Tuesday, September 30, 2014

YVONNE VERA: Butterfly Burning

  Set in the mid-1940s, in the black township of Makokoba in Bulawayo (Rhodesia), Butterfly Burning tells the story of the love between the 50-year old Fumbatha and the much younger Phephelaphi Dube. It is not a time or a place for happy love stories, and Fumbatha and Phephelaphi don't beat the odds.
    Vera fairly effectively captures the difficult life in the township, and the efforts of those that live there to maintain some sort of humanity, sometimes barely even realizing what they are up against:
The work is not their own: it is summoned. The time is not theirs: it is seized. The ordeal is their own. They work again and again, and in unguarded moments of hunger and surprise, they mistake their fate for fortune.
    Young Phephelaphi, in particular, has ambition and hopes -- but Vera warns early on: "Trust lovers to nurture hope till it festers." Around Phephelaphi are already a number of beaten and defeated souls, characters who make do as best they can.
   Fumbatha and Phephelaphi stumble across each other and fall in love. They are, briefly, happy. Fumbatha was "a man who made, and unmade, his own mind," while "Phephelaphi was a woman who chose her own destination and liked to watch the horizon change from pale morning to blue light."
   Among Phephelaphi's ambitions is to become a nurse. Problems arise, and she deals with them herself -- one in particularly gruesome fashion. It is too much for Fumbatha. Love falters, fails.
    It is a fairly simple story, but written with a grand, poetic sweep. "She is naked except for the weight of her own suffering, the weight of courage" and so on. The sentences are short. Each is pregnant with meaning and metaphor. Budding. Bursting. Overflowing.
   The novel's own gravity drags it down. Its portentousness prefigures its own doom. It is deadly serious. There is nothing wrong with being deadly serious, but it is not a justification in and of itself either: there has to be more.
 Yes, there is language. A fine use of language. Sort of. Poetic, one can call it. Lyrical. Undermining as much as supporting the tale being told. Certainly, it is a matter of taste, too.
   There's a rhythm to the language -- though Vera's is an odd staccato. It has the effect, here, of a pneumatic hammer. Relentless. Incessant. Wearying. But when it breaks the reader down it does not do so in support of the text, but against it.

       Vera writes: 

       Fumbatha sees the sky peel off the earth; that is the distance between the land and the sky. The hill is a surprise.
       A hand swings forward and throws a heavy load. Another picks the tune and adds a word. A pristine word to a song makes everything poignant. The birth of a word is more significant than the birth of a child.
     Vera's emphasis is on the birthing of words and expressions and turns of phrase. Despite her claim (her justification, in fact) such births are not more significant than the birth of a child. They can be, but only in exceptional circumstances, and Vera's circumstances here are not exceptional enough. Indeed, behind her thick veil of lyricism they are surprisingly plain. She does a disservice to reader and story alike by wrapping it all up in the obscuring and not quite poetic enough language.
   So, in more ways than one, Butterfly Burning is, ultimately, a novella of miscarriages, of clumsy, painful abortions.

       There is something to be said for Vera's approach and language (though we obviously don't know what that might be). She has some sense of language and expression, and the writing is not without talent. But the novel reads as though it were meticulously chiselled out of stone and then finely buffed -- leaving it still solid and completely lifeless. The novel appears to be art, but it is complete artifice. Some people clearly do enjoy "poetic" presentation of this sort -- many of the critics expressed admiration for it -- , but readers should be aware of what they are in for.
* * Courtesy of COMPLETE REVIEW’s review

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