A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies: Stories

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies: Stories

by John Murray
A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies: Stories

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies: Stories

by John Murray


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These vivid and compelling tales, many set in Africa and Asia, are about immigrants and others facing change and dislocation. The science is never pedantic; indeed the language of biology and natural history is used to great lyrical effect. The stories are accomplished and seasoned, remarkably so given that this is the author’s first book. Murray is adept at holding together a complex narrative and creating characters who reach out emotionally to the reader upon first meeting.

Global in scope, classical in form, evocative of place, and deeply emotional, this collection marks the beginning of what promises to be an illustrious career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060509293
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/20/2004
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

John Murray trained as a doctor and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was a teaching-writing fellow. "The Hill Station" won the Prairie Lights Short Fiction Award, and the title story was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for the Best New American Voices 2002 fiction anthology. John Murray currently lives in Iowa.

Read an Excerpt

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies

The Hill Station

On the first morning of the training in Bombay, just minutes before she collapsed, Elizabeth Dinakar stood in front of two hundred people in the conference hall, pointed up at the cholera bacteria magnified on the wall in front of her, and said "This is your enemy." The room was long and stuffy, with peeling walls and rattling air conditioners. People coughed and shuffled papers. The bacteria were the size of cars. Elizabeth Dinakar was tall and thin with thick black eyebrows. Her hair was pulled away from her face and held in a bun at the back of her head. She wore a silk shirt and khaki skirt, flat-soled shoes, and no makeup.

She talked slowly and illustrated everything she said with graphs and photographs. "Every child has five to seven episodes of diarrhea a year," she said, "and that is a great ocean of diarrhea. People are floating on it." She spoke as if she were reading, had a familiarity with the organisms that cause infectious diarrhea that was precise and detailed. She saw a beauty in the microscopic world that she knew others could not understand. She took it personally. As she spoke she tapped a wooden pointer against the floor. Beads of perspiration ran down her back. At the other end of the room, two stainless-steel tea urns sat on tables covered with white tablecloths. During breaks, the tea was poured into thick British Civil Service cups on saucers, and that morning she had looked over the rim of her teacup out into modern India, framed by the doors, noisy and glaring in the sun.

Blood drained from Elizabeth Dinakar's face and she felt light-headed. She had begun with a discussion of cholera, a disease with its origins along the Bay of Bengal that had ravaged white-limbed British soldiers in Calcutta. Cholera is one of India's great legacies to the world, she said, something that has struck fear into the hearts of men. She flashed a slide of a nineteenth-century lithograph depicting the specter of cholera hanging over New York City like the Grim Reaper. People at the back of the room laughed a little at this image, and Elizabeth said that it was astonishing how far they had come in just a few years; now cholera could be pinned down in the laboratory with culture, biochemistry, and antibodies. All the mystery has gone, she said, and as she spoke her voice seemed to become fainter to her, muffled, as if it were speaking from a distance. It is a conquest, she said, a conquest orchestrated by microbiologists working systematically, using solid bench science. She wondered if she sounded melodramatic, although she believed that it was dramatic; the triumph over cholera represented a triumph of the scientific method over chaos.

She stopped talking and let the pointer slip from her fingers. She turned her back to the audience. It crossed her mind that she was going to die. On the wall above her was a large Bakelite clock with a round white face and huge hands that had the appearance of sharpened harpoons. She stared up at the clock. As she lost consciousness, she saw herself as a little girl watching her father shoveling snow. She felt ice crystals on her cheeks, smelled cigarette smoke, and for an instant heard her father speaking to her. Then she fell to the floor.

A private American foundation was paying Elizabeth Dinakar to train local doctors in the principles of microbiology. She was forty years old. She had made a modest name for herself in the infectious diarrheas, studying enteric organisms that ravaged the gut. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she had taken charge of the enteric laboratory and now ran it as an international reference center. On her fortieth birthday she wrote "Your shit is my bread and butter" in large letters on a piece of computer paper and stuck it to her door. Her birthday made her feel unaccountably optimistic -- as if she were weightless. Nothing seemed solid. Others saw her as serious and rational, she knew. Forty years old and unmarried. Cold. She felt so different from the way she appeared that it was inexplicable to her.

A photograph of the Eschericia coli, many times life size, grainy and oval shaped, transmitted in apple cider from New England and the cause of many hundreds of cases of bloody diarrhea, sat above her desk in a thin wooden frame. She did detailed work alone at cool laboratory benches. The specimens came to her from all over the world, although before this trip to Bombay, she had never been to Asia or Africa. When she saw the cholera Vibrio, she imagined herself on the island of Celebes in Indonesia, the origin of the seventh pandemic, floating on a colorful reef, smelling sea salt and green bananas. Her thesis, on the Shigella strains causing dysentery in Africa, made her think of salty goat butter in tiny cups of acrid Ethiopian coffee, the bottomless waters of Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, humming with Nile perch, and tall lean men walking in low scrub with hardwood staves.

She opened her eyes and for a few seconds did not know where she was. A group of men from the front row had her by the shoulders and ankles and were carrying her out of the conference hall. The men wore cotton suits and monogrammed ties, smelled like fruity aftershave, and were all talking at once. They had shiny faces. They carried her outside and laid her on a wooden bench under a row of mango trees. It was cooler under the trees and dappled sunlight came through the leaves. She blinked and tried to sit up, but they held her by the shoulders.

Raj Singh, who worked for the NGO in Bombay that was organizing the training, knelt on the ground beside her and put two fingers on her wrist ...

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies
. Copyright © by John Murray. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

1The Hill Station1
2All the Rivers in the World35
3A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies73
4White Flour113
5Watson and the Shark135
6The Carpenter Who Looked Like a Boxer165
8Acts of Memory, Wisdom of Man211

What People are Saying About This

Joyce Carol Oates

“Ambitious, varied, and strong…. To say that Murray…is a prodigious talent is something of an understatement.”

Muriel Spark

“Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough….Adventures of the mind, rich in human feeling…departures from any other…fiction.

Michiko Kakutani

“Stories that are as affecting as they are suspenseful....Mr. Murray has made an impressive and assured debut.”

Ann Patchett

Brilliant.... How lucky for all of us that he chose to write fiction.

Reading Group Guide


Trembling below the surface of John Murray's elegant and accomplished short stories are elements of violence, deceit, betrayal, and despair. Yet these are not highly charged tales throbbing with densely emotional prose. The writing is controlled, sometimes Chekovian in its eloquence, often reminiscent of Hemingway's affecting restraint. The result is a riveting, richly layered and satisfying collection that challenges readers to place themselves in the lives of characters whose predicaments and choices lead us inexorably toward our own.

Each of these eight stories places readers at the treacherous intersection where chaos meets order. In "The Hill Station," a young microbiologist gains a fuller understanding of death, disease, and her own life when she witnesses the ravaged lives and despairing faces of those for whom cholera is more than germs swimming under a microscope. Legacies of obsession and classification haunt the narrator of "A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies," in which an older plastic surgeon discovers how his need for order has led him to shut a door on his own feelings of guilt and loss, and "Acts of Memory, Wisdom of Man," in which a teen-aged boy finds himself torn between his mother's spiritual awakening and his father's religious devotion to science. "All the Rivers in the World" and "Watson and the Shark" portray characters whose desire to save others' lives leads them to discover the darkest parts of their own, while "Blue" plums the depths of that darkness against a pristine, almost heavenly background.

Numerous strains tie these stories together: sons and daughters of immigrants rediscovering their cultural roots; adultchildren searching their own lives for answers to their parents' bewildering, painful actions; characters who steel themselves in the face of death, only to find themselves more vulnerable than they could have imagined; men and women who want to save the world while their own lives lie in pieces at their feet. And while all the stories show us people whose lives have been touched by loss, illness and death, Murray also manages to imbed in each story a kind of geography lesson: of the world, of human anatomy, of the human spirit.

A doctor as well as a writer, John Murray subtly and convincingly brings a scientific perspective to each of his character's lives. In one story he details the evolutionary development of insects as well as the invidious architecture of a brain tumor. He brings us into the clinics and operating rooms of third-world communities where violence and disease take their toll on the doctors as well as their patients. And he shows us highly educated medical professionals who still have a lot to learn about the inner workings of their own hearts.

The settings of these stories span the globe, with characters and styles equally diverse. But throughout the collection, Murray reveals again and again a wonderful truth: Our lives are as fragile as a butterfly's wing. In a world in which order and disorder coexist, we cannot embrace one without the other. It is a lesson many of us often forget, especially when we are blindsided with the painful consequences of our own or others' actions. But like all organic things, we persist, against overwhelming odds, to live.

Discussion Questions The Hill Station

  1. How do Elizabeth's choices - destroying her diaphragm, traveling to India, helping with the cholera epidemic, marrying the man she met on the bus - indicate how she struggles between chaos and order?
  2. How does Elizabeth's work researching disease affect the way she looks at the world?
All the Rivers in the World
  1. Why do you think Vitek's father is drawn to Chika?
  2. Chika tells Vitek that "nothing really matters . . . except what you do in those few moments when you have to put yourself on the line for others, to overcome your own fear." (67) What does this observation mean in Chika's life? What does it come to mean to Vitek?
A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies
  1. What do butterflies - and butterfly collecting - have to do with the themes of this story?
  2. How does the story within the story - the narrator's grandfather's experiences tracking tropical butterflies in Africa - illuminate aspects of the narrator's personality and past experiences?
White Flour
  1. By revealing piecemeal the facts behind Joseph's father's departure, the truth behind his mother's deception emerges slowly. What is the effect of this method of storytelling?
  2. What kind of future do you foresee for Joseph?
Watson and the Shark
  1. As the narrator examines a boy critically wounded by machete-wielding soldiers, he "could see that every eye was fixed on me and I felt that sense of power and control that I needed then - this was why I was a trauma surgeon - and I wanted life-or-death, all-or-nothing situations. Life or death. That was why I was there in the jungle, and I honestly had a tremendous feeling of being in the right place and of being filled wit a certain glorious energy." (137) How does the narrator's image of himself change by the end of the story? What causes this change?
  2. How does the painting "Watson and the Shark" illustrate the story's major themes?
The Carpenter Who Looked Like a Boxer
  1. Here, again, Murray has chosen to save vital information - truths about Danny's wife and father - for the end of the story. As truths are revealed, how do your impressions of Danny and his predicament change?
  2. What does the idea of termites invading the house that Danny built - and his neighbors' obsessive concern about the insects - represent in the story? Why is it important that Danny built this house himself, for his wife and his family?
  1. How is Simon's quest to reach the mountain summit driven by the death of his father years before?
  2. How does Simon's role in his father's death compare with his role in the deaths of his fellow climbers?
Acts of Memory, Wisdom of Man
  1. The title of this story is echoed in the words of the narrator's mother, who cautions him that "Acts of memory are the wisdom of man." At the same time, his father tells him "All meaning depends on a set of arbitrary rules and laws." What does each of these statements mean to you? How do they define the story's central conflict?
  2. Who, in the long run, has the most impact on Harry's life - his mother or his father?
General Questions for Discussion
  1. In reviewing all the stories, what sorts of experiences do Murray's characters have in saving others and being saved? What happens to those who have an opportunity to save and can't - or won't?
  2. Generally speaking, what kinds of relationships do the parents in Murray's stories have with their children? What do these children learn from their parents' actions?
  3. How does Murray portray doctors and other people in the medical profession? What sense do his stories give you about science's ability to save lives, or change them for the better? What inherent weaknesses and strengths do medical professionals possess?
  4. What parallels can be drawn between the duties of parents to their children and the duties of doctors to their patients?
  5. How and why is setting important to these stories?
  6. What have you learned about what life is like in India and Africa? Do Murray's depictions of these countries contradict your own notions of them?

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