"Butterflies," says the surgeon’s father in the title story of John Murray’s A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies, "are a metaphor for life. Beautiful, fleeting, fragile, incomprehensible." This is an ambitious statement of intent for the rest of the book, and one that Murray lives up to in this collection of eight masterfully crafted short stories.
A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies is an eclectic mix, straddling continents and ranging in scope from the mundane to the bizarre – from the breakdown of a carpenter’s marriage and the impotence of a New York surgeon to cannibalism in New Guinea and genocide in an African jungle. Recurring themes and symbols, as well as Murray’s confident and well-structured prose, bring the stories together as an impressive whole.
Murray’s characters are constantly seeking out structure in their chaotic lives, trying to connect disparate cultures, reconcile dysfunctional families and face up to their own fears. Murray begins with the story of a young scientist looking for an affiliation with her parents’ homeland in India in "The Hill Station"; in "All the Rivers in the World," Vitek drives from Maine to Florida in an attempt to bring home his errant father and ends up conquering his fear of the sea; in "White Flour," Joseph travels to India to deliver a message from his poverty-stricken mother to his wronged father; in "Blue", a young man attempts to complete his father’s life’s work by scaling a Himalayan mountain.
The effort of assimilating two disparate cultures – specifically those of the USA and India – is an issue that Murray obviously seeks to address. In "The Hill Station" and "White Flour," he examines the difficulties faced by US-born Indian characters in coping with India, which is at once a spiritual homeland and an alien, terrifying place. Murray does not shy away from what he perceives as India’s problems – from over-politeness to religious hatred – but his portrayal of the country can seem condescending at times. India is seen as a filthy, squalid place filled with cholera and religious zealots in "The Hill Station," "White Flour" and "Acts of Memory, Wisdom of Man"; similarly, Chika’s memories of Afghanistan and Rwanda in "All the Rivers in the World" are those of disease and ethnic cleansing. Murray presents the outside world as a very frightening place, and he risks de-humanizing the non-Western (or non-Westernized) characters in his stories by presenting them variously as diarrhea-soaked victims, cannibals, members of anti-Semitic lynch mobs and machete-wielding maniacs.
In "The Hill Station," "White Flour" and "Watson and the Shark," Asian and African countries are regarded as places in need of the aid of the Western world, places that need to be catalogued and placed in order: some of Murray’s protagonists are patronizing imperialists – butterfly collectors. These glib presuppositions are brought crashing down in the disturbing "Watson and the Shark," in which the brutal reality of genocide in the Congo impinges upon the cozy ideals of a group of UN surgeons. This allows Murray to make a statement that while every small effort is worthwhile, the world cannot be "fixed" so easily; as Stefan says in "Watson and the Shark," it is "like attempting to stop the Niagara Falls with a postage stamp."
Murray’s depictions of foreign color and conflict are vivid and truly gripping, while his previous training as a doctor makes the medical practitioners who are central to most of these stories convincing and much more than mere jargon-spouting caricatures. Nevertheless, he is on even more solid ground when he takes domestic relationships and everyday American life as his subject matter in "All the Rivers of the World" and "The Carpenter Who Looked Like a Boxer." He intertwines multiple narrative strands within each story and brings them together neatly at the end, a technique that many authors attempt but few pull off this well. Global in scope and full of brief yet profound insights into life and relationships, it is hard to believe that this is Murray’s debut collection.
The collection of butterflies embodies the attempt to catalogue the world and put it in order; a gigantic butterfly is seen as proof of the existence of God; lovers and parents are compared to butterflies throughout. Murray uses the butterfly to bind his stories together, and the effect is a collection that is both affecting and invigorating.