You are free to dis-believe me, and I am not ready to take a ‘selfie’ only to prove that I am surrounded by yellow butterflies…but if you do believe me, then I can tell you, they have transparent yellow wings, as though they were made out of threads of sunlight…some have black and blue dots on them and others have tiny white lilies, and when they flutter they sound like rain…and smell like guavas…
I know, even if you don’t believe me, you at least wish, that you could be inspired enough to see those yellow butterflies yourself…
“What do you think inspiration is? Does it exist?”
Marquez: “ It’s a word which has been discredited by the Romantics. I don’t see it as a state of grace nor as a breath from heaven but as the moment when, by tenacity and control, you are at one with your theme. When you want to write something, a kind of reciprocal tension is established between you and the theme, so you spur the theme on and the theme spurs you on too. There comes a moment when all obstacles fade away, all conflict disappears, things you never dreamt of occur to you and, at that moment, there is absolutely nothing in the world better than writing. That is what I would call inspiration”
And today, when I want to write about Marquez, the yellow butterflies just don’t leave me…they keep multiplying, mating and reproducing in flutters, the rain gets heavier, and the smell overwhelming.
The writer’s kitchen can be a crazy, chaotic corner, full of pots and pans of all materials, shapes and sizes, fresh and rotting fruits and vegetables, spices from all corners of the world, oils stains, wooden ladles or chopsticks, bent spoons, plates, forks with missing teeth, dirty napkins in a pile, and perhaps one secret, magic ingredient, locked away in the darkest corner of a cupboard. Each time I was invited to taste Marquez’s food – that indescribably luscious and glistening spread of the choicest bounties of the earth, I would secretly step into his kitchen, and rummage through all those dark pine-wood cupboards to look for that magic ingredient – the key to all that splendor, a key to that magic…
“So, everything you put in your books is based on real life?”
Marquez: “There’s not a single line in my novels which is not based on reality”
“Are you sure? Even the yellow butterflies that flutter around Mauricio Babilonia?”
Marquez: “When I was about five, one day an electrician came to our house in Aracataca to change the meter. I remember it as if it were yesterday because I was fascinated by the leather belt he used to strap himself on to the poles to stop himself from falling. He came several times. On one of these occasions, I found my grandmother trying to shoo away a butterfly with a duster, saying ‘Whenever this man comes to the house, that yellow butterfly follows him.’…That was Mauricio Babilonia in embryo.”
“And how difficult was it to make Remedios the Beautiful fly?”
Marquez: “ Yes, she wasn’t just getting off the ground. I was frantic because there was no way of making her take off. One day as I was thinking about this problem, I went out into my garden. It was very windy. A very big, very beautiful black woman had just done the washing and was trying to hang the sheets out on the line. She couldn’t, the wind kept blowing them away. I had a brain wave. ‘That’s it’, I thought. Remedios the Beautiful needed sheets to ascend to heaven. In this case, the sheets were the element of reality. When I returned to my typewriter, Remedios the Beautiful went up and up with no trouble at all. Not even God could have stopped her.”
There was no magic ingredient after all…It was just there…somewhere between the pots and the pans, like a speck of dirt from the earth, which grew the sweet smelling guavas and flowers filled with nectar.
I met many people on those pages; Innocent Erendira running with the gold vest beyond the arid winds and the never-ending sunsets, Isabel who kept looking at the endless rain in Macondo, the little girl with a plastic sack and a bouquet of flowers wrapped in a newspaper, sitting on the train for the first time, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the only one capable of understanding a lover’s desolation, Ursula with her tiny candy animals, Remedios who flew upto the heaven wrapped in white sheets…
And I met many of these people on my own streets, in my house, on trains, in parks….
Milan Kundera in his brilliant, ‘The Curtain’ on the art of the novel, writes, “ There are two basic contexts in which a work of art can be placed; either in the history of its nation (we can call this, the small context), or else in the supranational history of its art (the large context)”. About his small context, Marquez says, “The Caribbean taught me to look at reality in a different way, to accept the super-natural as part of our everyday life The Caribbean is a distinctive world whose first work of magical literature was ‘The diary of Christopher Columbus’, a book which tells of fabulous plants and mythological societies. The history of the Caribbean is full of magic – a magic brought by black slaves from Africa but also by Swedish, Dutch and English pirates who thought nothing of setting up an Opera House in New Orleans or filling women’s teeth with diamonds. Nowhere in the world do you find the racial mixture and the contrasts, which you find in the Caribbean. I know all its islands; their honey colored mulattas with green eyes and golden handkerchiefs round their heads: their half-caste Indo-Chinese who do laundry and sell amulets; their green-skinned Asians who leave their ivory stalls to shit in the middle of the street; on one hand their scorched, dusty towns with houses that collapse in cyclones and on the other skyscrapers of smoked glass and an ocean of seven colors. Not only is it the world, which taught me to write, it’s the only place where I really feel at home ”
And the larger context of Marquez, lies in the space when he took off from Kafka, to write “another way”, or learnt from Graham Greene how to “decipher the tropics” or in the scorched dusty towns and the defeated people both him and Faulkner shared, or in that passage of ‘Mrs Dalloway’, where he located the decomposition of Macondo and its final destiny, ‘ But there could be no doubt that greatness was passing, hidden, down Bond Street, removed only by a hand’s breadth from ordinary people who might now, for the first time and last, be within speaking distance of the majesty of England, of the enduring symbol of the state which will be known to curious antiquaries, sifting through the ruins of time, when London is a grass –grown path and all those hurrying along this Wednesday morning are but bones with a few wedding rings mixed up in their dust and the gold stoppings of innumerable decayed teeth’…
Seemingly unreal and yet real – Marquez was hinged to his context and his people like all great writers are. The more acutely, he would observe reality, the more implausible and devoid of reason it seemed – a real Kafkaesque world, devoid of reason and implausible. Thus, when he was asked, “What type of government would you like to see in your own country”? He replied, “Any government which would make the poor happy. Just think of it!”
As Marquez flies into heaven wrapped in white sheets, leaving behind a trail of yellow butterflies and we prepare to elect our next government, which would make the poor happy, everything that’s real is magical.
** The italicized extracts are taken from ‘The Fragrance of Guava – Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in conversation with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’