By Juan Toledo

Even since the days of Shakespeare and Cervantes, there has been a long misunderstanding of the literature produced in the Spanish speaking world, including of course Magic Realism. Such misconception becomes evident when it is compared with some of the fantasy sagas so popular among English readers

In Latin America the most widely read and commented on Shakespearean play is The Tempest. It is not surprising since it deals with the very notion of European colonialism and slavery in the so-called New World at the beginning of the XVII century, a time when the European powers of the moment – Spain, France and England – had agreed a cessation of hostilities between Catholic and Protestants and their scuffles and tussles had relocated to Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. Shakespeare set The Tempest in what appears to be an unnamed Caribbean island. 

The play was published in 1611 – six years before Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra published a book that would change the history of literature forever: Don Quixote of La Mancha. The reason for that literary revolution? Cervantes penned a novel that did something no other book had done before: it represented reality as it was. It is the world seen through the eyes of a madman, but it is a real and very physical world as we are constantly reminded by Don Quixote’s hilarious and skeptical squire, Sancho Panza. By comparison, in The Tempest we have Prospero, a Merlin type of figure who, like Quixote, wants to rectify some wrongdoings but he uses magic, controls the weather and enslaves the original inhabitant of the island, whose name is almost a perfect anagram of the word cannibal.

El realismo mágico” we will have to say that it is the kind of magic that co-exists with the mundanity of day-to-day life but – and this is the crucial distinction – does not alter the fabric or reality,

These two contrasting forms of representing the world through literature have persisted until now and are part of the literary canons of the literatures of the English and Spanish-speaking world respectively. In the second part of the XX century, Latin America saw the creation of Magic Realism, initially through the work of two Mexican writers – Juan Rulfo and Elena Garro, but then it was consolidated in the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, a hallucinating family saga set in a town that seems to exist outside history and progress, in other words: the confines of most of the marginalised people in The Third World. But if we are asked to define “El realismo mágico” we will have to say that it is the kind of magic that co-exists with the mundanity of day-to-day life but – and this is the crucial distinction – does not alter the fabric or reality, it doesn’t seek to transform the world. In fact, it leaves it untouched. 

Now, compare this kind of magic with the type that appears in popular sagas like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, where not only reality is constantly changed but it is also used, on many occasions, to save the world. This is a kind of hero-magic whereas the narrative of Magic Realism is its exact opposite. As a result, Spanish- speaking readers can easily understand and enjoy any Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings book because, in the end, they can be seen for what they are: a religious allegory about the struggle between good and evil. Many English readers, on the other hand, seem to have problems appreciating and enjoying Magic Realism because, for them, it doesn’t make sense to have this “useless and weird” kind of magic. A possible reason for this is that Magic Realism is not a religious allegory but a social critique of the political and social realities of Latin America. Seen in these terms, Magic Realism is much more real than magic. 

So, the very conspicuous differences that took shape more than four centuries between two of the most universal writers seem to persist nowadays but more to the detriment of the English-speaking readers than the Spanish ones. It constitutes, in historical terms, a very longevous form of misunderstanding.  

Juan Toledo is Editor of Perro Negro. His book Ocurrencias y recurrencias can now be purchased at our digital bookshop