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Art Crimes and War Crimes – Butterfly, by John Delacourt

Butterfly, by John Delacourt (Paperback; publisher: Linda Leith Publishing, Montreal, March 2019; 226 pages)

John Delacourt’s novel Butterfly is hard to read, not because of his writing style, but because of the subject matter and the subtexts. It’s unsettling and raw, but at the same time sad and distanced. The novel is made up of layer upon layer of constructs, leading the reader deeper and deeper into disturbing territory. The subjects and the plot – art fraud, blackmail and murder – serve as mechanisms for the author to introduce the subtexts of war, genocide and ethnic cleansing.Specifically, Delacourt uses the subtext of the Bosnian War, and more specifically the Bosnian Genocide. Initially vague and mysterious, the author eventually reveals the subject of the ethnic cleansing perpetrated in the town of Foča, in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, between April 1992 and January 1994. During the occupation of the town, extensive and methodical rapes by armed forces took place. All this is on historical public record at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague. I assure you, it makes for frightening reading.

The art scene is not the main thing

I did not know this when I started reading the book. On paper the subject of art forgeries looked just like my cup of tea, and in preparation for it I even watched the Dutch film, A Real Vermeer (2016), about the famous forger of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, Han van Meegeren.

The novel is a bit about art forgery and fraud but it has many interwoven settings, subjects and themes. More prominent are the themes of war, crimes against humanity and depersonalization.

You can choose not to take up a book with these themes or subtexts. The discreet cover, showing the blurry imprint of a butterfly, and the elegant print production, give no indication of the rather upsetting contents inside. I knew very little about the Bosnian War, other than to generally classify Sarajevo, or Srebrenica, or Slobodan Milošević as “something bad” in my mind.

Should you read it?

The question is: Should you read it? The short answer is yes. Firstly, because it is a difficult thing to write about, and Delacourt did not fall into the traps of sensationalism or maudlinness.

Secondly, because he had to be quite devious to weave the subtext into the narrative. Simply writing the novel with war, ethnic cleansing, etc. as overt subjects would have meant that readers would have approached the novel while “possessed by a number of pre-existing expectations, arising from paratexts apprehended before the business of reading begins” – to paraphrase Matthew Sangster. So Delacourt combines fictional crime and actual, historical war crimes, and the highly complex structure of Butterfly is the result.

A cast of first-person narrators

Delacourt did this quite well: He writes each chapter from the first-person point of view of each of the main characters in turn – “Nataša Ružić, a young girl who fled from the Bosnian War and the town of Foča; her lover, the English teacher “Lucien Bollinger”; Nataša’s mentor, the producer “Milan Zujović”; the artist “Alex Rebane”, and five or so other characters – some right nasty ones – who each play a role in the crimes that occur.

Delacourt does not give each of these characters an individual voice – their speech and thoughts are all depicted in the same standard English. This is not like the accents and dialects created, for instance, in DBC Pierre’s Ludmila’s Broken English, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. It is much more journalistic in style – which is what Delacourt does professionally.

However, this technique works because the first-person narrators in the novel are all, to varying degrees, omniscient or semi-omniscient. They relate the events, or write in diaries or letters, or report to the police, as they experience it, but inevitably they veer off into dialogue or descriptions they could not possibly have recalled themselves.

Delacourt did this, I suspect, to keep the characters’ voices direct and personal in order to have an effect on the reader. However, at the same time, he needed the diversity of voices to reflect the complexity of the war – who was who, who did what to who and why, who was Muslim, who was Christian, who fled where and paid what price. Nothing is simple in this novel. The lives of survivors of the Bosnian War – both civilians and soldiers – aren’t simple either.

The mechanics of the novel

When the film Ararat came out in 2002, about the Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Government, critical reception was mostly negative. The Globe and Mail’s reviewer, Liam Lacey, wrote; “The metaphors are provocative, but too often, the viewer is left puzzled by the mechanics of the delivery.” Indeed, while I found the metaphors provocative, I was also somewhat puzzled by the mechanics of the delivery in this novel.

The mechanisms Delacourt uses – the varying forms of narrator, the numerous characters, and the plot involving painting, art fraud, prostitution, theatre, film, murder, detective work, etc. – make it difficult at times to absorb. And actually, by the end of the novel, who killed whom is really beside the point. Because by that time, the reader has figured out what had happened to Nataša, why she is so damaged, and what the “butterfly” means.

By that time the reader would also have felt compelled to google the Bosnian War and would have found out about Foča. And at that point, as the expression goes, the penny has dropped for the reader. And nothing much that the author writes after that can get the penny undropped, or those scenes unimagined.

What or who is Butterfly?

So, what is the butterfly about? The clue is in a statement by the artist, “Alex Rebane” who creates a furor with his paintings of Nataša;

“Here is a curious thing: before she was in love, there were actually more angles to her, more possibilities with her profile, more personae I could explore, one stroke at a time. But now, what’s going on within her has reduced what was in potentia, and to paint her is to fix her, pinned like a butterfly. And I don’t care for lepidoptery.” (p.128)

Nataša is the butterfly, and the painting is the box into which she has been pinned. But the processes of painting  – and filming – a subject, records not only the moment but how the moment came about:

“There was one thing Georg Barany had said, while he was luxuriating in the attention I was paying to his every word. ‘What those who fake a painting don’t realize is that every stroke, even the ones you paint over, are all still there in the work. There is not one gesture you can erase.’” (p.139)

So it is with the victims of the ethnic cleansing at Foča, both the dead and the living: If you care to look deeper at the records, the photos, the films, and the paintings, you’ll see their lives have also been recorded, stroke for stroke, minute by minute. Everything and everyone leaves traces behind them.

Nataša, the butterfly, was fixed and pinned and made into a cause célèbre, but even her lover could not fully understand what had turned her into someone who seemed so hollow on the one hand, and so filled with despair on the other, and yet still keeping a small sense of purpose alive inside her.

The epigraph

The epigraph at the start of the novel is Monologue for Cassandra by famous Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. It depicts Cassandra, a figure from Greek mythology, who was cursed to utter prophecies of doom that came true, but that no one believed. Some inhabitants of Foča, Sarajevo, or Srebrenica survived the predicted war, though perhaps they could not have conceived of such terrible things happening, and still carried within themselves a small bit of hope.

“They lived in life.
Open to all the winds.
From birth in farewell bodies.
And yet in them was a certain moist hope,
a flame feeding on its own flickering.
They knew the value of the moment,
oh if but a single moment
before—“ (verse 5)

By the time you have actually read Delacourt’s descriptions of the events in Foča, you will understand the character of Nataša, and her motivations, and a lot more besides. Though you might wish you didn’t. Personally, I appreciate an author who uses art to make readers think about themes as difficult and controversial as war and genocide.

About John Delacourt

John Delacourt is a Toronto writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications in Canada. He is the author of Ocular Proof, 2014, and Black Irises, 2016. Butterfly is his third novel. He is also the author and co-creator of several plays produced in Toronto. He studied at the Humber School for Writers after graduating with an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto. He writes political commentary for Policy Magazine. He also writes for ipolitics and when he is not penning novels he is a ve president at Ensight Canada (a federal public affairs firm) and is a former director of communications for the Liberal party research bureau. He’s a prolific journalist and from the looks of it well positioned to write a novel on a newsworthy subject like Butterfly. This is him on Twitter: @johndelacourt.

About the header: The image of the house is “Karaman’s House”, a location where women were tortured and raped near Foča (Photograph provided courtesy of the ICTY).

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