Postcolonial Magical Realism

The majority of magical realist writing can be described as postcolonial. That is to say much of it is set in a postcolonial context and written from a postcolonial perspective that challenges the assumptions of an authoritative colonialist attitude. As we can see from our discussions of transgressive, crosscultural and postmodern magical realism, these variants seek to disrupt official and defined authoritative assumptions about reality, truth and history. In particular the proliferation of magical realist writing in English in the closing decades of the twentieth century has coincided with the rise of the postcolonial novel to such an extent that postcolonial critics such as Elleke Boehmer in her guide to colonial and postcolonial literature see the two as ‘almost inextricable’ (1995: 235).

Postcolonialism, like postmodernism, is a complex term that is still being debated and transformed. Essentially it refers to the political and social attitude that opposes colonial power, recognizes the effects of colonialism on other nations, and refers specifically to nations which have gained independence from the rule of another imperial state. Postcolonial writing can be, as in the writing of Robert Kroetsch in 1970s’ Canada, a way of reconsidering the identity of a nation after independence or it can be a means of expressing opposition to the ideas of colonialism, such as in the work of Chinua Achebe in 1950s’ and 1960s’ Nigeria. It is generally agreed in postcolonial theory and criticism that the effects of colonialism were not just the imposition of one nation’s rule over another, but it included attempts to change the colonized people’s ways of thinking and belief to accept the cultural attitudes and definitions of the colonial power. This often involved the attempt by colonial rulers to define the colonized people and their nation from the colonizers’ perspective and to impose a homogeneous, authoritative historical and cultural identity on the colonized nation. These disruptive and displacing effects on the cultural life of the colonized nation have been the most difficult aspects of colonialism to change. In his guide to postcolonialism, John McLeod is keen to emphasize the double faceted nature of this socio-political approach:

‘postcolonialism’ recognises both historical continuity and change. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the material realities and modes of representation common to colonialism are still very much with us today, even if the political map of the world has changed through decolonisation. But on the other hand, it asserts the promise, the possibility, and the continuing necessity to change, while also recognising that important challenges and changes have already been achieved. (2000:33)

The majority of postcolonial theory and criticism, particularly that relating to literature, recognizes colonialism and postcolonialism as also a form of discourse, that is a socially and politically determined form of language and expression. Thus, postcolonial novels that are written in postcolonial discourse adopt assumptions and attitudes which are associated with a political perspective that opposes or recognizes the effects of colonialism on the context of the novel. For this reason, while many writers may not directly address the issue of colonialism or postcolonialism, their writing and the assumptions behind what they express reveal a concern with such political issues.

Summarizing her view of the closeness of magical realism to postcolonialism, Elleke Boehmer claims that:

Drawing on the special effects of magic realism, postcolonial writers in English are able to express their view of a world fissured, distorted, and made incredible by cultural displacement…[T]hey combine the supernatural with local legend and imagery derived from colonialist cultures to represent societies which have been repeatedly unsettled by invasion, occupation, and political corruption. Magic effects, therefore, are used to indict the follies of both empire and its aftermath. (1995:235)

There has been much discussion about how and why magical realist narratives are so suited to expressing postcolonial issues such as cultural distortion and displacement. The most often cited discussion is the 1988 theory of postcolonial magical realism proposed by the Canadian postmodernist critic Stephen Slemon. Although Slemon uses the term ‘magic realism’, his discussion refers to texts and characteristics that are commonly and more accurately identified as ‘magical realism’. Calling on a mixture of postmodernist assumptions and the discourse theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, he claims that magical realism is able to express three postcolonial elements. First, due to its dual narrative structure, magical realism is able to present the postcolonial context from both the colonized peoples’ and the colonizers’ perspectives through its narrative structure as well as its themes. Second, it is able to produce a text which reveals the tensions and gaps of representation in such a context. Third, it provides a means to fill in the gaps of cultural representation in a postcolonial context by recuperating the fragments and voices of forgotten or subsumed histories from the point of view of the colonized.

Slemon adapts and simplifies Bakhtin’s model of dialogic discourse to explain how the system of narrative tension works in a magical realist text. He explains that there are two discourses in the narrative but each with a different perspective, the magical and the real, and that neither is dominant but is in constant tension with and opposition to the other. As he explains, there are ‘two opposing discursive systems, with neither managing to subordinate or contain the other’ (1995:410). As he sees it, this structure reflects the tension between the ever-present and ever-opposed colonized and colonialist discourses in a postcolonial context in which the narrative structure reflects the relationship between the two, so that the ‘texts recapitulate a postcolonial account of the social and historical relations of the culture in which they are set’ (1995: 409). In addition, the tension between the two systems means that there are ‘gaps’ in the narrative which can be read either as a negative gap that reflects the difficulty of cultural expression for the colonized in the oppositional face of the colonialist power, or it can provide a positive gap which can be filled with the expression of an alternative perspective from the colonized point of view. Slemon explains that this comes about because:

a battle between two oppositional systems takes place, each working toward the creation of a different kind of fictional world from the other. Since the ground rules of these two worlds are incompatible, neither one can fully come into being, and each remains suspended, locked in a continuous disjunction within each of the separate discursive systems, rending them with gaps, absences and silences. (1995:409)

Slemon refers to the Canadian writers Jack Hodgins and Robert Kroetsch to illustrate his theory. Here he deals with writers from what is known as a ‘settler’ postcolonial nation. Canada was settled by immigrants who originated from Britain, the imperialist power, and from other European nations. The settlers became the predominant population, dominating the indigenous population. This is in contrast to other postcolonial nations where the indigenous population remained in the majority and altered little in its composition during colonialism. These two forms of colonialism have been recognized by postcolonial critics to have different relationships with colonial power. However, Slemon uses these Canadian ‘settler’ postcolonial writers to illustrate the postcolonial condition in general. His analysis, therefore, needs to be read with that in mind. He chose these writers not only because as a critic he is predominantly concerned with Canadian postcolonialism but also because both writers are concerned with the effects of colonialism on identity. Hodgin’s novel The Invention of the World follows the story of a community built as a replica of colonialism on Vancouver Island. Kroetsch’s novel What the Crow Said describes the life of a small rural community on the borders of Saskatchewan and Alberta building a sense of who they are through the stories. Both writers attempt in their writing to create other ways of considering Canada as a postcolonial nation without having to rely on the image of Canada as defined by British imperialism. In order to do this, both writers use fragments of forgotten stories and orally transmitted tales to build an alternative history with which to consider Canadianness. As Slemon notes, these novels assume that colonialism has distorted their sense of identity and their relationship to their history. This occurs due to the Empire’s power to define the history of its colonies to suit its own purposes. Slemon explains that colonialism is ‘a condition of being both tyrannized by history and yet paradoxically cut off from it’ (1995:418). To move on from the colonized position, many writers such as Kroetsch and Hodgins attempt to reconstruct history from the remains of what is known of the people’s history from their own perspective. As Slemon states, ‘This imaginative reconstruction has echoes in those forms of postcolonial thought which seek to recuperate the lost voices and discarded fragments, that imperialist cognitive structures push to the margins of critical consciousness’ (1995:415). This means that many postcolonial texts (such as those by Toni Morrison that attempt to provide an alternative history to that supported by the dominant power) use oral storytelling as a source of alternative perspectives on history, as the oral tale was often the only way in which alternative versions of events that did not agree with those written as authoritative history survived. As Slemon points out, the political objective of these texts is that ‘the dispossessed, the silenced, and the marginalized of our own dominating systems can again find voice’ (1995:422).

The South African writer André Brink provides an interesting example of a postcolonial settler writer whose work is predominantly concerned with the reconsideration and revision of history. Brink’s magical realist novels including Devil’s Valley ([1999] 2000b) and Imaginings of Sand ([1996] 2000a) are written from the postcolonial, post-apartheid, dispossessed perspective of an Afrikaner male. Although having been subject to imposed British colonial rule since the middle of the nineteenth century, this minority community still maintained a dominant position over the indigenous population until the fall of apartheid. Having lost their dominance, Brink explores the desperation and loss of identity through the eyes of a disenchanted urban and educated Afrikaner. His novel Devil’s Valley reveals a grotesque community in which any involvement with the indigenous population was punishable by death; any reference even to the punishments was taboo, despite the fact that the narrator is able to trace communal myths and beliefs to the local indigenous community. The magical aspects of the novel include the appearance of the dead founder of the community amongst the living, the ethereal nature of one of the girls who leaves no footprints, and the strange nocturnal activities of the girls of the community who seem to be a group of witches. Rather than providing light relief, these magical aspects are highly disturbing for the narrator protagonist, Flip Lochner, who attempts to record an authoritative history of the community. The South African critic Marita Wenzel in an essay on Brink’s magical realism notes that the novel reveals its attitudes to history, and concludes that reality, absolute truth and history are unknowable. Indeed, all of the attempts made by Flip Lochner to record an authoritative history are disrupted either by losing his camera and tape recorder, or by the conflicting stories that he is told by different members of the community. He eventually notes that he will not be able to create one version of the history of the community, not only because so many aspects are hidden from him, but also because ‘I suspect that even if I were to know all there would still not be a whole, just an endless gliding from one to another’ (Brink 2000b:368). Lochner eventually settles on gaining an understanding of the community through its diversity and the multiple perspectives which constitute it, rather than attempting to recreate a homogeneous authoritative history. In other words, Brink’s protagonist settles for a postcolonial historical perspective from the point of view of all the people involved, rather than seeking to impose his authoritative view of how he interprets their history in the manner of a colonialist. This denouement to Brink’s novel is perfectly illustrative of the critic Marie Vautier’s summary of the power of magical realist postcolonial novels: ‘Magic realist works, however, bear witness to their liberation from a teleological and homogeneous historical discourse and to an acceptance of postcolonial heterogeneity with regard to historiography and to myth’ (1998:205).

The critic Michael Dash carried out a study of marvellous realism in the Caribbean in 1974, in which he too noted the close relationship of history to postcolonialism for non-settler, post-slavery nations. In a comparison of writers of the ‘négritude’ movement of the 1930s which sought to connect the people of the Caribbean with their slave ancestors and African culture and history, Dash notes that what is referred to as magical realism provides a means to recover not only the past but also the creative and spiritual aspects of the colonized people. He notes that these writers ‘have turned to the myths, legends and superstitions of the folk in order to isolate traces of a complex culture of survival which was the response of the dominated to their oppressors’ (Dash 1974:66). Focusing his analysis on the writing of British Guyanese Wilson Harris, he notes that such writing, like that of Alejo Carpentier ten years before, draws on voodoo and Amerindian culture for inspiration to recreate a sprititual and mythical cultural resource for the people of this ex-British colony. Harris himself is very aware of the postcolonial need for such recuperation, and is quoted by Dash as saying ‘the imagination of the fold involved a crucial inner re-creative response to the violations of slavery and indenture and conquest’ (1974:66). To summarize, Dash claims that such marvellous realist writing of the middle to late twentieth-century Caribbean is:

the taking into account of the inner resources that the ancestors of the Third World could have developed to combat their tragic environment, therefore engaging in a conception of the past which would shatter the myth of ‘historylessness’ or ‘non-achievement’. (1974:66)

This appears to be what García Márquez attempts to do with his stories of the fictional isolated and unsophisticated town of Macondo. The population of Macondo are only considered to be important for a short period of history by the banana plantation owners, but generally the township is outside of history, marginalized from modernity and power. It is only through the visits of the gypsies that the people of Macondo become aware of scientific discoveries. However, the attraction of writing about such a place for García Márquez is to emphasize the richness of their cultural and mythic life, and the importance of a pluralist storytelling rather than authoritative historical narrative. The critic Kumkum Sangari wrote an essay in 1987 in which she considered the postcolonial aspects of what she called the marvellous realism of both García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. Although Latin American writers are often not discussed in postcolonial criticism, Sangari puts forward a convincing argument for considering García Márquez in these terms. She explains that, for her:

Marvellous realism answers an emergent society’s need for renewed self-description, and radical assessment, displaces the established categoires through which the West had construed other cultures either in its own image or as alterity, questions the western capitalist myth of modernization and progress, and asserts without nostalgia an indigenous preindustrial realm of possibility.  (Sangari 1987:162)

Magical realism provides a means for writers to express a non-dominant or non-Western perspective, whether that be from a feminist, postcolonial or rural standpoint, in opposition to dominant cultural discourse. It can be, in its transgressive, subversive and revisionary aspects, a revolutionary form of writing. The final chapter will explore the way in which the association of magical realism with non-Western cultures can equally provide a politically ambiguous situation in which the very magical realism itself seems to emphasize a Western perspective despite its attempts to portray a non- Western one. As Brenda Cooper explains, ‘magical realism and its associated styles and devices is alternatively characterized as a transgressive mechanism that parodies Authority, the Establishment and the Law, and also as the opposite of all of these, as a domain of play, desire and fantasy for the rich and powerful’ (1998:29).


Source: Magic(al) Realism Maggie Ann Bowers, Routledge, 2004.


Categories: Magical Realism, Postcolonialism

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