Almost ten years after its original publication, Butterflies in November was translated into English from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon. (This was in 2013, by Pushkin Press, though the edition which appears below was published in 2014 by Grove/Atlantic.)
It gained substantial attention with its listing for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and it landed on my reading list because the author will be appearing at this year’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto later this month. (For more about my love of the IFOA, see here.)
When I first began reading this on a weekday morning commute, I wasn’t sure about spending time with the thirty-something Icelandic narrator. She wasn’t very warm and inviting, and then she ran over a goose (then she cooked it).
But she was getting the cold shoulder from nearly everyone around her (I noted a sharp-tongued comment from her mother when I’d first begun to read). So I didn’t want to abandon her and choose another book while she was down-and-out.
And that was a good thing, because as I read on, I found myself settling into the groove of her life. That’s not easy, because it’s kind of disintegrating. Her marriage unravels at the beginning of the book, which might not have seemed such a tragedy because it didn’t seem to be a happy one.
“If I were forced to, if I were to be locked up between the walls of an old classroom and complelled to produce an account of our four years and 288 days of cohabitation, I could maybe dig up enough eventsand words to fill a blackboard totaling thirty days. How many pages would that be in a double-spaced manuscript? The same words frequently recur over and over again. You can’t really say that conjugal life does much to advance the future of language.”
The dissolution of her marriage also occurs right after her affair has also just unravelled, which leaves her feeling doubly alone. As she attempts to reframe her understanding of her own life, she does calculate the number of days in which she identified as one half of a partnership, but ultimately she is preoccupied with the words. As a translator, words matter.
“Because it’s impossible to say many words at once, things seem to happen one after another, events get dividied into categories of words, which take on the form of horizontal lines in my narrative when I phone Audur to tell her the news. In practice, though, the connection between words and incidents is of a completely different nature.”
But, ironically, despite her facility with languages, she often struggles to communicate. This kind of contradiction adds to her credibility as a character, but there isn’t a lot of room around her, in which to cozy up.
It’s not all grim and bleak, however. Just halfway through the novel,there are unexpected developments, involving the child of a friend who is a single-mother. The young boy both dislocates and roots her, in a strange but believable way.
“My vision of the world may be restricted by a cracked pane of glass, but I feel I’m gradually gaining a better grip on things, and it would actually take very little for me to consider myself a satisfied woman.”
Throughout the course of a literal and metaphorical journey, she has considerable opportunity to reflect on the highs and lows of her life heretofore.
“Many consequential events can occur in a woman’s life in the space of less than twenty-four hours. Most mistakes are made in afraction of a moment and can be measured in seconds: taking a wrong turn, stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake, saying a yes instead of a no or a maybe. Mistakes are rarely the outcome of a logical sequence of decisions. A woman can be on the brink of total surrender to love, for instance, without even pondering on it for so much as a minute.”
One has the impression that she hasn’t been much for pondering. That she hasn’t spent any time reflecting upon the tragic end of a goose, rather has launched into cooking it.
Speaking of cooking, the novel resolves in a quiet and not-so-resolved-but-still-satisfying way. The final chapter is long and filled with recipes (forty-seven for cooking and one for knitting), which loosely appear in the order in which they appeared in the story proper. Included are recipes for food “that did not go down partcualrly well with the characters…dishes that simply failed”.
This s one of my favourite parts of the story, because it consciously reserves a place for failures, which are often what make us grow as human beings.
“Silver Tea Boil water. Fill one-third of a glass with cold milk and then fill the other two-thirds with boiled water. Flavour with honey. Drink after dinner, with a child who has put on his/her pyjamas, just before brushing his/her teeth. Discuss the events of the day and plan the next day together over silver tea.”
This is not a despairing tale after all. And nor is our narrator as alone as she appeared to be. “I’m standing on the edge of the imaginary, on the edge of the fear of darkness. The only thing one can do is grope for another human being.”
Have you read a work in translation recently? Is this one on your TBR? (Don’t be put off by the pastel-blue cover!)