Volume Five, December 2004

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Magical realism stands at the centre of some of the most heated debates in contemporary theory and literary criticism: is it a novelistic genre or a convenient marketing label, a fashionable literary practice or a designation of an encompassing philosophical worldview? One of the major aims informing the following discussion is to establish the viability of this literary phenomenon as a significant international mode and attend to its local-historical specificities and variations, particularly in a postcolonial and (post)communist context. The thrust of my enquiry is to identify and discuss ways in which magical realism challenges the conventions of normative ideological representations such as the literary-artistic codes of realism, hegemonic colonial ideologies, totalitarian political systems and, ultimately, overarching ‘grand narratives.’

Origins – Early Interpretations
In their introduction to as yet the most complete and theoretically well-grounded study on magical realism, Zamora and Faris argue for an understanding of the concept as a quasi a-historical mode of expression, and trace its earliest literary manifestations to the epic tradition of commingling the magical and the real. In the alternative anti-mimetic vision of the ludic, the ironic and the carnivalesque, the critics read a series of periodic disruptions of the otherwise continuous predominance of realistic representation. Likewise, Jeanne Delbraere-Garant, writing on magic realist manifestations in the Anglo-Saxon context, extends the term to include such variations as the psychic, the mythic and the grotesque. The filiations of the magical realist mode with the traditions of carnival and of the Menippean satire, with their reversal of dominant value-systems and polyphonic orchestration of narrative discourses, suggest a possible ‘counter-tradition’ to the great Western realist novel:

…a counter [tradition] in which carnivalesque laughter, discursive empowerment, and ludic interactiveness operate in the frame of a dialectical negation of a dominant [ideology] oriented toward ‘adjustment’ to … socio-economic dictates. (in Arnaud & Garnier 39)

It is from this counter-tradition, bearing on the intrinsic subversive force of laughter and the replenishing potential of a wonder-full regard on the world, that magical realist literature derives much of its popular and critical appeal.
On the other hand, its emergence as a critical term in literature is closely associated with the counter-Expressionist movement in post-war German art known as New Objectivism, whose practitioners depicted ordinary objects in the natural word with a clarity and precision of detail that singularised them and infused the whole with a sense of mystery and strangeness. Clearly indebted to the metaphysical painting of de Chirico, magical realism’s return to the ordinary phenomenal world is accompanied by a defamiliarisation of perspective that places objects in particularly odd contexts – overexposed, isolated, out of proportion, under light and contours so intense that ordinary perceptual experience verges on the bizarre and the eerie. The objectual world is revealed as problematic, and empiric experience no longer suffices to account for its inner nature. It must therefore be supplemented by a sense of wonder at the “magic of Being,” (in Zamora & Faris 19) an acknowledgement of underlying spiritual forces that escape the limitations of our perceptual apparatus. Yet it is not the anthropologic, supernatural, irrational ‘magic’ often associated with primitive cultures that Roh makes reference to; it is, rather, a miracle of rationality, an almost Heideggerian apprehension of the enigmatic harmony of Being.
The term seems to fade out in European art criticism during the years to follow, yet it re-emerges on the literary terrain in World War II Flanders in one of its earliest coherent theoretical formulations. Johan Daisne defines magical as a spiritualised transposition of the real, whose home is the elusive borderland separating the latter from the fantastic universe of dreams. It stands, moreover, for the interpenetration of that which is exterior, sensible, experiential with its ‘double’ – the reverse side of the real: the metaphysical, the fantastic, the mystical. The pervasive presence of the ‘border’, that ‘nether zone’ in which distinct and often contradictory universes are uneasily conjoined, makes its first apparition here, and is to remain the defining metaphor of the magical realist fictional space.
In a table of oppositions Roh draws between realism and ‘magic realism’, among the chief distinctions he identifies and which serve the purpose of my analysis here are those between mimetic and fantastic/supplemental; rationalisation and imagination; familiarisation and defamiliarisation. One of the major structuring principles of magic realist narration thus rests on a paradoxical unity of contradictions within the framework of the projected fictional world. The term itself is oxymoronic in that it locks together concepts that the traditions of philosophic Cartesianism consider incompatible. In the terminological dichotomy that it encodes, magic realism proclaims its allegiance to various forms of mimetic representation; on the other hand, in keeping with its earliest theoretical formulations, it purports to encapsulate those aspects of the real that lie hidden or submerged – the world of dream, fantasy, superstition, ‘miracle’. Suggesting a binary opposition between the representational codes of realism and those of fantasy, magic realism paradoxically contains both – ‘magic’ coexists uneasily on the same plane with the ordinary and the everyday. As Stephen Slemon points out, it is an opposition that cannot be reconciled within the fictional space that the novel projects; the distinct ‘worlds’ remain locked in a dialectic exchange which creates “disjunction within each of the separate discursive systems rending them with gaps, absences and silences” (in Zamora & Faris 409). The dialectic is never resolved; it remains suspended in between competing discursive codes. It is in this sense, too, that magical realism inhabits an ‘interstitial’ fictional space, in which generic overlaps contribute to the notorious confusion surrounding the term’s various aesthetic determinations, particularly in relation to realism and fantasy.
While surrealists endowed ordinary objects with ‘magical’ eerie qualities, most often this served as a pure textual artifice, programmatically unmotivated and resistant to interpretation; the ‘magical aura’ projected by magical realist texts, however, tends to reveal deeper psychological or social motivations after some scrutiny (Faris 171). The object is not completely detached from its referent – though, in many cases, that referent is wilfully obscured and hard to pin down, as happens, for instance, when it functions as an allegorical or symbolic stand-in in heavily censored and therefore highly ‘oblique’ literary environments. It is this ‘de-realisation’ of the natural order of things that magical realism will pursue, challenging the very mimetic impulse out of which it has initially emerged.

Toying with Peripheries: The Location(s) of Magical Realism
It comes as no surprise that a mode expressing liminal states of being and incorporating hybrid ontologies should become the literary benchmark of those parts of the world that are similarly ‘liminal’, hybridic, inhabiting a space of “in-between peripherality” (Tötösy de Zepetnek 11). Magical Realism has accordingly been described as a mode of writing which arises out of postcolonial or unevenly developed societies, where cultures and civilisations, often incompatible, overlap and mix uneasily; where modern and ancient, scientific and magical world-views coexist. It thrives in transition, border zones and crossroads, “capturing the boundaries between spaces” (Cooper 1) and striving to create an interstitial, ontologically inclusive space, where it would become possible to see with the ‘third’ eye of Hindu mythology. In a 1982 review of García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Rushdie defines the mode as expressive of “a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness, [dealing] with what Naipaul has called ‘half-made’ societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new” (1992:301). Its presence is not limited to the ‘Third World’, however; appropriately enough, the territory of some of the mode’s earliest manifestations is located in a similarly ‘peripheral’ space, East-Central Europe.
As the comparative study on the varieties of magic realism edited by Jean Weisgerber indicates, the inception of the term in literature is not a Latin-American event, since it had been used with regard to particular tendencies in German-Austrian and Central European fiction as early as the 1930s. These were ‘transitional’ spaces as well, recently modelled out of the disintegrated Austro-Hungarian cauldron, and – like the decolonised nation-states half a century later – they were indelibly marked by the imperial imprint, both materially and imaginatively. It is from within the cultural horizon of this most continental of empires that the Kafkaesque universe of excessive rationalism and absurd bureaucratisation emerges; and it is its incompletely rotten corpse, infiltrating as a ghostly presence the subsequent interwar history of the newly created states, that will unleash the material, spiritual and psychological devastation of the Second World War.
In his analysis of D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, John Burt Foster Jr. is among the very few critics to point to the origins of magical realism “in the intractable and agonising historical situation [of the Second World War]” (271), whose horrifying consequences form the substance of much grotesquely ‘magical realist’ fiction in the region. As Danow argues somewhat debatably, this type of magical realist fiction describes a universe that has been excessively carnivalised, one in which the most fundamental human boundaries have collapsed; it is the dark side of the carnival, its ‘hell’ (Danow 6). It is in this context that the European modernist novel will evolve into the expression of a terrifying, monstrous, unrepresentable reality – taken to logical extremes in the post-war ‘literature of silence’ and of the absurd, and forming the bedrock of minimalist, ludic-symbolic magical realism practiced in post-totalitarian East-Central Europe. Together with Wendy B. Faris, who signals Milan Kundera as a significant practitioner of the genre, the critic locates one of the major strands of magical realism in this border-zone of Europe, where it functions either as a compensatory or illuminating vision of brutal and unaccountable historical circumstances (mainly before and immediately after World War II), or as a symbolical means of ideological system-subversion (during the subsequent totalitarian decades).
On the other hand, Stephen Slemon defines magical realism as an important literary manifestation of the postcolonial spirit. In his seminal article “Magical Realism as Postcolonial Discourse,” the critic appropriates the mode’s lack of theoretical specificity for postcolonial uses, seeing in both its narrative discourse and thematic content an adequate representation of “real social and historical relations obtaining within the post-colonial culture in which they are set” (408). Slemon notices an “incompatibility of magical realism with the more established genre systems,” (408) arguing that it “seems most visibly operative in cultures situated at the fringes of mainstream literary tradition” (408). Taking as paradigmatic examples a number of literary works produced in Canada, most notably by Robert Kroetsch and Linda Canyon, the critic sees magical realism as implicitly ‘ex-centric’, a literary practice closely linked with a perception of “living on the margins,” and encoding a system of resistance (408) – a specific mode of oppositional discourse. In this sense, Slemon pertinently argues, it is not incidental that magical realism has come to signify the experience of the subversive and the resistant, since it is in itself a genre-transgressing mode, falling in-between established generic systems, belonging to several, but to none in its entirety (408). It can also be seen as an instance of “textual mimicry” that replicates in the realm of fiction Bhabha’s concept of colonial mimicry (Faris 2000:113). One of Bhabha’s points is that colonial mimicry is necessarily an exercise in hybridity, because the ‘aping’ is always incomplete and always ‘at an angle’. In a similar manner, magical realist texts introduce enchantment, the fantastic and the extra-ordinary within the seamless fictional fabric of realism – the privileged discourse of the coloniser – thus undermining its authority and power and foregrounding the very gaps and absences characteristic of the mode’s disjunctive language of narration (Slemon 412).
It is this latter thematisation of a postcolonial discourse, involving the recuperation of silenced voices and the imaginative reconstruction of reality that I find most fruitful in the analysis of the transgressive potential of the mode. By foregrounding gaps, absences and silences, the text invites plurality to step in, allowing space for multiplicity and subversion. In a way similar to the workings of textuality itself, this thematisation allows for a supplementation of discourse with that which the discourse attempts to suppress. Magical realism thus reveals itself as

the mode of a conflicted consciousness, the cognitive map that discloses the antagonism between two views of culture, two views of history (European history being the routinisation of the ordinary; aboriginal or primitive history, the celebration of the extraordinary), and two ideologies. (Wilson 222-3)

This antagonism at the heart of magical realism replicates its oxymoronic composition, and points to the double-coded nature of the mode (Roman de la Campa 211). Its double inscription articulates, on the one hand, the ontological and political symptoms of emergent or postcolonial cultures; on the other hand, it offers a potent critique of teleological reason and dominant systemic master-tropes. This internal split, however, is not to be seen as a sign of conceptual duality and inconsistency; rather, in line with the self-conscious deconstructive moves present in much contemporary fiction, magical realist texts are wary of privileging any particular reading at the expense of another: epistemic indeterminacy and historical and political critique are allied in a textual whole that playfully both installs and subverts paradigmatic modes of thinking and representation.
One particularly astute observation that Roman de la Campa makes as regards the overall import of magical realism concerns the genre’s “globalising agency” (206), a contemporary synchronisation “capable of slipping unabatedly between aesthetic values, epistemological indeterminacy, and liberationist longings (206). The vast majority of postcolonial writers practicing this mode are seeped in metropolitan cultural models and have found about the myths and legends of their native lands indirectly, through the interpretations of European anthropologists and ethnologists. As Brenda Cooper remarks, magical realism in African fiction, for instance, is the product of mostly Westernised West African writers, who live out in their own lives the spiritual and cultural amalgamations that form the stuff of their fiction. Hence the ironic distance that compounds the nostalgia and the recuperative impulse, the ‘reticence’ of the narrative viewpoint to fully embrace that which it narrates, as is the case with most novels produced in more ‘conservative’ West African literature, such as those of Amos Tutuola or Chinua Achebe. Similarly, writers such as Garcia Marquez, Asturias, Fuentes or Rushdie cannot be thought to rely mostly on ‘unsophisticated’ folklore. They are highly literate practitioners of intertextuality, owing at least as much to European cultures as to the ‘primitive’ traditions of their native countries. In Durix’s words, “their allegiance is to Rabelais, post-modernism and surrealism as much as it is to orature” (1998:131). Their ‘authenticity’ springs from the intercultural engagement of their works, the hybridity of a border-zone where metamorphosis and contradiction are the dominant features of a multiply determined reality.
In its conjoining of deconstructive postmodern modes and Third World critiques of Western ideological legacies, magical realist fiction projects a split world of enfolded possibilities, and its practice and reception alike require the mental faculty of boundary-crossing. Indeed, one of the few common critical loci is the agreement that most critics seem to manifest in regarding magical realism as “a mode suited to exploring – and transgressing – boundaries, whether the boundaries are ontological, political, geographical, or generic” (Zamora & Faris 5). Magical realist fiction negotiates between normative oppositions and blurs, transgresses and deconstructs dichotomic pairs such as real/imaginary, mind/body, self/other, male/female – displacing privileged significations and thus operating on the terrain of ideological subversion (Zamora & Faris 6). In its concern with the nature of reality and representation, it belongs in the modernist tradition of epistemologic questioning; in its projection of alternative ontological orders, it radically revises the epistemological assumptions which it questions – and on which it is indirectly predicated.
In light of the above, magical realism emerges the most appropriate term to describe some of the artistic and literary tendencies manifested both in Europe and in the formerly colonised world as a reaction against the institutionalisation of normative genres and discursive codes. Whether one regards it as uniquely an artistic mode or as a larger aesthetic concept, “an attitude towards reality” even, to use Luis Leal’s formulation, one way to at least tentatively solve the problem of its theoretical diffuseness is to point to its distinctive manifestations in terms of a) the ontology of the world(s) represented, b) the phenomenology of perception in the narrator’s attitude towards reality, c) narrative tone and style and, fundamental to my line of argumentation, d) ideological implications – its double-inscription as a discourse of both complicity and resistance, accommodation and subversion.
In ‘Other’ Worlds: Towards a New Ontology of the Real?
In terms of the ontology of the worlds represented, Gonzales Echeverria identifies two strands of magical realism, the ontological (in which the marvellous is an intrinsic quality of the extratextual world) and the epistemological (in which the marvellous is an effect of the observer’s vision). This distinction I find particularly useful in terms of differentiating among otherwise dissimilar literary practices that have been heaped together under the same label. He associates the former (ontological strand) with a Latin-American understanding of magic realism, one predicated on the erasure of boundaries between what we take as ‘real’ and what we see as ‘the marvellous’ by the inclusion of both in a continuous definition of reality. The latter, epistemological strand, derives from surrealist and absurdist European traditions, is primarily ‘metropolitan’, and its preferred location is East-Central Europe. Magical realist practice is defined in this context as a “reflexive act of perception” (Simpkins in Zamora & Faris 146-147) in which it is the gap between the world of impenetrable objects and that of the inner universe of the subject that generates the eerie feeling of defamiliarisation and wonder. In rather less scrupulously theoretical terms, Wendy B. Faris associates the two strands with “a tropical lush and a northerly spare variety of this plant [of magical realism]” (165). In an ironic replication of the good old dichotomies between the North and the South, Faris calls the epistemological variety “programmatic magical realism,” exemplifying it in the works of Patrick Süskind, Günter Grass, or Milan Kundera, and the ontological strand “pervasive magical realism” – the ‘typical’ examples of which are to be found in South American writings, or indeed other Southern postcolonial variations, such as those produced on the Indian subcontinent or in Africa. Somewhere in-between these two major varieties lurks the “occasional magic” of a Toni Morrison, or D. M. Thomas.
In terms of the phenomenology of perception in the narrator’s attitude towards reality, Jean Weisgerber similarly distinguishes between a “scholarly” type of magical realism which “loses itself in art and conjecture to illuminate or construct a speculative universe,” and a “mythic” or “folkloric” type, mainly found in Latin America (26-27). The critic sees Borges as the prototype of the former strand, in whose stories the pure gymnastics of the abstract spirit, culminates in a complete break with the world of empirical verification as a-referential logic turns into metaphysical vertigo or anxiety. Imprisoned by its own logic, reason loses itself in its self-constructed labyrinth. Borges’s excessive intellectualisation is nevertheless exemplary in that it unveils the philosophical roots of magical realism, indicating the ontological aspirations of the movement, its ambition of laying bare ‘the thing-in-itself’, the essence of ‘thing-ness’ under the surface of sensible manifestations. Though it seeks to transcend phenomenal appearances, this desire for ontological plenitude – whether it has philosophical-idealist underpinnings, or religious-mystical ones – identifies the ‘magic’ as pertaining to the essence of objects. In this sense, it constitutes a substantial principle of the world, similar to the one propounded by Carpentier’s ‘marvellous real’ (Weisgerber 27) – the immanent character of magic thus bridging the gap between epistemological problematisations and the apprehension of an ontological given. What forcefully differentiates the latter version of the ‘marvellous real’ is its insistence on the anthropological and mythical roots of a social, cultural, ‘factual’ – and in this sense, phenomenal – reality, at the expense of abstract idealism. In other words, what for European commentators appeared as the occulted ‘essence’ of the objectual world which artistic perception had to bring to light, becomes in the Latin American version of the ‘marvellous real’ the basis of existence itself, an almost banal presence: “everything is real,” says Garcia Marquez (in Weisgerber 27).
As concerns matters of voice, perspective and style, magical realist fiction has most often been described as yet another uneasy coupling of baroque figuration and inventive ebullience with the restraint of distanced, circumspect, often tongue-in-cheek, highly ironic narrative viewpoint. The carnivalesque spirit to which magical realism is heir manifests itself in linguistic excess, baroque figuration and ontologic surfeit, which often speak of the desire of postcolonial writers to imaginatively re-appropriate and reconstruct their colonised worlds through a ‘re-invention’ of language (Durix 7). The Latin American novel is replete with hyperboles and metaphors which serve to characterise a contradictory colonial reality. In a baroque prose ripe with florid extravagance and permeated by the miraculous, the figure of the dictator in Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch is conceived as that of a wondrous being with almost Godlike powers, who “point[ed] at trees for them to bear fruit and at animals for them to grow and at men for them to prosper” (59). The mythicised figure appears as the end result of a collective autarchic pathology, as is the fantastic description of the King of the Road in Okri’s The Famished Road that speaks obliquely not only of the archaic part, but also of the contradictory and bloody colonial present.
The rhetoric of excess and surfeit points to a discourse that seeks to attain the ‘plenitude’ of signification which eludes realist representations. In their effort to conjure the absent meanings and make them visibly present in the text, magical realist texts use language ‘in excess’ in a compensatory movement that tries to make up for the inadequacies and limitations of realist representation. Yet in trying to overcome textual limitations, magical realist fictions always “fall short of their numinous goal” (Simpkins 140). However often they multiply worlds, double identities or accumulate words and significations, they can never achieve fullness of meaning. Hence the perpetual movement of supplementation and deferral that compounds their linguistic expansiveness, the metafictional self-consciousness that undercuts the presence of the marvellous.
The inherent duality of the mode is also revealed in the opposing stylistic tendencies it accommodates. If postcolonial variants of magical realism tend towards a maximum valorification of linguistic resources, its East-Central European version springs from a more ‘intellectualised’ and visionary carnivalesque, heir to the surrealist tradition of objectual transfiguration, linguistic restraint and figurative minimalism. It is a fiction dense with philosophical musings where preference is given to the playful and the ‘intellectual’ over the sentimental, the magical and the archetypal. The Romanian writer Mircea Horia Simionescu’s cycle The Well-Tempered Ingenious is among the most spectacular cases of the ‘revolt against realism’ in a surrealist, intellectual vein. If the ‘magic’ is present, it is a “programmatic” one, and symbolic explanations of its occurrence are more favoured than in the “ontological” varieties of magical realism (Faris 165). Kundera’s fiction is replete with such surreal images: park benches from the city of Prague, colored red, yellow and blue, float inexplicably on the Vltava River; a “splendid wreath of bodies glid[e] over the city” (Kundera 2000:95) in a “charmed circle of ideological bliss” (Faris 172) that speaks ‘magically’ of the “unbearable lightness” engendered by totalitarian regimes. Yet

the prose is sparer here, and the Garcia Marquez levitations are not events now, but ideas. There is less clutter in the prose, less of the stuff of life, as if the author had decided to send the myriad furnishings of novels, its particulars, down the Vltava, after the benches. (Doctorow in online review)

As Cooper remarks, ironic distancing is a crucial feature of the magical realist narrative perspective (49), for the incorporation of myth, legend and folklore in the fictional fabric often serves as a point of departure in interrogating those traditions they are part of. It does not offer an easy return to some ‘pristine’ pre-colonial or ancient times, and the nostalgic tone that permeates many such novels is as much a recognition of the inevitability of change as is a herald of it. In the East-Central European context, it forms an integral part of the metaphysical irony characteristic of the fiction produced in the region. Like the comedy of futility and the Kafkaesque absurd, it goes back to a carnivalesque tradition that seeks to debunk and expose the incongruities of totalising systems. In the novels of “symbolic fictiveness” emerging in East-Central Europe in the final decades of totalitarian rule, narrative structure is duplicated in the introduction of a meta-novelistic level interrogating the relations of the fictional worlds with its author/narrator/reader (Cornis-Pope 153-4). This double-structure a la Borges, Cortazar or Calvino foregrounds the process of signification and meaning-constitution as essentially implicative of the subjects that construe it for cognitive purposes. A similar process can be seen at work in many a postcolonial novel, where the narrative voice that is part of the fictional world, and which promotes identification with and naturalisation of its magical-real attributes, is constantly undermined by a slant authorial reticence as regards the accuracy of the events and the credibility of the world-views exposed (Cooper 51). Often, it is stylistic ‘excess’ that contributes to the ironic effect. Events and personal characteristics are spectacularly exaggerated, made absurdly larger than life, yet in a style that takes the hyperbole for granted, as though it were a meticulous fact. They are far-fetched but logical exaggerations of real situations, as is, for instance, the unlikely occurrence of a period of rain that lasts “four years, eleven months, and two days" (Marquez 320) in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The very specific numerical value associated with such an overstated description creates a sense of parodic exaggeration that simultaneously serves to naturalise its out-of-the-ordinary quality and to point to its fictional status. The playfully ironic voice is revealed as both distanced from and complicit with that which it narrates.
Magical realism thus viewed appears as a construct of epistemic transgression, larger in scope than a literary genre, but less encompassing in its sphere than a philosophical worldview. It can best be described as a mode of aesthetic interrogation and imaginative perception. Such a definition accounts for the variety of forms it has assumed during its long literary history; it also accounts for its subversive and replenishing potentialities – which is why, perhaps, it has become the preferred literary mode of those regions of the globe where various forms of totalitarian ‘terror’ have attempted to suppress or censor the unbridled freedom of thought and imagination. There is a certain magical realist spirit underlying all literary production – a sort of ‘recessive gene’ which in given historical and cultural circumstances makes itself visible, and even becomes dominant. It is from this assumption that I propose a significantly different understanding of magical realism, which no longer sees it as the exclusive province of postcolonial modes of discourse.

Magical Realism as Anti-totalitarian Discourse
Identifying similar artistic responses to conditions of ideological and cultural colonisation, I construe magical realism as a significant aesthetic reaction to shared conditions of marginality in relation to both metropolitan cultures and hegemonic totalitarian powers. As such, it constitutes a mode of discourse that grows from specific ideological and political circumstances as an aesthetic means of system-subversion operating by means of disguised, over-encoded and symbolical textual practices. More specifically, I deem it to also encompass a significant bulk of literary works produced in East-Central Europe during the long decades of communist ideological imposition. As a mode of transgression, magical realism is particularly apt to articulate ideological and geopolitical dissent and many writers in Central and Eastern Europe have relied on its defamiliarising and subversive mechanisms to effect an “epistemic unhinging” (de la Campa 208) of the dominant power-system. Such an understanding of Magical Realism departs from but also incorporates the ‘mainstream’ acceptation, insisting on its discursive ambivalence and emphasising its subversive and deconstructive potential at the expense of its radical ontological difference from Western systems of representation.
As I have tried to substantiate in the first section of this article, it is when the sense of reality becomes strange, unfathomable, incomprehensible that magical realist manifestations occur, and this is definitely also the case of a reality grown hideously and inexplicably amiss. Major European fictions of a magical realist bent have appeared in particularly turbulent historical circumstances, and numerous commentators link these unlikely ‘disruptions’ of the realist tradition with an artistic reaction to the horrors of war and the subsequent violence perpetrated by the forceful ideological and political colonisation of East-Central Europe. In the versatility of its practices, magical realism operates multiple subversions in the ‘natural order of things’, unsettles the ontological stability of the real and is subversive of hegemonic discourses. Its uneasy conjoining of contradictory world-orders subverts the singularising and objectifying effects of realist discourse, with its insistence on the rational, the ordinary, the common sense – in short, on that which falls within recognised and accepted limits. The preferred locus of enunciation of these magical realist fictions is the ‘in-between’ space theorised by Bhabha, the zone of the border, that which “creates space for interactions of diversity” (Zamora & Faris 3). Moreover,

in magical realist texts, ontological disruption serves the purpose of political and cultural disruption: magic is often given as a cultural corrective, requiring readers to scrutinise accepted realistic conventions of causality, materiality, motivation. (Zamora & Faris 3)

It is in this latter sense that magical realism has been seen to function as an ‘oppositional’ discourse that in its intrinsic subversive potentialities operates as a corrective to various kinds of power-enforcement and ideological dominance. It signals in its ‘unruliness’ the nonconforming nature of the characters in the novels – and is, as such, marvellously suited to anti-totalitarian uses. In their commingling of a plurality of worlds, views and voices, magical realist texts are politically enabling, testifying to a desire for narrative freedom that rejects totalising, hegemonic and univocal narrative stances. They go all the way back to that literary ‘counter-tradition’ of the carnivalesque and the grotesque that I have referred to earlier, whose most inclusive theoretical formulation was given by Mikhail Bakhtin, appropriately enough, in the Soviet Russia of the thirties.
Bakhtin’s conception of the polyphonic novel and the carnivalesque in his analyses of Dostoyevsky and Rabelais provide invaluable tools for approaching modern magical realist novels. Bakhtin’s book theorising the carnivalesque was itself written in defiance of the “official prohibition of certain kinds of laughter, irony and satire [that was] imposed upon the writers of Russia after the revolution” (Pomorska in Bakhtin 1984:x), and it is in this sense that carnival has subsequently been seen as a useful symbolic shorthand standing for a variety of modes of resistance. It proposed a concept of ‘grotesque realism’ that went against the central tenets of Socialist Realism, and fashioned a symbolic space (that of the carnival) of irreverent behaviour, bodily exultation, laughter, play and parody. Bakhtin describes carnival as “sharply distinct form the serious, official, ecclesiastical, feudal, and political cult forms and ceremonials” for it offers “a completely different, nonofficial, extra-ecclesiastical and extra-political aspect of the world, a second life outside officialdom” (1984:4-5). All the symbols of the carnival idiom “are filled with the pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities” (11). It is a world of “topsy-turvy, of heteroglot exuberance, of ceaseless overrunning and excess, where all is mixed, hybrid, ritually degraded and defiled” (Stallybrass & White 1986:8).
The typical chronotope of the carnival is the recurrent fair, corresponding to cyclical time – a time of becoming, degeneration and regeneration, in which all is mobile and hybrid, “disproportionate, exorbitant, outgrowing all limits, obscenely decentred and off-balance” (Stallybrass & White 9). Irreverence and riot are key concepts in any magical realist novel – hence their constant parodic inversions, as well as their baroque idiom and hyperbolic aggrandizement. It is the carnivalised universe of grotesque realism, or supernatural realism, that can accommodate figures such as Bulgakov’s devilish trio Woland, Azzazello and Behemoth in The Master and Margarita, Okri’s abiku child in The Famished Road or Melquiades in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In attempting to ‘correct’ official versions of reality by supplementing it with the very elements the discourse of power strives to exclude, magical realist texts operate as potent aesthetic reactions against totalising and totalitarian systems of all kinds.
Embedding ideological clashes in the linguistic fabric of their fictional worlds, magical realist writings suggest enabling strategies whereby the suppressed, the silenced, the censored, the expurgated can find their way back into the text in precisely those gaps and absences the linguistic system makes possible – thus allowing for a variety of imaginary deconstructions and re-constructions. Such works are, as I have already pointed out, double-coded discourses: “The act of colonisation, whatever its precise form, initiates a kind of double vision or ‘metaphysical clash’ within the colonial culture,” (410, my emphasis) Slemon tells us in relation to the post-colonial magical realist texts that he analyses. In a different context, this double textual inscription becomes evident in the articulation of a peculiar kind of ‘false consciousness’, discursively assumed by subjects in totalitarian regimes in order to hide the real nature of their thoughts. By the assimilation of a number of set-phrases, a whole new type of discourse is born, one used in ‘official’ contexts and coming at constant cross-purposes with the inner language of the characters. Thus Jaroslav, one of Kundera’s characters in The Joke, becomes at one point in the novel so split between the two discursive orders battling in his head that he almost slips from one into the other, coming close to betraying the real nature of his thoughts.
A linguistic duality similar to the post-colonial one is installed in communist systems: language splits, on ideological lines this time. If the colonised have often been forced to renounce their native tongue and adopt the language of the coloniser, in communist countries the split occurs within one’s own language. The inner ‘private’ language finds itself at odds with ‘public’ discourse, a sort of Orwellian Newspeak one has to have at least a smattering knowledge of if one wants to survive the regime and go about one’s business in as inconspicuous a manner as possible. How well one can switch back and forth between the two distinct discursive regimes is often a measure of social success or simply survival. However, one reaches a stage where it becomes increasingly difficult to keep them apart, and they merge seamlessly into each other, inducing the kind of metaphysical double vision that Slemon speaks about with reference to the imposition of a foreign language on the indigenous colonised populations.
One can thus identify ‘magical’ disruptions even in the most realistically engineered of propaganda texts. As inescapably linguistic structures, they too incorporate gaps and foreground ruptures through which the ‘Other’ occasionally erupts. Thus, in socialist realism, though no such direct surface intrusion can be perceived, the textual effect is often subversive-against-its-own-will, since ‘realism’ is brought to such extremes of purgation and distortion, that it ceases to be real in the sense of giving an adequate representation of the extratextual world. The forceful expulsion of the ‘other’ (in this case the actual reality of the matters presented) ends up in an effect of disbelief similar to the one produced by a work of fantasy: the ‘real’ constructed by socialist realism is so fantastically far from what is actually the case that in a paradoxical twist it subverts itself, producing laughter and disbelief.
Nowhere does this ‘unreality of the real’ reveal itself more potently than in Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, where the repressed returns as an explosion of the unknown and the uncontrollable coming to haunt the censored, ordered and ‘safe’ world of an expurgated Soviet reality. The Master and Margarita departs from the aesthetic order of modernist art, as many of its contemporary Central European novels did; the chapters dedicated to the Master’s narrative find their Janus-like carnivalesque parallel in the ‘other’ half of the novel, inhabited by the grotesquely funny devilish figures of Woland, Koroviev, Behemoth and Azzazelo. The Master himself inhabits the subversive realm of the ‘mad’, in a parodic inversion of the real world of Soviet socialism, whose ‘soundness’, rationality and order are disrupted and annihilated by the intrusion of devilish magic. Very realistic minor characters freely intermingle with deliberately abstract and archetypal figures; the conjuring of an inverted theologian’s world constitutes both a parodic reworking of major Dostoyevskian themes (such as the recurrent debate over the existence of God and the Devil) and a covert attack on a self-professed atheistic society in which the magic, the unexplainable and the ‘irrational’ are regarded with suspicion. The intrusion of the unexplainable reveals the irrational and absurd at the heart of socialist hyper-rationality, its own profoundly destructive nature, its layer of totalitarian madness under the surface skin of ‘normality.’
It is fitting, therefore, and very much in the tradition of Bakhtinian subversive inversion, that it should be the Devil who forces contemporary atheist Moscow into a recognition of supra-natural forces. The ‘devilish’ performance at the Moscow Variety Theatre where ‘all hells broke loose’, and then Satan’s grand ball, are among the most ‘magical’ of magical realist episodes, “Bulgakov’s answer to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities” (Proffer 367). In many senses, Bulgakov’s novel can be seen as an ur-Magical Realist text, its multi-layered structure allowing it to function on several levels as re-writing and deconstruction of history and myth; parodic re-writing of several canonical literary texts; and covert critique of its contemporary Soviet society in the carnivalesque and parodic interpenetrations of the three major story-lines. Yet despite the abundant display of ‘magic’ and the rhetoric flourishes that go into the making of its magical realist surface, the same theme of individual responsibility that would recur a couple of decades later in various literary forms in East-Central Europe lurks as a unifying thread of the novel. Characteristically, his response to this fear-struck era was a multi-faceted ‘joke’. Like Kundera’s works later, it calls for a skeptical but compassionate ethics that would respect the individual and the values of enlightened rationalism. Pilate’s fear, based on what he knows awaits him if he allows anyone who talks against the emperor to go free, is based on the contemporaneity of a Soviet era in which disturbing examples of what happens when ethics is divorced from politics abound. It is, Bulgakov seems to be saying, what happens when enlightened rationalism ends in totalitarian hyper-rationality. The carnivalesque inversions and the fantastic episodes, though structurally fundamental in Bulgakov’s novel, are functionally similar to those more sparse episodes in Kundera’s fiction which stand symbolically for a world turned awry, in which hyper-rational ‘really existing socialism’ is revealed in all its violent, absurd and grotesque irrationality.
The repressed ‘other’ returns to haunt the ‘expurgated’ and ‘censored’ real in other instances as well. Repressed memories suddenly take ghostly form in many a postcolonial novel, testifying to an essential indelibility of historical trauma and calling for remembrance and atonement. Beloved’s spectral appearance in Sethe’s life in Toni Morrison’s eponymous novel induces a painfully fought out coming to terms with a repressed past that refuses to be erased out of existence; similarly, in Vikram Chandra’s story “Dharma,” the revenant is an earlier self of the protagonist, whose return “frustrates the linear attempts of memory and history” (Punter 85). Like the gaps and silences of dreams, those of the magical realist text are filled with the unaccountable presences of those who are not supposed to inhabit them, the ‘banished’ voices which return in the guise of ghosts, hallucinations, grotesque figures and surreal apparitions. This postcolonial “rhetoric of haunting” (Punter 79) shows how not only the houses, but the words and very bodies of the postcolonials are inhabited by the History they cannot escape, by the memory of their pasts; the language of their writings remains forever split, schizoid, in a state of self-alienation, haunted by the vanished voice which, just like Morrison’s Beloved, will resurface and try to break through again and again, in a permanent “revisitation of the site of trauma” (Punter 98).
Fredric Jameson identifies this alternative recuperative vision in the analysis of three features which he regards as constitutive of magical realism: its sense of history; its sense of pleasure, fascination, or magic; and its particular narrative dynamic that works toward a transfiguration of the objective world (1986:305-6). In Jameson’s view, historical representation in postmodernist fiction is characterised by nostalgia, the substitution of an authentic sense of historicity with ‘images’, simulations that function as a compensatory substitute and displacement of a sense of experienced, graspable past. They become cultural and psychological commodities. In magical realist texts, on the contrary, the “remembrance of things past … is not primarily nostalgic” (Faris 2000:111) and historical representation foregrounds the gaps and absences occulted by hegemonic discourses. They presuppose the organic integration of levels of the past and archaic human consciousness that are no longer available to Western culture, and that can therefore only be conjured as ‘images’, fetishes, ghosts.
To conclude, magical realism operates as the mode of a disjunctive, essentially subversive sensibility. Its double-coded nature in terms of both content and style has often facilitated the expression of various forms of dissent, by allowing the ‘silenced’ to find its way back into the text, often in carnivalised form. That such critical potentialities are inherent in its unstable, highly ambiguous form partly explains its occurrence in cultural and ideological contexts variously marked by political and epistemic violence. In light of the above, it becomes possible to formulate a more inclusive theoretical model of magical realism. Professing a totalising conception of the universe and insisting, at the same time, on the phenomenal, sensible manifestations of the real, magical realist art and literature strives towards an intellectual, intuitive or imaginative apprehension of the ontological foundations (whether metaphysical, religious or mythical) of empirical reality. Immanent in either the exterior world or in the perception of the observer, the ‘magic’ of magical realism defines itself against ‘rational’ understandings of the real, aiming at the incorporation of the ‘irrational’, the unexplainable, the miraculous and the supernatural into the fictional universe it projects. Hence its hybrid ontology and generic instability; hence, as well, the disturbing imaginative possibilities that it opens. Its double-coded nature speaks for those regions of the world in which cultures and worldviews clash and commingle, and which have been ‘peripheralised’ in one way or another by hegemonic Western discourses. It can therefore be seen as a liminal, ex-centric mode of aesthetic apprehension, whose filiations with the counter-tradition of the carnivalesque and its constant subversion of boundaries (whether generic, ontologic or ideological) makes it best suited for the expression of a resistant and sceptical imagination.


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