Octavio’s Journey: The New Wave of Magical Realism
It is often said that Latin American literature came of age with the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s. After decades struggling to find their voice, the Americas took the literary world by storm with a generation of authors that included Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alejo Carpentier, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar, among others.
These authors with an extraordinary imagination created a style known as magical realism; in fact, it was Cuban Alejo Carpentier who coined the term. For them, writing about Latin America had to involve mixing myths, miracles and the exotic in a narrative that demanded the reader treat it as real. This explains why we find characters such as Remedios the Beauty (One Hundred Years of Solitude) who is so beautiful that a cloud of butterflies constantly follows her. Magical realism asks the reader not to question the logic of the narrative but to embrace it. And that’s what made it so incredibly successful.
The following generations of writers had a mountain to climb to match or surpass the success of the Latin American Boom. The world had finally turned its eyes to this region that smelled of mangoes and guavas but by the late 1990s young authors wanted, once again, to find their voice. This was a globalised world and writing about Latin themes and the exotic had to stop. The answer came with the Crack Generation led by Mexicans Jorge Volpi (In Search of Klingsor) and the late Ignacio Padilla (Shadow Without a Name). If there had been a boom, here came the crack. No more writing about exotic landscapes; Latin America could also write historic fiction set in Europe during the Second World War, and successfully.
After yet another literary phenomenon, another door opened for the following generation, who chose to focus on a far greater variety of topics. Authors like Santiago Roncagliolo looked back on Peru’s violent years under Shining Path to write the award-winning Red April. And then took a massive change of direction with Tan cerca de la vida, a novel that takes place in Tokyo. Colombian Santiago Gamboa (Night Prayers) and Argentine Andrés Neuman (The Traveller of the Century) are great examples of how contemporary Latin American writers are embracing the world as subject matter for their novels.
Now 40 years after magical realism came to be, French-Venezuelan author Miguel Bonnefoy goes back to those very first roots with a jewel called Octavio’s Journey and it starts like this:
At the port of La Guaira on 20 August 1908, a ship from Trinidad dropped anchor off the Venezuelan coast, unaware that it was offloading a plague which would trouble the country for half a century.
This small but perfectly formed novel tells the story of an illiterate giant who finds himself in a series of awkward circumstances that force him to wander across Venezuela. In the novel, Bonnefoy celebrates the freedom that magical realism gives to the imagination. Everything is possible and justifiable. Octavio crosses rivers of turbulent waters without effort, his strength is never ending but so is his compassion. It is evident that Miguel Bonnefoy pays homage to those great names of the Latin American Boom that so many authors tried to distance themselves from over the last few decades. It is refreshing to go back to where it all started because at the end of the day, it is true that Latin America is still exotic, colourful and yes, it does smell of mangoes and guavas.