When I saw the title I didn’t know what to expect from the content of the novel. Well, Butterfly is a romantic-like novel, but there’s enough evidence to be ghostly named as a historical novel too. Even if at the beginning, the appearances tend to point towards a delicate manner of story-telling, you might prove to be wrong. There is a certain twist of events one may see; these are not placed randomly but around a certain backbone that the authoress knows how to keep it both flexible and enough rigid, so it won’t break. I will not story-tell the plot of the Butterfly novel … this has to be found by each reader.
A characteristic of the novel, beyond the main frames, is the need to experiment. Julie O’Yang maneuvers the Butterfly with a lot of strings, so she can further show to the audience enough information needed to build up a structure that can change shape in everyone’s mind. And because never “enough is enough”, she goes a bit further and somehow interacts with the characters as well as with the readers, on an individual stage where you can listen a mix of jazz and fado flowing through the brain synapses.
The historical part is sharply contoured and well referenced. I could easily say that mixing the romance with the stories about war, even if sounds a bit platitudinal, is not – somehow it varies from what we’re used with, thus strengthening the allover diversity.
Taking things slow, since the beginning the whole frame is freely given, like the reader should know what’s all about: “War is concrete matter, solid with certain components, love by contrast is but a delicate, elusive song we sing”.
One aspect I enjoyed a lot is given by the carefully chosen words, so the authoress can connect to them by housing etymological “artifices”, if I could use such a term: “Yeah, well, what’s in a name, Reigan remembers he thought at that moment, since he knew his new boss’ family name was Lai. Lai is like a Pandora’s box full of goodie gifts from a hug to a lazy dragon. But it can also mean an illness and has a hint of ‚eczema‛ in it” or “Oh nothing. I was just thinking…Your name, young man. Doesn’t it mean something like ‚magic remedy‛? If I’m not mistaken, Rei stands for the mind or magic – yes, only in a language like ours you can say two things using the same ideogram, from which I could but draw one conclusion: our mind is magic, and Gan suggests a small, medicated candy. You are meant to be a champion, I imagine!” – thus, these are strongly connected to the cultures (Chinese one, in this case). More than that, on the entire content of the novel you could find lots of insertions meant to enrich the readers’ package of knowledge: “Concrete. Concresco. Com, together. Cresco, to grow. Latin. Memory made of rubble, that was the secret of Pantheon, a temple for the illustrious dead honoured for the wars they fought”. Going few steps further, consideration for details such as the use of medical terms in order to shade a clear light on the profession of one of the main characters (e.g. Dr. Reigan) does help the general canvas assembled around the mermaid: “Dr. Lai studied dermatology in his younger days. He treated the ‚treeman‛, one of the most peculiar cases of skin disease ever recorded in medical history. The patient grew gnarled, root-like extensions on his limbs, so many of them that in the end he looked like a tormented Were-Willow” (!not sure what “were-willow” means!).
Beyond the careful writing skills there also crumbs of text that somehow look hilarious even it was meant to shed irony by the use of clichés, here being the case of the alien stuff and connective ideas: “‛Hello! My name is Romeo. I’m green, I’m from Mars. We come in peace – shoot to love! Dr. Tender Warrior, you are brilliant! You are a GENIUS!‛ His wife Alice would poke fun at him for being a dreamy egghead. All’s fair in love and war” or are just simple funny proofs with a childish smooth hue dictated by the play of words: “‛It’s the smell of Afraidium, son,‛ his father once explained fear to him when he was little. ‚It’s yellow and tastes like chicken”. But again, the main grounds here are just love-&-war – two elements that can’t go one without the other; or if they do, the story won’t be the same anymore and the strength of the all-over images would fade away.
Then, there was a horror-like impression placed here and there, contained by the novel: “Normality bothers Reigan every time he visits the morgue. He expects drama where there is none. Waiting for him is only the silence; loss doesn’t have much to say” (reminds me somehow of Silent Hill) or Frankenstein-like romance lined-up with the aforementioned one: “Reigan points the thin pillar of penlight into one eyelid. The woman feels supple and soft, her body must have been brought in a minute ago. He examines her other eye. Pulling back the sheet to re-cover, his hand stops in midair. He stares at the stranger’s face. Big lashes skirting the delicate, china-like eyeshells, a vivid mouth, and a pert nose which he can’t resist to touch. He lays a finger to the perfect arch, a touch so brief as if only to tap air. He never knew death could be so sensual and tender. All of a sudden he feels like crying”.
I noticed that many fragments from Butterfly could be easily placed in a short pelicula and I think the novel itself would make an even better movie, taking into account the history behind and the love/war dualism. Also, for what it’s worth I would’ve had expanded the ideas like this one: “Returning to earth is not the black angel but something more harmful and dangerous,‛ the fisherman from the Yangtze proclaimed, raising an index finger covered with scales. ‚It is the return of the butterfly fish! This time, no-one is safe,‛ the old man wheezed inexplicably”.
Beauty concept has here other meanings, new definitions; somehow the authoress transforms a sea monster into a wonder creature: “Her skin was glowing, dense and cool to the touch, no unevenness at all, smooth as silk bejewelled with tightly packed little sequins, gold, pearly and precious slivers. Oh! Such gorgeousness, I didn’t want it to be a fatal disease”, and there are lots of examples of this kind throughout the novel.
What is love if there’s no sacrifice: “After she had finished crying, she put the bowl filled with teardrops in front of Guan Yin’s feet. The Goddess of Mercy of a Thousand Arms was very touched. She loves drop, drop, slow tears. It’s her favourite sacrifice with which she will water her garden of most beautiful heart-shaped blossoms! ‘If you wish, I will change you into a goldfish,’ Bodhisattva Guan Yin spoke to the young wife, rising slowly from her gilded seat. ‘You can swim after your husband’s sampan every time he embarks on a journey. But I can do this only if you are certain. Are you certain?’ The wife nodded YES. ‘Then listen carefully,’ the Goddess of Mercy went on, her countless arms brandishing in the gloom to form a formidable maze” – by implying mythology, the metamorphosis is complete through such desire coated by animal instincts.
Another aspect I observed was the excessive use of the word “silence”: “Waiting for him is only the silence” ### “Trapped inside the grieving silence, the reedy, flitting voice speaks again” ### “the Chinese endure in silence” ### “Silence is the best option. Silence is the best music, his father said and believed” ### “If knowing is prison and silence the best music, let’s hear it” ### “Only in thoughts you don’t dread the murmuring seas of silence, a terrible hurt that will lull you to sleep” ### “No love can survive muteness no matter how eloquent the silence is” ### “cold breasts lying on the street, pale and soiled like waste paper, in whose uninterrupted silence” ### “No-one heard their eternal screams through the City of Silence, in whose blind disgrace” ### “She seems excited, rid of the tedium of silence, allowing herself to come out of the shadow of the unspeakable” ### “Ah good, because silence never won rights” ### “In the suffocating silence somebody clapped his hands” ### “We waited in silence, one that could drive someone mad” ### “Silence is more than words! Silence bore more evidence than words on that day!” ### “I have come to sing you a song so you don’t die in silence”. As you can see here, the meticulosity with which Julie O’Yang writes the content of the novel is nothing but a powerful tool that keeps words together, interconnected so it won’t fall apart. Such a single word and so many extensions around it, like in a graph.
Putting aside the sober things about and around love, we go into the deep and meet the kinkiness of the Butterfly: “She wanted to annoy him. She wanted him to be angry with her, shout at her, slap her in her face, call her a whore” ### “She had the firm, full breasts most Chinese women didn’t – ‚my magnificent Himalayas‛, her husband called them – and she had a beauty spot in the left corner of her delightful mouth, not too high and not too low, not too big and not too small. An imperfection exactly right. She was made to be desired” ### “His eye, her lips tracing the bridge of his lean, straight nose. He stopped breathing, her mouth had found the curve of his mouth. Hesitantly, uncertainly, their tongues met, and locked” ### “We ate, copulated and sang. Hours and hours filled with trivia. I would cut his nails and make them really round and smooth, like I did with my little son a long time ago; I loved those tiny round fingers tickling my face. I wanted my lover to copy the touch of a memory. I made Sheng that is not Sheng touch me the same way my dead son did. I made him hugging my legs crying, and the other things a little child would do” ### “The mountain trembled, and curved back, like a flame in the wind. Lower, lower. How low will he go? Her heart tripped over itself, racing, her entire body tweaked. His hands clutching her buttocks, his impatient tongue dipped into the sugar-rich nectar. She felt her inside burning, a dark red, tongue-shaped fire, hissing, crackling, popping, and every of her inner recesses burnt up, burnt down, wrecked, ravaged by leaping flames that turned her into ruins” ### “She had him take her violently, had him unleash all that power, her nails planting in his skin, impaling him. She sobbed, her eyes burning with pain and pleasure, her fingers tangled themselves in his hair. She wanted to let go: she wanted to stay. He watched her choke, her body tensing in his arms. He didn’t stop making love to her. Black mud buried her face, engulfing her breasts and her dazzling thighs, sucking her down. Slowly, she sank to the swamps of shadows, taking him with her to the ocean of forgetfulness. He didn’t stop making love to her” ### “My stomach growing lighter, my hand kept writing, the hidden, sharp blade kept piercing in his flesh and skin, and my eyes kept locked on the dark, almond shapes of his eyes twisted by shots of tender spasm. Running my hand through his hair soaked with tears and body juices, I was bent suckling cruelly on his wounds like a hungry infant. Such a sweet pain I couldn’t stand! Such a bitter pain he will never forget! I want to heal him – I want to heal myself. My tongue stabbing and penetrating the wounds where the skin is broken, I wanted to free us from a past”.
The last but not least is the music that completes the novel, being presented like a ticket to freedom, like a medicine that could cure everything, like a mood above all moods; and the authoress didn’t picked any genre aimlessly but chose two that are closer to the souls, more than any other kind: jazz and fado. Here are some examples: “The man colours from embarrassment. Rising from his place, he walks to the cupboard. A grimy box appears with well-worn, old-style record sleeves lined up inside, tinted from a remote era. The box lands between them with a thud. Reigan leafs quickly through the old gramophone records. Smart covers with pretty girls in pretty clothes only seen on pretty pictures like these. The roaring night life of roaring clubs in roaring Shanghai in the Roaring Twenties” ### “Summertime/ And the livin’is easy” ### “In the outskirts of the city, there were many vacant houses like this one, lonesome landmarks which reminded her of a line from a Fado:/ ‛É meu e vosso este fado destino que nos amarra‛/ The door was unlocked. She followed the hallway to the end. She entered a large room, baffled, puzzled.” (a fragment from “Ó Gente da Minha Terra” – by Amália Rodrigues – I’m not sure if the song was recorded back than in 1944 (the year of the action taking place), when Amália Rodrigues was 24 years old, or later) ### “Esta tristeza que trago/ Foi de vós que a recebi” (these two lines belong to the fado song) ### “And she was right! As a matter of fact I was never going to see such splendid water again in my life, so soft and so smooth that it feels like a thousand kisses deep, a thousand kisses on my skin.” (even if it might not connect to the music, the bold font reminds me of the song with the same name written by Leonard Cohen).
What about the cons regarding Butterfly? Well, a first thing first is the fact that I would have expected to find more action within the book’s pages. Butterfly caught my attention a bit in the beginning and then somehow fade away when the content became way to narrative, but somewhere on the middle of the book, the things changed – the plot became very attractive, the war issues mixed with love relationships were the cherry on top, the history behind, the crimes, the departures on the war zone, the present-past oscillations and fighting owns inner fears saved it.
I didn’t like the childish incorporations, such as this one: “The woman’s face shows. Very normal. So normal as if nothing had happened, and she would sit up at any moment and smile to him and tell him that she is happy, and that the answer is one single word; the four letter word we all try to find in our lives, with the little magic fishing rod ‚l‛ in the front – and sometimes, quite sometimes, it’s burning” or humbugged ones as in this case: “From the bottom of black invisible water, Rorschach ink blots start to float to the surface of the large bare wall”. I also didn’t liked the “boss” appellation between two physicians, especially in this context: “‛You know, Dr. Reigan. You are one of those people who have won my admiration over the years. You and I, we can fix our nation and our world together.‛ / ‛You said you were thinking of me, boss?‛” – I’m not sure about this one but, from what I know, such appellatives aren’t commonly used in hospitals.
Another thing I didn’t like in some of the encountered passages was the need to over-express an idea by the use of repetition of synonyms like in this fragment: “Maru-san, your name means a magical pill. It also means a full stop. The end. A ‚zero‛ so you can start fresh today” – I’m not sure if this was a good plan, because the use of it becomes elusive. Keeping the same format, the repetition of “In a weird and wonderful little room somewhere on the planet Earth, Dr. Reigan is helping his patient to dust down her memory” used at the beginning of the 10th and 11th chapters, seems better only for the first of these two chapters (even if it sounds like a movie cliché) but I don’t see the meaning of using it twice.
And, going a bit further, the alien-meeting experience doesn’t really fit well in the context – it looks like it’s used more as an irony instead of a normal placing in the dialogue between Dr. Reigan and the mermaid: “‛The UFO has landed, Doctor,‛ she answers in a voice lucid as a dream. ‛If you open the door, you will find a man there. Don’t be afraid, he may look a little strange. Let him in. Go on.‛ Reigan can’t quite believe what he sees. The man’s face is gigantic yet small, wrinkly yet young. Numerous tendrils of hair bouncing on his head – numerous rivers singing a song of sadness and happiness”.
Finally, I would paste below some samples of beautifully imagined frames, and some of them could be a proof of poetical influence – Julie O’Yang’s trademark expressionism:
“Overhead a moth thrashes about an electric light tube flickering on and off. Except for the pinging sound and delicate beating wings that are the only sign of life, the entire floor is so deadly quiet that it feels like a subterranean vault, even the air has that curious, sterilised reek of eternity”.
“Flies can make noises as much as they like, when they like, the Chinese endure in silence. This is a nation that regards silence as the highest music!” – others, such as this fragment, underline the harsh life during the communist regime and the problems people had to face during the Chinese civil war, but also transmit the emotions right through few words.
“A one-year-old is crawling from under the sewer top, where it was hidden, to suckle on cold nipples of a pair of headless, cold breasts lying on the street, pale and soiled like waste paper, in whose uninterrupted silence” – one’s imagination could find this description probably the best and most evocative within entire book; it goes into everyone’s core and makes you think about the consequences of wars, about the nature of humans. This fragment it’s shocking and my mind tries to make snapshots of how this could happen, and get terrified. This kind of writing makes you want more and the feeling it generates doesn’t fade away so easily.
“When she came back, she couldn’t speak anymore. That day she lost her speech not because she is not allowed to lie in life. She lost it so she would never ever HAVE to tell the stories herself” – a sort of hiding or too much need for protection of herself or the beloved ones.
“The clock on the wall ticked away. Tick-tack tick-tack. The constant never, creeping in petty pace”.
“But then, all of a sudden, I found myself sitting on the edge of the well and he was washing me. He was rinsing me with cool water from a gourd spoon, I felt happy like a fish. I put out a finger to write in the black mud on his body. yumeji ni wa / ashi mo yasumezu / kayoedomo/ utsutsu ni hitome / mishigoto wa arazu…‛ / What does it mean?‛ / It’s a Japanese poem he taught me. It’s a Tanka. I go often to you in my dreams, along dream paths, but I never see you in the real world” – great images and smooth Tanka.
“With both hands she held up the little bundle. Peeling open the wrapping with meticulous fingers, she took a deep smell like a mother worshipping her newborn. Large tear drops threaded down the crisscross of her face”.
“‛One year ago, a man came in dressed as a high-ranking officer. The money was good. The next morning when she didn’t come for tea, I went upstairs to look for my daughter. The room was empty; my daughter was gone. Two days later the police found her body near the city wall. The man took her so many times that her underside was bruised and in tatters. Then he took his knife to cut off her breasts and left her to die. It was‛ Unable to complete her sentence, she covered her mouth with her hands to hold back her own sick and tears” – harsh drama.
“And then, an early summer kicked in with skies of blue and clouds of white. The bright blessed day when we were yet to know ourselves better. This is the day we have been waiting for only to find out that we are animals arrayed in human skin” – so true, so poetic.
“We walked through shattered piles of debris and smoking houses torn from smoking houses, drawn to the noises. In spite of the mayhem happening under our nose, the summer air had a curious tranquillity indelibly printed in my memories. I will never forget the faces gazing at me from the naked depths of our shame and committed crime” – I like a lot how Julie O’Yang describes war and the nature of it with all its connections.
“He put the glass to his lips and took an endless swig, throwing back his head. He raised his emptied glass, his throat pulsing, his pink tongue painting the corner of his mouth. A grin surfaced on his face sharp as a razor” – beautiful images and sharply represented by the use of words.
“‘We shall travel further, alone, each in the opposite direction of the other,’ ‛somewhere in the sky, the man on JAL flight 321 repeats silently the words spoken seven decades ago, ‘until both of us have covered half circle round the Earth to meet up again” – brilliant, even if travelling in opposite directions, they will meet each other sooner or later.
“There is a river of blood, a crimson ribbon, hundreds of thousands of ribbons, riddles of life, they have their plans, choking on screams and horror’s let-down hair, skirting the islands made of body remains, hurrying aimlessly towards
The dockside facing the ancient harbour in golden sunset. Fishermen’s boats and sampans rocking in the ancient water of abandoned sadness like the face of a beloved from yesterday, darkened soon by an ever-increasing shadow. A pyramid built of corpses, all young men with nowhere to hide, nowhere to run, executed in fewer than ten minutes in the final trumpet hour
When the curtains of evening are closing down in order to forget, and the crescent moon is touching the edges of fair roses covered in very last teardrops” – one last part I liked a lot, was the story of the Nanking Massacre – I enjoyed the way Julie O’Yang constructed it, the breaks in the speech suggesting an enjambment-like device used to project the guy’s self horror experience when he can’t finish the sentences.
“Butterflies have the power to defy time. Butterflies don’t die, they transform. They spread a new pair of wings each time and take to the air. They are the immortal ones” – as a final conclusion which, by some means, translates into the general content of the book.
“They say butterfly fish was made by Bodhisattva Guan Yin after she had a strange dream. Guan Yin looked at the star-studded body hauling a fantail so black like ink spilled in water. At that moment a butterfly floated past her. One thing other fish don’t do, though. A real butterfly fish can change into a beautiful woman at night”.
Butterfly – a well crafted novel and a huge diversity of words that will touch everyone’s heart.