Butterfly’s Shadow Lee Langley

Chatto & Windus, pp.340, 12.99

While I was living in Tokyo, a Japanese girl friend of mine fell in love with a British investment banker. After promising marriage, he abandoned her for an English wife from the counties. But my girl friend was no Madame Butterfly. She did not attempt suicide. She felt she had had a lucky escape. A visit to Wiltshire to meet his family had convinced her the English upper classes were mad. Emerging from her room on Sunday evening, she discovered her lover’s father polishing the family shoes. She rang me in shock. Did he suffer from some kind of foot fetish? she asked. I explained that men of that generation who had been to public school and then the army frequently got out the shoe box on a Sunday evening. My girl friend remained sceptical, ‘Well I am keeping my shoes locked up’, she said firmly, ‘I don’t want them molested.’ Her lover did not find this funny. She had stepped outside her Madame Butterfly role. She was laughing at him.

Butterfly’s Shadow, the new novel by Lee Langley, also centres around a Madame Butterfly and takes for its starting point Puccini’s opera. And that is the problem. Strip away the ravishing music and what you have left is a male fantasy. There is nothing wrong with male fantasies — in their place. But that place is not a novel which depends on character to engage. Male fantasies centre on stereotypes — the schoolgirl, the nurse or, as here, the docile Oriental woman. Too much personality and humour, like my Japanese girl friend displayed, and the fantasy deflates.

This is a problem Langley only intermittently overcomes. Chuo Chuo, or Madame Butterfly, despite a flirtation with women’s Lib and running a restaurant, has as much personality as a blow-up doll. She never loses that docility whose only function, after all, is to arouse the imperious American, Lieutenant Pinkerton, who has ‘ordered a Japanese bride like someone calling for breakfast’.

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Langley is more successful with the American characters, in particular Nancy, Pinkerton’s wife, who tricks Chuo Chuo out of her adored son by Pinkerton. The author sets the original meeting in the 1920s. This allows her to follow the couple and the snatched child, Joey, through some well evoked periods of American history. Nancy’s descent into poverty and homelessness during the Depression is particularly well done: ‘In what other country, what other life, had it been that she occupied an electric kitchen?’ So is her reaction when the half Japanese Joey is interned as an enemy alien after Pearl Harbor, and she turns to fellow Americans for help without success:

For the first time she was not at ease, not safe; a line had been drawn and she was on the wrong side. Even among friends.

In the camp of Japanese internees, Joey encounters his mother’s people — and we are back into stereotypes. An old Japanese man lectures Joey on giri, the Japanese concept of obligation. I have spent a lot of time with elderly Japanese men. Not one of them ever mentioned giri or sounded like a text book on Japanese culture.

Butterfly’s Shadow is a decent description of America between the wars. It is, however, bereft of the cultural and sexual ironies that make M. Butterfly, the 1988 play by David Henry Hwang on the same subject, such a success. There the Pilkington character is René Gallimard, a French diplomat, who falls in love with Song Liling, a Chinese opera singer whom he first sees performing an aria from Madame Butterfly. But this Madame Butterfly is full of surprises. She turns out to be a spy and even more extraordinary, considering their 20-year relationship, a man. At the end Song Liling accuses Gallimard of loving only a fantasy; or, as Gallimard says with unintentional irony, ‘You see I have known, and been loved by, the Perfect Woman’. Song reverses the situation and imagines a blonde homecoming queen falling in love with a short Japanese businessman, praying to his photo in his absence, then killing herself when he remarries. He goes on:

I believe you would consider this girl to be a deranged idiot, correct? But because it is an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner — ah! — you find it beautiful.

Now there is the reality behind the fantasy and a deflation on a par with Sunday evening shoe-cleaning. Langley’s Madame Butterfly could have done with more of that.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: 20th Century, Americana, Fiction, History, Japan, World War 2