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Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) was a Cuban novelist and musicologist. Carpentier was a political exile in Paris between the years of 1928 and 1939, where he was strongly influenced by Antonin Artaud, Jacques Prevert, and the Surrealists. Reflecting his deep commitment to revolutionary politics, his novels explore the irrational elements of the Latin American world, its rich variety of cultures, and the possibility of its magical transformation. Widely regarded as one of the greatest modern Latin American writers, Carpentier was also important as a theorist of the region's literature and historian of its music.


Among his works are Ecue-Yamba-O (1933), The Lost Steps (1953; tr. 1956), The Chase (1956; tr. 1989), The Kingdom of This World (1949, tr. 1957), The War of Time (1963, tr. 1970), Reasons of State (1974; tr. 1976), and The Harp and the Shadow (1979; tr. 1990).

The themes noted above are clearly demonstrated in the novel The Kingdom of this World. In this novel real political figures, such as Henri Christophe and Pauline Bonaparte (who was Napoleon's sister) are set as characters in the novel. He writes of the troubles and hardships that Africans and Haitian-Americans, both slave and free, endured during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

See studies by M. Adams (1975), F. Janney (1981), D. Shaw (1985), and R. EchevarriA (1977, rev. ed. 1990).

Magical Realism

Carpentier created a writing style that is known as “magical realism.” German art critic, Franz Roh, coined the term “magical realism” in the late 1920s for painters trying to show reality in a new way. A Venezuelan literary critic, Uslar Pietri, first applied to it to Latin American literature, but it was when Miguel Angel Asturias used it to describe his novels when he won the Nobel Prize that it really caught on, and then it was "used and abused in the 1960s by just everyone in Latin America" (according to Marcial Souto).

Magical realism was the term utilized to describe Latin American literature during the 1960s. According to some critics, magical realism is what differentiates the Latin American novel of El boom with the European and English-language novels. Magical realism, the combination of the real with the magical, is the opposite of Social Realism. Jorge Luis Borges gave the definition of magical realism when he said, "I imagine a labyrinth of labyrinths, one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars" (Martin 3).

The primary examples of magical realism are Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Angel Asturias, Juan Rulfo, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Magical realism has provided for many authors a form of expression with which to fashion a more original and exact national identity. In the introduction of his novel El reino de este mundo ('The Kingdom of this World'), Carpentier mentioned that magical realism defines the more effective way of seeing Latin American history. According to the critic William Rowe, the "main characteristic of the marvelous in the real is the way in which European myths and dreams, from the Fountain of Eternal Youth to Surrealism's desire to make dream reality, have found their real counterparts in Latin America".

When the writer uses the technique of magical realism, he tries to give magic the status of reality. Works like Asturias's Hombres de Maiz ('Men of Maize'), Rulfo's Pedro Paramo and Marquez's Cien anos de soledad ('One Hundred Years of Solitude') are primary examples of magical realism. Short stories like Carlos Fuentes's Chac Mool, and Julio Cortazar's La noche boca arriba ('The Night Face Up') are also defining examples of this form of writing. In these works the native and popular beliefs are presented as true knowledge rather than as foreign, unbelievable folklore. In the majority of these works, the writers bring the past to life, and force the reader to realize that the past is a vital part of human beings.

Magical realism opened the door for many writers to explain their national identities in a different, more original way. In Marquez's Cien anos de soledad, the oral, superstitious tradition present in the Caribbean coast of Colombia supplies a "view of the world that challenges the usual Western ideas of modernity by validating magical attitudes". Many of these writers have treated seriously many Aztec beliefs. The superstitions that theyhave placed more emphasis on are the ones of the colonial period.

Magical realism draws on popular rather than on bookish history. Faith in unbelievable beliefs, like the ones of the Aztecs, is required for some writing to be considered marvelous because without faith the reader might not experience the magical. Magical realism is just a different approach to looking at things.

Martin, Gerald, Journeys through the labyrinth. (New York: Verso, 1989) p. 3
Rowe, William, "Magical Realism" in Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature. Edited by Verity Smith, (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publisher, 1997), pp. 506-07

For more information on Magical Realism, go to:

For a review of the novel, go to:

For additional discussion of the novel, in Spanish, go to:




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