Dmitri Lipskerov: О нём и о бабочках (The Tool and the Butterflies)
So let’s deal with the title first which mystified me as I am sure it did you. The Russian title translates literally as About It and About the Butterflies. The English word tool, used instead, clearly refers to the penis as, presumably, the it of the Russian title does. (Just to clarify, the normal Russian slang for penis is хуй or хер .) This is, as you will see, highly relevant. The Russian word бабочка of the title does indeed mean butterfly but it is also slang for prostitute. However, in this book the old woman Ksenia, great-grandmother of Alice (both her mother and grandmother are dead) uses it to mean vagina. No, this book is not pornographic. It is colourful irreverent, satirical and makes fun of many things, including, of course, sex.
Our hero (for want of a better word) is Arseny Iratov. When we first meet him he is doing very well. He is around fifty, very well-off and living with Vera, a woman whom he finds very attractive and who seems to think the same about him. He made his money from illegal foreign currency speculation in the Soviet era, moved to dealing in precious stones and now runs an architectural firm, which is building a World Cup stadium.
Every day he takes two pills (we do not know what pills) which help him sleep soundly and wake up refreshed. He occasionally has bad dreams but nothing to worry about. However, when he mentions this to a neurologist, he is highly critical, tells him to stop taking the pills and switch to expensive antidepressants. This has a terrible effect on our hero. He cannot sleep and seems to age. After a while he mentions this in passing to a former doctor who tells him to go back to the original pills, which he does. At this point two key events happen.
Vera is only thirty and she wants a child. She is very religious so she goes to see Matrona, a Christian holy woman. There is a long queue but a strange Greek man manages to take her to the front and she gets the blessing of Matrona. Who was the man? A saint or a devil?
At the same time, Arseny wakes up from his first proper sleep, now he is taking the old pills. However, when he does wake up, he finds he has no penis or testicles. There is no blood, no bruising, no scar, no genitals. They have quite simply gone, leaving only a vagina-like hole. The doctor thinks he is having gender reassignment surgery and when he finds out that this is not the case, he is as mystified as Arseny. He offers to make a prosthetic penis for him.
We now follow the full details of Arseny’s early life. He came from a respectable background but turned to a life of crime (as well as architecture) which nearly saw him executed by a firing squad. We also follow a strange young man who seems to have something of an obsession with Arseny and, in a different way, with Vera. It is he who tells us about Arseny’s early, colourful and criminal life and he who describes his own life and his obsession with Vera and Iratov. His name, by the way, is EEE.
We also follow the above-mentioned Alice, a thirteen year old girl, who one day finds what she initially thinks is a baby rat, her great-grandmother thinks is an aborted foetus but turns out to be a homunculus who very rapidly grows to be a full-size young man called Eugene. Alice falls for him at once. The local drunken cart driver, Shurka, who had earlier given Alice a lift and had tried, not very successfully, to fondle her, now gives Eugene a ride to the station (he wants to go to Moscow). This turns out not to be a good idea for when he stops to urinate he finds that he, too, has lost his genitalia. Eugene, as we will find out, clearly has strong connections to Iratov.
By this time it will be apparent that this book is, at least in part, a parody of/tribute to Gogol and his story The Nose about a man who loses his nose, which takes on a life of its own. You can read the story here.
We now have several odd characters, the narrator of Iratov’s early life, the strange Greek man and Eugene. There are a few more who all seem to have some connection to Iratov. He has apparently fathered a few children. One, in particular, plays an important role. He had severe brain damage and is sent to a special home. At the home, Dasha, one of the attendants, takes to him. She has never had children of her own. Indeed, as far as we can tell, she has never had a boyfriend or sex. She adopts the boy. She maintains that he is the son of Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel Prize winner, so calls the boy Joseph Brodsky. Young Joseph remains brain damaged and cannot talk but, as he grows up, he becomes physically a man and has sex with his adoptive mother. This produces a son, also Joseph, who turns out to be a genius and mildly obsessed with Judaism because his putative father was Jewish. He will play an important role.
Iratov’s granddaughter from another liaison will play a minor role while the third child will only play a very limited role.
So we have Iratov sans genitals – an affliction that soon spreads to other men – and these mysterious characters – the Greek Antipatros, EEE, Eugene and EEE’s drunken neighbour Ivanov – who all seem different. All, of course, is explained as is the genitalia loss situation and it is not what we might have expected.
While we do have this very complicated plot (or, rather, several plots which, to a certain degree, will merge), a great part of this novel is a very witty and clever satire on contemporary Russia. Putin is not mentioned as the book tends to focus more on other issues including corruption, drunkenness, sex and sexism. I mentioned above that Iratov was our hero (for want of a better word). He is certainly corrupt, though primarily in the Soviet era, when he engages in foreign currency speculation and mild thuggery. He engages in dealings in precious stones and, while he is clearly avoiding taxes, there is not much suggestion that his business was illegal. EEE, who seems to know all about him, mentions other crimes of his.
Officials, however, always seem to be on the take. The home where Dasha works is an example, with the handicapped children’s food cut to make money. Drinking, violence and sheer idleness are also very common. In short Lipskerov paints a portrait of a country in disarray but does it in humorous way. It is this continuous view of a country that seems to be falling apart, only exacerbated by the genitalia loss, as well as the very clever and complex plot, that make this such an enjoyable read.
First published by АСТ : Редакция Елены Шубиной in 2016
First English publication by Deep Vellum in 2020
Translated by: Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes