Magic Realism

views updated May 23 2018

Magic Realism













c. 1940

Magic Realism is a literary movement associated with a style of writing or technique that incorporates magical or supernatural events into realistic narrative without questioning the improbability of these events. This fusion of fact and fantasy is meant to question the nature of reality as well as call attention to the act of crHeation. By making lived experience appear extraordinary, magical realist writers contribute to a reenvisioning of Latin-American culture as vibrant and complex. The movement originated in the fictional writing of Spanish American writers in the mid-twentieth century and is generally claimed to have begun in the 1940s with the publication of two important novels: Men of Maize by Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias and The Kingdom of This World by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. What is most striking about both of these novels is their ability to infuse their narratives with an atmosphere steeped in the indigenous folklore, cultural beliefs, geography, and history of a particular geographic and political landscape. However, at the same time that their settings are historically correct, the events that occur may appear improbable, even unimaginable. Characters change into animals, and slaves are aided by the dead; time reverses and moves backward, and other events occur simultaneously. Thus, magic realist works present the reader with a perception of the world where nothing is taken for granted and where anything can happen.

The fantastical qualities of this style of writing were heavily influenced by the surrealist movement in Europe of the 1920s and literary avant-gardism as well as by the exotic natural surroundings, native and exiled cultures, and tumultuous political histories of Latin America. Although other Latin America writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortazar used elements of magic and fantasy in their work, it was not until the publication of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in English in 1970 that the movement became an international phenomenon. Subsequently, women writers such as Isabel Allende from Chile and Laura Esquivel from Mexico have become part of this movement's later developments, contributing a focus on women's issues and perceptions of reality. Since its inception, Magic Realism has become a technique used widely in all parts of the world. Thus, writers such as Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and Sherman Alexie have been added to the magic realist canon of writers because of their use of magical elements in real-life historical settings.


Isabel Allende (1942–)

Isabel Angelica Allende was born on August 2, 1942, in Lima, Peru, the daughter of a Chilean diplomat, Tomas, and his wife, Francisca. They later moved to Chile, where Isabel attended a private school. Afterwards, she worked for a United Nations development organization before becoming a journalist in Santiago. Allende's most notable family member was her uncle, the Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was assassinated in 1973 as part of a military coup. This event heavily influenced Allende, who commented in an interview later that she divided her life before and after the day of her uncle's assassination. Her first novel, La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits), published in 1982, won a number of international awards in Mexico, Germany, France, and Belgium. In the mid-1980s, Allende moved to the United States where she has taught creative writing at various universities. In 1985, an English translation of her first novel, The House of the Spirits, was published by Knopf. Since then, she has written a number of other well-known novels, including De amor y de sombra (Of Love and Shadows), translated in 1987, Eva Luna, translated in 1988, which won a number of national book awards, including the Before Columbus Foundation award, the Freedom to Write Pen Club Award in 1991, and the Brandeis University Major Book Collection Award in 1993. Allende's later books include Ines of My Soul: A Novel (2006) and The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir (2008). Allende became a U.S. citizen in 2003; as of 2008 she resided in California.

MiguelÁngel Asturias (1899–1974)

Born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on October 19, 1899, Asturias was the son of a Supreme Court magistrate, Ernesto, who later became an importer, and his wife, Maria Asturias. He became a lawyer in 1923 and left Guatemala for political reasons, residing in Paris and studying history of ancient Mesoamerican cultures at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1923 to 1928. In Paris, he associated with members of the surrealist movement, such as Andre Breton and Paul Valery. His exposure to Surrealism as well as his intellectual and political interests in Central American indigenous cultures would later influence his own writing. Returning to Guatemala in 1933, Asturias worked as a journalist, publishing books of poetry in small presses. In 1942, he was elected deputy to the Guatemalan congress and later became a diplomat under Jose Arevalo's presidency. In 1946, he published his first novel, El señor presidente, translated in English as Mr. President, which garnered praise from both South and North American critics. His next novel, Los hombres de maize (Men of Maize), published in Spanish in 1949, was not as highly praised but has come to be viewed as his masterpiece. In 1954, Asturias was exiled again due to the establishment of another repressive Guatemalan regime. He worked as a journalist in South America and later returned in 1966, becoming the French ambassador under Carlos Montenegro's moderate government. He was awarded the 1967 Nobel Prize for literature for his commitment to writing about the injustice and oppression of Guatemalan people, particularly working class and peasants. He died on June 9, 1974, in Madrid, Spain.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986)

Born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges was the son of a lawyer and a translator. Of mixed European and Spanish-American heritage, he was educated in Switzerland, England, and Argentina. In 1919, the Borges family moved to Spain. However, young Borges moved back in 1921 and began to write poetry and essays for literary journals. He also cofounded a number of magazines before publishing his first book of poetry in 1923. His current reputation is based more on his short stories than his poetry, and it was the publication of Historia universal de la infamia (AUniversal History of Infamy) in 1935 that heralded his career as a well-known writer of a hybrid genre that was part fiction, part essay. In 1941, his magic realist tales El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths)werepublished, and it was followed a few years later by Ficciones, 1935–1944 (Fictions, 1935–1944) and El Aleph (The Aleph). For many years, he worked as a municipal librarian in Buenos Aires, as well as a teacher. In 1955, he was appointed director of the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) where he served until 1970. By the late 1950s, he was completely blind but continued to publish in a variety of genres: poetry, essays, and stories. Borges died of liver cancer on June 14, 1986, in Geneva, Switzerland.

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940)

Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 3, 1891. Although trained as a medical professional, Bulgakov gave up medicine to pursue writing in 1919. The next ten years were rocky for his career; by 1929, Bulgakov was unable to publish his novels, short stories, plays, translations, and essays because the government had censored his work. Out of desperation, he wrote a letter to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1930, requesting permission to leave the country. From this correspondence, Bulgakov received work writing plays for theaters in Moscow but did not find success there either. His third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, whom he married in 1931, inspired the central character of his most famous work, The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov died of nephrosclerosis on March 10, 1940. His work is noted for its satire, fantastic elements, and dark humor.

Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980)

Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier y Valmont was born on December 26, 1904, in Havana, Cuba, to a Russian mother and a French father. He attended the Universidad de Havana until dropping out due to economic circumstances. For many years afterward, he worked as a journalist, editor, educator, musicologist, and author. Involved in revolutionary activities against the dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales, Carpentier was forced to leave Cuba after he had been imprisoned and subsequently blacklisted. He lived in France for many years, publishing his first novel in 1933, Ecue-yamba-o! which faded quickly into obscurity. In 1939, Carpentier returned to Cuba, where he began to write fiction again. This time, with the publication of novels such as El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World) in 1949, Los pasos perdido (The Lost Steps), and El Acoso (Manhunt in Noonday), Carpentier became an established and world-renowned author. He continued to write short stories, novels, essays, and criticism until his death, from cancer, in Paris, France, on April 24, 1980, where he served as Cuba's cultural attaché.

Laura Esquivel (1950–)

Born in Mexico on September 30, 1950, Laura Esquivel began her writing career as a screen-writer. Married to the Mexican director Alfonso Arau, Esquivel wrote a screenplay for a 1985 film, Chido One, which he directed. They continued to collaborate on projects, culminating in Arau's directing of Esquivel's first novel, Like Water for Chocolate. Published in Mexico in 1989 as Como agua para chocolate, the book became a bestseller and was soon translated into numerous languages, including an English translation in 1993. The film's release in the United States brought record-breaking attendance to a foreign film. Subsequently, Esquivel published The Law of Love (1996); Swift as Desire (2001), a book of autobiographical writings; Between the Fires: Intimate Writings on Life, Love, Food & Flavor (2000); and a novel, Malinche (2006). As of 2008 she lived in Mexico City.

Carlos Fuentes (1928–)

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes was born in Panama City, Panama, on November 11, 1928. The son of a Mexican diplomat, Fuentes was from an early age exposed to a number of South-American literary giants, such as the Brazilian poet Alfonso Reyes and the Chilean novelistJose Donoso. He attended Henry D. Cooke, a public school in Washington, D.C., where he learned to speak English. He later went on to study in Geneva, Switzerland, and followed up by receiving a law degree from the National University of Mexico. Fuentes has written a number of influential and deeply provocative novels that interrogate the notion of Mexican identity. In 1958, he published his first novel, La región más transparente (Where the Air Is Clear), translated in 1964 to international acclaim. With the publication of La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz), translated in 1964; Aura,translatedin1968; Terra Nostra, translated in 1976; and Gringo Viejo (The Old Gringo), translated in 1985. Fuentes is seen as Mexico's premier author, winning a host of literary prizes in Spanish-speaking countries such as Venezuela, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Chile, as well as making the New York Times best-seller list for The Old Gringo. As of 2008, he lived in London, England.

Gabriel García Márquez (1928–)

Born in Aracataca, Colombia, on March 6, 1928, Gabriel García Márquez is South America's most renowned author. Many of García Maŕquez's novels are set in a mythical town based on the town of Aracataca where he was raised by his maternal grandparents. For many years, García Márquez worked as a journalist, first in Colombia, then later in Paris, London, and Caracas, Venezuela, until pursuing his writing career full-time in the 1960s. In 1967, García Márquez published his most famous novel Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), translated in 1970. The publication put Latin-American fiction on the world's literary map, particularly those works related to the movement known as Magic Realism. Although primarily known as a fiction writer of novels such as El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch) and El Amor en el tiempo de colera (Love in the Time of Cholera) and short story collections El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), García Márquez continued to produce reportage for both Spanish-and English-speaking periodicals. In 1982, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. He has also won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction in 1988 for Love in the Time of Cholera. One of his later novels is Memories of My Melancholy Whores, published in English in 2005. As of 2008, García Maŕquez lived in Mexico City.



Aura, a novella by Fuentes, was published in its original Spanish in 1962 and translated into English in 1965. Narrated by a young scholar who has been hired by an elderly woman to write the memoirs of her husband, a deceased general, the novella reveals how the past and present are often interlocked and how time is fluid, rather than progressive, all through the figure of Aura, who is a projected ghostlike image of the general's widow at her most beautiful. In this novella, Fuentes's use of the second person "you" is meant to pull the reader into the web-like reality in which the scholar is enmeshed. He cannot escape the past or extricate himself from others as his identity slowly transforms into that of the dead general. Because of its accessibility and brevity, Aura has been anthologized widely as a classic example of Magic Realism's ability to transform what people think of as reality into something mysterious and grounded in the supernatural.


Originally published in Spanish in 1944 as Ficciones, Borges's collection of short stories could more aptly be described as essays and parables rather than fiction. Embroidered with images of


  • On its release by Miramax in 1993, the Spanish-language film Like Water for Chocolate,based on the novel by Laura Esquivel, was an instant international success. Revised as a screenplay for film by Esquivel and directed by her husband, Mexican director Alfonso Arau, the film effectively translates the fantastical qualities of Magic Realism to cinema.
  • A series of cassettes produced by National Public Radio in 1984, Faces, Mirrors, Masks provides a good introduction to twentieth-century Latin-American fiction writers. Authors represented include Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel Añgel Asturias, and Alejo Carpentier. Each tape provides an in-depth discussion of an individual author that includes interviews, music, and excerpts from stories and novels.
  • Gabriel García Márquez: Magic and Reality is an hour-long biopic on the life and times of the Colombian author and Nobel Prize winner. The film (written, produced, and directed by Ana Christina Navarro) was distributed by Films for the Humanities and Sciences in 1995. It covers Márquez's life, the sources of his books, his development of Magical Realism, and a history of Colombia. Interviews with him, his friends, and critics are an integral part of the presentation.
  • The Modern Word, an Internet resource for contemporary authors, has an informative Web site on Gabriel García Márquez at html with many links to other related sites and sources.
  • García Márquez's novella Love in the Time of Cholera was made into a major motion picture in 2007. Directed by Mike Newell, it stars Benjamin Bratt, Gina Bernard Forbes, and Giovanna Mezzogiorno and was nominated for a 2008 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song. As of 2008, it was available on DVD from New Line Home Video.
  • Allende's debut novel The House of the Spirits was made into a film of the same name in 1993. It was directed by Bille August and has an all-star cast that includes Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Antonio Banderas, Jeremy Irons, Vanessa Redgrave, and Winona Ryder. It won many international awards and is available on DVD from Artisan.

mirrors, circular towers, mazes, gardens, swords, and ruins, these concise, broadly imaginative sketches are meant to be viewed as allegories of different states of consciousness. Rather than creating fully developed characters and traditional narratives, Borges creates characters who appear to have no relation to contemporary reality but who are, for different reasons, on a quest for some kind of knowledge. Unlike García Márquez, who views the specific historical and political reality of South America as having certain magical or "unreal" aspects to it, Borges uses different settings, historical characters, and fantastical plots as a way of exploring ideas about politics, philosophy, world events, art, and above all the limitless power of magic to envision a better world. Fictions offers readers a series of inventive worlds that are intellectually challenging but are not situated in current Latin-American politics and history. Both in its maze-like narratives that often pose questions that are never answered and in its excessive use of details, Fictions presents reality as a linguistic puzzle that needs to be obsessively figured out.

The House of the Spirits

Allende's 1982 novel, La casa de los espíritus, published in English in 1985, immediately became an international bestseller among the literary crowd who had followed the older "Boom" writers such as Marquez, Fuentes, and Borges. The narrative follows four generations of an upper-class family in Chile, revealing the political and social upheaval of that country as witnessed by various members of the family. The novel is a reconstruction of history that has been undertaken by Alba, who is a recent descendent of the family and its current social commentator. Its fierce political critique of the Pinochet dictatorship as well as its use of fantastical description and supernatural acts places it well within the parameters of magic realist fiction. As many critics have noted, in tone and content this novel is similar to García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet its focus on women as agitators and writers of history demands that it be viewed as a work that is not completely derivative of García Márquez's. Feminist critics have applauded the novel's ability to portray women not as passive victims of political and social injustice but as active resisters to political and sexual oppression through their desire to write about these experiences.

The Kingdom of this World

The Cuban writer Carpentier, one of the earliest writers of Magic Realism, is best known for his novel, El reino de este mundo, published in 1949, and later translated into English in 1957. This seminal work, set in both Cuba and Haiti, follows the story of Ti Noël, a slave who recounts the numerous insurrections by slaves who were aided by magic and the natural world against their oppressors from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. Its emphasis on Afro-Caribbean life, with its roots in African spiritualism, music, magical and healing practices, reveals the vitality of a culture that refused to be completely assimilated into Western cultural practices. Critics claim that this novel paved the way for a new generation of Spanish American writers who used the novel as a form of social protest that related particularly to the political, social, and physical conditions found in Latin America. The novel can be seen as a fictive extension of Carpentier's essay "The Marvelous Real," which argues that the rich cross-fertilizing of different cultures in South America engendered the literature that has come to be called Magic Realism.

Love in the Time of Cholera

Originally published in 1985 as El amor en los tiempos del cólera, this novel is another lavishly drawn epic written by García Márquez. However, unlike many of his previous novels and short stories that focus on the political and social upheavals in Latin America, Love in the Time of Cholera (translated into English in 1988) relates the intricacies of Florentino Ariza's love for Fermina Daza, a love that is requited after nearly sixty years. The novel is a tribute to the long-lasting abilities of love to succeed in a corrupt and unpredictably violent world. The bizarre and unlikely political and social events that become commonplace in One Hundred Years of Solitude are secondary in this novel to a lyrical and deeply affecting portrait of the everyday lives of a group of people who are intimately connected to each other. Because this novel lacks some of the political intensity and narrative improbability that much of his previous work had, it has not received as much critical attention, yet for many Love in the Time of Cholera reveals the same intelligent and forceful wit at work that emphasizes the magic inherent in the everyday.

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita is a satirical, fantastical novel by Russian novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov. It is his most famous work; however, during his life he was best known for his plays. Bulgakov was frequently censored by his government so The Master and Margarita was only published in censored form in 1966, about 26 years after the author's death. An uncensored edition did not appear until 1973. Set in 1930s Moscow, the Master is a frustrated poet; Margarita is his mistress. Satan—known as Woland in the book—and assorted other devils are visiting Moscow. Woland seduces Margarita into his power, making her a witch with supernatural powers. At the end of the novel, she asks Woland to save her Master from poverty, and he whisks them away from Moscow while the city burns as Easter Sunday dawns. The novel, widely considered a classic of Russian literature, is a thinly veiled criticism of the corrupt and paranoid Soviet government. Bulgakov's use of Christian mythology is particularly poignant given the official position of the Soviet government regarding religion and the suppression of religious expression.

Men of Maize

In 1949, Asturias published his novel Hombres de Maize, which was later translated into English as Men of Maize. Although the book may be viewed as too early to be part of the Magic Realism movement, the novel's focus on politics, the effects of colonialism, and the fantastical qualities of reality certainly shares characteristics with many later novels. Influenced by both European Surrealism and the indigenous myths of pre-Columbian Latin America, Asturias's novel reveals the plight of indigenous Guatemalans as their world becomes increasingly subjected to exploitation by the encroachment of whites. The novel's magical qualities invoke indigenous myths of the power of transformation through humans' ability to assume animal shapes. Critics have pointed out that its narrative nonlinearity, shifting points of view, and magical aspects were informed by the sacred Mayan book The Popol-Vuh.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

A book that put the term Magic Realism into circulation, García Maŕquez's Cien años de sole-dad was first published in 1967 and later translated into English as One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1970. The book, amazing in its ability to cover the intricate lives of several generations of the Buendia family, sold more than thirty million copies worldwide and was translated into over thirty languages. Through his penetrating analysis of Colonel Aureliano Buendia and his subsequent descendents, García Maŕquez provides the reader with a micro-history of Latin America that pushes the limits of what readers think of as reality. His ability to mix historical and political events with fantastical and often outlandish events in the village of Macondo on the Colombian coast has earned this book the label of masterpiece. Although the novel explores serious questions about the nature of reality and the effects of colonialism, progress, and imperialism on so-called Third World countries, it is also comical and ironic in tone.


Exploration of Latin-American Identity

A theme that runs through nearly every magic realist text is the urge to redefine Latin-American identity by forging a point of view specific to the events, history, and culture of that region. Therefore, its history of colonization, the importation of slaves and influx of immigrants, the political tumult after independence, and economic dependency on imperial powers such as the United States and England that positioned Latin America as inferior and backwards become subjects of investigation that are rewritten and retold from an alternative point of view. For example, Carpentier's The Kingdom of this World is told by a slave who is witness to numerous catastrophic and traumatic events occurring in Haiti during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Likewise, in The House of the Spirits, Allende attempts to forge a feminine identity within a social and historical framework that covers nearly a century of political conflict. For many writers, magic realist techniques were used as an attempt to break with many of their inherited representations by engaging with oral histories of indigenous people, as found in Asturias's Men of Maize.

Importance of Magic and Myth

A defining aspect of magic realist texts is the powerful capabilities of myth and magic to create a version of reality that differentiates itself from what is normally perceived as "real life." This approach to narrative relies on legends and myths from oral pre-Columbian cultures, family histories (both García Márquez and Allende


  • Compare Allende's The House of the Spirits to Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude by researching the histories of Chile and Colombia respectively. How does the use of Magic Realism evoke the specific political and social realities of these countries? What do the histories of these countries reveal about the formation of Magic Realism as a literature of protest?
  • Read Toni Morrison's Beloved in light of Carpentier's notion that magic realist texts are specifically related to Latin-American history and culture and that the term cannot address imaginative works outside this context. State whether you agree with his argument by making a case for or against Beloved as a magic realist text.
  • Many magic realist writers incorporate indigenous people's legends, myths, and rituals into their fiction as a way to disrupt traditional notions of time and space. Read Asturias's Men of Maize in light of the Guatemalan oral text The Popol-Vuh. What structural and conceptual elements does he borrow from this traditional text to enhance the "ethnographic" elements of his novel?
  • The natural world plays a large part in magic realist texts, often providing a richly textured backdrop to the social and political aspects of these works. Research the natural resources of one or two Latin-American countries. What minerals, plants, cash crops, natural formations, and ecosystems are most common in these countries? How have these natural resources become a source of conflict as well as of value to the various inhabitants and outsiders of these countries? Use examples from magic realist texts to help formulate your argument.

admitted the influence of their respective grandmothers' yarn-spinning on their writing), the narratives of early explorers and clergy to Latin America, and the spiritual magic of African slaves to the Caribbean region. Drawing from these various influences, magic realist writers redraw the parameters of what is possible by invoking legends and myths that have been passed from one generation to the next and that invoke a loss of some kind with the onset of the modern age. Sometimes it is the loss of traditional values, as in One Hundred Years of Solitude; other times it is the loss of the intimate relationship between humans and animals. These mythical influences form a collective voice that often acts as it does in Men of Maize and The Kingdom of this World, as a resistant force against oppression and exploitation.

A Critique of Rationality and Progress

The use of magic and myth in magic realist fiction can be viewed as a critique of rationality and progress. Because many South American countries were economically exploited by countries in the industrialized West, first through slavery and exploration and then through economic imperialism, magic realist writers attempt to subvert the values that dominating cultures privilege in order to justify their exploitation of other cultures. Thus, logic, progression, and linearity are cast aside for a reliance on emotions, the senses, circularity, and ritual. For example, Asturias's Men of Maize consistently thwarts the notions of progress and rationality by presenting the perspectives of indigenous peoples as being outside of what most consider traditional concepts of time. Rather than present the reader with a linear narrative, Asturias divides his book into six chapters, each exploring an aspect of indigenous beliefs that counter Western conceptions of time, rationality, and progress. Similarly, One Hundred Years of Solitude begins with a sentence that disrupts the sense of time being a logical progression with a distinct past, present, and future: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." The fast-forwarding of time as well as the memory embedded in this future scene reveals time as occurring simultaneously. The notion of progress and its relation to technology is also critiqued in One Hundred Years of Solitude, particularly in its relationship to economic imperialism. For example, the railroad that is finally established in Macondo is viewed as both a sign of Macondo's assimilation into the modern world and a metaphor for its eventual exploitation by the North American Banana Company.

Questioning of Reality

Many magic realist writers use language in innovative ways that raise doubts about the concept of reality as well as art's ability to imitate it. For many writers who work within the magic realist paradigm, reality is much more ambiguous and complicated than meets the eye. Rather than create a realistic fiction that attempts to mimic the events and outward appearance of the external world, magic realists use a variety of techniques that force the reader to question the nature of reality. For writers like García Márquez and Allende, reality constitutes both real and imagined acts. Thus, a levitating priest, appearances of the dead, and animals that have transcendent powers all take on matter-of-factness by those who observe these phenomena. For Borges, reality becomes an exploration of multiple universes and existences that tear away assumptions most people share about observed reality. Reality in Fictions is never taken for granted but in fact is often distorted so that what the reader thinks he or she knows is cast into doubt. This approach to understanding the nature of reality assumes that reality is not external and objective but is created subjectively in human thought. In this respect, reality and selfhood itself become fragile concepts. For many magic realist writers, existence is a concept that does not have a one-to-one correspondence with observed reality. By subverting the assumption of an observed reality through innovative forms and devices that address the fantastical, magic realist writers relay the message that language itself is unable to provide an accurate depiction of reality.



An innovative technique of magic realist writers is to experiment with incorporating different kind of genres into the novel and short story form. Genres are different literary types that share certain characteristics. Thus, plays, short stories, novels, biographies, and poems can all be seen as having specific characteristics that set them apart from each other. In magic realist fiction, genres such as the epic, autobiography, historical documents, essay, and oral storytelling are used as a way of blurring the lines between fact and fiction. One of the earliest magic realist writers, Borges, is known for his use of the short story form that uses elements of the essay and autobiography to question the ability of language to represent observed reality. His stories also make use of the parable, a genre found most frequently in the Bible, in which brief narratives stress a philosophic statement about existence through the telling of a story. Other magic realists, such as Asturias, rely on older storytelling traditions from pre-Columbian times and thus incorporate tall tales, nonlinear narrative sequences, and repetitive phrases that are also onomatopoeic, which attempt to imitate sounds they denote. A genre used by Carpentier in The Kingdom of this World is the travel narrative, specifically those written during the centuries of exploration in the New World that described in detail the flora and fauna found in Latin America.


Hyperbole, or overstatement, is a figure of speech, or trope, that makes events or situations highly unlikely or improbable due to its gross exaggeration. Hyperbole is often used in the folk tale to make an event that may be commonplace appear larger than life. It is often used for dramatic affect, such as to invoke comedy or irony, yet it may also have serious meaning. Magic realist texts tend to use hyperbole for both comic and serious effect. In engaging the reader with bizarre and catastrophic historical events that have occurred in Latin America, magic realist authors use hyperbole to dramatize the emotional and traumatic effects these events had on the people affected. At other times, hyperbole may be used to make what is commonplace seem extraordinary and magical. This is a technique that García Márquez uses quite effectively to convey the mystery that ordinary objects, such as ice, for example, can have for those who have never been exposed to them: "When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars." Thus, hyperbole has the effect of making the ordinary appear extraordinary through excessive and outlandish description.


Imagery is an essential device used in magic realist works since the attempt to create aspects of reality that are unfathomable relies on convincing images. Thus, the use of concrete language in detailing supernatural events and conjuring a sensual world that is both mysterious and based in material reality is key. Allende, García Márquez, and Carpentier use extensive description in their works, detailing the worlds they create with sensory images that communicate the mysteries of the natural world. In The Kingdom of this World, a description of the sea is like peering into a kaleidoscope: "It was garlanded with what seemed to be clusters of yellow grapes drifting eastward, needlefish like green glass, jellyfish that looked like blue bladders." The wonder and amazement at the varied diversity of life forms found in the New World is part of Carpentier's construction of "the marvelous real." Images of the natural world also pervade Men of Maize, in which, as the title indicates, maize is an essential life-force for the people who grow it. Thus, as the maize's sacred powers are destroyed by outsiders, the traditional ways of the Indians are eroded.

Point of View

A main feature of magic realist writing is its attempt to incorporate numerous points of view into their narrative, many of which are drawn from popular or folk tales and are thus based more on popular understanding of events rather than originating from a specific character. Point of view traditionally investigates the formal dimensions of how a story is told and who is telling it. Magic realist texts often subvert these traditional notions of who is telling a story by presenting different versions of a particular event through a collective perspective, thus raising the question of which version is true. For example, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the disappearance of Remedios the Beauty is described as having two versions. The more descriptive one that is promoted by Remedios's family is that she ascended into heaven, holding her bed sheets tightly in her hand, whereas the more mundane story has Remedios running off with a suitor. However, because the village people of Macondo believe the family's story, it is that version that becomes privileged despite its improbability. Thus, point of view in this context suggests that reality is ascribed not by any sense of rationality but by what people are willing to believe.


Given that writers such as Asturias and García Márquez began using magic realist narratives to critique the role of imperialism (especially U.S. imperialism), it should not be surprising that the style became well known and popular in other regions of the world where writers, readers, and thinkers found themselves in similar political and social predicaments. Thus, Magic Realism emerged in fictions in various parts of the post-colonial world such as South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East while also influencing many writers in the United States and England. In turn, it reemerged in Latin America with a particular focus on women's writing.

In the years between the end of World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the political predicament of imperialism and the social catastrophes of dictatorship and underdevelopment were very common throughout developing regions such as South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. For example, in Salman Rushdie's second and most celebrated novel, Midnight's Children, the Indian-born author creates a narrator who is born at the very moment that the British leave the subcontinent and when India and Pakistan are partitioned on midnight, August 14, 1947. This point of departure allows the narrative to relate a series of accounts of the climactic events in India's colonial and postcolonial history from the perspective of a very ordinary Indian family. The resulting effect suggests that free movement of South Asian history does not obey the narrow empirical rules of European historiography and that history is rewritten from the perspective of one born into the legacy left by the British colonial enterprise. In other well-known works such as V. S. Nai-paul's The Bend in the River and Ben Okri's The Famished Road, narratives are infused with narrative surprises and events that jar the reader's sense of reality. Translator Tara Chace introduced the English-speaking world to the Magic Realism and Postmodernism of Amorfiaana by Finnish novelist Marianna Jäntti. Jäntti's novel is about a collapsing apartment building in which she explores boundaries, physical bodies, and textual forms using Magic Realism.

Meanwhile, in Latin America female novelists revised the traditional genre with a feminist slant in Allende's The House of the Spirits and Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, two novels that focused on the experiences of women and their roles within the family and state. Feminist Magic Realism was combined with a connection between Third World oppression and oppression of African Americans in the works of Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange and also among Native-American and Latino writers such as Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Rudolfo Anaya. In her book Show and Tell: Identity as Performance in U.S. Latina/o Fiction, literary critic Karen Christian notes that magic realist approaches to Latino fiction are found in the 1971 novel Bless Me, Ultima by Anaya: "Anaya's novelistic portrayal of rural Chicana/o life and folklore, set in northern New Mexico, offered readers access to mythical, magical, and spiritual aspects of Chicana/o culture." However, Christian is quick to note that although influences of Magic Realism are found in contemporary U.S. Latino fiction, it does not necessarily mean that there is a Latino "mystical essence" that derives from Latinos connection to their ethnic roots. Instead, she claims that these magic realist tendencies are used to perform a certain kind of Latino identity that in fact may parody magic realist techniques rather than imitate them.

In another incarnation, the magic realist movement has begun to influence Western writers in what is seen as an ironic circling back to Surrealism in the work of Czech writer Milan Kundera in such works as The Joke and the Italian writer Italo Calvino in a Borges-like blurring of genres book called Cosmicomics.


As a literary movement, Magic Realism was part of a larger cultural development in the mid-twentieth century among a group of Latin-American writers in the Caribbean, South America, and Mexico who contributed to the creation of an innovative approach to writing called "the new novel." Some generic aspects of the "new novel," as defined by Philip Swanson in his introduction to the anthology Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction, are interior monologues, multiple viewpoints, fragmented or circular narrative structures, and an overall distorted sense of reality. Thus, to understand the social, political, and cultural climate that engendered magical realist fiction, one must first view it as being a reaction to the narrative Realism that attempted to mimic reality. At the same time, "the new novel" arose as a response to the increasing understanding that Latin-American society was changing, particularly as it became increasingly urban and modernized by new technological innovations. Thus, many writers responded to these changing conditions by experimenting with new forms and genres that presented reality as ambiguous, complex, and disorganized rather than orderly and meaningful. This style of writing reached its height in the Boom period of Latin-American literature, a period from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, in which a number of extremely important works, most notably Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Cortazar's Hopscotch, became internationally recognized.

As one literary development among many occurring at the time, Magic Realism focused on the fantastical elements of everyday life as found in imagined communities situated primarily in Latin America. Its specific influences are found in the surrealist movement in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s of which Asturias, Borges, and Carpentier, three early magic realist writers, were exposed to while studying in Europe. In fact, the first magic realist movement was centered in Europe, especially Germany and France where the major exponents of Surrealism were Franz Roh and Andre Breton, respectively. During the 1920s, these critics and their cohorts declared the "marvelous" not only an aesthetic category but a whole way of life. These critics influenced and learned from artists like Max Ernst, whose painting Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale brings together a random association of images to jar the viewer's conventional sense of what the contexts for the images should be. Ultimately, the work of Ernst, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, and others, as well as the writings of Breton and other surrealist thinkers, sought to utterly confuse the distinctions between art, thought, ideas, and matter.

This interest in an ultimate union of all things was not shared by the first major proponents of Magic Realism in Latin America. This second movement, whose best known figures were Borges and Carpentier, both of whom lived as young men in Europe, borrowed from the surrealists' style and shared in their fascination with the fact that a banal everyday object could become magical simply by having extra attention called to it. But these writers practiced


  • 1950s–1960s: Many Latin-American writers rely on aspects of indigenous cultures, especially their customs and beliefs that flourished before the Conquistadors arrived in America, as material for their writing.

    Today: Many indigenous cultures of Latin America are celebrated all over the southern hemisphere through the reenactment of traditional songs, dancing, and music by national and international groups and organizations.

  • 1960s: The Magic Realism writers mix elements of fantasy and fact, history and mythology as a way of capturing the social and cultural complexity of Latin America and exposing social injustices and political instability.

    Today: A new generation of Latin-American writers such as Elena Poniatowska and Carlos Montemayor rely on documentary realism to expose the contradictions and corruption that make up the contemporary urban realities found in Latin-American countries.

  • 1960s: Very few Spanish-American writers are translated or taught in English classes in high schools and college classrooms in English-speaking countries such as the United States and England.

    Today: Teaching literatures from India, Nigeria, Latin America, Egypt, and East Asia has become a staple of the English classroom as more and more novels by non-Western or non-English speaking writers are translated and become part of the literary canon.

  • 1960s: Many Latin-American countries are controlled by military dictatorships that often resort to violence, suppression of rights, and censorship to maintain their power.

    Today: Most Latin-American countries have moved toward democratic forms of government, although corruption and human rights violations continue to exist, especially in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Ecuador where drug trafficking creates regional and national conflicts.

their versions of Magic Realism almost exclusively in narrative fiction rather than visual arts, and each had his philosophical difference with the European movement. Borges, a staunch philosophical idealist, rejected the attempt to unify all categories. Instead, he wrote stories and essays that consistently embraced the notion of an orderly universal realm of thought that was confused by a flawed (and utterly separate) world of matter. Carpentier also rejected the surrealists' attempt to impose the magical on everything. But in his rejection of surrealist unity, he went in the opposite direction from Borges. In his 1949 essay, On the Marvelous Real in America, which was a prologue to his novel The Kingdom of this World, Carpentier argues that the very material history of the Americas is essentially magical (or "marvelous," in his own terminology). Specifically for Carpentier, this magical element comes from the rich religious mixture, heavily invested in magic, which manifests in Afro-Caribbean culture. This essay by Carpentier is considered a landmark because it is the first attempt to describe Magical Realism as uniquely Latin American. Thus, whereas Surrealism focused on dreams and the unconscious in creating new kinds of images and experimental writing styles through the juxtaposition of unrelated objects, both Asturias and Carpentier returned to their homelands in Latin America and infused their writing with mythic, historical, and geographical elements found in their local environments.

The historical and political currents that are often an indelible aspect of magic realist writing reflected a variety of social and political ills that individual countries were undergoing or had undergone at some prior time. More specifically, Latin America's history of conquest, slavery, imperial domination, and subsequent attempts to self-govern become the backdrop as well as the primary "raw" materials for many magic realist writers. For example, Carpentier in The Kingdom of This World focuses on the slave uprisings in Haiti, which occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Other writers, like Fuentes in Where the Air Is Clear, probe the issue of national identity in contemporary urban societies such as Mexico City or Havana. In Allende's and García Márquez's work, historical events of the recent past tend to appear as pivotal scenes. For example, American multinational companies' entrance into Latin America economies in the late nineteenth century resulted in exploitation, alienation, and sometimes death of workers. The consequences of U.S. economic imperialism is referred to in the massacre scene at the banana plantation in One Hundred Years of Solitude in which hundreds of demonstrating workers are killed and thrown into the sea. This scene is based on the 1928 banana strike by United Fruit Company workers in Colombia, many of whom were gunned down by the army. Similarly, both The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude reveal the rise of military dictatorships that created an endless succession of civil wars and political coups in countries like Colombia and Chile.

By contrast, a much-lauded event in Latin-American countries, where divisions between the rich and the poor were and still are extreme, was the socialist revolution in Cuba in 1960. The overthrow of a long-standing despot ushered in an optimistic era among socially minded Latin-American artists and intellectuals who were fueled by the socialists' hopes for an egalitarian, classless, and safe society. Thus, despite the many atrocities that many magic realist works depict, the movement's adherents have often been seen as delivering a hopeful message, revealing at its roots a joyful engagement with life that is bound together with the utopian vision that destruction and violence will be overcome.


As a literary movement whose most well-known writers are from Latin America, Magic Realism played an important role in placing Latin-American fiction on the international literary map in the1960s,particularlyintheUnitedStates. As Jean-Pierre Durix points out in his book Mimesis, Genres, and Post-Colonial Discourse, theterm Magic Realism "came into common usage in the late 1960s, a time when intellectuals and literary critics were often involved in Third-Worldism, civil rights, and anti-imperialism." Propitiously, these same issues are often the underlying themes of many magical realist novels, and thus they were widely read and discussed as significant testimonies that "evoke the process of liberation of oppressed communities." However, it was not just these novelists' politics and commitment to social justice that made their works so well received. In their article, Doris Sommer and George Yúdice claim that Magic Realism's popularity could not be summed up as response to one particular aspect of the works but instead to an array of characteristics:

Latin Americans dazzled the reader with crystalline lucidities (Borges), moving renderings of madness (Sábato, Cortázar), and violence (Vargas Llosa), larger than life portrayals of power and corruption (Fuentes, García Márquez), ebullient baroque recreations of tropical culture (Carpentier, Souza, Amado, Cabrera Infante, Sarduy).

However, for Latin-American critics, the concept of Magic Realism had been debated for quite some time. In his famous 1949 essay, "On the Marvelous Real in America," Carpentier discusses the importance of "lo real marvilloso" (the marvelous real) as an artistic movement that had sprung from the soil of Latin-American history, myth, and geography. The richness one finds in Latin America due to its unique history and fecund landscape acts as a catalyst for the imagination in Latin-American writers. However, other critics such as Angel Flores disagree. In his 1955 essay, Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction, Flores argues that (Latin) American Magical Realism is distinguished by a transformation of "the common and everyday into the awesome and the unreal." Flores locates magic realist's roots in the aesthetics of European art, particularly Surrealism. Interestingly enough, Flores does not even mention Carpentier's earlier essay on marvelous Realism, which later became influential. However, much later in 1967, Luis Leal put forward a thesis in his essay "Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction" that resonated with Carpentier's. His claim that Magic Realism is not "the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances" coincides with Carpentier's material definition of Magic Realism as being a confrontation with a specific sociohistorical reality rather than an escape. Thus, a large part of the critical reception of magic realist fiction has been defining what exactly it is in terms of origins and philosophy.

For the most part, critics tend to divide into two camps: those who view Magic Realism as specifically tied to the formation of a Latin-American literature and others who view Magic Realism as less about geography, history, and culture and more about rendering a specific version of reality that can be adapted across cultures. For example, whereas Chilean literary critic Fernando Alegría, in "Latin America: Fantasy and Reality," reads magic realist works as a political critique in which "we come to realize [that their realism] is a truthful image of economic injustice and social mockery which passes off as authoritarian democracy in Latin America," for other critics, such as Zamora and Faris, authors of Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Magic Realism "is a mode suited to exploring— and transgressing—boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, political, geographical, or generic." What is most impressive about Zamora and Faris's book is the liberty it takes in presenting Magic Realism as a device utilized by writers worldwide yet at the same time publishing key articles such as Carpentier's and Leal's that argue against this global approach.

Other critical approaches to Magic Realism that fall within the two poles mentioned can be seen as unorthodox. For example, the most radical view is taken by González Echevarría, who represents the skepticism that is part of post-structuralism. He states, "The relationship between the three moments when magical realism appears is not continuous enough for it to be considered a literary or even a critical concept with historical validity." Others such as José David Saldívar in The Dialectics of Our America: Genealogy, Cultural Critique, and Literary History attempts to forge a pan-American approach to Magic Realism that includes the diaspora of slaves and Mexican immigrants in North America as being part of the collective voice that situates specific histories in a magic realist moment. Lastly, Durix's book Mimesis, Genres and Post-Colonial Discourse probes Magic Realism as a specific genre that developed within a sociohistorical postcolonial moment in which writers and intellectuals in former colonized countries began to question the representations and realities handed to them by the colonizers. Thus, Durix is attempting to broaden the concept of Magic Realism by viewing it as an artistic manifestation of the psychological and ontological conditions posed by the European colonial era.


Doreen Piano

Piano is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Bowling Green University in Ohio. In this essay, Piano analyzes the literature of the Magic Realism movement as a new form of social protest to oppressive governments and imperial powers through the use of history and myth, supernatural events, and folkloric tropes as an antidote to narratives of progress and rationality.

In the mid-twentieth century, a literary movement developed in Latin America that expressed a new form of writing that was deeply embedded in the cultural, physical, and political landscape of Latin America. This movement known as Magic Realism has been interpreted as both a literary device in terms of infusing


  • The History of Surrealism, written by Maurice Nadeau and published in 1944 in French, is a classic text on this avant-garde movement. It provides an overall account of the movement and its evolution as well as internal debates about the meaning of artistic production. Leading surrealist proponents like Breton, Tzara, and Aragon are quoted extensively.
  • Published in 1967, Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann's book Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin American Writers is one of the first books to present interviews with the leading writers of the Spanish-American Boom period. Interviews with Asturias, Borges, Cortazar, Fuentes, García Márquez and Vargas Llosa are included.
  • Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction, edited by Philip Swanson, provides a variety of essays on notable twentieth-century es as well as on avant-garde writers like Cortazar and Rulfo. This collection reveals a range of Latin-American literary styles and traditions that Latin American writers were working in during the Boom period.
  • Based on an exhibition of Latin-American art at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993, the book Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, edited by Waldo Rasmussen, reveals a range of essays that focus on the previous century's visual trends found in different parts of Latin America. Particularly relevant may be the essays that focus on Surrealism and its connection to artistic movements in Latin America.
  • Twenty five years ago, Paraguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wrote a highly engaging social and political analysis of Latin-American history entitled Open Veins of Latin America that is still a definitive poetic and historical work on the area's colonial and postcolonial past, particularly as it relates to United States foreign policy.
  • A 1999 article by Jon Anderson in the New Yorker Magazine titled "The Power of Gabriel García Márquez" provides a current profile of this prolific author within the current political and social context of his homeland, Colombia.
  • Naomi Lindstrom's book of literary criticism, Twentieth-Century Spanish American Fiction (1994), covers each period of Latin-American literature extensively from the beginning to the end of the century. She reveals important works in their historical context while providing in-depth discussions of adherents to specific movements such as Realism, Modernism, Magical Realism, Avant-Gardism, Boom and Post-Boom literature.

realistic narrative with fantastical qualities and hyperbolic descriptions such as those found in the works of García Márquez, Allende, and Carpentier as well as an attitude that, as critic John Brushwood notes, is the reaffirmation of the novelist's right to invent reality, to make up his story rather than copy what he has observed. Thus, Magic Realism can be viewed as both a political and aesthetic movement in its attempt to forge new formalistic developments in literature at the same time that it addresses social and political issues.

One of the most daring innovators of magic realist fiction is Borges, author of The Garden of Forking Paths and Fictions, who not only questions the limits of what is known as reality but who questions the possibility of language to depict it accurately. His wide-ranging experimental forms of writing explore chance, coincidence, and fate as essential elements of a reality that


needs to be figured out. Thus, his preoccupation with images such as labyrinths and mazes attest to his construction of a puzzling universe that has an order to it, but one that must be figured out. His numerous short fictions, however, are less concerned with the physical geographies and political landscape of Latin America than other magic realists' works are. In fact, although he is viewed as part of the magic realist movement, he is more concerned with different kinds of settings as a way to probe metaphysical questions about the nature of reality. Thus, although he shared many of the aesthetic aspects of Magic Realism such as innovative structure and uses of time, fragmented narratives, and shifting points of view, it is the later writers such as Asturias, Carpentier, Fuentes, and García Maŕquez who were more involved in invoking fantastical elements within a realist depiction of Latin America.

Therefore, although the fantastical elements of Magic Realism are its most notable feature, the importance of setting, particularly the social and political climate of Latin America, is not to be dismissed. In his introduction to Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction, editor Philip Swanson argues that "Magical realism is based around the idea that Latin American reality is somehow unusual, fantastic, or marvelous because of its bizarre history and because of its varied ethnological make-up." The observation that Magic Realism was a literature that stemmed specifically from Latin America was first delineated in Carpentier's ground-breaking essay "The Marvelous Real in America," which ends on this note: "After all, what is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvelous real?" Thus, the fantastical elements these writers use are intimately situated in the physical and historical realities in which their works take place. García Márquez makes this clear in The Fragrance of Guava when he states:

The history of the Caribbean is full of magic—a magic brought by black slaves from Africa but also by Swedish, Dutch and English pirates who thought nothing of setting up an Opera House in New Orleans or filling women's teeth with diamonds.

His comment intimates how the particular ambience of Latin America engendered acts of radical imagination that were not confined to the literary.

That Latin-American culture is a product of numerous cultural influences and powerful forces is revealed most powerfully in García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a work that probes the very question of what is real and what is not. His use of traditional storytelling techniques and reliance on historical events points to an implicit conclusion that it is more a matter of point of view than the existence of facts that constitutes reality. For example, although the massacre of thousands of banana strikers in Macondo that takes place in the novel, based on a historic confrontation between the American multinational company United Fruit Company and the local workers, is witnessed by the sole survivor Jose Arcadio Segundo, his story is discredited, the event erased from history because of the power of the military to determine which version of history should be written.

That power has been dictated from the top down in Latin-American history, first through the conquistadors, then the colonizers, and more recently through the rise of military dictatorships, has inspired writers such as Carpentier, Asturias, Allende, and García Maŕquez to use literature as a method of telling a different version of history, one that critiques progress and rationality and that protests social injustices, especially as it is directed toward those most vulnerable—the working poor, peasants, indigenous peoples, and slaves. David Danow's observation that Magical Realism manages to present a view of life that exudes a sense of energy and vitality in a world that promises not only joy but a fair share of misery as well reveals the importance of understanding Magic Realism not as simply a way to make stories appear fantastical like traditional ghost stories emerged as a radical artistic response to the complex history that envelopes Latin America. In fact, another form of novelistic genre that magic realist writers engage in is called "the dictator novel," which may or may not invoke magical elements. García Márquez's The Autumn of the Dictator, Asturias's Mr. President, and Carpentier's Reasons of State are all examples of another form of "protest" novel that has emerged in Latin-American literature.

Magic realist writers incorporate innovative narrative techniques to convey an alternative view of history by borrowing aspects of traditional storytelling devices as well as avant-garde experimental writing. James Higgins, in his essay "Gabriel Garcia Marquez," poses the theory that magic realists' use of hyperbole and/or linguistic exaggeration is linked to traditional forms of storytelling such as the "folk tale" and preliterate forms like the epic. Using the "tall tale" provides an alternative perspective of historical events from the point of view of "the people." In other words, "it permits a rural society to give expression to itself in terms of its own cultural experience." Creating a "people's history" has the effect of raising doubts about historical accounts that appear rational and sequentially ordered by providing a point of view that may disrupt the appearance of an orderly universe.

Although the narrative's point of view may shift from one character to another through omniscience, by focusing on local settings or specific histories, these writers project a version of history that is polyphonic, using a number of points of view to create multiple and sometimes conflicting histories. In Asturias's Men of Maize, the narrative structure of the novel is divided into six parts and an epilogue that creates a shifting point of view. The disruptive breaks in point of view prohibit traditional notions of cause and effect and reveal a concept of time that is recursive, revealing that the injustices occurring to indigenous peoples continue despite occasional moments of resistance. Thus, the history of conquest and colonization is one that continues to be present in the lives of indigenous people who are supposedly "free" of this history.

This presentation of time as nonlinear raises questions about the art of storytelling, particularly as it relates to the construction of a collective, and not individual, voice. García Márquez, Allende, and Asturias tend to view the stories told by families and communities as true rather than to weigh their truth-value against objective notions of reality. In many magic realist works, truth lies in a community's agreement of what constitutes reality rather than its ability to convey logical reasoning about certain events. Thus, extraordinary events in One Hundred Years of Solitude such as the levitation of Father Nicanor Reyna, the ascension of Remedios the Beauty into heaven, and the birth of a child with a pig's tail are as common as ice that is discovered and delighted over in Macondo. As Zamora and Faris note:

Texts labeled magical realist draw upon cultural systems that are no less than those upon which traditional literary realism draws—often non-Western cultural systems that privilege mystery over empiricism, empathy over technology, tradition over innovation.

Emphasizing the fantastical qualities of reality allows for a blurring of fact and fiction where the quest for truth is discerned as being beyond the mere surface of things.

What becomes most clear in reading the works of magic realists is that a reconfiguration of the relationship between artists and society has occurred. A more recent fictional work by Allende, The House of the Spirits, illustrates this point succinctly by having one of the narrators of the novel, Alba, chronicle not just her family's history over four centuries, but the history of a nation that has not yet been told. In her book Twentieth-Century Spanish American Fiction, Naomi Lindstrom claims that "[t]he long-standing association between social criticism in literature and realistic representation began to be questioned by writers who found stylized, mythical, and magical modes the best vehicle for their artistic statements about society." Thus, although magic realist writers were, like their narrative realism predecessors, social critics particularly concerning freedom from oppression, their approach incorporated elements of traditional forms of storytelling as well as new technical innovations that engaged in questioning the assumptions of an observed reality and that embarked on a new form of social criticism.

Source: Doreen Piano, Critical Essay on Magic Realism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Tara Chace

In this essay, Chace offers an analysis of Finnish author Mariaana Jäntti's novel Amorfiaana focusing on magical realism and postmodern techniques.

Why am I telling you this story? ["Miksi kerron tämän tarinan sinulle."] Thus begins Mariaana Jäntti's 1986 novel, Amorfiaana, in which she uses magical realism and narrative techniques to probe the ontologies of textual and physical bodies. Since the novel's publication, Jäntti has been compared to Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, Walter Kilpi, Virginia Woolf, and Heíáne Cixous. As the list demonstrates, Jäntti's style impresses readers but proves hard to place. Philip Landon describes Amorfiaana as the most radically experimental work in the Finnish language (34). I will show how Jäntti's narrative transcends reality's boundaries with magical realism and the borders of consciousness with its amorphous array of narrative styles in order to explore the constantly changing ontologies of subject formation.

Amorfiaana's characters are united by their presence in one building and by the fact that the narrative rarely leaves the building. Jäntti organizes the text into chapters designated with locative headers like "cellar," "kitchen, hallway, and room," and "room." Readers voyeuristically


watch as a miscellaneous conglomeration of events including legal proceedings, seedy sexual encounters, illness, decay, meals, domestic squabbles, and housework unfolds in the building. Jäntti taunts readers with sketchy details about the fatal tricycle accident that frames the rest of the book's events forcing readers to strain in an attempt to see what really happens. Jäntti draws readers in with hints of unspecified secrets, possible incest, abortion, or child abuse but never resolves whether they are true or false or partially true. Her readers are left in a state of confusion wondering how the characters are related, who is telling the story, and what is actually happening.

To date, Jäntti's answer to the nouveau roman has inspired two full-length articles, which focus largely on the text's relationship to theory, particularly Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, and Cixons. Kris-tina Malmio interprets the novel's characters as representations of body parts, bodily functions, and psychological circumstances and the tricycle accident as a metaphor for female authorship. Anna Makkonen, on the other hand, devotes more attention to the novel's form by classifying it as poststructuralist, a cross between an artist's self-portrait and a female Bildungsroman.Makkonen also analyzes recurrent themes including the Daedalus myth, gender rolls, and numerical and maternal images. In common with Malmio and Makkonen, my analysis of the text looks at its stylistic devices and treatment of physical bodies but takes a somewhat different turn. I focus on Amorfiaana's narrative mode, particularly the incorporation of magical realism and postmodern techniques and its exploration of the nature of the posthuman body. Publicly, Jäntti has said little about the text insisting that it should speak for itself. She enjoys confused boundaries, permanently partial identities, and contradictory standpoints (Landon 36–7). Comfortable with the idea of miscegenation—well aware of the Jewish, Spanish, Swedish, German, and Finnish blood running through her veins— Jäntti requires her readers to embrace it as well (Landon 36). She calls Amorfiaana a context by explaining that being in Amorfiaana means testing boundaries (Landon 37).

That is precisely the approach I take here: I will demonstrate how Jäntti tests these various boundaries in Amorfiaana. She explores the boundaries of reality by using all five of the primary characteristics Faris suggests for magical realism (167). Jäntti tests ontological boundaries by foregrounding postmodernist literary devices. She tests narrative boundaries by creating a text that amorphously combines numerous narrative perspectives and modes of presenting figural consciousness with unannounced transitions from one to another. Finally, in all of these ways, she tests the boundaries of what it means to have a human body thereby probing the boundaries of the posthuman subject.


Wendy Faris spells out five primary characteristics of magical realism, and Amorfiaana fulfills all of them: an "irreducible" element of magic (168), detailed descriptions of a realistic world, contradictory understandings of events, the near merging of two worlds or realms, and a questioning of received ideas of time, space, and identity (167–74). Jäntti uses these magical elements to put forward the unpresentable, not for the reader to enjoy or take solace in, but to impart to the reader a stronger sense of the unpresentable (Lyotard 81).

Irreducible magic runs as a consistent theme throughout Amorfiaana. This magic occasionally involves a playful sense of surrealism: as Alfhild becomes aroused, for example, she feels her behind being stroked. Jäntti writes, "Takapuoli levitää itseään, ottaa henkeä" ["Her rear spreads itself, takes a breath."] Magical metaphors also create parallel scenes where events can be read either literally or metaphorically. In these cases, the surrealism derives from the overlay of literal and metaphorical to create a doubly coded scene. As Afhild's sex scene progresses, she

kaataa kupillisen molemille, lämmittää kättään kupin poskella ja ottaa sitten lämpimin sormin kiinni pikkuherran luumumaisesta päästä. Se on gentlemanni. Kun Alfhild kysyy, onko se ikävöinyt häntä, se vastaa nyökkäämällä... Sen nyytit voi ottaa käsiinsä. Niitähelliä. Naavaa nöyhtaïllä. . . Venälaïset teekupit kilisevät.

pours a cup (of tea) for both of them, warms her hand on the side of the cup, then takes hold of the little gentleman's plum-like head with her warm fingers. [It] is a gentleman. When Alfhild asks if [it] has missed her, [it] replies with a nod . . . You can take its bundles into your hands. Fondle them. Ruffle the mossy beard . . . The Russian teacups clink.

The Finnish distinguishes between the third person personal "hän" used to refer to the Black Man with whom Alfhild is having sex and the third person impersonal "se" referring to the gentleman. Richard Impola reflects the Finnish tendency to represent personals in the impersonal form by translating both "hän" and "se" as "he", whereas I have preserved the impersonal in my translation above for clarity. Despite the linguistic distinction, there are multiple scenes superimposed on each other here. In a larger context, Alfhild is losing her virginity with the Black Man on the dirty floor; squeezed between the radiator and the stove. She is also having tea with a gentleman. At the same time, the gentleman represents the Black Man's penis; his bundles, his testicles; and the mossy beard, his pubic hair. When the gentleman nods, it is both the gentleman tilting his head and his penis moving in Alfhild's hand. Jäntti's magical metaphors are so thorough and consistent that they become coexistent, palimpsestic story lines.

More in the spirit of Latin American magical realism, Amorfiaana's magic is also mythical alluding in the following case to the Daedalus and Icarus theme:

Pyörre levittää Alfhildin kiharoita. Madamen säästämät hiustupot nousevat yöpöydältä lentoon, rva Parkstein ja Kött, tottuneet linnustajat, hiustipujen perässä hätistävät niitä harittavin sormin itsekin nän lentoa oppien.

A whirlwind spreads Alfhild's curls. The tufts of hair Madame has saved rise in flight from the night table, Mrs. Parkstein and Fleisch, experienced fowlers, pursue the hairfalls with spread fingers, thus learning to fly themselves.

Here Impola chose to translate the name "Kött"—the Swedish for "meat"—has the German "Fleisch" to preserve the allusion to meat in non-Swedish speaking readers' minds. The locks of hair stir realistically in the breeze, but the realism gradually blurs into magic as two of the characters take wing. The motif of flight as well as allusions to Daedalus and Icarus recur throughout Amorfiaana and are an irreducible element of magic.

Jäntti also includes more epistemological examples of magic, moments that can almost be ascribed to an individual character's hallucinations (Faris 165). In the following example, instead of looking at her reflection in the mirror, the three dimensional Alfhild merges with her mirror image. Gazing into the mirror,

Alfhild hiipii lasiin nähdäkseen tarkkaan ja kuullakseen tarkkaan.—Itse, siitenkin itse— tyttö puhuu peilissäja—epälen onko olemuksia . . . Kerro, onko olemuksia. Onko minulla olemus ja mikäse on?——Kaukana on kaiken olemus ja syvällä, syvällä; kuka voi sen löytää?—tulee vastaus peilinääristä, jossa Alfhild tarkkasilmä havaitsee varatien viime hetkellä.

(Alfhild slips into the exact seeing and exact hearing glass. "Oneself, after all oneself," the girl speaks in the mirror and, "is there a doubt in existence . . . Tell, is there. Do I have existence and what is it?" "All being is far away and deep, deep; who can find it?" the answer comes from the edges of the mirror, in which keen-eyed Alfhild notices the other way out at the last minute.)

Here Alfhild's physical body merges into her own reflection thus asking what constitutes existence. In the world of the text, Alfhild's journey into the mirror is magically real, not the result of a dream or vision. Amorfiaana's magical elements consistently emphasize ontological concerns in the text.

Jäntti illustrates the second characteristic of magical realism with exhaustive details describing a realistic world. Full of smells, blood, prisoners, servants, physical punishment, broken glass, potatoes, grease, and urine, Amorfiaana's world is not cleaned up for presentation. The reader desperately searches for a unifying point of view for the text and seeks identifiable characters and objects within the rundown landscape of the apartment building and the characters' lives. Jäntti's readers repeatedly pull back in horror and revulsion realizing that they are voyeuristically gazing at general decay, gritty reality, and a traffic accident. The Norwegian author Jan Kjærstad creates a remarkably similar scene in his 1993 novel Forføreren, where Jonas's childhood friend Nefertiti is killed by a truck while on her bicycle, but the similarity is even more pronounced in that he refers to the accident several times before telling readers what actually happened. In the same way, Jäntti taunts readers with allusions to the accident but never relieves their fears.

Jäntti exhibits the third characteristic of magical realism by presenting a plethora of contradictory understandings of events. Multiple readings of Alfhild populate the text. On the one hand, she is inside the apartment building when the tricycle accident occurs. On the other hand, she frequently seems to be the girl with the tricycle. The text refuses to answer the simple question, "are Alfhild and the tricycle girl one character or two?" but hovers instead on the border between the two possibilities. The text creates mutually exclusive story lines, alternate textual realities, and then allows for their simultaneous existence.

The story of the girl's accident is both a part of the novel, in that it happens, and not a part of the novel, in that it does not happen. In the quotation below, the accident seems to have been only a performance and the headlights are only circus spotlights. Just after the accident, we read, "Tyttöniiaa kun kullanvärisiäkolikoita heitetään hänen jalkoihinsa, niiaa, vilkaisee takanaan seisovaa rekkaa, jonka sirkuslyhtyjen valokeilassa hän, jääprinsessa, esiintyi. Vastaako näky todellisuutta?" [The girl curtsies when gold coins are thrown at her feet, curtsies, glances back at the standing truck, in the beam of light from its circus spotlights she, the ice princess, was performing. Does this correspond to reality?]. The accident becomes absurdly theatrical. The headlights become circus spotlights, and the audience throws coins at the performer's feet.

The fact of the girl being hit by the truck occurs in Amorfiaana as a real event, as a theatrical presentation, as a woodpecker's cry in the woods, does not occur, and may or may not have occurred. The tricycle story is one example of Amorfiaana's self-conscious, postmodern experimentation with textual ontology. It is a contingent event, an exploration of boundaries, and an events sous rature.

Jäntti exhibits the fourth characteristic of magical realism by creating two realms that nearly merge and yet do not completely. Here characters who are nearly single, unified subjects split apart into two separate entities that are almost entirely separate, but not completely. This division takes place when Alfhild looks at herself in the mirror. Jäntti carries voyeurism to an extreme by creating dissonance within individual characters so that they become voyeurs of their own selves. Characters experience alienation from their own thoughts, feelings, bodies, their own reflections in the mirror, and their own selves. Normal patterns of reflection and observation collapse. The whole, unified form of a single character breaks apart into multiple reflections.

Jan Kjærstad singles this multiplicity out as a distinctly postmodern trait using the prism as a metaphor for postmodernism's predilection for spreading open and looking at the many facets of the postmodern individual (Menneskets 268). Not only do Jäntti's characters undergo diffraction-like splittings, but they are also conscious of it. As Alfhild looks into the mirror, we read,

Samanaikaisuuden ongelma on kahdenlainen: jonkin katsominen vaatii erillisyyttäsiitä,itsen katsominen erillisyyttäitsestä,jakautumista... En siis katso itseäni peilistä, katson kuvaani siitä.

(At the same time the problem is two-fold: watching something demands separation from it, being separated from oneself to see oneself, division . . . Therefore, I don't see myself in the mirror, I see my image there.)

The act of observation causes the viewing subject to break apart into component parts, to disintegrate.

Jntti problematizes the relationship between "original" and reflection. The boundary between the two is not as fixed as would be expected in a realistic world; they can be split apart and separated from each other. As we will see here, they are not separate, distinct entities rather there is leakage between the two. Alfhild's eyes and their mirrored reflections trigger philosophical musings about the borders of her identity:

Mutta nyt peilissä katsovat minun itseni silmät, eivät silmät vastaan silmät vaan yhdet silmät yksissä silmissä, eivät helman silmissä vaan minun minussa. Yhtäaikaispeilaus ruumismielestälasiin ja takaisin vuotaa jatkuvasti. [ . . . ] Jos minulla nyt olisi tässäpeili, todistaisin, että juuri vuoto kuvan ja alkukuvan välilläon niitu välittäväyhteys.

(But now in the mirror the eyes are watching my self, not eyes facing eyes but single eyes facing single eyes, not the border in the eyes but mine in me. A simultaneous reflection of the body-mind leaks continuously into the glass and back. [ . . . ] If I had a mirror here now, I would demonstrate, that precisely the leakage between the picture and the original image is their mediating unity.)

The mirror is not reflecting merely her surface features, but rather, somehow, her inner self. Her reflection comes apart into separate elements; the reflection of her eyes is a reflection of distinct eyes, not a unified face. The reflected image and the person are not the same; both have the ability to watch the other. The idea of the unified individual is split. As Landon explains, "Unlike its distant modernist cousins (Woolf, Faulkner), Amorfiaana frustrates anyone who searches for a solid center within the rampant texture" (34). The character looking at her reflection is not a solid handrail in the whirlpool of this text; there is no single center of consciousness to focalize all the evidence (see McHale 9).

The body of the real person and the reflection are present, but they are not identical. They are related to and contingent on each other. Jäntti uses magical realism to draw attention to the near merging of the two worlds of the original and the reflection. Posthuman theorist Katherine Hayles describes the implication of reflexivity by saying that "once the observer is made a part of the picture, cracks in the frame radiate outward until the perspectives that controlled context are fractured as irretrievably as a safety-glass wind-shield hit by a large rock" (70). Jäntti's reflections are versions of subjects' selves that have split off, separated from the original self, and have the power to return the gaze.

Magical realism's fifth characteristic is questioning received ideas of time, identity, and space. Jäntti unsettles the reader's sense of diachronic progression by jumbling the reader's sense of time. Alfhild is mother to the little "incest-begotten" paperboy, but "hän ei ole vielä päästänyt ketään miestä kokonaan sisäänsä" ["she has not yet let any man completely inside her"]. Similarly, Jäntti confuses identities to the extent that even an attentive reader cannot keep straight who is hit by the truck, who is looking out the window, having sex with the Black Man, or slicing the potato.

Jäntti's magical realist treatment of spaces takes the form of imperceptible walls in the following selection,

Muuri ei ollut ihmisaistein fyysisessä katsannossa havaittavissa, mutta olkaapa hyvätja kuvitelkaa mielessänne elämäätuollaisten idioottivarmojen muurien sisällä. [ . . . ] Yksi pakotie elektronimuureistakin oli, ei ulos vaan sisään.

(The wall couldn't be perceived or observed in a human sense, but please imagine in your mind such life inside the dead-certain walls. [ . . . ] And there was one escape route from the electron wall, not out but in.)

In the spatial world of Amorfiaana, people merge into walls or glass becoming part of an amorphous two-dimensional continuum.

Glass imagery often emphasizes and demarcates characters' unusual spatial situations in the text by separating inside from outside. Sometimes glass holds characters in; the narrator in the frame story says, "Voit nähdänaamani litistyneenälasia vasten, katsahdat ylös, siihen ikkunaan ja luuletkin minua vain äkilliseksi heijastukseksi ikkunan pinnassa, valon oveluudeksi" ["You can see my face pressed against the glass, you look up at that window and mistake me for only a sudden reflection in the surface of the glass, a trick of light"]. At other times, characters wish for glass to hold them in. One character asks, "Uskotteko ettälasimestari voisi puhaltaa jonkun halvan kuplan suojakseni. Minänimittän jäädyn" ["Do you think the glazier can blow me a cheap bubble to protect me? For I'm freezing"]. Sometimes they are trapped inside the glass. "In the pauses between words," we read, "ääni kiertäätässätalossa. [ . . . ] Haloo! Minätäällä, täällä, täällä, täällä, kerrrrrrosssvankilasssa, lasinsisässähhh" [A voice circulates in this house . . . Hello! I am here, here, here, here, in this aparrrrrtment prrrrison, on the inside of the glassssss]. When the glass finally breaks and the narrator is able to draw a deep breath, the air smells of exhaust.


While most of the events in the novel occur within the walls of an apartment building, these indoor actions are occasionally interrupted by reference to something that happens outside the building. This frame story comprises the text's primary diegetic level; the events in the apartment building are one level removed or metadiegetic. The diegetic tricycle accident is differentiated from the rest of the text by both its italic typeface—a style not used elsewhere in the text—and its outspoken first-person author-ial narration.

This first-person diegetic narrator gives the impression of a monologic presentation; it feels as though the narrator is directly addressing the reader in the opening, italicized statement. In the beginning, she asks in the present tense why she is telling this story and at the end of the book, in the past tense, why she told this story. This gives the impression that the tricycle accident and events in the apartment building are occurring simultaneously with both Amorfiaana's narration and the reading of the novel. While the tricycle accident would only take an instant, the other events within the apartment building require some time. This fact creates a split in which the tricycle accident occupies a chronological realm different from the metadiegetic events unfolding inside the apartment building. And yet, they all appear to occur synchronously.

The two narratives are not only not synchronized but are also largely not related thematically. Genette describes the function of this type meta-diegesis as distractive (61–4). One of the best-known examples of a distractive narrative is Scheherazade's in The Thousand and One Nights.The metadiegetic stories she tells do not relate to her present (diegetic) situation. Instead, they serve a purpose: she narrates to delay her death and the longer she narrates, the longer she lives. I will demonstrate that Jäntti's first narrator is a subversion of Scheherazade.

While Scheherazade's narration delays her death, nothing can stop the tricycle accident in Amorfiaanna. The narrator tells the story so that it will happen and taunts the reader, saying "tiedät että se tapahtuu" ["you know it will happen"]. So, while Scheherazade narrates to maintain life, Jäntti's narrator does so to end it. Scheherazade's motivation is preserving her life, while Amorfiaana's narrator's is to make herself known, to narrate herself and the story into existence. She explains, "Kukaan ei tunne minua, siksi minun on kerrottava, vasikoitava. Kaikki painostavat minua. Siksi minun on hajottava, kerrottava" ["No one knows me, so I have to narrate, to stooge. Everyone twists my arm. So I have to disintegrate to narrate"]. If Scheherazade stops narrating, her life will end. If Jäntti's narrator stops, no one will know her. And yet, as she continues, she is unable to prevent the tricycle accident and "disintegrates." Similarly, Scheherazade repeatedly interrupts her world of stories to introduce more stories, more fiction. Amorfiaana's narrator interrupts Amorfiaana's story line in order not to tell the story she promised to tell. While Scheherazade struggles to distract her captor from reality, Amorfiaana's narrator struggles to break the spell of fiction and remind the readers of the story about death they are not hearing.

Jäntti plays self-consciously with the reader's desire to find out what happens to the girl on the tricycle. The diegetic narrative, the story of the girl on the tricycle, repeatedly breaks into the metadiegetic text, the world inside the apartment building. Genette calls this métalepse, the deliberate transgression of the threshold between diegetic levels (58). For example, in the midst of other events, we read, "Kysyt ja vaadit, kärsimätönsinä, että missä on tyttö kolmipyörineen, ettätyttö ja rekka esiin! 'TYT-tö ja REK-ka ja TYT-tö ja REK-ka' . . . Niin niin, aina siitä tytöstä" [You ask and demand, impatient you, where is the girl on the tricycle, bring out the girl and the truck! "G-irl and TRU-ck and G-irl and TRU-ck" . . . Yeah, yeah, always that business about the girl]. The first-person narrator's interruptions voice the readers' "impatient" curiosity about the accident and, at the same time, remind readers that they still do not know what happened to the girl. Instead of producing humorous or fantastic ends (Genette 58), Jäntti unsettles Amorfiaana's reader with metalepses, alluding to a tragedy, but refusing to tell the story.

This story that self-consciously remains untold is only one cause of Amorfiaana's narrative confusion. The pervasive reason that Amorfiaana is confusing and difficult to read is the instability of narrative focalization in the text. Borrowing Cohn's phrasing, Amorfiaana's narrating and figural minds vary dramatically in their degrees of transparency. I will show how Jäntti blends different narrative modes in the metadiegetic text, which is primarily narrated in the third person and varies between psycho-narration and narrated monologue. Psycho-narration, sometimes called "omniscient description," entails the narrator's discourse about a character's consciousness and can be either consonant, where the narrator is effaced and fused with the character's consciousness, or dissonant, where the narrator is distanced from the character's consciousness (Cohn 14, 26).

At one extreme, there is no psycho-narration at all; the figural minds are not at all transparent, and the narrator is not privy to any of the characters thoughts or motivations (Genette 34). We read, for example, that "oikeastaan epäjärjestys johtuu Uri-koirasta (joka haukkaa milloin kenenkin jalkaa) ja niistä, joita sanotaan henkilöiksi" ["actually, the confusion is caused by the dog Uri (who chews indiscriminately at people's feet) and by the so-called characters."] Here, the narrator has no insight into the characters' minds but is merely reporting the situation. She even metafictively draws attention to her exteriority by using the qualifier "so-called" in her reference to the characters. At one end of the spectrum, Jäntti uses this narrative mode to create distance, a sense of alienation. We read, "'Sydämesi pumppaa huonosti'—vastaa joku huoneessa ja joku toinen saa verukkeen harjoitella ivanaurunsa vivahteita" ["'Your heart pumps poorly,' someone in the room answers and someone else has an excuse to practice the nuances of his scornful laugh."] In this case, the narrator appears unable to identify who is doing what in the room. Not only are the characters' motivations and thoughts opaque to the narrator, she cannot even tell who is who.

At the other extreme, Amorfiaana's narrator is privy to characters' motivations and thoughts, what Cohn terms psycho-narration, which can be either consonant or dissonant (Cohn 14, 26). In consonant psycho-narration, the narrator fuses with the characters' consciousnesses, and we read their unspoken thoughts and feelings. Examples of this are when we read of Alfhild that "hänen tekee mieli rakastella" ["she feels like making love"] or when "Madamen mielestä keittiöstävetä" ["In Madame's opinion, there is a draft from the kitchen."]

Consonant psycho-narration also occurs with regard to feelings that should be there but are missing and thereby create another level of distance or removal. When the woman pours oil into the flying pan saying, "Tämä on minun vereni" ["This is my blood,"] we then read, "Mutta ei tunne tuntoaan" ["But she does not feel her feeling."] In this case, the feeling is completely absent. In the next case, Alfhild has a fuzzy sense that she is missing something. Alfhild "näkee muistavansa jotakin. Hännäkee siristä-vnsäsilmiään, tarkentaa" ["sees herself remembering something. She sees herself squinting, focuses."] The next is an example of the extreme to which Jäntti carries this lack of feeling, which creates an alarming degree of alienation. The Black Man "ei tunne itseään. Huutaa. Ei kuule itseään. Alasti polvin lumessa ei näe nahkaansa" ["does not know himself. He screams. He does not hear himself. Kneeling naked in the snow, he does not see his skin."]

Dissonant psycho-narration, on the other hand, involves a prominent narrator who even as she focuses on an individual psyche remains emphatically distanced from the figural consciousness she narrates (Cohn). For example, the Black Man "avaa suunsa huntaakseen (tai nälästä)" [opens his mouth to shout (or out of hunger).] The narrator seems to know why the man is opening his mouth but then admits doubt, a degree of dissonance. In the following example, the narrator can see inside Alfhild's mind, but not Kött's: "Alfhild ei huomaa ivaa Köttin äänessä (onko siinä sitä?)" [Alfhild doesn't notice sarcasm in Kött's voice (is there any?)]. This excerpt is rife with dissonance between Alfhild, who does not notice sarcasm, Kött, who might or might not have inflected sarcasm, the narrator, who is self-consciously aware that Kött's mind is not transparent to her, and the reader, who has no way of answering the narrator's rhetorical question.

Jäntti carries narrative dissonance to its extreme. In the following example, the narrator, speaking from a consonant position within Alfhild's mind, reports the dissonance that Alfhild is experiencing from own consciousness: "Alfhild riemuitsee vaikka ei sitävielätiedä" ["Alfhild rejoices, although she does not know it yet."] At times, the characters' dissonance is so extreme that the wrong characters gain access to feelings. At one point, we read, "Mutta näyttää siltä että naistyttö itse on kadottanut näköaistinsa, että se on omituisesti imeytynyt muiden henkilöiden silmiin" ["But the woman-girl seems to have lost her sense of sight; it seems to have been sucked in some strange way into the eyes of the others."] Landon insightfully summarizes that the narrative is "punctuated with disquisitions on epistemological relativism that serve to accentuate the fluidity of the novel's word".

Jäntti uses a remarkably heterogeneous palette of narrative forms including clearly attributed first and third person narration, dialogue, and monologue. Her preferred mode, however, is to shift between forms without providing the reader sufficient information to be sure who is narrating. An example of unattributed dialogue is the confusing conversation between Alfhild and the paperboy, in which their dialogue shifts back and forth between the two speakers not specifying who is speaking. Full of references to the sea and burning newspapers, the conversation seems unreal. The child talks of pinching his mother's nipples, tells her she is burning, and calls her a whore.

In addition to dialogues, Jäntti also includes narrated monologue, mimicking Woolf, Kafka, and Joyce (Cohn 101–2). The text weaves into and out of Alfhild's mind without perceptible transitions and refers to Alfhild in the third person but also reports the thoughts she has as she looks around. As Alfhild is having sex with the Black Man, we read:

Alfhidin silmissä vilahtaa puupino nurkassa. Mihin tarkoitukseen ovat pitkät uuniin ja hellaan sopimattomat halot? Kaikista esineistä hän tahtoisi kysyä, mitäne ovat, mihin tarkoitukseen, miten ne toimivat voisiko hän saada jonkun niistä (sitä hän kysyisi vain kokeillakseen), mistäne ovat peräsin, kuka on tuonut tuliaisena venäläset teekupit, kuka on särkenyt kristallimaljan, miksi kankaalle maalatuissa kasvoissa on viiltoja, miksi semettiseinässäon päänkokoinen särmikäs kolo, miten tahrat ovat syntyneet kattoon, miksi kaÿtetään kynttilöitävaikka talossa on sähkö, mitäovat seinälläryömivät ruskeat eliöt, purevatko ne, saako jonkun kekeyttämän aterian syödäloppuun lautaselta, joka on pantu pöydän jalan juureen vai pitääkö odottaa ensin, varmistua ettei se ole muille. Alfhild on utelias.

The woodpile in the corner flashed into Alfhild's view. What are the long logs that won't fit into the stove for? She would like to ask every object what it is, what it is for, how it works, could she get one (this she would ask only as a test), where it had come from, who had brought the Russian teacups as a home-coming present, who had broken the crystal goblet, why there are cuts on the face painted on the canvas, why there is a jagged head-sized crevice in the cement wall, how the ceiling has become stained, why candles are used although there is electricity in the house, what the creatures crawling on the wall are, whether they bite, whether one could eat the interrupted meal from the plate left near the table leg, or did one have to wait first to make sure it was not for others. Alfhild is curious.

The questions run together without question marks, move with Alfhild's gaze about the room, and are presented through the mask of her childlike consciousness (see Faris 177). Although it is similar to Molly's autonomous monologue in the Penelope chapter of Ulysses in its lack of standard punctuation and stream-of-consciousness style, there is a striking difference. While Molly spends much of her mental energy thinking about sex, Alfhild's autonomous monologue is full of thoughts about everything but sex. This fact is unexpected since she has a great many thoughts about sex in the rest of the novel, and she is actually having sex at the time of the citation. This disjunction is another example of dissonance in that Alfhild's thoughts are distanced from her body's physical experiences.

Jäntti uses narrative techniques to emphasize the characters' de-localized experience of physical sensations and conscious thoughts. Jäntti's striking treatment of bodies and body parts also draws attention to the boundaries between characters and their environments. In the next section, I will show how Jäntti manipulates not only magical realism and narrative, but also the boundaries of physical bodies to explore subject formation.


Jäntti "wrote Amorfiaana as uncompromisingly as possible, as [her] philosophy, which had to unfold precisely as it did, in bodily form" (Landon 37). She tests her theories of identity and subject formation on the "playing field" of the body. In the same way that the tricycle accident frames concerns of fictionality throughout the text, bodily boundaries and their transgressions problematize what it means to be an individual in a postmodern age. Hayles's theory of the posthuman will elucidate the implications of subject composition in Amorfiaana. A posthuman subject is "an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction" (Hayles 3). Amorfiaana bears all the signs of a posthuman text: the destabilization of many kinds of boundaries, non-localized vocalization, dispersed subjectivity, and bodies of print punctuated with prostheses (Hayles 130).Mydiscussion of Amorfiaana's narrative has demonstrated how Jäntti actively destabilizes boundaries between narrative modes and figural consciousnesses to present non-localized vocalization. In this section, I will show how Jäntti disperses subjectivity and employs prosthetics to create simulacral characters.

Jäntti disperses subjectivity by drawing attention away from whole bodies and focusing on specific, often unappealingly depicted, parts. Her use of graphic bodily images along with her narrative style has garnered comparisons to Cixous and Joyce. This use of bodily elements for shock value also bears striking similarity to that of the Norwegian author Karin Moe in Kjønnskrift, for example, and American photographer Cindy Sherman. Sherman, in photographic medium, and Moe and Jäntti, in the textual, explore subjectivity by drawing so much attention to the parts that it becomes difficult to see the whole. Amorfiaana teems with dislocated body parts and imagery such as unnaturally large joints, sunken cheeks, crooked fingers, anatomical specimens, blood, urine, legs in support hose, pockmarks, and sweat smells that drip from "hairy pits." Jäntti develops a sense of alienation by confronting the reader with abject images, defiling elements, and disturbing descriptions of bodies.

At times, the image of a contiguous body disintegrates into its composite parts. For example, as the incensed lawyer leans over the fire, we read,

Kieli liikkuu suun sisällä jaÿkistyneenä pötkönäpitkin poskien ryhmyisiä limakalvoja ja rikkipurtuja huulen sisäreunoja. Ehkä hiilloksen kuumuus panee veren kiehumaan niin että sitä tihkuu hiukan huulillekin lukemattomista puhki nyrhätyistä suonista.

His tongue, a stiff lump, moves in his mouth along the lumpy membranes of his cheeks and the cracked and bitten insides of his lips. Perhaps the heat of the coals has set his blood boiling so that a little of it seeps onto his lips from innumerable eroded veins.

In this scene, the details draw attention away from the lawyer as a person effectually rendering his body as a collection of bloody, fleshy lumps. Jäntti repeatedly violates figural bodies by drawing the reader's attention to lurid details and supplanting the idea of the figure as a complete entity. In this way she dissolves subjects into their component parts.

Jäntti also does just the opposite in composing subjects out of miscellaneous component parts. Most strikingly, this result occurs narratively through her reference to the communal transubstantiation. We read that someone in the kitchen "iskee puukon perunaan.—Tämä on minun ruumiini—,silpoo sen. Kaataa öljyä paistinpannuun, kiehauttaa yli suositusrajan— Tämäon minun vereni—" ["stabs the knife into the potato. 'This is my body.' She slices it up. She pours oil into the frying pan, boils it above the prescribed temperature. 'This is my blood."'] Here, in an appropriation of the communion sacrament, the potato and oil become the body and blood of the cook. A sort of heteroglossia governs the communion allusion; it is simultaneously sacrilegious and reverential, sarcastic and factual. The act of slicing potatoes symbolizes women's work through the ages, and the woman's body as potato is a metaphor for the labor of her forebears, the communal contribution of cooking, the pleasure of food, and the yoke of servitude all in one.

In her treatment of subjects, Jäntti practices what Kjartan Fløgstad might call compost-modernism. She emphasizes the dissolution of the subject by creating bodies that compost, disinte-grate, and break down. Beyond just merging into other media or shattering into shards of glass or ceramic, one of the best examples of this bodily composting occurs when the first narrator says, "Kukaan ei tunne minua, siksi minun on kerrottava, vasikoitava. Kaikki painostavat minua. Siksi minun on hajottava, kerrottava" [No one knows me, so I have to narrate, to inform. Everyone is pressuring me. So I have to decompose, to narrate]. The process of coming apart here creates the text.

In another example, the truck hits the girl on the tricycle, she rises up in the headlights, and we read, "'salva me fons pietatis' hän hymyilee ollakseen kiltti. Tuliko latinalainen rukous hänestävai altani keosta, äänilevystä, jota kärpänen soittaa ketaroillaan?" ["Salva me fons pietatis," she smiles to be good. Did the Latin prayer come from her or from beneath the mound that is me, from a CD that a bug plays on his limbs?]. Not merely coming apart to narrate, the narrator here speaks as a mound with the Finnish "keko," which might apply to a stack of hay. The presence of the bug makes the allusion to a compost pile or even a mound of garbage even more compelling.

In addition to certain characters' overall dis-integration, many characters also experience minor infringements on their corporeal borders. The boundaries of the characters' selves are amorphous. Women's bodies merge with potatoes, walls, bits of text, wood, panes of glass, and mirrors. Their physical boundaries change, extend beyond and encompass their human forms as well as parts of other things around them. Posthumanists regard the body itself as the original prosthesis that humans learn to manipulate such that "extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born" (Hayles 3). Jäntti uses body-prosthesis amalgams to challenge the notion of the neatly bounded self. Amorfiaana's bizarre, parodic, and often grotesque bodily formations explore the postmodern female body, not as an essentialized, concrete entity, but instead exposing the body's contingent boundaries, its partial connections to other things. For example, the boundaries of human characters in the novel can expand to include parts of things and inanimate objects around them.

I have already discussed the bodies that merge with glass and walls and mirrors. Amorfiaana also contains a three-legged chair that requires a human leg to keep it stable. Whoever sits in that chair becomes part chair and part human with his or her own human leg serving as the missing chair leg. Alfhild has the missing chair leg that she took from the woodpile. She paints human features on the chair leg to create a doll. So while human legs serve as simulated chair legs, the chair leg serves as a simulated human. The narrator also suspects that an "automatic" Madame may have replaced the human Madame. All of these examples demonstrate the confused boundaries between human and non-human in the text. In fact, Jäntti refers to the text itself in corporeal terms as a "book-body . . . a secret, satisfying partner" (Landon 35). Amorfiaana 's non-essentialized bodies are defined by their relationships and communications with their various parts and with segments of the environment around them and their delineations continue to change throughout the text.

The issue of body as text and text as body is central to Amorfiaana and plays a major role in Malmio's article. One intriguing aspect Malmio does not discuss is that the original is often absent, and the bodies in the text are instead copies of a missing original or copies of copies. This mimics Baudrillard's paradigm shift from a modern representation system to a postmodern simulation system (635). Jäntti's simulacral bodies create a complex system of simulations.

One example is Jäntti's discussion of the Venus de Milo in Amorfiaana. The sculpture in the text is not the original Venus de Milo, but rather a replica; similarly, the original sculpture is an artist's representation of a woman's body. The sculpture in Amorfiaana is then a copy of an incomplete copy of a woman's body. Extending this motif, Jäntti writes, "Pöly nousee aina kahdeksanteen kerrokseen niin että Madamen ahkeraan puiva käsi puuteroituu suloisen tasaisesti ja pysähtyy äkkiä. . . Meloksen Venuksen kadonnut käsi" ["Dust rises all the way to the eighth story so that Madame's hand industriously fanning the air is powdered over with sweet evenness and stops suddenly . . . Venus de Milo's lost hand."] By layering levels of representation, Jäntti demonstrates that the posthuman body is more an informational pattern than a unified, material object (see Hayles 104).

Venus de Milo's body moves intertextually through Amorfiaana as a simulacral, as an informational entity. As Madadme's hand becomes Venus de Milo's, the fact that the original Venus de Milo has long been without hands is immaterial. Madame's hand fits into the pattern of representation regardless of whether it is composed of flesh and blood, drywall dust, or marble. Jäntti shows that the boundaries of the subject are not so much penetrated, stretched, or dispersed as they are revealed to have been illusions all along (see Hayles 156). When the Venus de Milo reproduction falls and breaks into shards (139), it simulates the real female bodies that break into shards of glass throughout the text.

Jäntti repeatedly composes and decomposes women's bodies, and her narrators and characters are continually and "actively rewriting the texts of their bodies" just as cyborgs do (Haraway 177). The pattern of revision becomes more important than the flesh and blood form at any specific stage. This systematic devaluation of materiality and embodiment in favor of informational rather than material presence is one of the central elements of posthumanism (Hayles 48).

Jäntti makes her foregrounding of informational bodies over material bodies explicit and self-conscious. As I discussed above, she emphasizes the leakages between characters' physical bodies, their reflections, and the rest of their ontological makeup. She also self-consciously draws the reader's attention to the semiotic relationship between physical and textual bodies. Of the phrase written in blood on the basement wall, we read:

Älä pese. Minä menen, kirjoitus jää.TÄMÄ ON MINUN RUUMIINI saa jäädä. Mutta jos TÄMÄ viittaa minun ruumiiseeni, kuinka kauas minun on mentävä, ettäviittaus lakkaa? Kun olen mennyt, tuleeko kirjoituksesta lentävälause? [ . . . ] Mikäon lauseen ulko- ja mikä sisäpuolta? Viittaako lause sisäisesti itseensä? Onko se identiteetti eli onko TÄMÄ = MINUN RUUMIINI?

(Don't wash. I am going, the writing stays. Let THIS IS MY BODY stay. But if THIS refers to my body, how far must I go until this reference ceases? When I have gone, does a flying sentence come out of the writing? [ . . . ] What is the sentence's out- and what is its in-side? Does the sentence inwardly refer to itself? Is it identity or is THIS = MY BODY?)

How far can the relationship between a textual reference and a physical entity be stretched before their unity is divided? The question is rhetorical and self-conscious. Jäntti leaves it for the reader to answer. The blood-words are a textual simulacrum of the body of the character who wrote them. They are written in the blood of a character whose only body is textual. Jäntti's exploration of the boundaries between physical and textual bodies appears here as mise-enabyme; the author literally comes apart to narrate and uses her blood to write the text.

Jäntti does not stop there. In the following passage, she takes her metafictional play with "this is my body" to a new level. The blood sentence on the cellar wall becomes real: "Tässä ruumis kykkii, puistelee selkää irti seinästä johon verinäyte on sen liimannut, muistelee eli erittelee seinään yhtyvää ruumistaan joka on kaiken tapahtuneen muisti" [Here is where the body squats, shudders its back loose from the wall onto which the blood sample had been pasted, recollects or rather specifies from her body (merged into the wall) a reminder of everything that happened]. Here, a physical body emerges from the graffiti body. A character created the textual wall-body composed of blood and text, and in this citation it emerges from the wall "shuddering" itself loose as a new simula-crum of the fictional original that wrote it.

What we see in this mise-en-abyme occurs as a universal in all of Jäntti's characters. They all have the surface appearance of characters, names, job titles, and other identifying characteristics. They remain, however, depthless. Although the narrative dips frequently into their consciousnesses, readers never learn the most basic facts about them or about their relationships. Jäntti describes tableaux that might occur in an apartment building from the mundane act of frying potatoes, being bossy, or looking out a window to the peculiar legal trial and the female performance prisoner. She creates visual clicheś of various roles and gives readers the illusion of recognition and reference. All the way through the text, readers have the feeling that they will be able to put the clues together and understand. In large part, this is a false sense of familiarity created by Jäntti's use of repeated phrases, elements, and scenes. Jäntti accomplishes in text what Sherman did in her Untitled Film Stills. Here Sherman photographed herself posing as an imaginary blonde actress. The photographs look like movie stills or publicity photos, and although most of the characters are invented, viewers sense right away that they recognize them (see Galassi). Jäntti's characters create the same false sense of recognition in the reader. At the end Amorfiaana, it is not any clearer who any given character or narrator is. It is not clear whether the girl on the tricycle dies or not, whether she is Alfhild or not. Even the title of the book is unclear. Amorfiaana seems to be a Finnish woman's name made from the word "amorphous" or "amorfinen" in Finnish. And yet, at no point is it clear if there is a character named Amorfiaana. Having read the entire, confusing text, the reader will feel like there was, that perhaps the body of the text is Amorfiaana incarnate. The text creates a false sense of recognition for a posthuman, simulacral body named Amorfiaana.

Jäntti's amorphous narrative reflection of life, bodies, and boundaries in an apartment building collapses many times upon itself. She uses magical realism to create a realistic world but also to subvert it and transgress the laws of nature. She uses an amorphous array of arrative modes to de-localize the reader's sense of figural consciousness and repeatedly construct and tear down the reader's sense of narrative grounding. Finally she consistently undermines the importance of material embodiment by creating dynamic, posthuman characters that challenge the notion of the neatly bounded subject.

Source: Tara Chace, "Disintegrating Bodies: Postmodern Narrative in Mariaana Jäntti's Amorfiaana," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 76, No. 2, Summer, 2004, pp. 279–98.


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Chace, Tara, "Disintegrating Bodies: Postmodern Narrative in Mariaana Jäntti's Amorfiaana," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 76, No. 2, Summer 2004, pp. 279–98.

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Asturias, Miguel Ańgel, Men of Maize: The Modernist Epic of the Guatemalan Indians, translated by Gerald Martin, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.

This critical edition of an early magic realist masterpiece includes a series of critical essays by well-known critics and writers of Latin-American literature that cover a variety of topics related to Asturias's work.

Bruner, Charlotte H., Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa, Heinemann, 1994.

This is a collection of short stories by African women from all parts of the continent. Divided by region, the book provides a comprehensive view of the variety and diversity of African women's approaches to imaginative writing. Many well-known and new writers are represented.

Graham-Yooll, Andrew, After the Despots: Latin American Views and Interviews, Bloomsbury, 1991.

Collected in this book are interviews, observations, and political analyses about Latin America by an Argentine journalist. Written in a style á la the New Yorker, Graham-Yooll has his finger on the pulse of the current literary and political currents of his time. A number of pieces focus on Latin America's leading writers: Allende, GarcíaMaŕquez, Borges, and Fuentes.

James, Regina, "One Hundred Years of Solitude": Modes of Reading, Twayne, 1991.

This informative book engages in a number of readings of García Márquez's masterpiece. It provides biographical and historical context as well as a good discussion of the novel's form and content.

Owomoyela, Oyekan, ed., A History of Twentieth-Century African Literatures, University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

A range of bibliographic articles covering African literary production in all European languages represented on the continent. In particular, chapters on women's literary production and on East African English-Language fiction are particularly relevant to Ogot's work.

Parekh, Pushpa, ed., Postcolonial African Writers, Greenwood, 1998.

This is a reference book that covers individual authors of postcolonial Africa, including biographical information, a discussion of themes and major works, critical responses to the works, and bibliographies.

Williams, Raymond L., Gabriel García Márquez, Twayne, 1984.

Williams's book is a literary and biographical account of García Márquez, discussing not only his career as a journalist and writer but providing an in-depth account of his literary output over a period of thirty years.

Zamora, Lois, and Wendy Faris, eds., Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Duke University Press, 1995.

This recent collection of essays provides an historical overview of the various scholarly approaches to interpreting Magic Realism. Of particular importance are the essays by Carpentier that describe the importance of Magic Realism to the geographic and political climate of Latin America.

Zlotchew, Clark, Varieties of Magic Realism, Academic Press, 2007.

Zlotchew has composed ten essays for college students that explore the breadth of Magic Realism, including definitions, regional overviews, author overviews, and a historical overview. Zlotchew's focus is primarily on Latin American authors.

magic realism

views updated May 18 2018

magic realism Twentieth-century literary form, particularly associated with post-1945 Latin American novelists. Interweaving of realistic and fantastical elements characterizes magic realism. Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is a classic example of the genre.