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From the early 1970s into the mid 1980s, bookstores in the United States were filled with small paperback copies (usually Avon Bard editions) of novels and stories by Latin American writers. In a splendid attempt to share the Latin American Boom in literature—brought on by the unparalleled success of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude—with North American readers, publishers put out hundreds of works of South American fiction in translation. Invariably, the covers of these mass-market sized paperbacks depicted some combination of the fiery face of a dark-eyed figure and a surrealist, wild and green Amazonian landscape background. These fantastic images fed the readers' notions of an intriguing exotic world from the other Americas, just as they empowered critics, struggling to label the stylistic innovations of Márquez, to categorize such books as something called "magical realism." It wasn't long before all Latin American literature, justifiably or not, fell into the category and it is only recently that many literary critics (and writers themselves) have begun to question the usefulness of the term. [End Page 225]
In his new book, the scholar Frederick Luis Aldama makes the case that the term has encouraged critics and readers to misread Latin American literature, particularly in regard to their ignoring the very real and important economic, political, and cultural dimensions of the works. Aldama coins the term "magicorealism" to differentiate between what he claims to be genuine and authentic use of the narrative style (Rushdie and Castillo) from the consumerist term "magic realism" and various simplistic imitations (Isabel Allende and Sandra Benitez). The difference between the two, he argues, is that the metafictional, self-reflexive work, by calling attention to itself as a fiction (as in Márquez or Rushdie or Acosta) prevents the reader from falsely understanding magical realist qualities as some verifiable characteristic of a primitive people, some actual part of their belief systems. The playfulness of genuine magicorealism, he claims, prevents primitivizing of the other, the foreign, the exotic. In the simplistic imitations, the reader is led to confuse the art with the reality and free to imagine that characters (and societies, cultures) live in some exotic land of the miraculous, and are therefore removed and irrelevant in some way. Confusing the text, the magic of the writing, with reality thus discourages readers from concerning themselves with the economic exploitation and political manipulation of such strange and fantastic subaltern others in postcolonial countries. Over and over, Aldama dwells on the necessity of separating the aesthetic practice of magicorealism from ontological fact and epistemological truth. At the center of his book is his call for a critical theory that will avoid confusing "narrative fiction for anthropological artifact" (15). Only with such a theory can readers appreciate magicorealism as a social linguistic tool and a "rebellious mimetic force" with which creative artists reshape preconceived notions of marginalized cultures (41).
Perhaps the most daring and interesting thing that Aldama does in this book is suggest a sort of reclassification of experimental, nonrealist works of literature. In his view, the overall category is magicorealism and all sorts of narrative experimentation become subcategories in this larger sphere, replacing, it seems, postmodernism with magicorealism. What was once, for me anyway, a type of postmodernist prose or a specific narrative device associated with high modernism is, for Aldama, something that falls under the larger heading of magicorealism. At times, it is hard to know how this magicorealism differs from what happens generally in postmodern or modernist literature. Why, for example, is the multiple narrator in Acosta different from the more general problem of narrative point of view. It's hard to think of anything in Faulkner, Woolf, or Joyce that strikes one as particularly magicorealist but the fragmentation and [End Page 226] manipulation of narrative point of view in such writers is obvious. If Poe, Kafka, Nabokov, Calvino, and Barth do all the things Aldama claims the magicorealists do, isn't...