By Edna Aizenberg
The New York Times got it wrong. On the front page of its Sunday, January 29, 2017 edition, right under mega-headlines denouncing all manner of executive orders, fear-mongering, and unconstitutional edicts by our new president, it made a stab at categorizing the novice chief executive’s disconcerting behavior—Mr. Trump is a “magical realist” the Times declared, who makes “fantastic claims punctuated by his favorite verbal tic—‘Believe me.’”
In the article, written by reporter David Barstow, the editors of the venerable daily were laudably attempting—like so many other Americans—to decipher President Trump; or as we literary critics would put it in our lingo, they were trying to “represent” him, to find systems of meaning through which to understand and label the new resident of the White House.
The classifying phrase “Magical Realism” (MR) struck the Times as appropriate, since the term was taken to signify “fantastical claims,” “cascade of falsehoods,” and “alternate facts”—more simply and directly, lies. Mr. Trump was a magical realist because he was a skillful fibber, perjurer, fabricator, and so on and so on.
As a Latin Americanist specializing in Jorge Luis Borges, one of the initiators of the magical realism now identified with his continent’s literature, my attention was immediately piqued by the front-page combination of the Times, Trump and (un)Truth. Especially, I realized, because the distinguished publication had gotten it wrong. Magical realism is not lying, but the laying bare of lies; not fibbing, but the challenging of fibs; not a cascade of falsehoods, but a form that bears witness to the truth.
The only thing that the Times did get right in connecting Trump to magical realism was the political key, since one of magical realism’s central features is resistance to single-voiced political structures: it indicts, not supports political, cultural and social perversions.
Magical realism as an artistic concept was all the rage when I was a mere Latin American literature graduate student back in the antediluvian 1970’s. Everyone was suddenly gaga over an obscure novel coming out from, of all places, the scarcely-known Colombia, and entitled One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad, 1967) by one Gabriel García Márquez that broke with the realism of the traditional novel, and described the convoluted political and social history of South America, especially Colombia, through a blending of the magical and the mundane.
It was an artistic tour-de-force that earned its author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. But in his Nobel lecture García Márquez warned against the misuse of magical realism, usually by Europeans and Americans, as precisely what it isn’t—an escape from reality and the justification for lying by governments and administrations.
Speaking of Latin America, García Márquez pointedly asked in his Nobel speech, “Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change?” Notice the emphasis on social change. García Márquez, using MR, wants to retell a century of historical events in order to out the lies of official versions by displaying their outrageousness and absurdity.
The central occurrences in his book are the Thousand Days’ War (1899-1902) between Liberals and Conservatives in Colombia and the “banana massacre” of the workers striking against The United Fruit Company (1928). In opposition, García Márquez unearths the facts that are covered up—for example, his purposefully exaggerated portrayal of a heavy rain that falls on his town of Macondo relentlessly for five years to signal the destruction of the physical evidence of the brutal killing.
García Márquez was following in the footsteps of his precursor Borges, who in the 1940’s, while World War II was raging, attacked the genocidal totalitarians—Nazis, Communists, anti-Semites—who were questing global dominance through what he called the anti-human “rigor of chess-masters,” disintegrating our world by destroying peoples and nations as if they were no more than inert wooden pieces on a world-size chess-board, and by wiping out the past with the large scale provision of a fictitious past, outsizing the banana magnates of Macondo (he did this some years before Orwell in 1984.)
His masterful stories, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940), “El milagro secreto” (“The Secret Miracle,” 1943), and “Deutsches Requiem” (1946) propose topsy-turvy universes—imaginary planets in “Tlön,” stage plays where time moves backwards, and war crime trial proceedings constantly interpolated by the revelation of totalitarian mendacity.
Happily, we are not challenged on the magnitude that García Márquez and Borges were. But perhaps in the US the potential magical realists of our challenging moment are the masses gathered in Washington and elsewhere a week before the Times article for the Women’s March demanding gender equality in the face of Donald Trump’s glaring macho braggadocio.
Could the thousands of pink “pussyhats” they wore, adorned with cat ears, be not only a visual protest against the government, but the seed of a new fantastical strategy that will serve for future political purposes?
Edna Aizenberg is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies, Marymount Manhattan College (New York), and the author, most recently, of On the Edge of the Holocaust: The Shoah in Latin American Literature and Culture