This is a subscriber-exclusive edition of Unsettled Territory, a newsletter about culture, law, history, and finding meaning in the mundane.
“What is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvelous real?” — Alejo Carpentier
Novelist, essayist, and critic Alejo Carpentier was born in Switzerland in 1904, but would become known as one of the greatest Cuban writers. He moved to Cuba as a child and throughout his life spoke Spanish with a French lilt, but nevertheless saw himself as an offspring of the cultural mélange of the New World. He was also a revolutionary leftist, who as an adult lived in France, Haiti, and Venezuela, before returning to Cuba as a man in his 50s, after the Cuban revolution.
When I was a college student, I read Carpentier in courses on Latin American literature. But I only recently read his 1949 essay “On the Marvelous Real in America.” In it, Carpentier drew a distinction between the term magical realism (often applied to Latin American literature with fantastical elements), and what he described as the “marvelous real.” Magical realism, he argued, found its origin in surrealism. But the marvelous real had a genealogy in the particulars of the history of the Americas: the encounter between Europeans, Indigenous Americans, and Africans and the conditions of their living. Out of that rich cultural tapestry, and deep suffering, people sustained potent beliefs in things unseen and unmeasured.