by Rory O’bryen
I begin this article with an anecdote told by Alberto Fuguet and Sergio Gómez in their 1996 collection of stories, McOndo: A young Latin American writer obtains a scholarship to participate in an International Writer’s Work- shop at a well-known university in the United States. Upon arrival he notes that in the US ‘lo latino esta ́ hot’ (anything latino is considered hot stuff) and that the Spanish departments and literary supplements ‘están embalados con el tema’ (are feverishly climbing onto this bandwagon) (Fuguet and Gómez, 1996). So great is the craze that, on hearing that three young Latin American writers have been spotted wandering around the campus only a few blocks away from his office, the editor of a prestigious journal hurriedly arranges a literary lunch-party for them with the aim of putting together a special number dedicated to the latino phenomenon.
Cool, the writers think, we’re going to get published in America (and in English!), and for the simple reason that we’re latinos who write in Spanish and were born in Latin America. Yet the editor and the three young writers are soon disappointed. Come the end of the semester, the editor rejects two of the three submissions, complaining, to the writers’ dismay and disbelief, not that they lack verisimilitude, but that they lack any trace of ‘magical realism’, and that they could have been written anywhere in the First World.
This anecdote should alert us to the currency of ‘Magical Realism’ both within commercial and academic circuits where the label functions simultaneously as a positive marker of essentialised difference and as the yardstick against which the novelty of more recent Latin American writing is –by way of a curiously enduring litotes – negatively defined. As Stephen Hart and Wen-Chin Ouyang note, since 1925, when Franz Roh coined the term ‘Magischer Realismus’ to denote a post-Expressionist aesthetic, and since its political reinscription by the Boom in the 1960s, magical realism has become globalised to the point that it now represents, in Homi K. Bhabha’s words, ‘the literary language of the emergent postcolonial world’ .
Yet whilst in texts like Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) (1967) or Alejo Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World) (1949, 1990), magical realism’s disjunctive clash of worldviews challenged the metropolis’s ability to read and master the post-colonial periphery, under the more fluid conditions of global movement and exchange described by Fuguet, magical realism’s globalisation as a postcolonial aesthetic at times clashes head-on with its value as an international commodity, and with the effect that the legibility of contemporary Latin American culture is rendered all the more complex.
Fuguet and Gómez relate this issue of legibility to Latin America’s troubled contemporaneity in a globalised world in which the experience of postcolonialism is increasingly overlaid with the more uncanny experience of the post-national. After their disheartening desencuentro, the authors are tempted to conclude that Latin America was perhaps just an invention of North American Spanish departments (‘un invento de los departamentos de español de las universidades norteamericanas’): ‘Salimos a conquistar McOndo y sólo descubrimos Macondo […]. Los árboles de la selva no nos dejaban ver la punta de los rascacielos’ (We left to conquer McOndo but all we found was Macondo [. . .]. The trees of the jungle prevented us from seeing the tips of the skyscrapers).
Thus, in an ironic twist on what the postmodern anthropologist, Johannes Fabian terms ‘the denial of coevalness’ central to colonial knowledge-power, the authors show how the popularity of a genre hailed as the hallmark of the postcolonial now prevents them from expressing the transformations of their postcolonial status under the conditions of late capitalism and globalisation. The collection produced in the light of this desencuentro aggressively sets out to correct this problem, and does so in its iconoclastic identification of a Latin America that they satirically term ‘McOndo’. Before I offer an assessment of what is at stake in this gesture, it is necessary to pay attention to the terms in which it is made.
In an implicit resolution of the debates sparked off in the 1970s over the Boom’s claims to literary autonomy, Fuguet and Gómez joke that McOndo’s proximity to its antecedent and homonym, ‘Macondo’, can be found in its status as a marketing label or ‘marca registrada’. This contention highlights the fact that writers searching for individual and collective expression must, if they are to achieve success, learn to negotiate a global print economy that relentlessly transforms cultural capital into its libidinal and economic correlates.. Yet the motivations behind McOndo are not only economic, but also aesthetic and ethical. Fuguet and Gómez make a claim for a new, ‘virtual’ realism that will give a picture of the transformations brought about by neoliberalism in the 1990s. ‘McOndo’, they write,
es tan latinoamericano y mágico (exótico) como el Macondo real (que, a todo esto, no es real sino virtual). Nuestro país McOndo es má́s grande, sobrepoblado y lleno de contaminación, con autopistas, metro, TV-cable y barriadas. En McOndo hay MacDonald’s, computadores Mac y condominios, amén de hoteles cinco estrellas construidos con dinero lavado y malls gigantescos.
is just as Latin American and magical (exotic) as the real Macondo (which, at the end of the day, is not real but virtual). Our McOndo is bigger, more overpopulated and polluted; it has motorways, metro- systems, cable-TV and shanties. In McOndo there are MacDonald’s, Mac computers and condominiums, as well as five-star hotels and gigantic malls built on laundered money.