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Latin American Magic Realism

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Good morning and welcome to today’s session where we try to take a look at this story by Marquez “Balthazar’s marvellous afternoon”. As we all know Gabriel Garcia Marquez is considered as perhaps the best storyteller of the 20th century, he is a Nobel laureate and his works have a very unique magical realist approach in them. And if you are familiar with Marquez works, you will know that Balthazar’s marvellous afternoon is a very different kind of a story where you do not have the usual narrative techniques used by Marquez, it is present in more like a linear narrative and there is also an apparent simplicity about the short story which makes it all the more enduring. It is very direct and at the same time, there are subtle messages and subtle preferences that Marquez sends out to his readers. So in this session we should 1st try to take a very detailed look at the story and I hope to read the story with you and take up a look at it paying attention to the characters and the many narrative elements that are built into the story, so here we begin taking a look at the short story “Balthazar’s marvellous afternoon”. (Refer Slide Time: 1:31) In this story Balthazar’s marvellous afternoon we get to know from the title itself that this is about Balthazar. The protagonist here is Balthazar and the story is about something which happened to Balthazar in just one afternoon. When the story begins we get to know that Balthazar has just finished making a beautiful cage, the most beautiful cage as the story itself describes and many people are coming to see the cage and they are appreciating it. And weare also introduced to a couple of other characters, Ursula who is living with Balthazar and we are also introduced to the character that Balthazar is, he is 30 years old and he is living with Ursula from 4 years without marrying her and without having children and life had given him many reasons to be on guard but none to be frightened. (Refer Slide Time: 2:21) We get to know that this is a man, Balthazar is a man with a past, we do not know the details about it but we also get to know that he has seen life and based on that based on those experiences we may evaluate this afternoon and the incidents which follow in the story. And we are also presented with this idea that Balthazar had always excelled in his work. And even when people are pointing out that this is the most beautiful cage in the world, the story tells us that Balthazar had no sense about it that he was even clueless that he is about to make this a masterpiece and for him he was just continuing the work that he had always been doing and perhaps excelling at. We are also given to understand that he is otherwise a carpenter and his wife is also slightly upset that he had been spending the last 2 weeks only looking at this cage, only focusing on building this cage and making this cage and neglecting his regular carpentry work which perhaps is their only means of livelihood as well. (Refer Slide Time: 3:23) And from then on we are being introduced to the crux of the story where they began to talk about how much this cage will yield them and he begins to wonder whether this is 30 Mexican pesos. And given that he had spent last 2 weeks working on this, Ursula thinks that he should ask for 50 or even 60 pesos. And at this point we are introduced to another character Mister Chepe Montiel and apparently the cage is being built for him and we get to know that perhaps he is a rich person and from whom he can aspire to get this kind of money. And we also get to know that it is not every day that Balthazar and Ursula get this kind of money in return for their works so they are really looking forward to it. (Refer Slide Time: 4:12) And that same afternoon we find him getting prepared perhaps to sell this cage, the news had spread far and wide about this most beautiful cage that Balthazar has made and doctor and old revision in the locality Dr Octavio Giraldo, he comes looking for Balthazar and he offers to buy the cage because his invalid wife is very fond of birds and he thinks this is one cage which would perhaps make her happy for a while. (Refer Slide Time: 4:43) I want you to focus on the scene which Dr Octavio Giraldo witnesses when he goes to Balthazar’s place. The cage is there on display and we are being introduced to this idea that here Balthazar’s cage ceases to be a functional thing. On the other hand, it is being represented as an artefact, as an object to be admire and it is in Octavio Giraldo’s eyes that we find this masterpiece, this artefact, it assumes the greatest elevated position. He offers to buy it, he thinks about the emotional appeal that this would have for his wife, if you read through the story there is also this passage where he tries to describe, this is how the cage is being described here. (Refer Slide Time: 5:24) The cage was on display on the table with its enormous dome of wire, 3 stories inside with passageways and compartments specials or eating and sleeping and swings in the space set aside for the birds’ recreation. It seemed like a small scale model of a gigantic ice factory. The doctor inspected it carefully without touching it, thinking that in effect the cage was better than its reputation and much more beautiful than he had ever dreamed of for his wife. This is a flight of the imagination he said. So this is how this cage is being described, of course, people started looking at it and saying wonderful things about it the moment Balthazar was done with it, they identified it as the most beautiful cage in the world and the best that Balthazar had made so far. (Refer Slide Time: 6:19) But in the eyes of Octavio Giraldo, we find this cage getting elevated to a different position altogether. Here we keep in mind the discourse of art which also perhaps Marquez has in his mind when he is talking about the cage and when he is writing this entire short story. We get to know that there is a way in which an object of art also can be seen in different ways, how it receives different values of aspiration in different eyes and different hands it assumes different values altogether. And having described this cage in such wonderful terms Marquez goes on to tell us that Doctor Octavio Giraldo, he even thinks that the cage by itself can sing. It is not an even object which performs this function on having birds inside, even without the birds it can be an object which can sing by itself. But when he offers to buy it, Ursula and Balthazar immediately respond and say the cage has already been sold because it belongs to the son of Mr Chepe Montiel, and this cage he also explains this was made for a pair of troupials. This is the turning point in the story where we find there are these 2 prospective buyers; one apparently has already placed the order, the other one appreciates it better and even after the story gets over we get to know that Dr Octavio Giraldo is perhaps the only one who appreciates the story and also feels emotionally connected to it, and the presence of an invalid wife and the happiness that he hopes to bring for her takes it to a different level again. But Balthazar refuses to sell this cage because it is already been committed to. Doctor Giraldo even tries to convince Balthazar saying that maybe you can make another cage for a pair of troupials because Chepe Montiel had not given the design, he just would not know, even if you make another cage and sell it to him. So this one-man this doctor who identifies the potential and also the possibility that maybe he will not be able to make another one like this and here Marquez is also trying to give us some insider information, some insider details about the way artworks, maybe it is not an everyday business to produce a masterpiece. And only the right kind of person with the aesthetic sensibility and that kind of refined understanding can understand it. We do not know the subtle messages that Marquez is trying to send across and if you are familiar as I told with the other kinds of narratives that Marquez has produced, this may come across as being extraordinarily simple which is why critics also find it fascinating to engage with the story like Balthazar’s marvellous afternoon, which is presented in a very simple canvas but it also talks in-depth about abstract but strong values which are part of art and art production. And here we find Balthazar becoming this artist who is not driven by money, of course, he does have this interest to get the maximum amount from Chepe Montiel, but at the same time, we find him operating ethically as well. (Refer Slide Time: 9:51) So here when he is being convinced by the local physician to sell this masterpiece cage to the doctor and make another one for Chepe Montiel, we find that Balthazar does not give in to that. Much as this sounds tempting for a carpenter for whom even 50 or 60 pesos is really huge money, we find him not giving into temptation. Doctor Giraldo is unable to convince Balthazar even after he says, I promised it to my wife this afternoon. And Balthazar says, I am a very sorry doctor but I cannot tell you something that’s sold already. And this episode, this instance with the doctor, it gets presented in a more aggravated sense when you reach the ending of the story. (Refer Slide Time: 10:47) It is only when we reach the ending of the story, we begin to look back at this episode and evaluate this for the gravity that it had and it ceases to be one seemingly simple instance and it becomes elevated to an almost contrasting kind of episode as well as personality over here. This physician, it is important to take a closer look at the character of this physician, the story tells us that Doctor kept looking at the cage, it is a very pretty insight extremely pretty. Then moving towards the door he began to fan himself energetically smiling and the trace of that episode disappeared forever from his memory, Montiel is very rich, he said and him disappointed but certainly, he is not remorseful towards Balthazar or anyone and it also, this minor incident and this brief description Marquez perhaps introduced it to tell us about the nature of this physician, Doctor Geraldio who comes across as the only person who has identified the potential of this cage and he also leaves by saying Montiel is very rich. (Refer Slide Time: 11:46) And from then on we are taken to another segment of the story which again happens in the same afternoon about Jose Montiel. So now we get to know about this Mr Chepe Montiel who has been introduced to us right from the beginning of the story, the cage has already been sold to him and the story also tells us that Montiel was not as rich as he seemed and from now on their movement is also pretty fast, we find Balthazar reaching Montiel’s house with this cage, the most beautiful cage, the cage which many people are aspiring to buy. Montiel’s wife exclaims, “What a marvellous thing” and there is a crowd gathered there as well, people wondering how this transaction would go. And people are also perhaps coming there in crowds to see this cage as it is that beautiful that is the kind of reputation that thiscage has got in this limited time. Sometimes certain works of art also get this kind of instantaneous response, the reputation travels far and wide even before people have really seen this object. In the present context also, given that Marquez is perhaps talking about art this actually makes a lot of sense. A little earlier in the story, we are also told through the character of physician that the cage is, in fact, better than the reputation, so there are many things Marquez is drawing our attention to about the work of art and about the kind of attention that it gets, the reputation that it receives and the responses people generally have towards it or against it. And we find this crowd gathering, the crowd is also an important character in the story we will see, from the beginning the crowd begins to value this cage as the most beautiful one. It is after the crowd evaluating the cage as the most beautiful cage that Balthazar also begins to attribute more value to it. And only when and as in when more people come looking for the cage, the value increases in Balthazar’s mind and also in the minds and eyes of the people who have gathered that to see how the transaction is going to go and we briefly we are being made privy to the background, the relation that Balthazar already had with Montiel. (Refer Slide Time: 14:00) it reads, Balthazar was no stranger to Jose Montiel’s house, on different occasions because of his skills and forthright way of dealing he had been called in to do minor carpentry jobs. But he never felt at ease among the rich, he used to think about them, about their ugly and argumentative wives, about their tremendous surgical operations and he always experienced afeeling of pity. When he entered their house he could not move without dragging his feet. I also wanted to pay attention to the narrative voice here, we have an omniscient narrator narrating in the 3rd person and we are being told many things about this character Balthazar, and while we get to know about the other characters through many instances in the story we find the narrator being really invested in telling us directly about Balthazar’s own character. And Balthazar we also get to know is a fair-minded person, he is not just an excellent artist he is also someone who is known for his ethical dealings, for his way of dealings, for his forthright way of dealing. And we find that the way people come and talk about his work, he does not seem to be having many rivals at least in the work that he is doing in that locality. And here in 3rd person through an omniscient point of view, we also being told that Balthazar gets uncomfortable in the presence of the rich. So the experience that he had before, as the story tells us right and the outset, the life that he had experienced before he turned 30 the last many years, perhaps that also had a bearing on the way he, on the way his comfort zones are defined and he certainly does not have it in him to aspire to be rich while he attributes value, while he attaches value to this work of art and while he wants to earn 50 pesos or 60 pesos as his wife Ursula also says. At the same time, we do not find it in him the ability to pursue wealth to become rich through his work of art. And the way Balthazar’s artwork operates is also different, he is a Carpenter just a regular carpenter daily and this is something which has happened out of the blue and something which has destructed the routine that Balthazar otherwise had. (Refer Slide Time: 16:50) As his wife also tells us in the beginning, he has been spending the last 2 weeks neglecting all the other works just focusing on working on this cage. So this is something that he has been doing, he has got to do quite out of the way, not part of his regular on. We are now reaching the climactic part, the most important part of this story. We get to know that Balthazar reaches Montiel’s home and he is asking for Pepe, Pepe is a child. And as soon as Montiel walks in, he was in his bath when Balthazar arrived and as soon as Montiel walks in, he does not seem to approve the cage instantly just like all the others had done. He reacts in a very hostile way, he is not even indifferent to the cage, he reacts in a very hostile way, he refuses to accept that. Balthazar in the 1st place had a deal with his son who is just 12 years old in Montiel’s words.
(Refer Slide Time: 17:31) I am very sorry Balthazar, but you should have consulted me before going on, only to you would it occur to contract with a minor. We are now being forced to pay attention to many intricacies which are part of this. Till now we were under the impression that the cage was being made because Montiel had placed an order but when Balthazar reaches this home, we get to know that the cage was made because Montiel’s child wanted this, Montiel’s 12-year-old boy wanted it, while all the others, the mother, the boy himself, while all the other seemed extremely pleased with the way the cage has turned out. They are extremely pleased to own that piece of art as well. The man who is supposed to make the final decision as far as this transaction is concerned he turns hostile. He refuses to see the value in the cage, not only that he also puts the blame on Balthazar for having made this contract that is how he refers to it, for having made this contact with a minor, with his child in the 1st place. (Refer Slide Time: 18:42) Montiel asks Balthazar to take this away and sell it wherever you can, he does not see this as the most beautiful cage, he does not see this as the flight of imagination as the physician had marked, he only sees this as another cage and he had no intentions of buying it. But the child reacts hysterically, he begins to throw a tantrum, the child had remained motionless without blinking until Balthazar looked at him uncertainly with the cage in his hand. Then he emitted a guttural sound like a dog’s growl and threw himself on the floor screaming. So the scene is getting very tumultuous, we have a hostile father who is getting very angry with Balthazar and also his child for behaving irrationally. The child is also throwing tantrums and here we are also being introduced to the kind of commotion which Balthazar or any of the other onlookers were appreciating the cage had in mind when they were talking about this. And we also get to know that it seems a very trivial reason that kind of breaks this transaction which does not allow this transaction to happen. Balthazar being the kind of person that he is, his heart melts and he offers to gift the cage to Pepe, the 12-year-old boy. (Refer Slide Time: 19:59) And look at the way Balthazar talks about it, “Keep it, after all, that is what I made it for”. Being the ethical kind of person he is, having refused to hold this to anyone else because in his mind this was already sold to Montiel or Montiel’s child, there was a prior commitment that he had made to this 12-year-old boy. And being that kind of a person he also does not know what else to do with it, and suddenly we find that it is in this moment in this afternoon, that Balthazar becomes really the person that he is. He ceases to be the one who can be persuaded to ask for 50 or 60 pesos, he ceases to be the one who is also bothered about how people see his work and how they value his work. He emerges as this artist as this man with integrity who is more bothered about the commitments that he had made. And this is perhaps the point that Marquez is also trying to drive home that what remains more important is perhaps not fame or fortune that art brings that work of art brings, but the integrity for which the artist had been standing right from the beginning. And it is in this moment that Balthazar becomes the spokesperson of the kind of ideal artist that Marquez perhaps wanted to portray and highlight and foreground, and when Montiel is talking about this cage and insists on this being taken away, these are the ways he refers to this, “Take your piece of furniture home” and little after that “Take your trinket out of here”. So from Montiel, this is just a piece of furniture and this is a trinket which can only be a nuisance, he does not see the function of the work, nor does he see the artistic appeal over here. (Refer Slide Time: 21:54) When Balthazar is telling Montiel, I made it expressly as a gift for Pepe, I did not expect to charge anything for it. We do not know whether he really means it or not but from the way Balthazar had always been talking about the cage and the way he had been responding to the other offers to buy the work or his wife’s own arguments to try and make more money out of it. So when we look at how he had responding to these, there is every reason for us to believe that this is perhaps the real self of Balthazar where he truly believes that he had made this for Pepe because Pepe had asked him to do so. There was no profit motive here, the only thing that mattered was this commitment that he had with this child no matter how irrelevant that contract or this transaction had been. We find Montiel using abusive language against Balthazar, we also find that Balthazar is actually a very meek man, he does not respond at all, he is being thrown out of that house. We find Montiel swearing at Balthazar and he just leaves, but Balthazar leaves the cage behind there. He gifts it to Pepe and if you take just that instance out of the story it is a very feel-good episode where the child feels happy, everyone feels contented and of course, there is hostility over there, but Balthazar and the child they seem quite contented and happy with the transaction that they have just made which is clearly out of contract and without any profit motive. (Refer Slide Time: 23:34) And now there seems a shift, when Balthazar is walking out he is received with an ovation, and this next passage is very important and it also marks the turning point or turns towards an anti-climactic stance in this story. Until that moment he thought that he had made a better cage than ever before that he had to give it to the son of Jose Montiel, so he would not keep crying and that none of these things was particularly important. But then he realised that all of this had a certain importance for many people and he felt a little excited. We are not too sure of what Marquez is hinting here directly or indirectly, he is, of course, talking about the responses and the varied ways in which art gets talked about when it is placed in a public context. As far as Balthazar is concerned, when he is evaluating this transaction between himself as an artist and this child as someone who is just feeling happy to receive the cage, as far as he is evaluating that he thinks it is all fine and nothing else is important. And other things about how much the cage how much the money the cage would fetch or the kind of appreciation that the cage had been getting or the time that he invested on this cage vis-à-vis the regular carpentry work that he had been doing none of that is particularly important as far as Balthazar as a person is concerned. The moment he walks out and he is received with an ovation by this crowd who are waiting for the outcome of this transaction, he realises that all of this had certain importance for many people. (Refer Slide Time: 25:16) And this is the time when Balthazar decides to play it along when the people who are waiting for him, he just placed in the gallery when they asked him whether he got 50 pesos, he just exaggerates and says “60 pesos”. And here this contrast between what happened in reality, and this reality which is being forced upon Balthazar it is very interesting, and this is where we also find the craft of Balthazar, the craft of Marquez coming into action we find him transforming a very ordinary situation into something extraordinary as we would begin to see in the way this is leading towards an anticlimactic end. And Balthazar decides to celebrate this in fact, the decision is already made for him by the crowd when someone says “You are the only one who has managed to get such a pile of money out of Mr Chepe Montiel, we have to celebrate”. And the crowd continues to be important, they seem to be the one making decisions and also steering how Balthazar is feeling about the cage or about the way he should conduct himself following this successful seemingly successful transaction to them. And Balthazar goes out and he gets drunk the story, tells that he has never done this before but now he is getting drunk, he is buying drinks for everyone and eventually he runs out of money because he had not got anything in the 1st place and eventually he even had to leave his watch behind as a pawn. And towards the end he is totally drunk, he is lying on the streets, the others go home and someone informs Ursula that he has got drunk and he is also buying beers for everyone, she obviously does not believe this because Balthazar had never got drunk. And this is important about how this event, this incident transforms Balthazar in certain ways. Whether Montiel is responsible for this transformation or whether the reputation that he got through this unnamed crowd whether that becomes the reason for this transformation one can never know. But what is important throughout the story is that the crowd which is referred to as someone throughout which is referred to as unnamed body throughout, the crowd plays an important role. Being unnamed and not being central figures in Balthazar’s personal life or his vocation or his transactions, and they seem to play a significant role and this is how art also operates in the current world, perhaps z is drawing our attention to the multiple ways in which artists placed within this market-driven economy, within this market-driven consumer practices. And he is also trying to tell us about the abstract ways in which these notions of reputation and these ideas of placing value on a piece of art and placing a lot of expectations on a piece of art but not directly contributing to it by way of support or by way of helping out in the transaction, irrespective of that the crowd continues to play a very dominant role. The purpose of this story is not to evaluate this, I think the purpose of the story is to merely showcase this through this interesting medium. And as stated, Marquez’s use of magical realism here operates in a very different way altogether, it is not very direct but he also uses these seemingly simple images and seemingly simple characters to talk about the universal way in which an almost universal way in which art begins to operate. And towards the end of the story, this is how that afternoon is described when the story ends it is night, we find that Ursula has gone to sleep, it is almost midnight and Balthazar has not got home yet, he is drunk and he is on the streets. He had spent so much that he had to leave his watch in pawn with the promise to pay the next day. A moment later, spread-eagled in the street, he realised that his shoes were being taken off but he did not want to abandon the happiest dream of his life. So when the story begins, he has the most beautiful cage in the world as this unknown crowd describes it, he possesses an object which he himself had created and which is also aspired to be possessed by many others we begin to see. But when the story ends after a series of these happenings, all that he has with him is the happiest dream of his life. So this had despite the hard work that he had put in, this entire segment this entire episode in his life had come and gone like a dream and it had not left anything behind him, it had left him a beggar, even his watch perhaps the only possession that he had with him that day that is also left behind as Pawn. As we wrap up the story, I would also like to leave certain questions with you where you also enable yourself to ask about the relevance of art and how Marquez has successfully weaved into the story these ideas about art about the commercial transaction and how the artist is almost left behind and forgotten in this entire segment. How at the end of it, the artist is only left with the happiest dream of his life. And again what is important is that Balthazar is not a remorseful person now, he is, of course, trying to please almost everyone at the same time in his life, he is trying to please his child for whom this cage was made, he is trying to please his wife by promising her a good revenue in return, he is also trying to please the audience who had been waiting in expectations. And ultimately one would not even know whether Balthazar is living this moment because this is the only moment which has kind of satisfied the ego that he had been trying to build up as far as we look at him as an artist. Whether this is one moment that he would want to hold on forever, the reputation of that moment regardless of whether he got money or not, we wonder whether Balthazar is trying to hold onto this reputation of having sold the cage to Montiel for 60 pesos. So as I said, whether he has got the money or not, what becomes important for Balthazar perhaps is this idea that people forever will talk about Balthazar as a one who managed to sell this most beautiful cage to Montiel and get 60 pesos out of it. In the following lecture, we shall also take a look at how the elements of magical realism work and also point out some of the pertinent questions that this story has begun to ask that this story has generated in terms of discussions. That is all we have for today, thank you for listening and I look forward to seeing you in the next session.