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Butterfly’s Shadow by Lee Langley

An author who chooses one of the world’s best-known and beloved operas “as her dramatic starting point” (in the words of Butterfly’s Shadow‘s jacket) may be under no obligation to be faithful to the original, but must nevertheless surely realize that use of the operatic Madame Butterfly is, as Butterfly’s own might have been, a two-edged sword. And we all know what happened to her.

Butterfly’s Shadow by Lee Langley
Butterfly's Shadow, Lee Langley (Vintage, July 2010)

It is not that the subject is sacrosanct, for there are a great many other versions of the story: Loti’s and Messager’s earlier and harder-edged Madame Chrysantheme and David Hwang’s M. Butterfly among them.

I will not here recount Madame Butterfly, for Lee Langley is clearly assuming that the reader is familiar with the opera. Suffice it to say that the jumping off point for the novel is the supposition that Butterfly’s suicide did not in fact succeed.

Langley makes several other changes to the story of the opera up to that point. The consul Sharpless brokers the arrangement; Butterfly does not visit the consulate alone to convert to Christianity; the woman who takes the infant is Pinkerton’s fiancee (and is Sharpless’s niece), not his wife; it is Sharpless who returns to the dying Butterfly, not Pinkerton.

These liberties seem to be merely to set up the rest of the plot, rather than to shed light on the original. One can appreciate why Puccini and his librettists made the dramatic choices they did and why the opera ends where it does. What happens when Pinkerton finds Butterfly dying is left, and arguably best left, to our imaginations, as is the longer-tailed aftermath.

Langley, however, proceeds with two separate largely non-intersecting narratives—one based around Joey, the blond-haired result of Butterfly’s and Pinkerton’s time together; the other, the story of those left behind: Cio-Cio, her maid and companion Suzuki and the American Consul Sharpless—narratives which by necessity move quickly through two decades (Langley has moved the original up to the 1920s to get her chronology to work) of the Great Depression and World War II, the Japanese-American detention camps (in which, in a rather heavy-handed dose of irony, the boy is locked up as “enemy alien”) and, perhaps inevitably, the Nagasaki atomic bomb.

One could allow Langley these conceits. One could also allow (in spite of the fact that the verisimilitude in Puccini’s verismo applies to life, not facts) that Madame Butterfly might be considered a hopelessly Western and romanticized depiction of an exotic, submissive East, a work and concept deserving of demystification and a more culturally sensitive reinterpretation.

But Langley could have written her story of racial and sexual injustice without explicitly referencing and reviving Cio-Cio-San. To do so not only invites, but requires, comparison with the original.

Perhaps in an attempt to take the story down a notch, Langley set a pedestrian tone in those first few chapters where she retells and partially rewrites the story. Romance and subtlety is removed; more seriously, the poetry of the original libretto is replaced with bland prose: Sharpless’s admonition “Badate, ella ci credi” (“Take care, she believes this”) becomes “In her eyes she will be your wife, lieutenant.”

This is a shame, for the last few paragraphs, in which the boy finally comes into contact with his mother, or at least her shadow, shows what might have been: they are deft, poetic and moving. Povera Butterfly…

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.