One of the rewards of running a book review publication is the unexpected surprise that appears out of the blue. One of these is Filipina writer Catherine Torres’s recent collection Mariposa Gang and other stories. The ten stories in this slim volume—a mere 100 pages—are polished, accomplished and structurally sophisticated. Laconic, Torres can say a page in a paragraph. Her characters are human, their circumstances and dilemmas painfully recognizable and real.
The title story tells of a prisoner on a detail to collect rare butterflies (the “mariposas” of the title) then sold to collectors around the world. The narrative backtracks to explain how this one time-time sailor ended up in this remote outpost, convicted of a capital crime, and an expert in catching butterflies. He survives as a prisoner by applying lessons learned at sea: “You learned to make yourself smaller on a ship.”
When asked what his secret is for catching the butterflies, he recalls
When my daughter was born, I got shore leave for a couple of months. The night before I was due back on the ship, I stood all night by her crib watching her sleep, willing my wildly beating heart to be quiet lest I wake her. It’s like that …
But finds he can’t speak. This story, like several in the book, is deceptive and devastating.
Other stories similarly deal with that unfortunate social reality of Filipinos forced by economic circumstance to work overseas. These could have been maudlin or banal, yet here they are neither. They are however filled with the petty indignities of false papers, clueless employers, sudden departures and feckless spouses. But Torres has a broad palette: there is also the story of the affluent couple holidaying in Turkey, the prodigal daughter studying in Japan, the mixed Filipino-Korean couple working through a PhD and the prospective expat café-owner in New Delhi—Torres’s day job in her country’s diplomatic service is much in evidence.
Most striking, perhaps, is Torres’s ability to build a story toward an unexpected ending: these can resemble Roald Dahl in the skill of their construction, but Torres’s twists are emotional, sometimes touching, sometimes crushing.
These are Filipino stories, to be sure, but Torres’s deftness and wide outlook has a slight drawback: these Philippines sometimes seem somewhere west of Los Angeles rather than on Asia’s easternmost edge. Perhaps this is a sign of globalization.
Mariposa Gang and other stories deserves a wider circulation that one fears its Manila-based publisher—the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House—may be able to achieve for it. Young Asian writers—younger even, that is, than Torres herself—in search of inspiration, models or instruction for their own short fiction would be well-advised to seek these stories out.