In Guadalupe Nettel’s award-winning novel, Después del invierno [After the Winter], Cecilia, a Mexican graduate student in late 20th century Paris, describes how constant seclusion in her one-room apartment reduces her into a phantasmal state during the winter. Only venturing out for groceries, her days are spent in her pajamas, staring blankly out the window. As an international graduate fresher, I can’t help but relate to Cecilia. My experience of Michaelmas and Hilary at Oxford begin and end with my room. I confess, in my most wretched nights in this second lockdown, I mull over whether I still would have chosen to come to Oxford had I known that the fourteen lonely days I spent in self-isolation in the fall were a mere prelude to the solitude of the bleak winter. It was on one such wretched night that I stumbled upon Ha Il-Kwon’s webcomic, Annarasumanara.
Now, I know what you’re thinking (I mean I can hazard a guess): a webcomic, really? But hear me out. Annarasumanarais the story of the brief yet life-changing encounter between: Yun Ai (also romanized Yoon Ah-ee), a high school girl who is forced to fend for herself and her younger sister, after their father disappears, and the magician who lives at the abandoned amusement park in her town. The magician’s first words to Yun Ai: “Do you believe in magic?” infuriate her, reminding her of the “pathetic” reflection of her father whose “childish dream” of making toys left her family buried in debt.
Throughout the story, the magician, who spends his days teaching magic tricks to children, is portrayed as an outsider to “normal” life. He is deemed a “lunatic” by society because he is unwilling to conform to what it means to be an “adult.” He has no steady source of income, no schedule, and no status. However, it is precisely this fact which allows him to become-magical and escape from the asphyxiating solitude of the “asphalt road.” The “asphalt road,” is a visual metaphor for life in modern societies where people are expected to quell their desires and always put off that which makes them happy in pursuit of a singular definition of future success. It is this ultra-competitive, hyper-individualized, and fundamentally-lonely world, which gives the comic its primarily black-and-white color scheme. It is only when Yun Ai’s black-and-white world is touched by the magician’s magic, that it becomes infused with color.
The comic suggests that the magician’s magical ability stems from his escape, or flight, from the “asphalt road.” It presents the townspeople’s fear and mistrust of the magician, as a reaction to the threat that his becoming-magical poses to their way of life. But far from the hedonistic figure whose pursuit of desire eschews principled considerations and leads to the destruction of others, the magician sees his happiness as inextricably bound to that of other living things. For him life is not about individuality, but forming connections.
Like Yun Ai, my life up till now—a life which I will be so bold as to presume is shared by many Oxford students—has been one of walking the “asphalt road.” It is a life of always taking a step towards future success even at the expense of health and happiness. But the pandemic and repeated periods of lockdown have only served to emphasize the loneliness of such a life. When students are stuck with nothing to do but work in hyper-competitive and hyper-individualized circumstances, it becomes difficult to be happy. It is this isolation which makes Annarasumanara, the title of which translates roughly to “Abracadabra,” such a timely text. The magic that infuses Yun Ai’s bleak world with color isn’t something transcendental or supernatural. It is the simple, yet profound, realization that she cannot become whoever it is that she wants to be by herself.