Magic Realism: The Genesis
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1

 In the autumn of 1967, the novelists Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa were drinking in a London pub. The conversation paused on Edmund Wilson’s book of portraits from the American Civil War, Patriotic Gore, and then, Fuentes recalled, they had a moment of inspiration – why not produce an equivalent anthology for Latin America, a gallery of dictators? Among many others, there were, wrote Fuentes, ‘Venezuela’s Juan Vicente Gómez, who announced his own death in order to punish those who dared celebrate it; or El Salvador’s Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, who fought off scarlet fever by having street lights wrapped in red paper; or Bolivia’s Enrique Peñaranda, of whom his mother said, “If I had known that my son was going to be president, I would have taught him to read and write”…’ And so an imaginary book was proposed, where Latin American novelists wrote a novella each on their favourite tyrant: Los Padres de las Patrias. The Fathers of the Fatherlands.

The writers involved in this project represented a generation that was about to become world famous: as well as Fuentes and Vargas Llosa themselves, there were Augusto Roa Bastos from Paraguay, Julio Cortázar from Argentina, Alejo Carpentier from Cuba, José Donoso from Chile, and Gabriel García Márquez, from Colombia. With a few others, like Ernesto Sabato, these novelists represented a delinquent Latin American Boom. They were a generation: and they were linked not just by location, but also by their mode. All of them were exploring this mode called magic realism.

Pity a renowned generation! For what does Márquez have in common with Fuentes, or Carpentier? Friendship, sure, but friendship is not similarity. To talk of the Boom, or of Latin America, or of magic realism, is just to observe how general our usual terms are.

And one inadvertently happy proof of this is that in the end the project failed – since it was impossible to organise so many individual novelists to perform at the right length, and at the right time. Or even perform at all. Instead, the project was abandoned – while three of these novelists ended up writing not novellas but dictator novels. In 1974, Alejo Carpentier published Reasons of State, and Augusto Roa Bastos published I The Supreme; and a year later Márquez published The Autumn of the Patriarch.

There they are: the dictator novels. And while therefore they do form a historical trio, a mythical dictatorship in triplicate, this trio in fact only proves an opposite truth: each of these fictional dictators is different, since each is warped by each novelist’s style.

 

 2

 There’s an essay Márquez wrote in 1980 as a foreword to Juan Rulfo’s great novel Pedro Páramo, which came out in 1955. In it, Márquez describes his life as a writer in the early 60s. He was living in Mexico City, was in his early thirties. His bibliography – the novels Leaf Storm, No One Writes to the Colonel and In Evil Hour, and a book of stories, Big Mama’s Funeral – was a list of underground phenomena. But that wasn’t a problem, ‘since neither then nor ever have I written for fame, but rather so that my friends would love me more…’ (To write an essay on Marquez, you have to admit, is to write an essay on charm.) No, the problem was aesthetic: ‘after those books I felt I had driven myself up a blind alley, and I was looking everywhere for an escape route.’ He wanted to write more novels, ‘but I couldn’t conceive of a convincing and poetic way of writing them’.

We should maybe pause on that word poetic. It doesn’t mean the pure lyrical. It means, instead, some kind of commitment to the marvellous – to a way of writing where the logic of a narrative is not limited to the logic of cause and effect: the old realist mode of probability. And Márquez continues: ‘That night I couldn’t sleep until I had read it [Pedro Páramo] twice. Not since the awesome night I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis in a down-at-the-heels student boarding house in Bogotá – almost ten years earlier – had I been so overcome.’

For after all: the marvellous is not a Latin American invention. It is there in Kafka, but it is also there in Bulgakov, who learned it from Gogol. Just as it is there in a whole tradition of fables and metamorphoses, from the philosophical inventions of Borges or Cortázar, back to the 1001 Nights, or Apuleius and his delightful story of a man transformed into an ass. For a character to undergo a transformation, for a world to function differently to the usual world, is a deep strand of fiction as an art. Or, as Márquez puts it: ‘poetic sense does not always tally with common sense’.

And in Rulfo’s novel Márquez discovered a new variant on this tradition. A son goes in search of his father, in accordance with his dying mother’s wishes. He goes to Comala, the village of his parents’ youth. When he gets there, he discovers only ghosts. In other words, something strange has happened to the usual conventions of life and death. And this is figured through two particular technical discoveries. ‘Throughout his work,’ writes Márquez, ‘Juan Rulfo has been careful to take very little care with the lifespans of his creations.’ His characters are always so much older than you might think. There is a carelessness with the usual time references – a carelessness that is the source of Rulfo’s originality. He is careless with ages; and he is careless with dates, too. ‘In poetic works – and Pedro Páramo is a poetic work of the highest order – authors often invoke the months of the year for reasons outside strict chronology… In Pedro Páramo, where it is impossible to be entirely sure where the line between the living and the dead is drawn, any precision is all the more unattainable.’

This was the escape-route: to play with the usual dimensions of lives, and other usual measurements of time.

 

3

 The phrase magical realism is usually dated to the moment when Alejo Carpentier, in the prologue to his 1949 novel The Kingdom of This World, offered a kind of authorial justification for the novel in the reader’s hands. That novel was based on the history of Henri Christophe – the first King of Haiti, following a slave rebellion against the colonising French army. It is a mini picaresque, and in his prologue Carpentier – who had hung out with the Surrealists – was anxious to define his novel’s form. Because sure, it is a mini picaresque, but it also happened to be all true. For, asked Carpentier, ‘what is the history of Latin America but a chronicle of the marvellous real?’ Lo real maravilloso: this was Carpentier’s territory. But of course, what Carpentier means is not precisely what is usually meant by magical realism: in Carpentier, everything he writes, however improbable, is true. Or roughly true. His style is a way of continuing the tradition of the surrealist novel – like Louis Aragon’s Paris Paysan, with its flaneuring narrator observing his profane illuminations – but always as an examination of a history that has become warped and crazed: for this, in Carpentier’s argument, is what colonised reality looks like.

And so when 20 years later Carpentier wrote his dictator novel, Reasons of State, it’s true that his narrative glistens with small playfulnesses: in this story about a Latin American dictator who prefers the elegant culture of pre-war Paris to the tropicália of his own country, the minor characters, for instance, are all casually borrowed from Proust’s A la recherche. But the basic narrative, however full of exaggerated feeling and giant massacres, is in no way magical. Its elongations are the elongations of a manic will: the dictator who ends the novel in his Paris apartment, accompanied by orchids, hammocks, monkeys, and palmettos. In the same way, I The Supreme, Roa Bastos’s novel – based on the life of the nineteenth-century Paraguayan dictator, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia – details all the tortures, the manias, the paranoias: but its baroque essence is always at the level of the style, not the content. Roa Bastos’s novel is a giant act of writing – where the dictatorship is analysed through the way writing is fought over by both the dictator and his enemies: writing is the means and metaphor of power.

Always, the subject is a history that has abandoned the usual human proportions. But then this, according to Fuentes, was the essence of the dictator problem for their novelists: ‘How to compete with history? How to create characters richer, crazier, more imaginative than those offered by history?’

And then there is The Autumn of the Patriarch.

4

 For immediately, we have a problem. True, this novel is based on historical dictators: the Venezuelan Juan Vicente Gómez, along with a handful of other tyrants, including Franco and Salazar. But this novel is not based on common sense. It follows poetic sense, instead. It would be tempting to call it a myth, if myth were not too grandiose for something that can be so comical and ironic, too. But how else to describe a story where the dictator dies when he is somewhere between 107 and 232 years old (it’s never clear exactly when), so that at a certain point the reader suddenly realises that the dictator is now older than his mother, who lives with him in his ramshackle palace.

This play with characters’ ages and the usual proportions – this is borrowed from Rulfo, of course, just as Márquez borrowed it in his previous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. But each time the play with time is to explore a political reality, just in a different way to the usual novels. With that massive extension of his dictator’s life-span, Márquez reveals the totalitarian as a terrible experiment in time: an enforced, unimaginable waiting. Which is why the novel ends with the ‘music of liberation and the rockets of jubilation and the bells of glory that announced to the world the good news that the uncountable time of eternity had come to an end’. It couldn’t work if it wasn’t based on a real, painful reality – like the life of Juan Vicente Gómez, who once staged his own death, to observe what happened – but at the same time it wouldn’t be so powerful if it hadn’t been so eerily enlarged by Márquez’s style.

In his essay on Rulfo, Márquez observed that to write about characters with giant ages does not detract from a work’s power. On the contrary: ‘the whole tragedy seem much greater, much more terrible and beautiful, if the precipitous passion that sets it in motion is so geriatric as to offer no real relief.’ And here is our dictator, enamoured of the young Manuela Sánchez, even if she insists on sitting on the sofa opposite him, ‘where the gush of his fetid body odor would not reach her…’ In each case – whether the subject is the giant subject of a country waiting for a dictator’s death, or a girl trying to avoid an old man’s body – the beauty and the terror are provoked by Márquez’s delighted, watchful impossibilities.

5

 Speaking of Joyce and Kafka, Márquez once said: ‘They showed me that it was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice. It was Scheherazade all over again – not in her millenary world, where everything was possible, but in an irreparable world, where everything had already been lost.’ And this is beautiful – and that world in which everything had already been lost seems linked to Carpentier’s marvellous real, the territory of a vast defeat – but there is an important difference, I think, between Márquez and, say, Kafka. In Kafka, the marvellous becomes convincing partly, like Márquez, through the dense ordinariness of the details. But it’s also based – in his novels – on a strange elimination of the narrating voice. It’s as if Kafka realised that the impersonal kind of style indirect libre of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary could be equally useful to describe not the bleakly ordinary, but the bleakly extraordinary. And so, in his manuscripts, you can see him deleting any hint of a narrator, embedding K’s thoughts within the surface of the apparently objective narrative.

Whereas in Márquez, everything is told. The improbable convinces not because of its apparent undeniability, but because of the sprezzatura of a voice. This means that he is so often the novelist of giant sentences and paragraphs – where everything proceeds by association. And it also means that he is one of the fastest novelists in world literature –  like Hrabal, another theatrically narrating novelist – where stories are nested inside each other, cloud together, dissolve. Márquez uses up stories the way chain smokers get through cigarettes.  (A mini vignette of a satirical song that gets out of control, sung by humans, copied by parrots, reproduced by parakeets, so that in the end the secret services try to exterminate the song by shooting all the parakeets: this story is begun and ended in 10 lines.) He’s so dedicated to mobility that he gleefully moves among narrators. In The Autumn of the Patriarch, the voice is always shifting, without warning, from an anonymous ‘we’ of the people, through various ‘I’s that encompass the dictator, his mother, generals, doubles, and a variety of mini characters.

And once again: this lightness is only so convincing because it is a way of examining weight. With this clouding of many stories, and many narrators inhabiting the same sinuous sentence, Márquez is examining another category of defeated reality: the rumour. For in a stagnant dictatorship, where nothing is ever known, everything survives as hearsay: and is therefore subject to the narrative rules of rumour – exaggeration, improbability, obscured chronology. So often, Márquez likes to zigzag around his stories: a technique present most notoriously in the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude: ‘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.’ That zigzagging is only possible because of the bravura voice in which the story is told – but it is also a form of philosophy: it is a way of giving form to the strange movement of collective memory. Just as in The Autumn of the Patriarch, stories will be alluded to before being explained – like the moment where the English in retribution remove the sea. But the first time the reader discovers this is in passing, when the dictator, absorbed in another matter entirely, ‘pointed out the window at the dusty plain where the sea had been and said…’ Where the sea had been! What a subtle, comical description of the way one submits to a colonising power…

Fuentes saw it as a competition: ‘How to compete with history? How to create characters richer, crazier, more imaginative than those offered by history?’ But Márquez was wiser. He distilled historical vignettes, in order to then play with their proportions – and so understand them. For Márquez, sure, is the inventor of a form: but that form is not anything so palmetto as magic realism. Absolutely, it’s in dialogue with Carpentier and Rulfo, just as it’s in dialogue with Borges and Cortázar, and Kafka. But it resembles none of them. His form is the intricate, mobile, melting, maximal novel, where time is stretched – where characters can be older than their parents, and eternity can end – so that he can examine the marvellous categories produced by a defeated, tyrannised  reality.

 


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