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Critical Review by Roberto González Echevarría
SOURCE: "Sisters in Death," in The New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1994, p. 28.
Echevarría teaches Hispanic and comparative literature. In the following mixed review, he comments on character, plot, and theme in In the Time of the Butterflies.
Hispanic writers in the United States have published several novels of unquestionable merit, the most recent success being Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. Most deal with the pains and pleasures of growing up in a culture and a language outside the mainstream. If becoming an adult is a trying process under ordinary circumstances, doing so within varying and often conflicting expectations can be even more bewildering and alienating. It makes growing up, which is by its very nature self-absorbing, doubly so. A person can emerge not a harmonious blend, but simultaneously two (or more) selves in conflict. This predicament is much more dramatic when people speak two or more languages, for the inner life can be like a United Nations debate, complete with simultaneous translations and awkward compromises.
All this is, of course, the stuff of literature, which is why it has become the central concern of Hispanic writers in this country. It was the explicit theme of Julia Alvarez's delightful first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and it is the subtext of her second. In the Time of the Butterflies. But by dealing with real historical figures in this novel, Ms. Alvarez has been much more ambitious than she was in her first, as if she needed to have her American self learn what it was really like in her native land, the Dominican Republic.
On the night of Nov. 25, 1960, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal—three sisters returning from a visit to their husbands, political prisoners of the dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo—were murdered by Trujillo's henchmen. This was one of those appalling atrocities that galvanize opposition to a murderous regime and signal the beginning of its demise. Indeed, Trujillo was slain six months later, and the Dominican Republic began a tortuous and tortured attempt at democracy. The Mirabal sisters, already admired for their resistance to the Trujillo regime before they were murdered, became part of the mythology of the Dominicans' struggle for social and political justice, and the day of their death is observed in many parts of Latin America today.
In an epilogue, Ms. Alvarez, who was 10 years old when her family came to the United States in the year the Mirabal sisters were assassinated, runs through the usual commonplaces about the freedom of the historical novelist in the handling of facts, and expresses her desire to do more than merely add to the deification of the Mirabals. In fictionalizing their story she has availed herself of the liberties of the creative writer, to be sure, but alas, I am afraid she did not escape the temptation to monumentalize.
Ms. Alvarez's plan is flawless. As she proved in her first novel, she is skilled at narrative construction, though she lacks a compelling style and her English is sometimes marred by Hispanisms. (Once we accept the idea of English-speaking Mirabals, there is no reason for them to have accents.)
In the Time of the Butterflies opens with a thinly disguised version of Ms. Alvarez, an Americanized Dominican woman who wants to write something about the Mirabals and is looking for information. She visits the family home, now a kind of shrine, run by Dedé, the surviving fourth sister, who had remained at home that night, and who, expectedly, is tortured by guilt and haunted by the burden of memory. Dedé's recollections and musings open and close the novel, nicely framing the action.
The core of the book is made up of chronological reminiscences by the murdered sisters from childhood to the time of their brutal demise. Because we know their fate in advance, everything is colored by sadness and anger. The Mirabals are a traditional provincial Dominican family, portrayed in clichéd fashion—a middle-class rural clan anchored by the inevitably philandering but supportive patriarch and the warm, caring and wise mother. Happy, bourgeois families like the Mirabals were, for many years, the heart of the Trujillo dictatorship's support.
As Ms. Alvarez tells their story, the Mirabal sisters are drawn into politics by Trujillo's intolerable wickedness rather than by any deeply felt or intellectually justified commitment. The sisters appear, on the whole, to be reactive and passive. Their education in religious schools, and their chaste and rather naïve development into woman-hood, take up too many tedious pages. Probably to heighten the evil import of Trujillo's deeds, the Mirabals are portrayed as earnestly innocent and vulnerable, but that diminishes their political stature and fictional complexity.
Ms. Alvarez clutters her novel with far too many misdeeds and misfortunes: rape, harassment, miscarriage, separation, abuse, breast cancer. Are the sisters victims of fate, Latin American machismo, American imperialism or only the particularly diabolical nature of Trujillo's dictatorship? Eulogy turns into melodrama and history becomes hagiography. There is a touch of the maudlin even in the title—the Mirabals were affectionately known in their lifetime as the mariposas, the butterflies. There is indeed much too much crying in this novel.
Hispanic Americans today have "old countries" that are neither old nor remote. Even those born here often travel to their parents' homeland, and constantly face a flow of friends and relatives from "home" who keep the culture current. This constant cross fertilization makes assimilation a more complicated process for them than for other minority groups. This "living origin" is a determining factor for Hispanic writers in the United States, as William Luis, a professor of Latin American literature at Vanderbilt University and the leading authority on this phenomenon, has pointed out. This is why the most convincing parts of In the Time of the Butterflies have to do with Dedé, the survivor, and her anguished role as memorialist, which in turn becomes Ms. Alvarez's role. It is here that we best understand the depths of Ms. Alvarez's despair and the authenticity of her effort to represent the inner drama of her conversion to an American self.
There is for Hispanic writers in the United States the added burden of a very active, popular literary tradition in Spanish, including some of the most distinguished names in contemporary world literature. Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz. In its concern with history and dictatorship, In the Time of the Butterflies seems to be echoing Garcia Marquez, and the emphasis on a clannish rural family is reminiscent not only of that modern master but also of his disciple Isabel Allende.
But the actual history in In the Time of the Butterflies is very blurry. I find no connection between the specific dates Ms. Alvarez gives to mark periods in the Mirabals' lives and either Dominican or broader Latin American history. Serious historical fiction establishes links between individual destiny and pivotal political events. It shows either the disconnection between the individual and the larger flow of sociopolitical movements or, on the contrary, the individual as a pawn of history. In either case there is irony, but in this novel the reader is not made aware of a broader, more encompassing political world.
In the Time of the Butterflies reads like the project the Americanized Dominican woman at the beginning of the novel ("a gringa dominicana in a rented car with a road map asking for street names") would have come up with after pondering the fate of the Mirabal sisters from her perspective as a teacher on a United States college campus today. Had Julia Alvarez concentrated more on her dialogue with Dedé she would have produced a better book. It would have had the touch of irony provided by the realization that the gringa dominicana would never really be able to understand the other woman, much less translate her.
This section contains 1,301 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)