'The Butterfly Prison' reignites hope for a better, more just world

Brutal realism mixed with sensitive compassion makes for a raw and revealing glimpse

| December 3, 2015
'The Butterfly Prison' reignites hope for a better, more just world

The Butterfly Prison

by Tamara Pearson
(Open Books,
2015;
$20.65)

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Tamara Pearson is an independent left journalist from Australia who writes about Latin America. Her novel, The Butterfly Prison, set in Sydney, weaves together three different threads. In the following spoiler-filled review, I discuss each thread.

In the main thread, a young working-class woman named Mella leaves an unhappy home as a teenager, finding herself in an exploitative relationship while working in an exploitative retail job. At the job, she meets a friend, an Iranian refugee named Rafi, who introduces her first to union politics, then to radical politics, before being summarily deported to Iran and never seen again.

Mella has already become a part of an activist network by the time of Rafi's deportation, so her growth continues without him. We read about Mella's political awakening, her political education, and her participation in an ultimately successful revolution.

In the second thread, we read the story of an Aboriginal man named Paz as he grows up in a childhood marked by constant police harassment and violence. As a youth, he sets up a house with some young friends in the poor suburb of Macquarie fields, where they support one another and try to get by.

Paz takes shifts at a 7/11, works as an office cleaner for a few months; his friends busk in the subway, gamble for money, and make repairs in the neighbourhood. None of this is enough, as the police constantly return to raid their house, injure them, destroy their property, plant bugs, and make their lives intolerable.

In a (slightly) fictionalized version of the incident that precipitated the actual Macquarie fields riots of 2005, Paz is driving a car from a party when the police begin a chase. Paz loses control of the car, which crashes, killing one of his best friends. Paz surrenders to police and is imprisoned, where he lives the rest of his life, partly in solitary confinement, which destroys his sensitive mind. A fire in the prison sees him escape, but he has no options or hope, and commits a very violent suicide.

In the third thread, the author presents vignettes of incidents from various corners of the world. Inspired by Eduardo Galeano, the author turns a sensitive eye to environmental destruction, wasted human potential, and war, shown as the outcomes of the inequality and violence of capitalism.

The central metaphor of the book, which gives the book its title, is that each person has invisible butterfly wings, and that the system clips these wings and denies people their chance to fly.

Paz's plot line, and the vignettes of the first few hundred pages, are unrelentingly bleak, violent, and overwhelmingly hopeless. Small acts of kindness, gestures of mutual aid and solidarity, pervade the lives of the characters around Paz, but they are ultimately all overwhelmed by the violence of the system.

Through Paz's journey and his attempts to do everyday things like make rent, get paid at work, get from one part of town to another, or make a phone call in prison, we are shown in detail the evils of racism and the destructive absurdities of bureaucracy as they play out in Paz's life and death, and those of his friends.

Mella's plot line and the sketch of the post-revolutionary society presented in the last 30 pages breaks the hopelessness, presenting some of the possibilities as the "army of the poor," the revolutionary force awakened at the end of the book, rises. A series of more hopeful vignettes of examples of resistance accompany this late turn in the plot.

Unlike Paz and his friends, who are overwhelmed by the system and can only try to cope, Mella and the group of activists around her are able to act, not solely react.

When Mella fell in with the activists, I had a moment of fear that this would be yet another disillusioning experience, that they would be rigidly and inhumanely ideological, or exploitative in a new way, or cult-like (like the similar group presented in Doris Lessing's book The Good Terrorist) -- but no, this group stays true to their principles. Mella finds education, love, and ultimately, the revolution.

In both plot lines, the author presents us a different way of looking at familiar spaces. We see department stores and shopping malls, poor people's subdivisions, a refugee detention centre, a prison, an activist office, an activist house, and street protests of different sizes. Most of the book consists of complex images wrought in long, poetic sentences, invented compound words, and original metaphors.

Showing the underside of a first-world city, the novel implicitly critiques the invisible privilege inherent in most fiction today (David Wong's list on Cracked.com, "5 Ways Hollywood Tricked You Into Hating Poor People," comes to mind, as The Butterfly Prison falls into none of these traps).

The Butterfly Prison isn't perfect. It seemed to me that the author tried to encompass every issue, every destructive aspect of capitalism, in the chapters and the inter-chapters. The characters' dialogue sounded very similar to the author's voice and weren't differentiated from one another. More could be done with plot, dialogue, and voice, to match the excellent work done setting the scene and providing description.

A few notes on the character, Paz, are in order. I had hoped that Paz and Mella would cross paths, that they might actually meet and do something together.

And while Paz's plot line could be read as a parable of the ongoing genocide against Indigenous people in Australia (and Canada, and the U.S., among other places), I thought it unfair that there should be no hope for Paz while there was hope for Mella.

Leslie Marmon's 1977 book, Ceremony, presented an Indigenous person going back to tradition in order to heal. Books by Indigenous authors from Canada don't shy away from the violence of the colonial situation, but find strength and possibility in Indigenous traditions and spirituality: Richard Wagamese's 2012 book Indian Horse, Tomson Highway's 1998 Kiss of the Fur Queen, Lee Maracle's 2014 Celia's Song, all offer examples.

None of these books were easy reads, but I found the horror of Paz's death after everything he went through in The Butterfly Prison especially deflating and demoralizing. 

If the theme of the book is wasted potential, then perhaps Paz's character is an example of wasted potential. The last 30 pages or so, after Paz's death, are dedicated to showing some elements of the future society, which has a 15-hour work week, a sprawling education system, participatory councils deciding on production and distribution, and the chance to love, dance, and be close to nature.

Given all this, it is clear the book isn't devoted solely to brutal realism, but is able to speculate about a better world. Couldn't some of that speculation have encompassed Paz's story? Couldn't Paz have made it here, couldn't he or other aboriginal characters have contributed to the decolonization of this new world? And what happened to the deported Rafi? Was there no chance of reconnection after the revolution?

A reader reading for plot, or to watch the journey of these characters, will find these loose or cut threads disappointing.

A reader who is looking for descriptions, images, and views of the world from a too-rarely represented political and aesthetic perspective, however, will not be disappointed.

Even in its most painful moments, The Butterfly Prison is a book of hope by a sensitive observer, deeply invested in the world and its people, who wants us to soar, who feels the pain of our clipped wings, and who writes in a way to ensure that we feel it too.

 

Justin Podur is a writer based in Toronto.

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