Denning begins by considering the place of magical realism in terms of the history of the Cold War. "As the age of three worlds (1945-89) reached its midpoint, the novel looked dead, exhausted." Then came García Márquez and his Buendíases: "In its wake, a new sense of a world novel emerged, with Cien años de Soledad as its avatar, the 'third world' as its home, and a vaguely defined 'magical realism' as its aesthetic rubric."
Like "world music," the "world novel" is a category to be distrusted; if it genuinely points to the transformed geography of the novel, it is also a marketing device that flattens distinct regional and linguistic traditions into a single cosmopolitan "world beat," with magical realism serving as the aesthetic of globalization, often as empty and contrived a signifier as the modernism and socialist realism it supplanted. There is, however, a historical truth to the sense that there are links between writers as unlike as García Márquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer, José Saramago, Paule Marshall, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, for the work of each has roots in the remarkable international literary movement that emerged in the middle decades of the twentieth century under the slogans of "proletarian literature," "neorealism," and "progressive," "engaged," or "committed" writing.The bulk of the essay is a straightforward account of this "remarkable international literary movement"—it outlines the development and diffusion of the proletarian novel—where such a form took root, what adaptations occurred, and how it influenced other communities of "engaged" writers. It is worth reading just for the embedded bibliography dropped piecemeal through its pages, and even more worthwhile for the way it helps the reader to assign places, influences, and ideas to names. I was frankly unaware that Cesar Vallejo had written a novel, for instance, or that Cesare Pavese was a communist (all I knew about him was that NYRB Classics had published The Moon and the Bonfires, and now, as I look at his author page there, I see that they've written out his leftist commitments).
Denning provides an excellent history of this process of diffusion and adaptation, and he also pauses periodically to take stock and note connections, commonalities, and continuities. What I found most interesting, however, were the moments in which Denning analyzes the challenges presented by embedding proletarian themes and situations into a form that almost repelled such material:
Several challenges immediately presented themselves: the attempt to represent working-class life in a genre that had developed as the quintessential narrator of bourgeois or middle-class manners, kin structures, and social circles; the attempt to represent a collective subject in a form built around the interior life of the individual; the attempt to create a public, agitational work in a form that, unlike drama, depended on private, often domestic consumption; and the attempt to create a vision of revolutionary social change in a form inherently committed to the solidity of society and history.Denning is also especially good at isolating the factors that make it difficult for critics to keep the results of this struggle to wed content and form in our sights:
[A]lthough the aesthetic ideologies of "proletarian literature," "socialist realism," or "engaged" writing are found around the globe in the twentieth century, most literary histories focus on a single national tradition, and there is little comparative work that would indicate whether the novels share common modes, forms, and styles. Mainstream literary criticism has generally taken one of two stances: either arguing that proletarian or social realist novels share a transnational formula that marks them as less-than-literary outsiders to the national literature, or claiming that the finest left-wing writers transcend the generic formula and are thus best understood within the particular linguistic and cultural tradition that makes up the national literature. Moreover, the two leading transnational aesthetic terms—realism and modernism—were so embedded in the cultural cold war that they became mere honorifics, with little actual meaning. In the communist world, favored writers were proclaimed realists; in the capitalist world, they were deemed modernists.If novelists had to work overtime, however, to overcome the novel's "inherent" affinities to bourgeois individualism, and critics now also have to work extra-hard to read these novels against the grain of those traditional novelistic affinities, Denning suggests this surplus labor is appropriate: coming full circle back to magical realism, he argues that rather than a "successor and antagonist to social realism," magical realism is best seen as "a second stage of the proletarian avant-garde: if the first moment in the wake of the upheavals of 1917-1919 was dominated by a paradoxically ahistorical modernism that tried to document the lived experience of radically new factory and tenement… the magical realism of 1949 [the year Alejo Carpentier published El reino de este mundo—The Kingdom of This World, the preface of which introduced the term "lo real maravilloso," the marvelous real] is the return of the repressed history" of the deeper traumas of "a history of conquest, enslavement, and colonization."
This half-mythic past's return unexpectedly resulted in the "unleashing of desire and utopia" most associated with magical realism, although the general interpretation of that release is highly depoliticized and given little or no context, political or otherwise. "World literature" sells best when shorn of its history of radical sympathies and stances. It sells a whole lot better if "the unleashing of desire and utopia" gets re-coded as simple tropical vitality.
Edmond Caldwell has done some very interesting analysis of James Wood's handling of self-avowed leftist writers—Saramago here and Bolaño here. Caldwell holds that Wood employs a process of recontextualization and misreading that "domesticates" these authors. I think there is a great deal in common there with the attempts Denning describes of nationalizing or aestheticizing proletarian literature. Denning does, as you can see above, mention Saramago as precisely one of these writers whom we are so apt and eager to absorb as a representative of some gauzy cosmopolitanism.