Magic realism in context
Razu Alauddin Arts & Letters

In 1925, Franz Roh coined the now-famous phrase “magic realism”, though the idea was widely spread by the writers of the Latin American Boom, especially through the immense popularity of Garcia Marquez‘s  novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. But if we look at it more attentively, we will find that the words, “magia” (magic) and “maravilla” (marvellous) were there in the Latin American culture even before the colonial period started. While describing the distinct reality of Latin America, the conquistadors – as they were called in that region – were so surprised that they could not but call the new sort of world as an amazing magical land. 

Marquez, in his Nobel lecture, has mentioned conquistador Antonio Pigafetta’s magical experience which confirms us that the idea of magic realism emerged with the beginning of colonial period in Latin America. Though this idea entered the continent through the European conquerors, it spread its wings in different ways. The indigenous forms of magic – black magic or white magic, or witchcraft –   were transformed into a sophisticated literary theory by Alejo Carpentier. Even before Carpentier, Andrés Bello and José Martí had sown the seeds of magic realism writing about the history and reality of Latin America. If we fail to put this in context, magic realism will appear to us Bangladeshi readers as a different idea. In one of his writings, Alejo Carpentier informed us that this theory is not meant to breed just theories. He believed that Parisian Surrealism was not enough for an adequate literary portrayal of Latin American reality. But he knew it very well that a theory, in many cases, has very little to do with reality, and so, he did not forget to remind his readers of the existence of magic in the nature and culture of Latin America. He even asked:  How could America be anything other than marvellous?’  

Latin American writers, who are politically, historically and culturally conscious, have managed to transform their cultural experience into unique literary expressions. The question now arises: Didn’t Europe go through the same sort of experience? They have been living in the same planet. They have contributed a lot in fiction writing. And yet why couldn’t their literature express such magical experiences, though Europe too was a land of black magic and witchcraft before renaissance? Between 1450 and 1750 AD, they even burnt 3,500 to 100,000 witches to death. So it can be assumed that the cultural reality of Europe was not much different from that of Latin America.  In Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass, written before 158 BCE, the protagonist experiments with black magic and accidentally turns into an ass. This kind of magical elements had been very common in Europe, but the ideologies emanating from the age of enlightenment held such a sway that everything beyond logical explanation was banished from public discourses. Latin America, on the other hand, have focused on the co-existence of logic and magic, and this is why their novelists have inherited the age-old magical elements with the result that their works offer readers tales that are more diverse and that have appealed  to a far more bigger readership than those of the Europeans.

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