The butterfly is a creature of transformation. From its incarcerating cocoon, it graduates to a crawling stage, then to a fragile winged freedom. Charles Foran's new novel reflects this journey from imprisonment to some kind of freedom. The book is divided into three parts, two of equal length, the third a short epilogue. The first part finds David LeClair in snowbound Montreal, his life as desolate and blocked as the city streets, but he is preparing to leave for a teaching post in Beijing. In the second, David is teaching translation in post-Tiananmen Square Beijing (it's January 1990) and in that setting of fear and suppression an inner struggle overtakes him, leaving him saddened but also revitalized and changed. The least convincing is the third section with David back in Montreal. Relationships that had been stalled open up, and he is freed from certain small mysteries of his past. It is the extent to which-or perhaps it's the speed with which-others also change (presumably in response to the new David) that is hardly credible.
Foran was teaching in Beijing at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Shipped out of the country when the violence started, he returned at the first opportunity. The events of that time are chronicled in his non-fiction book Sketches in Winter, published in 1992. Writers often use fiction to dig for certain truths still embedded in the landscape of the facts and events of their own lives. Butterfly Lovers revisits Foran's Beijing experience.
In a sense, the main character of the novel uses the same technique. He recounts stories to friends, to his students, in order to ponder questions or to search for the meaning hidden in facts. The book opens with a story that's a cross between a fable and a creation myth that David imagines telling his four-year-old daughter Natalie one day to explain the history of her parents' marriage and her own birth. The facts of David's present life are: that his wife Carole has left him; that his separation from Natalie is an open wound; that his mother is a socialist intellectual whose love, or even attention, David has never been able to gain. Ivan, his best friend, is dying of AIDS. Ivan assumes that David is under the illusion that he can do some good in Beijing but David assures him, "I'm going only for myself. Because I need to."
Certainly, his life in Montreal has ground to a halt. Living in a cheap flat in a working-class area and eating mainly out of cans, he has become fat and sluggish. His social life has narrowed down to going to the local coffee shop with Ivan, and chats with the East Indian owner of a run-down corner store where he buys his beer and cigarettes. He feels alienated in a world where telephone answering machines seem like devices to avoid human contact. He also suffers from a fairly mild form of epilepsy but has stopped taking medication because he has "stopped.wanting to feel like I was keeping a lid on an aspect of my own being."
Expressing one's "own being" is one of the main themes of the work; the brutal Chinese crackdown is here as the ultimate example of the suppression of individual being. A piece of music called Butterfly Lovers, based on a Shanghai opera and a local legend, has become tremendously popular in Beijing: "It sounds as if people are hearing all kind of things in the notes. As if they want the music to stand for...something inside themselves: resilience and sadness, beauty." Although the people are forced to wear careful masks, and to guard their very thoughts, who they truly are can't be changed.
David has assumed his own disguise voluntarily for his new life in China: he has shaved off his beard and donned mirrored sunglasses and now sports a tie, contrary to habit. He also poses, with some difficulty, as a non-smoker. The changes are meant "to assert the supremacy of the malleable present. A rejection of the indelible. A commitment to the self-stylized." But he soon observes that "living an outright lie is downright consuming. No energy left for anything else." The real changes that occur in him are involuntary, and involve taking things off rather than putting things on. China agrees with him and he loses weight on the new diet. The dogma of his socialist education and upbringing is given its final blow and "a nascent kind of politicization" occurs. He loses his sense of isolation, for the college is a self-enclosed little world and its austere conditions, as well as the fear of government reprisal that hangs over it, tend to draw its staff together. David experiences "attitude and concern born of injustices perpetrated on people I knew a little, in a time and place I could-in a small way-claim a stake in."
There are some delightful portraits of his Chinese colleagues when they drop their guises in moments of trust and friendship. He becomes especially close to Wang Hua, who is half-Tibetan (in itself cause for suspicious scrutiny by the government) and under surveillance for the conspicuous part he had played in the protest movement. At the outset, David had vowed not to become involved in politics. He would be "someone with a class to give, not a message to deliver. Ideas, but no ideology." And in fact it is not ideology that motivates him to try to protect Wang, but a deep sense of communion and friendship.
David also falls in love. Zhou Hong's husband had been David's Mandarin teacher back in Montreal and he is obviously planning a new life there without her. She is about to lose her four-year-old daughter to him too. David tells his students a story that involves unwitting betrayal and loss, and ends with two butterflies emerging from the tomb of two doomed lovers, "wings interwoven, lovers beyond death." Just as David's thoughts "feel all braided with her thoughts," and he realizes that his feelings for Hong are like nothing he has felt since he first met Carole ten years before. Hong is also a friend of Wang's and David is warned by his colleagues of the political dangers these unwise attachments entail. Of course, he knows and has made his choice.
Foran succeeds in avoiding sentimentality or melodrama but loses something in the process. Despite all the losses and what should be heart-wrenching situations, the novel falls just short of being truly moving. In a novel that explores the meaning of democracy, the characters are fittingly ordinary, their defects in plain sight. But they never totally engage the reader's sympathy, partly because there are no haunting images that make the ordinary, even the ugly, touchingly human. Even David, who reveals himself without mercy, does not elicit the sympathy he should, as a man determined to acknowledge his basest impulses, but who is decent, kind, and even courageous. Hong and her child have a certain charm but they are distanced from the reader. Hong's parting with her child, probably for ever, makes one think, "How unbearable!" but not feel the unbearableness. Wang Hua's situation is dire, but he's not quite real. Ivan is a theatrical character whose death occurs offstage.
If these comments make the novel sound flat or boring, that is far from the truth. It holds one's interest throughout, and the writing is often colourful, even exuberant on occasion. To say that the voice is not much different from that of Foran's non-fiction book Sketches in Winter is no detraction, for it is a distinctive voice that speaks.
Helen Hacksel is a writer who lives in Toronto.