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The Magic and the Real Stories by South American Woman

Reviewed by Gail Vida Hamburg
Author of The Edge of the World (Mirare Press)

There is no line that separates the magic from the real in many of these stories. The strange and the weird are treated in a very subdued, ordinary, real manner. Extraordinary events are not remarked upon with anything like disbelief, or injected with tension, as they are in conventional Western literature. South Americans call it il real marvalliso—marvelous reality.

Tigers and panthers roam bungalows and houses without eliciting surprise or shock, in many of these stories. They figure prominently, not as predators, or omens, or figures in dreams; but as characters animating the fictional landscape. Luisa Valenzuela’s perfectly irresistible, “Panther Eyes,” is narrated in just such an understated tone. A woman and her boss are walking down the dark corridor of an office complex after a power outage, when the man screams. “What’s up?” the woman asks, in ever such a casual way. And he answers: “Your eyes are phosphorescent like the eyes of a wild animal.” The woman goes to her optician who examines her eyes and “discovers a panther there.” The narrator informs the reader: “You return home speechless and to calm yourself down, you start pulling your facial hair with a pair of tweezers. Inside you, the panther roars but you don’t hear it.” The use of “you” in this context is interesting to say the least—as if such a thing could happen to anyone at all! Later in the story, again in a sphere of maddening normalcy, the narrator says: “Buenos Aires can’t allow itself the luxury of conscious hallucination,” and “The panther sleeps with its eyes open while she is awake, perhaps it wakes up during her sleep, but that’s something that hasn’t been possible to confirm … She and the boss end up having it off in broad daylight on the office carpet.”

Maria Elena Llano’s “In the Family,” is another hypnotic story rendered with the same understatement. The family’s dead relatives inhabit a large mirror in the family’s living room. “As could have been expected, our departed reflected in the mirror presented the image of a family gathering almost identical to our own, since nothing, absolutely nothing in the living room—the furniture and its arrangement, the light, etc.—was changed n the mirror. The only difference was that on the other side it was them instead of us.” For a while, the narrator says, “we all ate together, without further incident or problems.” Then Cousin Claudia mistakenly accepts a “dull … grayish” salad from one of the dead relatives, grows pale while eating it, and eventually dies. Claudia takes her place on the other side, “between cousin Balthazar (deceased 1940) and a great-uncle.” At the end of the story, the narrator confides: “As it happens, Clara is doing her best to get my attention, and ever since last Monday, she has been waiting for me to slip up so she can pass me a pineapple this big, admittedly a little bleached out, but just right for making juice and also a bit sour, just as she knows I like it.”

The stories are strange, unpredictable, and wildly subversive. The authors seem to enjoy tweaking reader expectations, while at the same time, never letting the reader forget cultural touchstones such as animism, resurrection, sensuality, political subversion, and escapism, that imbue the South American imagination. These stories are not categorized in Latin American literature as horror, fantasy, sci-fi, or fabulist fiction, but simply as “fictions.”

   

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