A Butterfly Hunter Finds Love in His Net
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN, The New York Times, December 25, 2000.
Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (Livadia)
By Jose Manuel Prieto
Translated from the Spanish by Carol and Thomas Christensen
Atlantic Monthly Press
Jose Manuel Prieto, a Cuban writer who lived in the Soviet Union for many years, conjures up an original and intriguing set of circumstances in his novel beautifully titled “Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire.” The story is narrated by J., who has gone to a small town near Yalta to try to capture a rare butterfly known as the yazikus, which will bring a big price from a collector. But while on a stop in Istanbul, J. falls in love with V., a beautiful Russian prostitute who asks him to smuggle her back to Russia. (Her passport has been taken by the Armenian gangster who lured her into prostitution in the first place.) J. bribes a Russian ship captain to take V. and him across the Black Sea to Odessa, but V., like a butterfly fluttering into the night, disappears at the very ferry terminal where they are supposed to press on to Yalta. J. goes on anyway to hunt for butterflies, and after two weeks a letter from V. arrives at the post office for him. “I stood there speechless, as if I had been descended upon by an angel (her rustling wings with their white tips and tailfeathers quite a sight in the gloom of the Post Office), who had handed me an envelope that had the sender’s name (which I saw at once), but no return address (in the bottom right, where they put it in Russia).”
The first letter is followed by more, and as he strives to write his own letter to V., J. reflects on the many things that form the substance of this novel: his past as a smuggler in post-Soviet Europe, his thwarted love affair with V., his ruminations on astral doubles and what he calls bilocation, “the simultaneous appearance of one person in two different places,” his study of volumes of the correspondence of famous people like Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka and Madame Blavatsky.
In all, “Nocturnal Butterflies” is an impressive performance by a writer whose gifts are clearly abundant. There are passages of enormous beauty in this book, which has the striking visions of its doubly alienated narrator: a Cuban in Russia, a hustler-drifter in post-Communist Europe. But Mr. Prieto’s novel is also a brilliant, original hodgepodge. It consists of a kind of digressive drift, a cubist shattering of experience into shards of recollected fragments (Mr. Prieto calls his method “creating a pattern like a delicate construction of reeds”), and this imposes a taxing weight on the narrative pace.
Mr. Prieto’s novel is part love story, part international thriller, part New Age phantasm, part erudite literary anthology and part epistolary satire. One reads it with a wish for more story and less rumination, and at the same time with admiration for the originality of its author.
J., the narrator, is a clever, wounded, solitary figure, a rootless wanderer and opportunist with a knack for rueful self-observation. “I’d left bits of my consciousness, bits of myself on so many customs’ screens, a copy of me could easily have been formed from those samples, a me composed of 50 percent of my person,” he says, pursuing the theme of bilocation. He considers himself a traveler, not an exile, and his experiences in the sort of commodity arbitrage made possible by tariff barriers has made him an especially savvy citizen of the world.
It is when he is on the streets of Stockholm selling night-vision goggles from ex-Soviet military stores that he meets a burly, wealthy Swede named Stockis. Stockis is like J. in certain respects, a cosmopolitan gangster with an aesthetic bent. He is a butterfly collector, and he hires J. to go to the Russian Black Sea region to capture the yazikus. J. learns about butterflies, which then serve him as a metaphor, the endangered species that one pursues seeking fortune but that one has great difficulty capturing. J. goes to Istanbul on his way to Livadia near Yalta, and there he meets his femme fatale, V., whom Stockis calls papillon de nuit, nocturnal butterfly. There J. is drawn into her wish to escape from a Turkish captivity that he cleverly sees as a variation on Mozart’s “Abduction From the Seraglio.”
Helping V., as J. puts it, in one of the many noteworthy passages, would be “moving beyond butterflies with their meager but still measurable weight to arrive at the imponderable lightness of a soul, V’s. Bringing out an illegal soul was the ultimate challenge, the coup de grace to my years of heavy smuggling. It would be the finishing touch, the high point of my career.”
It is at this point that “Nocturnal Butterflies” reaches its narrative high point, as J. plots their escape. His beloved V. is a kind of night vision scope that he needs to get past prying customs officials, but one that he can’t bury in a false bottom in his backpack. J. finds a Russian ship heading for Odessa, and he buys a Finnish dagger, called a finka in Russian, and he devises, in the spirit of Mozart, an operatic plot to get V. out of the clutches of her brothel keeper. This cleverly rendered adventure yarn is interspersed, as everything is in this novel, with J.’s heterogeneous thoughts: on the wings of lepidoptera, on the travels of the composer Sibelius to St. Petersburg, on Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence with Louise Colet.
This is exciting, intellectually rich and a bit too much all at the same time, and it leads to an ending that is disappointingly reliant on the spiritualist side of J.’s many interests. Astral doubles, Madame Blavatsky and a story about a tragic 19th-century romance, a distorted mirror of J.’s romance with V., all come into play, as J. circles back to his starting point, which was about loss and nostalgia and attempted redemption within a morally shattered universe. These are heavily freighted themes, and Mr. Prieto is playfully, creatively and a bit excessively up to them.