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Magic Realism in America

September 20, 1987|by RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Large continental countries are relatively immune from the need to talk to their neighbors. Omsk, no doubt, is not much more polyglot than Omaha. This needs to be qualified, of course; translation pretty much removes the language barrier, and I think we are in some kind of golden age of translating.

Still, we have a continental sensibility, a great deal at home to absorb ourselves in, and a literary tradition of more or less continuous vitality. It is not exactly a rarity for a foreign writer or style of writing to make an impression here, but neither is it frequent. What constitutes an "impression" is hard to define. Living in Boston, a university town to a fault, my own yardstick is the books that college students buy without being required to do so. Albert Camus made the grade, and still does. So did, and does, Jorge Luis Borges. Gunther Grass was popular at one time. Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino are popular now.

Perhaps the biggest thing to come this way, though; at least in the past decade, has been the magic realism of Latin America. Principally, almost exclusively, in the form of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's two big novels: "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "The Autumn of the Patriarch." There are other practitioners of the style in Latin America; and one of them, Isabel Allende, has had a considerable success in the United States.

But certainly, Garcia Marquez's work has been the most powerful and the most challenging; along with that of Mario Vargas Llosa. Strictly speaking, the latter may not be a magic realist--not that the form is sufficiently fixed to allow strictness--but his scope, his aims and his effects occupy some of the same territory.

The territory could be described as the effort to deliver, at simultaneous levels of the conscious and subconscious, the reality of an infinitely mixed society comprising indigenous and settler traditions, both resting on a history that is not past but present, and whose elements are still agonizingly irreconcilable among themselves.

I use the word "challenging" in a quite literal sense. We may think of Garcia Marquez's work in such terms as colorful , powerful , and exotic . It may seem entirely foreign, but I wonder.

There was a time when we thought of our own civilization as following some kind of orderly line of development. Indeed, the current celebration of the Constitution seeks to refurbish and reflect upon that line: federalism, Jeffersonian democracy, and the steady if painful--as with the Civil War--convergence of radically different ideologies and traditions.

A great deal spills over. Walt Whitman, who, with some stretching, could be thought of as an early American magic realist, voiced some of the spilling-over--"I am multitudes"--but not a great deal of our literary tradition is Whitmanesque. Our writers have tended to specialize in their particular sensibilities, emulating the variety of synecdoche that uses the part to denote the whole. A lot falls between the cracks; and to the degree that our writers' sensibilities get narrower, if more acute, the cracks get bigger.

If one were to ask why magic realism has not begun to creep into our own literature at a time when our sense of our history and contemporary social structures seems to be developing fissures; there could be two answers. One would seek to explain why. The other would sniff around and come up questioning the question.

American magic realism? There have been examples. Three or four years ago, two powerful and original novels were published. They were very different, one from the other, yet they made oddly similar attempts. Each one created a universe of the legendary around the same subject, New York City.

Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale" was a lavish parade of semi-magical figures and extraordinary happenings in which a small group of characters appeared and reappeared, transformed and unchanged, over more than a century of New York life. George Trow's "The City in the Mist" also dealt with New York over the centuries. Its terms were less specifically magical but it aimed, like "Winter's Tale," at knitting together the violence, wonder, greed and energy of the city into a mythical form.

Trow's legend was darker than Helprin's. But both writers treated New York--chosen as the symbol of America's tradition of progress at its most lavish and extreme--as if it were a fabulous jungle kingdom.

Both, in a way, were trying to take issue with the manner in which we--writers, politicians, ordinary citizens--deal with the multifariousness of our country. "There are many New Yorks," a New Yorker will say; thus sparing him or herself the need to take account of all those--the South Bronx, the derelicts on the sidewalks, the burgeoning Latin communities--that are not his or hers.

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