Meet Felisberto Hernández, the Father of Magic Realism


The Uruguayan writer Felisberto Hernández (1902–1964)—considered the father of magic realism for his influence on García Márquez, Cortázar, and Calvino—was fond of dimly lit rooms, veils, hats in general, and the way blind people strike matches. A virtuosic pianist, in his youth he worked as a “musical illustrator” for silent films. He required absolute silence to write and admired the way silence draws attention to a person’s face. He liked to wander through unfamiliar houses. A friend claimed he lived “on a mountain in the moon.”

The two novellas and four stories that make up Lands of Memory—most of them published in the 1940s, all of them first-person accounts and rigorously translated for the first time by Esther Allen—are summarized by the author as “commentaries on things.” The main “thing” is Hernández’s affection for certain moments, especially those that precede knowledge. Memories of his childhood, like the inexplicable sadness he felt after throwing a yellow banana peel into a green alfalfa field, were particularly important to him for having preceded adulthood, when thought begins to influence and corrupt feelings. Lands of Memory provides a kind of solution to n + 1 magazine’s complaint with the “faux-naïf” sensibility of McSweeney’s. Hernández is capable of writing with a child’s sense of wonder, but he can also philosophically justify childhood’s connection to the unknown (“With respect to the unknown, I want to define the vein more clearly by specifying that there is little thought in it”). The story “Mistaken Hands” consists of complex psychological letters to female strangers, in the hope they’ll write back and describe what their day is like.

Hernández’s allegiance to the unknown and unpredictable leaves little room for plot, suspense, or drama. He can also be dense, sometimes inscrutably so. But even the most difficult passages seem warranted and honorable in their attempt to accurately render dark realities without dragging them into the light.

The natural meanderings of memory take the place of narrative in Hernández’s work and serve to string together moments as viscerally affecting as Kafka’s. A girl reciting poetry is “poised between the infinite and a sneeze.” A fellow pianist “let the sounds float off like dust beaten out of furniture.” Dwelling at length on such things, Hernández uncovers an extraordinary world, disturbing and revelatory in its resemblance to our own.