Didion's report from El Salvador 1982 can, perhaps, be most usefully read as a commentary on magical realism—on its necessity, its vitality, and its humanity. I have stated previously that I am not a supporter of magical realism; it is not that I prefer the grit of "real" realism necessarily, but that I find what I have always taken to be the essential arbitrariness of magical realism to be an unstable enlargement of the author's mandate as arranger of her narrative and rhetorical particulars. That is not clear—let me re-phrase, or rather reiterate: writing about Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, I said, "Its [The Intuitionist's] realism, such as it is, is extraordinarily arbitrary, though not in the directed sense of magical realism, where verisimilitude is abridged for solid aesthetic reasons, or for understandable caprices, at any rate." And then there is my more sustained engagement with the genre, reviewing Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, where I define the genre largely by positing a unity of sensibility in the author's relationship to their material: "I believe what is meant by the "magic" in "magical realism" is less concerned with what is included in the realm of possibility and more about the author's sensibility and relationship to her material—invariably that sensibility is acutely playful, ostentatious, and yet curiously self-circumscribed, like a man who puns aloud for his own amusement. Magical realism is a
Forgive the solipsism of quoting from my own posts, but this post is largely about reflecting on my own understanding of magical realism as it may have changed in the past week, while reading Salvador and thinking further about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I have also been talking very productively to a fellow counselor here at camp about Latin American literature (a different friend laughed at me for calling Wao Latin American literature—I admit to a certain hasty generality in my thinking, but am fairly convinced that Díaz's book is as much in conversation with Latin American literature properly speaking as it is in conversation with Caribbean literature). This other friend has given me tantalizing chunks of a novel that I desperately want to track down when I return home, Imagining Argentina, by Lawrence Thornton.
At any rate, I suppose my notion of what magical realism is and what it does has shifted substantially; I would not use the words "ornamental" or "caprice" quite so glibly or so comprehensively to describe the departures from reality the author undertakes. More significantly, I would stress that the "systematic and structural" reasons for magical realism are more prevalent than I previously allowed, or that self-indulgence is not nearly so common an origin for the magic as I thought was the case. After reading Didion's small report of a small country, the project of magical realism seems less like an authorial decision and more like a natural reaction.
I read Didion's reportage as a commentary on magical realism not just in terms of the content and her explicit statements ("I began to see Gabriel García Márquez in a new light, as a social realist"), but also in terms of her rhetorical strategies of pinning down the character of the country and, a little too impressionistically, of Latin culture broadly speaking.
Actual information was hard to come by in El Salvador, perhaps because this is not a culture in which a high value is placed on the definite... All numbers in El Salvador tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if numbers denoted only the "use" of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number. At any given time in El Salvador a great deal of what goes on is considered ineffable, and the use of numbers in this context tends to frustrate people who try to understand them literally, rather than as propositions to be floated, "heard," "mentioned." [...] Language has always been used a little differently in this part of the world (an apparent statement of fact often expresses something only wished for, or something that might be true, a story, as in García Márquez's many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice), but "improvement" and "perfection" and "pacification" derive from another tradition. Language as it is now used in El Salvador is the language of advertising, of persuasion, the product being one or another of the soluciones crafted in Washington or Panama or Mexico, which is part of the place's pervasive obscenity...
The provenance of the dances was more complicated. They were Indian, but they were less remembered than recreated, and as such derived not from local culture but from a learned idea of local culture, an official imposition made particularly ugly by the cultural impotence of the participants.Didion wishes not just to describe El Salvador and its political situation, but to characterize it, to map out its foundations, or at least to collect metonymic data which are illustrative of the way things build off these foundations. She cannot do this, however, because the data she collects point to a national character that has been produced by oblique refractions of external forces. The foundations she seeks are, in her words, ineffable, though I think a bitter word would be diffuse. If her objective is synthetic in nature—to pull together isolated details and telling trivialities—these details need to refer back to something at least meagerly coherent; the way contradictory numbers and names diffuse information over multiple sources or chains of sources precludes any form of coherence from emerging.
Didion must therefore attempt to reproduce in journalistic terms the indirections of magical realism, crossing the wires of reality to produce sparks which illuminate the tangled strands and frayed edges of the system. She must hint at a larger unreality of ideas and ethos which makes the reality of events and persons possible. The epitaph of the book is from Heart of Darkness—the bit that starts, "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz..." and ends "Exterminate all the brutes." In that book, the brutality at the heart of the story is real to us only when embedded within the vastly unreal context of the sepulchral cities of Europe. The book would be an adventure story—albeit a febrile one—and Kurtz a mere madman if it were told straight, without the haunting frame provided by Marlowe.
Magical realism's departures from straight narration are negotiations between the large unrealities of politics, history, and culture and the small realities of character, plot, and scene. Didion wishes to duplicate this embedded quality, but cannot do so without invention. She can gesture toward the presence of that larger unreality, but cannot bring it near to us. She promises a number of times to enlighten us as to the "exact mechanism of terror" in El Salvador. She cannot be exact, though, as there is nothing exact about an ineffability or diffusion. What she can be is particular—she can cordon off like a crime scene the moments and places where ineffability brushes humanity. She does this well and often; her details are crisp and chilling, stabbing us with their pointed actuality. But her inability to do more illustrates very well how critical it may be to suspend reality from time to time to understand anything at all.