cover image Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire

Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire

Jose Manuel Prieto. Grove/Atlantic, $24 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1665-9

Cuban-born Prieto infuses this story of two hoodlums in love in 1990s Turkey and Russia with wisdom that transforms it from a mere romance into an allegory for current economic transition in Eastern Europe. A young smuggler called J. first meets the alluring V. in Istanbul. Having accepted an assignment to trap a rare butterfly for illegal sale, J. tries to smuggle V. (who carries no official identification) across the Turkish border and back to her homeland when he goes butterfly hunting in the coastal Russian countryside. Once J. and V. arrive in Odessa, V. vanishes, and yet she continues to write J. a series of elliptical letters, which he continually tries and fails to answer. J.'s search for butterflies is a perfect metaphor for his love for V., whom he has hopelessly idealized. With J. drawing upon some of the most passionate correspondence of all timeDincluding the tormented missives of Abelard and Heloise and the suicidal letters of Heinrich von Kleist and his adulterous loverDas models for his own love letter, his quest gains historical resonance. The book buzzes with beguiling lyrical profundities, but Prieto knows how to create a claustrophobic atmosphere as well, adding to J.'s list of worries: a nosy neighbor breaks into J.'s apartment and steals his letters from V., mistaking them for links in a treasonous plot. Meanwhile, it's clear that V. embodies the independent spirit of post-Communist Russia, shucking off J. just as contemporary Russians are abandoning their previous way of life. Although flashbacks tell much of the story, the narrative is seamless. Well-crafted rhapsodies, in conjunction with a competent sense of pacing, keep it in a perpetual state of graceful yet gripping motion. Prieto isn't quite a Nabokov or a Kundera, but his promising debut should appeal to fans of delicate, pointed prose like theirs. (Nov.)