a realist matter-of-fact narrative, whereby, 'the supernatural is not a simple or obvious matter, but it is an ordinary matter, and everyday occurance - admitted, accepted, and integrated into the rationality and materiality of literary realism.'|
—Zamora and Faris qtd. in Bowers
Ever since it was first used by Franz Roh who applied it to the art world in his book Nach Expressionismus. Magischer Realismus. Probleme der neuesten europaischen Malerei published in 1925, the term 'magic realism' has appeared sporadically in some places to eventually disappear and resurge elsewhere (Weisgerber 1987: 214). Its earlier development in the 1930s and 1940s is described by the art critic H.H. Arnason as 'the precise realistic presentation of an ordinary scene with no strange or monstrous distortion: the magic arises from the fantastic juxtaposition of elements or events that do not normally belong together' (Arnason 1968:363). In 1927 Massimo Bontempelli made the term known simultaneously in French and Italian in his bilingual journal 900. He was also the first to apply it to literature before Johan Daisne in Belgium and Ernst Jünger in Germany. Through magic realism these writers could express their faith in imagination in the face of oppression—Johan Daisne’s first novel came out in 1942 during the German occupation of Belgium and several of Ernst Jünger’s works were published in Hitler’s Germany. The success magical realism was to enjoy in a country like Belgium, on the edge of two greater countries and literary traditions, is particularly significant.
|The term crossed over to South and Central America when Roh’s book was partly translated into Spanish in the 1927 June issue of the Revista de Occidente. There it was not only rebaptized 'real maravilloso' by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, it also became more intimately connected with the particular places in which it was practiced as well as with the myths and cultures of the indigenous populations, the 'fantastic juxtaposition' mentioned above thus becoming a clash between a mythic (magic) view of the world and European rationalism (realism). In his preface to El reino de este mundo (1949) Carpentier explained that unlike its literary and artificial European namesake the South American marvelous is inherent in the lives of the natives who do not draw a line between the real and the supernatural. The magic realists’ concern with the people went together with a political determination to regain an identity largely eclipsed by colonialism and neo-colonialism. This was a radical departure from the European variety which had been more individualistic and idealistic, had as a rule confined itself to a narrow strip between the real and the uncanny, and had a close affinity with surrealism.|
A further complication arose when in 1955 Angel Flores described magic realism as 'an amalgamation of realism and fantasy' and listed Borges among the practitioners of the genre (Flores 1955:189). This led to a rather indiscriminate use of the term for two very different offshoots from the same stem: an intellectual one derived from Borges and the surrealists and a popular one derived from Márquez. In the former the magic generally arises from the confusion of the tangible world with purely verbal constructs similar to it but without their counterparts in extra-textual reality: playful, metafictional and experimental it has much in common with the spirit of fabulation. The other trend, closer to the spirit of the marvelous, accommodates the supernatural, relies heavily on superstition and primitive faith and has its source in popular myths, legends and folklore as well as in the oral tradition; despite the challenge it offers to traditional realism it continues to adhere in its form to the realistic conventions of fiction.
It seems more and more obvious . . . that these two branches, intertwining in many ways, have come to constitute the two most important modes of fictional writing in the last two decades.
Magical realism, however vaguely this term may explain the composition and effect of a piece of work, has served as the common ground for discussions of many issues pertinent to cultural and identity politics termed as postcolonial and postmodernism in the past three or four decades, from the ‘native’ recovering ‘local’ or ‘indigenous’ cultures and writing back at empire to creating hybridities that accommodate multiplicities, and from questioning the epistemological premises of European post-Enlightenment realism to remapping the novel and the visual arts. To theorists of culture and literature, the term and the phenomenon it denotes have proven vexingly impossible to pin down, whether in its politics or aesthetics. Magic can mean anything that defies empiricism, including religious beliefs, superstitions, myths, legends, voodoo, or simply what Todorov terms the ‘uncanny’ and ‘marvelous’ fantastic. Realism, seen from the perspective of magic, is one or any way of grasping reality outside the matrix of . . . conventional realism.
Magical realism is an inevitably paradoxical term. Thus the most obvious question to ask about it is also the most fraught: how far does it reveal or obscure reality? In the study of Latin American literature, critics have, historically, been divided broadly between those who see the magical or fantastic dimension as underlining the essentially fictional or unknowable nature of both literature and reality, and those who see the magical or fantastic as a means of opening up imaginative new perspectives on social or political reality.
There is no doubt that political readings of Latin American literature are now in the ascendancy, but they are often far from unproblematic. For example, the famous opening of the best-known magical-realist novel, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967), in which the father introduces his children to reading creatively and to the dazzling beauty of the most fabulous diamond on earth (actually the previously unknown substance, ice), could be read either as an incitement to freedom of thought or as the revelation of the unavoidable limitations of error-prone human understanding.