Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part IV

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Too lazy to dig into the literary criticism on the genre, but curious about what the surface-level academic view of magic realism is, I decided to turn to The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. The listing for “Magic Realism” referred me to the entry on “Realism.”

After a brief discussion of “Realism” and its major permutations (naturalism, socialist realism), the entry includes one paragraph on “Magic Realism”:

“Another term that has been used in conjunction with discussions of realism is magic realism. Applied to a group of writers that include Latin American authors Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, as well as German Günter Grass and Englishman John Fowles, magic realism describes the technique of combining realistic depictions of events and characters with elements of the FANTASTIC, often drawn from dreams, myth, and fairy tales.” (“Realism.” The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. Pages 255-57. Edited by Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi. Columbia University Press: New York, 1995).

Not much help. But it’s a good reminder that although the definition can perhaps be broadened a bit more than how I’ve been portraying, don’t forget the “realism” part of magic realism. Works that include fantastic elements but don’t really fit in to the realist tradition aren’t magic realist works.

Which is why I am surprised that Borges is included in the list above. I haven’t read his later novels so perhaps that qualifies him for the appellation, but I don’t see his stories as fitting into realism. Do we call Kafka a magic realist? Maybe, but I’ve never seen the two linked. The world(s) of some of Kafka’s stories have certain resemblances with the “real” world, but they aren’t “realistic” in the same sense as Balzac’s Paris or Henry James’ Boston. This is not to say that neither Borges nor Kafka fits into the “literary” literary tradition — although that’s a whole other discussion (that is, why do certain works of “fantasy” become canonized and others don’t). Nor do I think that “magic realism” has to be set in a real-world place and time. Garcia Márquez’s works invoke (recreate?) the real-world, but are often hazy on the time and place. But they do it in a way that’s much different than Kafka in The Trial or The Castle (actually, now that I think about it “Metamorphosis” might be the one Kafka story that comes close to magic realism).

I balk at Borges’ inclusion in the same way that I balked at Eugene England including Orson Scott Card in his comments on Mormon magic realism. It seems to me that OSC is clearly writing in the traditions of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror) and historical fiction. In fact, he made a conscious turn away from literary fiction. Sure, those are marketing categories decide by publishers, but those categories also affect, in turn, how his books are read and interpreted and what works they are compared with — the tradition they are tied in to. And once an author becomes part of that market, he or she is constrained (and liberated) to a certain extent by the demands of that market.

My guess is that Borges is included simply because he’s a canonical, Latin American writer who works are often fantastic.

But to get back to my original point: let’s not forget the “realism” aspect of magic realism. It’s a crucial part of the reading experience, of why and how the fantastic elements operate in the way they do for the reader (and thus the problem of Mormon readers I bring up in parts I-III). This is why it’ll be interesting to take a look at Margaret Young’s Salvador. From what I understand, she works in the realist tradition.

NOTE: In stressing the link to realism, I in no way intend to discount works that fall more into the fantasy tradition than the realist tradition. In fact, if anything, this discussion on magic realism proves that literary criticism has not dealt satisfactorily with fantasy and fantastic elements in literary fiction. Not to mention the fact that it has paid but meager attention to genre fiction (although that has begun to change).

ALSO: If you missed it, check out The Semiotician’s comments on Mormon magic realism at the end of part III. He summarizes well what I’ve been trying to say about the problems Mormon readers create for a “true” Mormon magic realism.

AND: I apologize that it’s so difficult to track new comments posted on this site. I’m looking for a way to display the last five posted comments on the right nav bar, but so far have had no luck finding a piece of code that works with Blogger.

4 thoughts on “Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part IV”

  1. Your post reminded me of the book Testaments Betrayed by Milan Kundera. He talks about Kafka as a precusor to magic realism. Overall the book covers the history of the novel, and is a moving and personal essay-type of book.

  2. I think a lot of Kafka would be magic realism or perhaps more appropriately surreal realism. In modern film David Lynch would probably fit that category as well – although in certain ways his last two films were hyper realism and the surreal elements were because you were in the minds of the protagonists. But Twin Peaks or to a lesser extent Blue Velvet would fit.

    I agree, btw, that The Castle or The Trial aren’t magic realism. However a lot of his short stories are. Some are far more bizarre than the Metamorphisis. (The shorter stories are among my favorites – I’ve never made it through his two long works)

  3. As a huge fan of Latin American literature, and especially of Borges, I also find it strange that literary critics would apply the term “magic realism” to Borges. His writings are almost always referred to as “fantastic” literature. Why on earth they would lump Márquez and Borges together is ridiculous (It’s like lumping Goethe and Kafka together because they both wrote in German). Actually, Borges’ writings are much more similar to Kafka’s than to Márquez’.

    Your comment, “I haven’t read his [Borges’] later novels,” is very Borgesian. Borges never did write any novels–only poems, essays, short stories, fables and other short works. Your mistake is hilarious considering Borges wrote so much about fabricated literature. Maybe Pierre Menard wrote the lost Borges novel?

  4. Anon:

    That is hilarious.

    The thing is — I could have sworn that I recently read an essay by J.M Coetzee on Borges that mentioned that he (kind of) disavowed his fantastic stuff and wrote a “realist” novel later in life. Of course, even if that were true the “later novels” phrase would still be wrong. Poor editing on my part — I know full well that Borges wrote only essays and stories during the “fantastic” stage of his career.

    But whatever the case may be, I must admit that I am prone to this sort of thing. While walking to work one morning I realized that there was still one Kafka work that I hadn’t read (I had recently read Amerika) — a novel called Das Verbrechen. I get to work and hit the Web for Kafka bibliographies and discover that, of course, Kafka wrote no such work. And then I remembered that during the night I had dreamed of that he had.

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