Is Magical Realism Dead?

In the recent short story by Chilean author Alberto Fuguet "Mas Estrellas Que en el Cielo" ("More Stars Than in the Sky"), two young Chileans are holding forth in a Los Angeles coffee shop. The pair--a photographer and a filmmaker--are part of a delegation boosting a Chilean film that did not win an Academy Award. But they are still high on Hollywood, and glad to be away from Chile, "which is like kryptonite," one says. "Get near it and you lose all your strength." In their rent-a-tuxes, they dream aloud about the victory speech they would have made and all the sex an Oscar would bring. In another tale, by another Latin American, this might have been the cue for some sorceress to materialize from the Formica and whisk them off to glory in a spritz of fairy dew. But this is Fuguet, the latest agent provocateur of Latin American letters, and the setting is not a house of spirits but a 24-hour Denny's. The closest this pair will get to glory is a brief flirtation with Tinseltown groupies who mistake them for movie-star-limo drivers.

Fuguet's story skewers not only Hollywood hype and fools in paradise but also a fantasy called Latin America. Magical realism, it says--the literary style that made the mundane seem marvelous and put Latin American fiction on bookshelves everywhere--is dead. As dead as jackbooted generalissimos, as passe as Colombian coffee's poster boy Juan Valdez and his mule. Fuguet's message is that life's secrets are far more likely to be revealed in a bottomless cup of bad gringo coffee than in a burst of iridescent butterflies. Cancel the toucans; here comes the new Latin American fiction verite.

The world has changed a lot since Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" introduced magical realism to English readers in 1970. That novel showcased Macondo, the steamy South American never-never land where grandmothers levitated, dictators rotted but never died and peasants communed with ghosts. Such images came to influence not only two generations of writers in Latin America--and almost everywhere else--but also the way the world imagined Latin America. Now, thanks to Fuguet and his peers, there is a new voice south of the Rio Grande. It is savvy, street-smart, sometimes wiseass and un-ashamedly over the top. Fuguet calls this the voice of McOndo--a blend of McDonald's, Macintosh computers and condos. The label is a spoof, of course, not only on Garcia Marquez's fictitious village but also on all the poseurs who have turned these latitudes into a pastel tequila ad.¡Hola! Fuguet is saying. Latin America is no paradise.

The new genre was born in 1996 with a collection of short stories by 18 authors, all under 35, called "McOndo." The book was launched, somewhat ironically, at a party at a McDonald's in Santiago, where Fuguet and coeditor Sergio Gomez signed copies to the sound of Friolators. The tales are irreverent, often aggressive, scatological riffs on contemporary urban life, told to a backbeat of sex, drugs and pop music. The mood swings from hallucinatory to suicidal, with a heavy emphasis on the blase.

The Hispanic literary establishment, steeped in Cervantes, was appalled. A Chilean critic called one of Fuguet's early works, "Mala Onda" ("Bad Vibes"), "trash." Some intellectuals branded McOndo authors as shallow and flippant, while the left decried the movement as an apology for Yuppie alienation. The makers of "McOndo" were a bit startled at the ruckus they'd stirred up. "Many people thought of us as a bunch of upper-middle-class spoiled kids addicted to pop culture," says Edmundo Paz Soldan, a Bolivian and McOndo author who teaches literature at Cornell. So the McOndo writers turned down the volume a bit and softened the glare. Some even drifted away from the movement. But the spell had been broken. "McOndo slammed the door on magical realism," says Paz Soldan.

At the same time, it opened a window on Latin America's changing demographic. Most Latinos lived in an urban, crowded, footloose environment--not the dreamy, exotic continent magical realism still portrayed. "The worlds depicted in McOndo novels are closer to the Latin American experience than is Garcia Marquez's world," says Paz Soldan.

The McOndo sensibility has also invaded pop music, in the form of Mexican rap and Argentina's bailante dances, and film. It growls in big, bruising movies like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Oscar-nominated "Amores Perros" ("Love's a Bitch") and Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" ("And Your Mama, Too")--both of which are set in an unadorned Mexico, a quirky, warts-and-all landscape without a hint of folklore. "Very McOndo," says Fuguet.

McOndo has many voices, but Fuguet remains the movement's founder and ranking phrasemaker. At 38, behind wire-rimmed glasses and in a black T shirt, he looks like an overgrown college kid. He has a bobbing walk, a raspy voice and a talent for ending his thoughts in punch lines. "Before, Latin intellectuals had to choose between the pen and the sword," he says. "Now it's PC or Macintosh." Born in Chile, he spent his first 12 years in California, where his father delivered Wonder Bread. Now Fuguet lives in Santiago, and though he is bilingual, he considers English the tongue of his muse. In conservative Chile, "you always feel like you're saying something wrong," he says. "In English I feel freer, like I'm 8 years old."

In fact, McOndonians tend to feel at home anywhere. Anna Kazumi, a novelist who lives in Argentina, has a Japanese mother and a German-American father and was raised in Louisiana. She writes in Spanish and then translates herself into English. Mexico's "crack generation"--including such writers as Jorge Volpi and Ignacio Padilla--often don't write about Latin America at all. Volpi's novel "In Search of Klingsor," due out this July, is about Hitler's quest to build an atom bomb.

No wonder McOndo is catching on outside Latin America. When Fuguet won admission to the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop in the mid-'90s, he was eager to find a U.S. publisher. But the first short story he offered to a U.S. magazine was promptly rejected. "They said it wasn't Latin American enough," he recalls. Translation: no flying grandmothers. Fuguet was piqued, but he persevered; in 1997 ran a version of his opening broadside from "McOndo," titled "I Am Not a Magical Realist." That same year his 1991 novel, "Mala Onda," was published in English.

Now publishers vie for works by modern Latin American authors. "Tear His Heart Out," a love story by Mexico's Angeles Mastretta, was recently auctioned in the United States "in the high six figures," says literary agent Thomas Colchie. "Little Infamies," by Uruguay's Carmen Posada, has sold half a million copies in France. "Se Habla Espanol," a book of short stories, is a best seller among Spanish speakers in the United States. And this September, Penguin will issue a collection of short fiction from Latin America called "A Whistler in the Nightworld," which is closer in spirit to Manhattan than Macondo. "I told them, 'No mangoes, no iguanas' on the cover," says Colchie, who edited the anthology.

Where did McOndo come from? Fuguet and his conspirators think of it as rising from the tectonic shifts that have rearranged the atlas in the last 20 years. Politicians and economists call this force globalization; Fuguet prefers "bastardization." "McOndo is about the end of borders, the mixing of everything," he says. While Latin intellectuals spend a lot of time gnashing their teeth over the dangers of globalization, Fuguet & Co. embrace it. The preface to "McOndo" describes the new landscape as "big... crowded, polluted, with highways, and subways, cable TV... five-star hotels built with laundered money."

Half a century ago, another literary insurgency shook Latin America. It came to be called the New Latin American boom, and its rebels--Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others--were sophisticated and immensely gifted, and they told stories as vast and complex as the New World. With the English translation of "One Hundred Years of Solitude," Garcia Marquez became the boom's most prominent voice. Writing from Paris, Barcelona and later Mexico City, Gabo, as he is known to all, turned out sprawling narratives, where a single sentence could gush over 26 pages, like some Biblical torrent, making miracles seem as common as Mondays. In Macondo it rained nonstop for 100 years, or else it rained yellow flowers.

The critics were enchanted. Since then "One Hundred Years of Solitude" has sold millions of copies and can be read in three dozen languages. Magical realism is still a staple for literature courses all over the world. Hollywood has cashed in on tales like Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits" and Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate." The style has helped a thousand careers bloom from Madras to Manila. "You wouldn't have Salman Rushdie without Garcia Marquez," says Amherst College scholar Ilan Stavans. And perhaps most important, it gave Latin Americans a cultural identity. "Magical realism taught us we could make art by breaking the rules," says Argentine-Brazilian filmmaker Hector Babenco, who never practiced magical realism but respects its legacy. "Latin America is never remembered for having contributed anything to the world. Magical realism became our cultural export."

Now the republic of McOndo wants to renegotiate the terms of trade. "We love Gabo," says Paz Soldan. "We just don't want to imitate him." Indeed, modern times demand a new form of expression. Idelber Avelar, a scholar at Tulane University in New Orleans, says magical realism always had a fatal flaw: its practitioners were devoted to depicting a sleepy, rural and, ultimately, vanishing world. "Latin America has fully modernized," says Avelar. "Yanomami Indians have VCRs. The conditions which gave birth to the genre have disappeared."

Even the genre's staunchest defenders agree that it has lost its magic. "It's become kitschy, a commodity," says Stavans. "It's getting so that when you don't know what to do with a character, you send her to heaven in a flutter of butterfly wings," says Colchie. Many of the boom writers are now dead, and of those who remain, most have distanced themselves from the genre. Isabel Allende, one of the world's best-selling novelists, is somewhat defensive about the subject. She declined to speak to NEWSWEEK but says on her Web page, "It's strange that my work has been classified as magic realism because I see my novels as just being realistic literature." Garcia Marquez himself has always insisted that he does nothing more than write about a world where things don't always add up. "Latin America is much wilder in real life than anyone could possibly imagine," says Eric Nepomuceno, Gabo's Brazilian translator.

For all its popularity, McOndo may never attain magical realism's global acclaim. Many new writers sell briskly in their own countries but find that getting translated is harder than ever. That may be due to the rise of Latino authors--that is, U.S.-based writers with Latino roots, writing in English about the urban experience in North America. "Why should publishers look to Latin American writers when they can get the same thing from East L.A.?" says Stavans. "The world is not waiting for the next Latin American novelist."

That doesn't mean he or she won't arrive--more likely by way of Boeing than butterflies. It's late afternoon, and Fuguet is maneuvering through downtown Santiago, a sea of pedestrians flowing through a neon channel of glinting boutiques, beggars and winking fast-food marquees. Peruvians in ponchos play flutes while techno and Brazilian axe throb from the storefronts. Inside the Caribe, a new kind of open-air coffee shop, bar babes in pink minidresses serve espresso and a kiss on the cheek. "Latin America," Fuguet says over the din, "is all this." All except Juan Valdez, who is nowhere in sight.