The 11 AM Yellow Butterfly

Every day I sit at a desk that faces a window and work. It’s not much of a view given the urban jungle we live in, but there is some relief in the form of a yellow flowering tree, the cassia fistula, also called golden showers. It is the national tree of Thailand. Anyway it was planted a long time ago before the current building stands. Right now, the tree is quite ill and has holes in its leaves, which means it is infected. But without fail it manages to sprout yellow flowers every few days. Without fail, every day at around 11 AM, a yellow butterfly materialises. It’s as if the butterfly has an appointment with the flower and always turns up. And every day I am amazed.

Yellow butterflies obviously bring to mind Gabriel García Márquez. One of the many papers I had to write during my master’s was on magic realism. I chose it after having my mind blown by One Hundred Years of Solitude. (I liked it so much I still have it. Or maybe a version of it.) My research included tracing the evolution of magic realism. I remember researching big fat reference books at the American centre library and the college library. And having intense discussions with M. We were trying to grapple with what magic realism is. We can recognise it in literature because someone else tells us so. But how do we recognise it without this guidance? I remember so clearly what she replied because it has stayed with me even now. She said that she read somewhere that a cloud of butterflies following a man is not magic realism but a cloud of yellow butterflies following a man is. This is when I could grasp the concept.

In literature, magic realism seems to have run its course. At least that is the sense I get. Articles like this one and then there is Roberto Bolaño and his visceral realism which is as far from magic realism as it possibly can be. As are authors associated with the McOndo movement which parodies Macondo, Márquez’s fictional town and the gangotri of his stories. The McOndo sensibility also permeates the Granta Spanish novelists’ issue. I was so excited to find this volume in a local bookshop but when I started reading it, I was confused by the stark, grey and gritty narratives.  It was beautiful in parts but had none of the magic realism or even lyricism of Márquez or Allende. It turns out that was the wrong place to look for lyricism or magic realism. I didn’t realise that Latin Americans had gotten over magic realism and I hadn’t. It’s not entirely surprising when you think about it. The events which gave rise to and shaped magic realism are no more. Technology has changed the way we interact – travel, eat, watch and play. Globalisation has brought down some barriers and raised some new ones. There is no time to spend on watching yellow butterflies when you have to catch the next flight or meet the next deadline. In short, magic realism did not portray this new reality anymore. You could say it is rather depressing. But it is also exciting. Since it just means that there might be something else – either a reinvention or a completely new invention – which we can look forward to. The optimist in me refuses to give up though. I would still like to think that magic realism is hanging around waiting for a rebirth. Let’s not nail its coffin just yet.

In the meantime, let’s observe butterflies.


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