What happens when a boom fizzles out? As many of the countries of Latin America have emerged into a fully formed, confident identity, Latin American novelists have discovered that they cannot write their own homeland into existence. They are no longer, in the words of the great Argentinian novelist Ernesto Sabato, “like the pioneers of the Far West who farmed the land with a gun at their side”.The developed world, however, often wants Latin America to be what it no longer is: picturesque, magical and quaint.
The “boom” novel, which exploded on to the world stage in the late 1960s, included outstanding practitioners such as Gabriel GarcIa Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortazar and Jose Donoso. This started to lose its power in the early 1990s, when critics began describing it as elitist and politically conservative, as a narrative apparently removed from everyday life and contemporary political concerns. At their peak, the “boom” authors were seen as heroes who overcame the difficulties of their Latin American or third world circumstances through their creative imagination, and showed that their continent could be free.
The term “magical realism” has been attributed to the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, who first applied it to Latin American fiction in 1949 to mean a method of expressing the specific, wondrous realities of the developing world. His novels The Lost Steps, The Chase and Explosion in a Cathedral, published between 1953 and 1962, are considered ground-breaking works that forged a vision of the American continent based on its distinctive historical, social, cultural, ethnic and political characteristics.
Works of magical realism mingled realistic portrayals of events and characters with fantasy and myth, creating a rich, often disturbing world that is both familiar and dreamlike. Non-Latin American writers whose fiction often employs magical realism include Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie.
From the 1950s onwards, there were rapid economic and political changes in virtually the whole of Latin America. However, the continent was brought to the brink of self-destruction through military intervention, civil war and guerrilla warfare, or attempts at domination by the USSR or the US. By the 1990s, a continent-wide cultural self-confidence had replaced those influences with a belief that Latin America depended neither on Europe nor on the US.
In the last decade of the 20th century, almost every writer in Latin America took part in the attempt to heal the wounds of the post-dictatorship eras in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, as well as in smaller countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Uruguay. Indeed, the Peruvian novelist Alfredo Bryce Echenique has even argued that, by the end of the century, the Latin American writer had restored the dream of Simon BolIvar and united the continent through the plenitude of its literature.
But magical realism has been a victim of this process. There are precious few levitating grandmothers in today’s Latin American novels. Paulo Coelho in Brazil and Isabel Allende in Chile are among the few who are bucking the trend. Once a major Latin American cultural export, magical realism has now generally been replaced by a streetwise literature that reflects the fact that most Latin Americans no longer live in a sleepy, rural world, but in overcrowded cities.
Typical of this new school is what the Chilean author Alberto Fuguet calls the voice of McOndo – a name that pokes fun at Marquez’s fictional setting for One Hundred Years of Solitude, but also suggests a fusion of McDonald’s and Macintosh computers. Even though some have slammed this “new wave” as shallow, it seems that the spell of magical realism has been broken once and for all.
You have only to compare the two latest darkly urban novels of Jorge Franco, a young Colombian, with the bestsellers from his revered compatriot Marquez to see how far the Latin American novel has shifted in the past decade or so. Franco’s Rosario Tijeras features a female killer operating in a drug-fuelled world, while his ParaIso Travel deals with Colombian immigrants struggling to adapt to life in New York.
However, anyone looking for magical realism in the latest novel by Marquez, Memories of My Sad Whores, will be disappointed. It seems even the grand old master himself has acknowledged that realism has lost its magic in Latin America.