Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Olafsdóttir (Pushkin Press – November 2013)
With The Bridge II entering its final throes, and Borgen departing our screens forever, a nation in semi-mourning searches desperately for something to sate its cultural appetite for all things Nordic. Perhaps Auður Ava Olafsdóttir’s new novel, Butterflies in November, can fill the void.
The narrative of this deceptively beguiling book traces a circumnavigation of Iceland’s Ring Road. The unnamed female narrator, a translator by trade with a penchant for casual sex, loses both her husband and lover on the same day, visits a clairvoyant, and acquires a 4-year-old ‘son’ from a friend forced into a lengthy sojourn in hospital. She forms a tender, if somewhat tentative bond with the child, Tumi, who is deaf and has a speech impediment, and together they scoop a fortune from a winning lottery ticket. Suitably enriched the pair embark upon a journey from downtown Reykjavik, across the desolately beautiful landscape of an Iceland shrouded in shadows and fog, as a moving meditation on love, loss and memory, concealed within a darkly comic rite of passage, unfurls.
The butterfly, out of season, ephemeral, forms the central signifier of the sometimes heavy-handed symbolic framework attending the book. An obvious symbol of metamorphosis, regeneration and flight, the seemingly random appearance and disappearance of the butterfly throughout the narrative alludes to a mystical design lying behind the apparent chaos of the narrator’s life. Relying on the rhetoric of the sublime, sensually embodied in the smell of birch trees in the rain, the lava fields and the glistening blue pumice, the disruption and discontinuity of the narrator’s existence is brought into sharp relief as any kind of stability constantly eludes her grasp. However to really understand the significance of the butterfly symbolism suffusing this book we need to look to the figure of Vladimir Nabokov. In his pseudo-memoir Speak, Memory the appearance of butterflies acts as an initiator of memory and perhaps the key to the enigma at the heart of this novel is the nature, fleeting fragility and ephemerality of memory. Throughout Butterflies the narrator consistently denies any memory of her childhood, and an undertow of what may or may not be traumatic childhood memories, expressed in the italicised passages that disrupt the text, threaten to tear the narrator from her feet. The narrative is also littered with traumatic events and imagery centred around the boy. From his sleepwalking exploits, to the narrator’s vision of his ‘gaping mouth releasing a silent scream’ (a rather obvious allusion to Edvard Munch’s The Scream) the spectre of traumatic resonance haunts the boy at every turn; the boy’s insistence on embroidering ‘blind horses’, an act eerily invoking Peter Schaffer’s Equus, has a resonance as black as the sand that encloses the island.
Sarah Moss, in The Guardian, locates Olafsdóttir’s work within ‘an emerging strain of feminine picaresque in Icelandic fiction translation’. It is also important to acknowledge the influence of the ironic mode of modernist prose upheld in the work of Svava Jakobsdóttir, a leading figure in the second wave of feminism in Iceland; the narrator and Tumi are both caught in the process of movement and displacement symptomatic of modernity and of economic and political necessity in a country hit harder than most by the failure of globalisation and financial markets. This novel implicitly voices a modernist consciousness shaped by loss, separation and both personal and social isolation.
The intricate and often concealed patterns encountered in the markings of butterflies revealed to Nabokov the healing properties of tracing patterns or thematic designs through life and apprehending their consequences, and this is the strategy invoked by narrator and child to counteract the absence of lost fathers that haunt this book. For Nabokov, and in a sense for the narrator of Butterflies, the discovery of pattern, or the attempt to impose pattern upon life, is a creative act through which traumas of loss and absence can be redeemed.