Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empireby José Manuel Prieto Translated from Spanish by Thomas Christensen Translated from Spanish by Carol Christensen
“Precise, gorgeous, and assured.” –Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Combining the intellectual sophistication and luminous prose of Nabokov with the worldview of a scion of Castro’s Cuba, Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire is a novel of immense power and originality from one of the most exciting new talents in Latin America. J. (“the most hilariously wounded and obsessive narrator since Pale Fire’s Charles Kinbote.”–Francisco Goldman) lives on the fringes of Eastern Europe, a smuggler fencing the flotsam of communism’s collapse. Offered a commission to illegally trap a rare Russian butterfly, he decides to use it as an opportunity to smuggle V., his Russian lover who has no papers, back into her homeland. In the port of Odessa, she disappears. J. continues alone to a small village on the Black Sea, where he waits, reading her letters, hoping to find both the butterfly and the way to lure V. back into his life. Equal parts bittersweet love story, international intrigue, and one man’s quest to write the perfect love letter, Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire hails the arrival of a writer of international stature.
“An aesthetically blissful reading experience . . . Prieto seems as comfortable writing about the Crimea as he is about Istanbul, Finland, or Milan, his eyes wide open, his mind working, his sentences steadily producing wonder and a few chuckles. . . . Nabokov’s spirit, alive and kind, has touched him with its butterfly wings. In Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, he enters today’s world equipped with the master’s tools and his own dazzling talent, and smuggles out splendorous treasures, eager to share them with a curious reader.” –Aleksandar Hemon, The Village Voice Literary Supplement
“Original and intriguing . . . Nocturnal Butterflies is an impressive performance by a writer whose gifts are clearly abundant. There are passages of enormous beauty in the book. . . . One reads it with . . . admiration for the originality of its author. . . . Exciting, intellectually rich . . . 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.
” –Richard Bernstein, The New York Times
“Beautiful, lavish, seedy, poetic, and magical . . . Utterly transporting, Nocturnal Butterflies is rife with expatriate glamour and delicious flights in and out of reality. It’s the song of the traveler, weary of the road yet romanced by its most base expressions. . . . Pure pleasure for the literary mind.” –Chris Kridler, The Baltimore Sun
“[A] striking, probing new novel . . . that winks with wit [and] wears its astonishing craftsmanship lightly. Deep but never ponderous, it possesses but isn’t dominated by exotic locales, adventure, strange psychological manifestations, and subtly dangerous characters . . . an amazing jewel of a story.” –Brian J. Buchanan, The Nashville Tennessean
‘sharp-eyed readers who see hints of Nabokov in the title of Jos’ Manuel Prieto’s novel will not be disappointed, for the much-admired Cuban-born author has fashioned a richly textured tale centered on the efforts of J. to smuggle his lover V. back to her homeland. Their separation and subsequent correspondence (full of literary allusions), and his search for a rare Russian butterfly, more than once recall Pale Fire.” –Lee Milazzo, The Dallas Morning News
“An engaging, confident tale about love, smuggling, and the labor letter-writing on the shores of the Black Sea . . . Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire is a rich read . . . that flashes with the pleasure of the unexpected [and] that ensures that we will be eagerly watching the mail, awaiting his next installment.” –Jesse Lichtenstein, The Hartford Courant
“If ever there was a writer destined by his strange life and high talent to write fiction of unclassifiable oddity, it is Jos’ Manuel Prieto. . . . [A] serious work of fiction with high literary ambitions . . . The picture of Soviet people, customs, and institutions is dead accurate, and sadly hilarious.” –Clarence Brown, Trenton Times
“Vladimir Nabokov, wherever he is now, is either chuckling uncontrollably or purple with indignation over this delightfully tricky first novel a young Cuban writer. . . . A charming original: a comic portrayal of an obsession with an edge of harsh post-Communist realism. It’s as if Thomas Pynchon, Graham Greene, and Milan Kundera had collaborated with Nabokov on a screenplay for Woody Allen.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Inside and outside of Cuba, Jos’ Manuel Prieto is already regarded as the most exciting and original talent of his generation. His novels blend playful literary erudition and ‘street” worldliness in a new and dazzling way. Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire offers the most hilariously wounded and obsessive narrator since Pale Fire‘s Charles Kinbote, along with an unforgettable depiction of cultural and historical dislocation, disintegration, and nostalgia.” –Francisco Goldman
“[A] hallucinatory tale of Communism’s collapse . . . Prieto records the manic inner life of a smuggler of cheap black-market antiquities, military goods, and other unsavory things, who drifts through “the smoking ruins of the Eastern Empire, from Varsovia to Cracovia, from Buda to Pest.”” –Jonathan Bing, Bookforum
“Exceptional . . . Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire is a story of love and self-knowledge graced with the psychological power which is the imprimatur of Russian literature, lightened by a certain Caribbean freshness. . . . Intrigue, seduction, love, intensity, mathematical precision and devotion to detail, as well as an abundance of surreal science and high culture which manages never to be excessive. That’s Nocturnal Butterflies, a cutting-edge work touched by the magic of great literature.” –Gabi Mart”nez, La Vanguardia (Barcelona)
“[A] beautiful prose writer. He does not cleave to the Latin American literary tradition. . . . It is a clever, dense novel and his aim is high.” –Jean Plunkett, The Providence Sunday Journal
“Beautiful . . . Prieto creates a rich and empowering story of love and desire . . . of Castro’s Cuba and post-Communist Russia coming alive.” –Christina Violeta Jones, Urban Latino
“Precise, gorgeous, and assured.” –Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
“A melodic tale of love, deception, and smuggling . . . Like a good letter, Prieto’s tale begs to be savored. The full, rich language and descriptive passages create a world of intrigue, where smugglers are victims of heartache and borderlands are the places of dreams.” –Amee Vyas, The Book Reporter
“Literary, brooding, more than a bit obsessive . . . Butterflies is hot on the trail of a vanished empire and a lost lover. That combination, and the nostalgia that suffuses its telling, keeps you enthralled to the very end.” –Anderson Tepper, Time Out New York
“Entertaining . . . structurally complex.” –Frank Caso, Booklist (starred review)
“Traversing the forms–among others–of the adventure novel, the travel book, the philosophic essay, the love letter, the moral epistle, the confession, the parable, Jos’ Manuel Prieto has written a book of a most original texture . . . [and] very studied and delicate structure, replete with literary homages, and woven from an abundance of subtle threads . . . set amid direct reportage of a crumbling empire.” –Ignacio Echevarr”a, El Pa’s (Madrid)
Seven sheets of rice paper illuminated by afternoon light. The page in my outstretched hand was full of fine writing, the blue lines recalling the azure field that represents the sky in heraldry. The ink had flowed irregularly, swelling at commas, spilling over at points, giving the text a sort of rhyme, so that I could slide from top to bottom with ease.
She had folded the letter twice and sealed it in a white envelope (no airmail mark), which I had opened with a clumsy tear at one corner. I was pleased when I found that she had not used one of those awful writing pads sold in dime stores, with a bouquet of violets or lilacs on every sheet. This was a fine-grained paper, with faint veins and blemishes, obviously handcrafted, a lovely feel to it. This letter of hers, the soft rice paper, the round feminine forms, put me in a good humor. With this letter, I said to myself, I would feel less alone.
Going to my pension, I kept sticking my hand in my pocket to confirm that the envelope was still there, the letter V. had written on paper she had specially chosen, probably copying over a first draft with its mistakes and revisions, so she could send me … a perfumed letter? I stopped short. What if I hadn’t been able to smell it in the stiff breeze off the beach? I bent forward–not a thing. All right, this was no love letter she sent, but now I wanted more than a scent; to see her, to talk to her. She showed much subtlety in sending this letter. I had never gotten one like it.
In the beginning was the date, which she didn’t forget, as I often do. Over this head was a white space, creating a perfect visual balance, a clear sign of educated taste. My name had been written with an ornate capital and extra flourishes, tight swirls that showed long training in calligraphy, something I hadn’t suspected in her. On the rare occasions that I write letters, I usually number the pages by drawing a circle around the figures, in the top right-hand corner of the page. She put hers at the bottom of each page, with the numbers centered between long rules. A seven-page letter, and with such cramped writing it was really twice as long, but I read it all in a wink, the wind pulling it out of my hands, not getting the deepest sense of every passage, saving the speeches for a second reading, my chest filling with a gas lighter than air, floating toward the end along her violet lines, touching down on the signature, to check the identity of the sender again–Yes! Absolutely!–and flying home.
She had skipped the good-byes, spared me the usually empty promises, “I’ll write” or “You’ll hear from me.” And instead sent a letter with no word about her abrupt departure. It came as a shock, this re-appearance, like when a person you thought you’d never see again, someone you thought was hundreds of miles away, suddenly comes back, says the flight was canceled, there’s a snowstorm in Strasbourg, the airport’s closed.
Should I tell her that I was on the the balcony at the Maritime Terminal in Odessa, that I saw her run away? “I did not know at the time,” I could write, “that you were the girl making a dash for the streetcar.”
It was getting darker every minute. I bounded up the stairs in the pension, kicked open the door to my room, and cleared the table (tossing a book and two shirts on the floor). “I’ll write a reply,” I told myself, “right now.” I felt truly inspired, like I could fill sheets till dawn.
* * *
From the balcony of the Maritime Terminal in Odessa, the two ships on the horizon had looked like they were about to collide, slowly sliding toward this meeting as if on a sea of oil, gray, black. As they started to dissolve into each other, someone came out on the balcony. It must be V., I thought, and did not turn around, but she walked away. It wasn’t V.
I saw a woman below, by the laurels along the esplanade that ran past the terminal. Hadn’t I seen that dress before? I pictured V. getting out of the boat after our escape from Istanbul, testing the boards of the gangplank with the toes of her high-heeled shoes, her white blouse reflecting the first rays of a sun that was still bright now, at five in the afternoon. I shifted my eyes back to the unknown woman walking in the shade of the laurels, the path striped by their shadows. I saw her run a little way to catch a streetcar, leaping onto its platform. The streetcar started to move away, raising a cloud of dust, turning the corner of the esplanade, so that it was perpendicular to me, disappearing into the distance, cables quivering.
My mind cleared, brightening like a southern sky, imagining V. standing at the mirror in the lady’s room, splashing water on her face, smoothing her hair with damp palms, touching up her lipstick, maybe thinking about buying a new swimsuit. I rolled my eyes heavenward. It looked like a wonderful day ahead, great weather in store. I was wrong: it rained three days straight. We were planning to take the ferry to Yalta and then drive to Livadia. How could I have guessed that V. was counting out rubles at that very moment, buying a plane ticket home (to a small town, ten thousand people)? Completely oblivious of that, I went back into the waiting room, wandering over to a bookseller (another retiree, same casual outfit, short-sleeved shirt and straw hat) to inspect his merchandise. I was bored from the long wait. If I had known I was losing V. when I picked up the book from his stand, I would have tossed it aside instantly, my rejection as fierce as my former drive to read, back when I could read the directions on emergency exits, the signs on city buses, the labels on jelly jars over and over again.
Lately I had been amazed at people who could get lost in a book, for example, during a St. Petersburg-Helsinki trip when I could think of nothing but the blue uniforms of the customs officers, my eyes gliding past the birches out the window, lakes and more lakes: Finland, the land of lakes (had it been a good idea to hide the musk sac in the pot of jam I left out on the lap-table?). I had watched the woman in the seat ahead of me open a book as dull (I managed to make out the title) as the correspondence between Sibelius and Aalto. The woman read until the words Passportny kontrol shouted in Russian at the far end of the car made her shut her book and me shut off my nerve endings, shrinking down like a mollusk into an armored shell, safe from the tricky questions of the customs agents, the iron hooks of their sneaky inspections.
These days, showing any interest, simply picking up a book, reading the title, opening it, meant cracking this stony cover of mine, already loosened up a bit, it’s true, by the last few days in Istanbul.
I went downstairs and sat on the bottom step outside the Maritime Terminal, reading in the late afternoon sun, warm breeze through the laurels, completely engrossed in No Return Address, a novel by W. S. Chase. A hair-raising scene of betrayal in Malibu; I looked up from my book and saw the light; at last it struck me (Chase’s fictional deception was the tip-off): V. had been gone more than an hour; I too had been betrayed. Now I saw myself (in a crane shot this time), a white point–brushed-linen shirt and pants, soft leather sandals–bounding up the steps of the Odessa Terminal, taking them two at a time, running into the waiting room, the door slamming behind me. For an instant I imagined that V. was waiting, asleep on the bench where we’d been sitting, her head resting on her arm. Must I add that when I saw the empty space, my hand automatically went to my pocket, checking for my wallet, the wad of bills?
Women always run off with your money, I knew that from the Chase story, and I also knew that earlier, when I had bent over (like an idiot) to try to kiss V. (who’d sat perfectly straight, her back glued to the bench, so that my mouth pursuing hers left slithery traces in the air), she could have lifted my billfold, undoing the cord with pointy fingernails. Had she taken advantage of that moment, my weak knees, to rob me of nights on the steppes, butterflies fluttering foolishly against the illuminated sheet? While I mimicked their blind flight, drawn toward the pale rose of her mouth, a tight bud admitting nothing, not the warmth of a smile nor an affectionate word, not the faintest hint about heading home, sinking into her favorite chair, moving her feet closer to the heater, watching the snowfall out the window. No. I still had my cash, so that all of my plans, which had seemed to fall apart, were soon reconstructed, each with its own little compartment: the trip to Livadia, the hunt for the yazikus…. Only one cell was still empty, the one belonging to V., and a warning light flashed. I had two visions: in the first, I was leaning over V. in an endless kiss, feeling her start to warm up, lose the chill that had locked her arms (which were now around my neck, holding me fast), sensing her servomotors kick in and start to pump furiously, correcting the angle of her neck, filling her mouth with juice, and making her body glow (speeding up oxygen combustion); and in the second, I was alone, walking along a path by the sea, waves breaking below the cliff, a hawk crying high above me, a desolate figure in white scanning the horizon (like Ovidius Naso in Tomi).
The discovery swept me away, flooding over me in waves, carrying me off, doubled over, clasping my feet, nearly drowning me, and during the whole trip to Yalta, the whole time, words kept spewing out of me: I kept talking to myself, shouting so loud that people looked at me, pumping the emptiness from the pit of my stomach, tears starting up in my eyes, staring unblinking at the coastline.
While the ferry was preparing to cast off, I was still thinking of returning to shore, running back to the terminal: I had imagined finding her on the steps–maybe we had just missed each other when I raced upstairs, jolted by Chase’s tale of treachery. (I even waited on the dock at Yalta for three days, hoping she would get off the ferry.) Now, leaning over the rail, reading the ship’s wake, I saw that I had been tricked by a … I automatically switched to Russian, fearing the Spanish word would permanently tarnish the time we’d had in Istanbul, the risk we’d shared. Like a cook throwing slop in the ship’s wake, I hurled a torrent of curses, the stream of bile souring my stomach, without a scrap of conscience. I enjoyed spitting out furiously, swearing violently in the Russian I had learned years before in the meat-packing plants of St. Petersburg, sticking slippery pig quarters with a four-letter purge.
I had been way too easy on V., I thought, when what she needed was a couple of s’kas (bitches) from me–yelled out harshly, through clenched teeth, or flung lightly, carelessly–to grab hold of her wrists and shake her memory of the past, make her see I had her, she was mine. Then she wouldn’t have slipped off in Odessa: slick as a professional robbing a client in a hotel room (the Divan, in Istanbul). At the height of my misery I saw myself clearly, as if in a spotlight, playing the fool, helping her off the streetcar after our walk through the Grand Bazaar, the grateful look she threw me (practiced night after night on customers who stuffed bills in her garter, mesmerized by her winking navel), the friendly squeeze she gave my hands when she saw me off. My face burning with shame, I redirected the stream of s’kas that I’d been pouring into the sea and felt it fall on my head like a rain of ashes.
Copyright ” 1999 by Jos’ Manuel Prieto