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the butterfly man

13 march 2023

"The Butterfly Man," title story in a collection of translations of stories by Estonian writer Mehis Heinsaar (b.1973), is firmly in the magical-realist tradition. Or can anything be firmly in that tradition? Anselm, the title character, hardly has a firm identity. His stock in trade is the ability to emit clouds of butterflies. Anselm's circus debut is highly anticipated – but will he be able to sustain his bodily integrity amid all the fuss?

"The Beauty Who Had Seen It All" is told by a man who is similarly not altogether there. The narrator tells of how he found a magic hat that rendered him invisible. Invisibility allows him to court a supremely beautiful but jaded woman. Because he has no appearance, the narrator can be anything she imagines, and she's ecstatic – until, inevitably, she wonders if she could see him, and he obliges.

The poet at the center of "The High Season" becomes rather too firmly seated in the magical-realist realm. A devoté of coffee shops, the poet refuses to budge when he feels a great poem coming on. Eventually, as his fans supply him with continuous coffee service, he fuses to his chair and melts into the fabric of the café itself.

"The Butterfly Man" is translated by Tiina Randviir and the other two stories by Adam Cullen; all are first-rate English texts. Heinsaar has not been translated much into English, though several collections exist in French translations, and I might start looking for those.

Heinsaar, Mehis. The Butterfly Man and other stories. 2001-10. Translated by Adam Cullen and Tiina Randviir. 2017-18. n.p.: Paper + Ink, 2018.