Italo Calvino is a writer whose work has been variously characterized as postmodernism, neo-realism, fantasy, science fiction, metafiction, and magic realism. Though all these terms are correct, ‘‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats,’’ like the other stories contained in Marcovaldo , fits best into the category of magic realism.
The designation of ‘‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats’’ as magic realism might be troublesome for those who choose to define that genre along cultural lines. Such a definition is not unexpected, since most modern readers associate magic realism with Latin American names such as Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcı´a Ma´ rquez, and Alejo Carpentier. But the term was originally borrowed from a German art critic, who used it to describe post-expressionism, a type of visual art that emerged in the 1920s. And the current meaning of magic realism seems to be open for at least some debate.
Venezuelan author Arturo Uslar Pietri was the first to apply the term to literature in 1948, and some have even argued that his novel Lanzas Coloradas (1931) is one of the first examples of magic realism. In 1949, Cuban writer Carpentier coined the term ‘‘lo real maravilloso’’ (‘‘the marvelous reality’’) to refer to a way of depicting the world common in Latin American literature. In such works, Carpentier suggests, miraculous or supernatural occurrences might be treated as common, natural events. However, to say only Latin American fiction can exhibit magic realism does an injustice to both Latin American writers and non-Latin American writers. First, it distinguishes between stylistically similar works purely based on the ethnicity of the author rather than on any objective qualities found in the works themselves. A work written by Calvino would not qualify as magic realism, and yet an identical work written by Jorge Luis Borges would suddenly be transformed into magic realism, despite being exactly the same on the page. Second, it lumps together a huge and rather diverse group of cultures in a relatively superficial way. Uslar Pietri was Venezuelan, Carpentier was Cuban, Garcı´a Ma´ rquez is Colombian, Allende is Chilean American, and Fuentes is Mexican. This covers a broad range of cultures and regions. Why would it make sense to include these authors but not others, based primarily on geography? What about authors of Latin American descent who happen to grow up in the United States? How about Latin American writers who spend much of their lives in other countries, as Fuentes did? To rely on an author’s geographical location as a defining trait of magic realism seems to provide very little in the way of literary insight.
The definition of magic realism, then, should rest solely on the qualities found within the work. Even here, the definition has been debated. It is generally accepted, however, that a magic realist work depicts a realistic world rather than an imaginative one, and that the ‘‘magic’’ involves supernatural elements within this realistic setting. To leave it at that, however, risks too much overlap with the contemporary fantasy genre. Indeed, some fantasy writers have dismissed magic realism as a pretentious or culturally charged term used for marketing works of fantasy. The other crucial element in magic realism—and one not found in conventional fantasy—is that the fantastical elements are treated by the characters and author as an expected and natural part of the narrative world.
For example, Garcı´a Ma´ rquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970) and R. A. Lafferty’s short story ‘‘Nine Hundred Grandmothers’’ (1966) both contain a similar supernatural element: elderly people who shrink in size as they get older until they are impossibly small from any realistic standpoint. In the Lafferty story, this supernatural occurrence is found in an alien race, and the entire story revolves around the protagonist’s discovery of this phenomenon. The supernatural element, then, is treated by both the character and the author as something noteworthy and outside the normal natural world; in this case, it hardly matters whether this unnatural world is identified as an alien planet or a mythical land. It is clearly other in origin.
One Hundred Years of Solitude rsula, the matriarch of the Buendı´a family, suffers a fate similar to the grandmothers in Lafferty’s tale: ‘‘Little by little she was shrinking, turning into a fetus, becoming mummified in life to the point that in her last months she was a cherry raisin lost inside of her nightgown . . . ’’ However, in this work, the shrinking takes place in the family home, and although it is noticed by the family does not merit special attention, shock, or amazement. The news of her shrinking is presented with the same matter-of-fact tone as any other family event. This understated tone when referring to fantastical occurrences has come to be recognized as a hallmark of magic realism.
To qualify as magic realism, then, a work must feature a realistic setting in which supernatural or fantastical elements are interweaved as if part of the natural order of things. ‘‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats’’ lives up to this definition quite favorably. Marcovaldo’s world is one of warehouses and skyscrapers, of hunger and poverty, and sharp class distinctions. At the same time, however, Marcovaldo discovers an impossibly small garden that serves as the last sanctuary for all the wild creatures of the city. His reaction to this is not incredulity but a feeling of acceptance and honor—as if he has finally been granted admittance into the secret world of the cats. Another defining moment occurs earlier in the tale, when Marcovaldo fishes for a trout in the fish tank inside the Biarritz dining room. He catches one and hauls it up with his fishing pole through the dining room, up to a high window near the ceiling. To lower the line in the first place seems whimsical, but to actually catch a fish—and then retrieve it without anyone in the restaurant noticing—pushes the tale into the realm of magic realism. The ending as well—in which cats, birds, and frogs sabotage the construction of a new skyscraper on the site of their former sanctuary—is presented in a matter-offact tone that refuses to acknowledge the implausibility of the situation.
To classify ‘‘The Garden of Stubborn Cats,’’ as well as the other stories contained in Marcovaldo , as magic realism leads to a fundamental shift in how the genre is viewed. Calvino’s stories were written in the 1950s and early 1960s, and first published together in 1963; this would put him among the early pioneers of the genre, if one were to base such things purely upon publication dates. Even more significantly, by the culturally neutral definition of magic realism given earlier, Bohemian author Franz Kafka would have to be acknowledged as one of the forerunners of the genre. In works such as The Metamorphosis (1937; published in German in 1915), Kafka juxtaposes realistic settings with fantastical occurrences that are described in an utterly objective tone. In The Metamorphosis , for example, a man named Gregor Samsa awakens to find that sometime during the night, he transformed into a giant bug. His primary concern, of course, is how he will get to work.
Although at least some of the works of Kafka and Calvino fit the description of magic realism, it is worth noting that these are singular authors who do not represent the beginning of a literary movement. And it is through a literary movement—rather than through the specifications of a genre—that Latin American writers like those mentioned previously have made a significant impact on the world of literature. To include Calvino and Kafka among the list of early practitioners of magic realism does not diminish the accomplishments of Latin American ‘‘boom’’ authors; to ignore them, however, would be to deny the genre of some of its essential works—regardless of the country in which they were written.
Greg Wilson, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Italo Calvino, Published by Gale Group, 2010