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Taking 'magic' out of magic realism

Writers' group seeks a new identity for Latin America

What happens when globalization is eclipsed by magical realism? That's one question Edmundo Paz Soldn wrestles with constantly.

It's not that he doesn't care about the levitating grandmothers, clouds of butterflies, or velvet curtains of prose that mark the work of Latin American writers from Gabriel Garca Mrquez to Isabel Allende. Rather, having grown up in the shadow of the region's popular literary tradition, the Bolivian novelist, along with other Central and South American writers of his generation, is hoping to forge a new cultural identity.

Looking over their shoulders, they've dubbed themselves "McOndo." The term is a tip of the hat to Macondo, the fictional town in which Garca Mrquez's novels are set, as well as to its many seemingly mass-produced clones. The McOndo movement surfaced in the mid 1990s with the publication of an anthology, also named "McOndo," of works by writers under 35. Among them are Alberto Fuguet and Sergio Gmez of Chile, Argentina's Rodrigo Fresn and Martin Rejtman, and Peru's Jaime Bayly. According to Paz Soldn, critics are beginning to talk about a "McOndo sensibility."

His new novel, "The Matter of Desire" (Mariner, paperback, $12), is about a Latin American professor at the University of Wisconsin coming to terms with his father's political martyrdom in Bolivia. Its bi-hemispherical characters are city dwellers who carry iPods and follow MTV.

The writer, who teaches literature at Cornell University, talked from his home in Ithaca, N.Y. "The Matter of Desire" is his first book to be translated into English.

Can you talk about why the McOndo movement came into existence?

I think for the generation of writers who came of age in the early '90s, we came at a moment when Latin America was primarily known by magical realism abroad. . . . It became so successful that it became reductionist. People would equate it with [all Latin American culture]. . . . I would say there was an unconscious rejection. There was a whole generation of Latin Americans [in which] no one was doing magical realism. . . . It took six years to realize something was going on [with the publication of the "McOndo" anthology]. . . .

In the '80s, Latin America became less rural and more urban. Four of the largest cities in the world -- Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires -- are in Latin America. We felt [we wanted] to show this in writing, this new environment, with shopping centers and TVs. . . .

When we first published, there was a backlash from the literary establishment. We were seen as the equivalent of the American Generation X. We had sold out to American pop culture and were out of touch with the social and political realities of Latin America.

Part of your rejection of magic realism is that you think it exoticizes Latin America?

The downside is . . . when magical realism becomes a formula, a recipe. . . . It's true that [in Latin America], the extraordinary is quotidian, and that's why magical realism has such a resonance. Yet it's fiction. The problem is when [the literary tradition] becomes indistinguishable from a particular work and becomes a way to describe Latin America and then you misread [the region]. One editor rejected a novel from one of my friends saying, "That novel is too urban." The message is "Magical realism is lacking here."

You don't mean to be disrespectful to Garca Mrquez, right? You just wish there were fewer imitators?

I think probably writers from outside Latin America have done a better job of incorporating or assimilating magical realism -- Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. If you are a Latin American writer and have to live under that shadow, it can be a damaging influence. Like [Southern] writers here writing after Faulkner. . . . Garca Mrquez captured Faulkner. You need that cultural distance. . . . In [Mario] Vargas Llosa's first novel you can [see] the influence of "Absalom, Absalom."

What is the significance of technology in McOndo novels?

I would say that one of our interests is the influence of new media and new technology in Latin America. . . . I guess it's one part of showing that. It's a way to exaggerate the part of Latin America that is not portrayed by magical realism. It's like fighting a stereotype by creating another stereotype.

The characters in your novel "The Matter of Desire" speak Spanglish. This phenomenon happens in cities and college towns in the United States where there is a healthy Anglo-Latin mix. I think, though, that this is the most authentic representation of Spanglish in a novel to date.

Conservative Latin American critics see it as a threat. If you live in a place, it's your day-to-day life and you can't deny that. . . . I believe that if a language or a culture is strong enough, it will withstand any influence. English is always assimilating other languages.

In "The Matter of Desire," there is no magic realism, but there are a number of hidden messages. One character creates cryptograms. The protagonist makes up codes. There's a message in a music video.

I have always been fascinated by crosswords. When I read [Jorge Luis] Borges's work, it resonated -- it's always about labyrinths. I guess it's a way for me in which somebody creates a puzzle and hopes there is going to be a dialogue with the reader and the reader will try to solve it.

You came to the United States in 1988 on a soccer scholarship.

I played three years for the University of Alabama. It was really good. It was culture shock. At the time, I was in Buenos Aires, which is a very worldly city, and then I came to . . . Alabama, so it really was a shock. You imagine the US as a kid. You have the Hollywood images and New York. You don't think you are going to be sent to this small Southern town.

Robin Dougherty, a writer and critic, lives in Washington, D.C. Her column appears every other week. She can be reached at

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