Alice Whitmore reviews 'Requiem with Yellow Butterflies' by James Halford

Alice Whitmore reviews 'Requiem with Yellow Butterflies' by James Halford

Requiem with Yellow Butterflies

by James Halford

UWA Publishing, $26.99 pb, 264 pp, 9781760800130

Requiem with Yellow Butterflies begins, aptly, with a death. Sitting at his office in Brisbane, the author receives news that Gabriel García Márquez has died at his home in Mexico. Across the world, there is a mushrooming of obituaries. Garlands of yellow butterflies are draped from trees and buildings; outside Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, paper butterflies rain down like confetti. From Madrid, Elena Poniatowska eulogises: Gabo ‘gave wings to Latin America. And it is this great flight that surrounds us today and makes flowers grow in our heads.’

Gabo’s death is a catalyst for James Halford, in many ways. ‘As I read the memorials from around the world,’ he writes, ‘a spark of curiosity kindled.’ Halford, a diligent reader of García Márquez, begins to unpick the tightly wound threads of ‘mythomania’ that envelop the writer and his magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), ‘the great twentieth-century Latin American novel’. The result is the first of fifteen deft chapters that drift seamlessly across the genres of literary essay, travelogue, and personal memoir, opening up new dialogues between Latin America (haunted Mexico; abandoned Paraguay; the humid midriff of Venezuela and Brazil; umbilical Cuzco; ‘eternal’ Buenos Aires), the coastlines and ‘unknown towns’ of Queensland, and the red desert of Australia’s interior.

This first incendiary death also re-ignites the dormant love story folded inside Halford’s book. It was John Steinbeck, in his own travelogue Travels with Charley: In search of America (1962), who wrote that ‘a journey is like a marriage’. A book can be like a marriage, too, and Halford’s episodic piecing-together of thoughts and recollections feels like a fitting analogy for the disordering nature of love, partnership, and child rearing. Told as a series of unchronological essay-vignettes, Requiem with Yellow Butterflies collapses the distance between reader/writer, traveller/tourist, and husband/father. Despite his youthful candour, Halford is no naïf. His flair for dispelling the persistent magical-realist aura projected onto Latin America goes hand in hand with an honest interrogation of his own role in diminishing or trespassing upon something that does not belong to him. Passing through towns and ruins ‘almost wholly colonised by tourism’, he wonders if what we encounter when we travel (even when we travel in search of authenticity, with the earnest goodwill of seekers) is, inevitably, a kind of fantasy: ‘the West’s collective hallucination’. Snippets of displaced music – Brahms’s German Requiem in a Michoacán cathedral; Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries deep in the ‘jungle metropolis’ of Manaus – act as gentle reminders of the strangeness of European presence in what remains, in many parts, a wild and indomitable continent.

Many of Halford’s observations are written from the interstitial sites – the ‘neutral spaces’ of Andrés Neuman’s How to Travel Without Seeing (2016) – that comprise so much of the experience of travel. The sense of movement and displacement is suggested, rather than forcefully impressed, by a recurrence of sliding vistas: riverbanks glimpsed from the deck of a ferry; the cloud-wreathed ascent to Monte Roraima; landscapes snatched from the windows of buses, trains, hire cars – an endless stream of vehicles inching from or towards the coastlines and heartlands of Australia and America, those two immense sister continents.

Halford has a talent for understated imagery. Graceful lines emerge like mirages along the way: the road to Teotihuacán is hemmed by ‘dense green knots of cactus’; crossing the Argentine pampa, the plains scroll past ‘treeless and unrippling,’ with ‘the flatness of the sea on a still day’. Back in Australia, conference attendees leaving the Red Centre in a convoy of rented city cars are ‘a procession of identical white insects crawling across the desert’. Halford’s descriptions often invoke a sense of intrusion: his arrival at Machu Picchu feels like ‘wandering onto an abandoned film set’; on Anangu country, outsiders resemble an infestation of white ants. Just as he questions the aimless odysseys of his twenties, Halford begins to doubt his claim to the continent he grew up on. Returning to Brisbane from Uluru, he confesses: ‘I felt less confident in my use of the possessive pronoun. That smouldering, red-black plain didn’t feel like my country.’ The sensation will be unsettlingly familiar to anyone born and raised on stolen land.

There are other funerals scattered throughout the book: Halford’s grandfather, a World War II veteran, is buried at Redcliffe, north of Brisbane; Jorge Luis Borges, much to Argentina’s chagrin, is laid to rest ‘a few plots from John Calvin in Geneva’s Plainpalais cemetery’. Death, here, is not a heavy pall so much as a counterpoise to the agitation of life – death asks us to remember, to return to our roots, to our sacred sites. It brings the butterflies to rest. The sensation we are left with, at the end of Halford’s roaming, is one of homecoming. Having survived the vicissitudes of an ‘unmoored’ youth, the challenge now is to master the art of arriving. The book opens with an epigraph taken from Nietzsche’s Nachlaß: ‘To rediscover the South in oneself’ – and Halford’s South-South wanderings, his East-coast youth spent ‘gazing East’ – not to the Orient, as our Eurocentric language would have it, but towards the Pacific, and the American exotica that lies beyond it – is also an attempt to reframe his relationship with the difficult geographies of the home and the heart. In a book premised on wanderlust, the message that lingers is an unexpected one: ‘It’s good to be still.’

Alice Whitmore

Alice Whitmore

Alice Whitmore is the Pushcart Prize and Mascara Avant-garde Award-nominated translator of Mariana Dimópulos’s Imminence (Giramondo, 2019) and All My Goodbyes (Giramondo, 2017), as well as Guillermo Fadanelli’s See You at Breakfast? (Giramondo, 2016) and a number of poetry, short fiction, and essay selections. She is the translations editor of Cordite Poetry Review and an assistant editor at The AALITRA Review.

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