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Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire: A Novel


Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire: A Novel

It starts with a letter received in a village surrounded by the Crimean Sea; a picturesque place to receive a letter from the past, full of memories and reminiscence. This unexpected letter from V. to J. unleashes the story of NOCTURNAL BUTTERFLIES OF THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE, a melodic tale of love, deception, and smuggling. Yes, smuggling.

Our narrator, J., is a dealer of international goods, often illegally procured goods, such as night-vision goggles used by the former Soviet army. In BUTTERFLIES, J. is appropriately in pursuit of a rare and endangered butterfly, the yazukis. This pursuit, and the memory of its beginning, brings V. into J.'s life.

The seaside locale is the Crimean town of Livadia, where J. presents himself as a man of relative leisure. The letter he receives lights up the routine of his stay; and not all for the good. Hindsight allows him perfect vision: "At the height of my misery I saw myself clearly, as if in a spotlight, playing the fool." The height of his misery brings his reflections back to Istanbul, the beginning of his story with V. and the beginning of his journey to the Crimea.

V., a beautiful Russian woman, leads J. around Istanbul through the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar and, eventually, through the Saray --- the brothel at which she is one of number of Russian dancers. J. is in Istanbul to extend his butterfly searching, to persuade his buyer to finance the trip to Livadia. The two tales become one in J.'s memory; both are a search to capture beauty.

Russian Livadia is a ferry and train ride from Istanbul via the port city of Odessa. And anywhere in Russia is where V. wants to go. A prostitute without papers, V. must be smuggled back into her homeland, and so she seeks out J., the would-be smuggler of rare beauty.

The letter in Livadia proves that all went according to V.'s plan --- J. smuggled her out of Istanbul. The reply J. composes in his musings, citing parts of letters from history's great and tragic figures, proves that J. went alone to Livadia. V. deserted him in Odessa. The first letter is followed by many others, as J. struggles with his memories and attempts to write the perfect response; the perfect lure for this particular butterfly.

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.

A note on the translation: Thomas and Carol Christensen have brought Prieto's Spanish to a new poetic life in English. The translated prose reads fluidly, the metaphors never falter. NOCTURNAL BUTTERFLIES OF THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE is Prieto's first work to be published in English.

Reviewed by Amee Vyas on November 30, 2000

Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire: A Novel
by Jose Manuel Prieto

  • Publication Date: November 30, 2000
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Pr
  • ISBN-10: 0802116655
  • ISBN-13: 9780802116659