In this three-part blog series, author Paul M. Hedeen discusses the inspiration and history behind his new novel, The Butterfly, releasing February 21, 2019.
About the book: In The Butterfly, Paul M. Hedeen takes us back to the fall of 1963, a few weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination. An obscure émigré Russian professor dies of a stroke—or so it is believed. The professor’s eccentricities and complicity create both mystery and jeopardy as his documents lead his student backward into a century of famine, political terror, and war and forward into a bewildering underworld of malevolent opportunists, unstable identities, and improvised histories.
When the student falls in with the troubled daughter of the Nazi elite, she becomes his lover, guide, and tormentor as both are irresistibly drawn into the dark aftermath of World War II. Memoirs, fairy tales, fiction, and scenarios interweave and reveal the postwar fate of Eva Braun and secrets concerning the famous Holocaust photo, “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.”
Producing a Puppet Show
How did The Butterfly take shape?
Truth to tell, my influences and ideas for The Butterfly at first had neither shape nor trajectory. Seemingly aimless, the story flitted about like a real butterfly. Not being Proust, I found it difficult simply to associate, to have no sense of a story’s direction. I even thought of abandoning the project. But then, a very crucial influence appeared. Ukraine. More precisely, Vinnitsa, Ukraine. Stuck in the beginning of this project, I went to Vinnitsa on a Fulbright, teaching the American novel among other things. I learned of Hitler’s eastern front bunker nearby (see photos below) and the famous unattributed Holocaust photo concerning Vinnitsa’s last Jew. (This is a hard image to view, click here to visit the photo.) I attended a conference about the Holodomar, Stalin’s deliberate mass starvation of Ukrainians. As well I learned that Vinnitsa was one site of Stalin’s mass executions during The Great Terror.
Suddenly, I went from hardly any story to multiple stories. I understood I could enlarge Eva Braun by locating her in any of these narratives. All of them were at least indirectly associated with her and some directly with her and with her last-minute husband Adolf Hitler. Now I could explore what she means and might have meant to the world around her. But as often happens when the imagination enlivens many characters, they begin to vie for attention. Warren Hart, Olesya and Pavlo Aborovyk, Constanze Kochen, Dmytro Kapailenko, Fortunatus Carlyle, Katrina von Dehlens, David Eisenbraun, and Jürgen Blend shouldered her out of the way. Suffice it to say the canvas, so to speak, became crowded as characters clamored for attention.
In real life, history’s victims, unless they are caught in the spotlight of, let’s say, a famous image or story, are mostly anonymous or quite quickly lost in the onrush of human experience. Stories compete with stories, after all. But victims mostly want to be lost, want only the most ordinary and unassuming happiness. Most perpetrators want to escape their own culpability and notoriety. Unless some visual or verbal text grabs and fixes someone for more than the usual glance, they are gone from consideration even more quickly than they are gone from life. All of the characters in my novel—except for a Hitler, Braun, Fegelein, or Mohnke—are nobodies, historically speaking. Yet they are based upon people who may have mattered had someone pushed them from the shadows. At least for the brief time of my novel and all its smaller stories, my nobodies grab the stage and make us care about the nameless multitudes they represent, the innocent and guilty who suffered humankind’s greatest catastrophe for decades, even after it supposedly ended. Anyway, endings, like clearly delineated beginnings, are a convenience and an illusion. The modern and medieval are not so far apart and, categorically, share many of the same feelings, impressions, and events, which is one theme of The Butterfly.
What is the relationship between the novel’s epigraph and its organization?
The Roth epigraph I cite at the beginning is crucial to understanding the novel’s design. History, Roth wrote, is not to be appreciated as a process or narrative, but as a “sudden thing.” History is many thousands, millions, of sudden things, in fact. This novel builds this idea into its structure. It is a series of sudden things: characters and viewpoints; choices and actions; shifts in discourse, place, and time. It is impressionistic like Monet or Cézanne, depending upon the contrasts and comparisons for delineation, depth, and appreciation. Like its visual and literary influences, The Butterfly both demands interpretation and resists it. The book is deliberately ambitious.
I’m not just being demanding, but informing. Warren Hart struggles to bring order, meaning, and justification, so the book must give these up only reluctantly. The front matter at the beginning and Notes at the end are meant to be read, for they are part of apparatus of creation and understanding—both flawed and incomplete—Warren Hart cannot quite seamlessly manage. As the fictional editor and compiler, Hart is the novel’s self-serving creator. He cannot quite disappear just as he cannot quite be guiltless. Other narrators—as in Nobokov’s Pale Fire and Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Vonnegut himself in Slaughterhouse-Five—should come to mind. My hope was authenticity: to strip away the surface of understanding and to expose the apparatus of meaning-making: fiction, scenario, memoir, history, and fantasy. My hope is a dramatic understanding of experience. Behind it all is Paul M. Hedeen as the puppeteer. I spent eleven years carving the puppets and affixing the strings, practicing the voices, and building the sets for our little drama of life and death.
I believe in causality. People make choices and initiate actions. But as soon as they are over, further choices and actions, not to mention results, are difficult to predict. When historians or social scientists say otherwise, they are overstating what they know, I believe. They fashion their own puppet show. So much of our knowledge is speculation, is trust—is faith. The Butterfly, in its own little moment, objectifies this and offers as a substitute both the act of story-making and the binding solace of transgressive love. The lovers face the wind, in some cases the cyclone, of events rushing around them, and then disappear, like Mabuse the magician and his assistant the Butterfly, walking the water into our medieval city.
Read part 3 in the author interview/blog series: Paul M. Hedeen Discusses His Inspiration and Why He Chose to Write About Eva Braun in His New Historical Fiction Novel The Butterfly
Advance Praise for The Butterfly
“…fascinating…sheds light on a difficult period in human history…” —Fred L. Holmes, director of the film Dakota
“…engaging…as packed as an ammo train and almost as threateningly explosive…” —Gary Eller author of Thin Ice and Other Risks
“…life changing! This book opened my eyes…” —Adriana A., NetGalley Reviewer and blogger at Books With Adri