“Magic Realism” (el realismo magical) was a term first coined in 1949 by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier to describe the matter-of-fact combination of the fantastic and everyday in Latin American fiction. About the same time it was also used by European critics to describe a similar trend in postwar German fiction exemplified by novels like Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959). (German art critic Franz Roh had employed the same term in 1925, but he applied it only to painting.) Magic Realism has now become the standard name for a major trend in contemporary fiction that stretches from Latin American works like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) to norteamericana novels like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (1983) and Asian works like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children (1981). In all cases the term refers to the tendency among contemporary fiction writers to mix the magical and mundane in an overall context of realistic narration.
Seen from an historical perspective, therefore, Magic Realism is a vital contemporary manifestation of a venerable fictive impulse.If the term “Magic Realism” is relatively new, what it describes has been around since the early development of the novel and short story as modern literary forms. One already sees the key elements of Magic Realism in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which factually narrates the fabulous adventures of an English surgeon. Likewise Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Nose” (1842), in which a minor Czarist bureaucrat’s nose takes off to pursue its own career in St. Petersburg, fulfills virtually every requirement of this purportedly contemporary style. One finds similar precedents in Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Kafka, Bulgakov, Calvino, Cheever, Singer, and others. Seen from an historical perspective, therefore, Magic Realism is a vital contemporary manifestation of a venerable fictive impulse.
The possibilities of storytelling will always hover between the opposing poles of verisimilitude and myth, factuality and fabulation, realism and romance. If mid-century critics (like F. R. Leavis, V. S. Pritchett, F. W. Dupee, Irving Howe, and Lionel Trilling) almost exclusively favored the realist mode, their emphasis reflected their generation’s understandable fascination with the immediate past. They still lived in the shadow of what Leavis called the “Great Tradition” of the psychological and social novel. This tradition encompassed (to expand Leavis’s Anglophilic list a bit) Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and early James Joyce. As the realistic novel confidently continued in the first decades of the century, it was all too easy to imagine that this particular line of development had decisively superseded the older pre-novelistic modes of storytelling. These London, Oxford, and New York critics would hardly have imagined that a radically different kind of fiction was being developed beyond their ken in places like Argentina, Colombia, and Peru. By the time García Márquez and his fellow members of “el boom” in Latin-American fiction came to maturity, the reemergence of the fantastic heritage in fiction seemed nearly as revolutionary as the region’s politics.
All of the main features of Latin American Magic Realism can be found in García Márquez’s story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” which appeared in his 1972 volume The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother. (The English translation also appeared in 1972 as part of Leaf Storm and Other Stories. Since Leaf Storm was originally published in Spanish in 1955, the translation volume has led some American editors and critics to misdate “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” which is not an early work but written soon after García Márquez’s magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude.)
As a young law student, García Márquez read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. It proved a decisive encounter, and the influence is not hard to observe in the early stories, which so often present bizarre incidents unfolding in ordinary circumstances. If Kafka reinvented the fable by placing it in the modern quotidian world, García Márquez reset it in the unfamiliar landscape of the Third World. If Kafka made spiritual issues more mysterious by surrounding them with bureaucratic procedure, his Colombian follower changed our perception of Latin America by insisting that in this New World visionary romanticism was merely reportage. García Márquez also had another crucial mentor closer at hand—the Argentinean master, Jorge Luis Borges.
Only thirty years García Márquez’s senior, Borges had quietly redrawn the imaginative boundaries of Latin American fiction. Almost single-handedly he had also rehabilitated the fantastic tale for high-art fiction. Removing religion and the supernatural from any fixed ideology, he employed the mythology of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism as metaphysical figures. Significantally, Borges expressed his sophisticated fictions in popular rather than experimental forms—the fable, the detective story, the supernatural tale, the gaucho legend. He was the first great post-modernist storyteller, and he found an eager apprentice in García Márquez, who developed these innovative notions in different and usually more expansive forms.
The plot of García Márquez’s story is easily summarized. At the end of a three-day rainstorm Pelayo discovers an old man with enormous wings lying face down in the mud of his courtyard. He immediately returns with his wife Elisenda to examine the bald, nearly toothless man who seems barely alive. They try to converse, but no one understands anything the winged ancient says. After consulting with a neighbor who identifies the man as an angel, Pelayo drags the filthy, passive creature into a chicken coop. Soon people visit—first to mock and tease the winged captive, then to seek miracles The local priest tries to determine if the mysterious prisoner is truly an angel or merely some diabolic trick. He notices the old man’s stench and his parasite-infested wings, but writes to the bishop and eventually Rome for a verdict. (Rome seeks additional information but never makes a decision—a very Kafkaesque situation.)
Soon Pelayo and his wife begin charging admission to see their angel. The crowds grow until they draw other carnival attractions. One visiting sideshow features a young woman who was transformed into a tarantula the size of a ram with the head of a maiden. Since the spider woman eagerly talks to customers—unlike the silent, nearly immobile angel—she begins to draw the audience away. By now, however, Pelayo and his wife have earned enough to build a fine two-story mansion. Several years pass. Their child, who was a newborn at the story’s opening, is now old enough start school. The feeble angel drags himself around their property greatly to Elisenda’s annoyance. He also looses his last bedraggled fathers. That winter the old man almost dies of fever, but by spring his feathers begin to grow back. One day, as Elisenda watches from the kitchen, the old man clumsily takes flight and flaps away across the sea.
The plot of García Márquez’s story—the magical elements aside—is positively drab. The ending so conspicuously lacks any overt narrative ingenuity as to seem anticlimactic. The flatness of the plot gives the story an odd quality—as impersonal as a newspaper article, and as episodic as a legend. This feeling of detachment is heightened by the tale’s omniscient narrator who reports the odd events with deadpan objectivity. The story’s particular power comes from its extraordinary details, which are seldom drab and often dazzling. A motley procession of people and things (ranging from an ordinary parish priest to an enchanted tarantula woman) parade by in such profusion that the reader never knows what to expect next—the mysterious, the mundane, or the magic? That distracting but disorienting effect is crucial to the experience of Magic Realism and to a certain extent, it is the element that most clearly differentiates it from its predecessors. Gogol, Kafka, and Singer may have created similar modes of fiction, but they never lavished so many fabulous details with such profligate nonchalance.
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” seemingly invites all sorts of symbolic and even allegorical readings, but García Márquez constantly undercuts or frustrates any easy interpretation. If this bedraggled, sickly creature truly represents the descent of the miraculous into the everyday world, he does not fit the preconceptions of anyone in this world—priest, petitioner, or even paying sideshow customer. This putative angel not only remains uninspiring and unknowable, but slightly repulsive. No one in the story ever successfully communicates with him. If he speaks the language of the divine, we cannot understand a word of it. He arrives, stays, and leaves without explanation or apparent purposes. If the story is to be read symbolically, all one can ultimately say is that the winged old man embodies both the impenetrable mysteries of this world and the next one. Whatever he truly is—mortal or supernatural—he exists beyond our comprehension. We can project our own assumptions on the blank screen of his history, but his essence remains forever invisible. When he flies away, we know nothing important about him with more certainty than when he arrived.
First published in Sniper Logic (No. 6 /1998).