20 May 2014

Some Thoughts on Latin American Literature and its Place in the Grand Order of Things

Considerable confusion exists concerning magical realism and fantastic literature, which are often treated as being essentially the same. In fact, they are two different literary movements. Movements should not be confused with genres. Most literature of the first half of the 20th century is a reaction to the end of the Modern Age, which went from the invention of the movable-type printing press (1450s) to World War I. The early modern period placed its faith in commerce, then (18th  century) in human reason, the late modern period in science, technology and “progress.” World War I convinced thinking people that the prevailing world view no longer matched the reality on the ground, just as the medieval world view collapsed in the fifteenth century for the same reason. The major literary responses to the end of the modern age were the English and American “modernists”, the surrealists, magical realism and fantastic literature.


Magical realism responded to André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto (1924) by showing northern Latin American reality as seen through its people, many of whom take magic in stride. This is especially true in the Caribbean, home of the principal writers in the movement (Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala, Arturo Uslar Pietri of Venezuela, Alejo Carpentier of Cuba, and Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia). They especially favored historical novels, highlighting the magical events on which historical events turned. Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) has roots in Soviet socialist realism, but is equally rooted in Colombian culture. It is a history of a family (Soviet style) based on the fictional oral record of it (Latin American thinking with bits of magic thrown in).


Fantastic literature is grounded in the River Plate area (Buenos Aires and surroundings) and reflects a strongly European-influenced mentality. It counters the prevailing world view with stories built on a philosophical, rather than scientific, way of explaining the world, thus seeking to undermine faith in commerce, reason, science, and progress. It especially highlights the fact that the world is a construct of our will and imagination. The main writers have been Horacio Quiroga, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Ernesto Sabato (the latter two in part of their work), Leopoldo Marechal, and, among current writers, Alejandro Dolina and Vlady Kociancich. This literature has affinities with the best early science fiction (H.G. Wells) and with detective fiction.

Marshall McLuhan said that the medieval people saw themselves as ancient Romans, while the modern age people thought of themselves as medieval. Now we think of ourselves as modern. We would do well to consider the past which has formed us so that we may see the future with some clarity and take control over it.

My Angela series deals with clashing world views which put people at odds with each other. It also shows the difficulty of being ethical. View the first two books in the series at www.amazon.com/author/bedforddavid

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