This collection of thirty-eight subdivided memoir-like chapters of a boy coming of age in Israel is a generic combination of fictionalized autobiography, Zen philosophy, short story, and lyric poetry.
Although one can follow a general narrative thread in the slim volume of The Shunra and the Schmetterling--the death of the boy’s mother, the father’s remarriage, the death of the father, the boy’s first sexual encounter--it is the poetry of the particular rather than overall plot that must hold the reader’s interest. The title is announced in part b of chapter 1, when the boy’s grandfather releases white butterflies (“Schmetterling” in German), which the cat (“shunra” in Aramaic) chases through the house as though in a “slow-motion movie.”
As translated by poet Peter Cole, Hoffmann’s imagery is limpid and uncomplicated, for example his mother’s going toward death is like “a carpenter into an old piece of furniture he carved and planed without looking back even once.” Typical of the book’s style is the description of the boy’s encounter with a hairdresser named Monica. When she takes off her dress, “grasshoppers leapt in the grass,” and since they are at an open-air movie, it is possible that the “grasshoppers leapt onto Rock Hudson’s giant face.” When she puts the dress back on, it is another day and the weeds have grown and “you could see (as in a Chagall painting) a cow in the sky.”
Yoel Hoffmann is an experimental writer whose impressionistic structure and imagistic language in such previous lyrical novels as The Christ of Fish (1995) and The Heart Is Katmandu (2001) have earned him a reputation as a prominent postmodernist writer in his native Israel. However, the haiku-like compression of his work may appeal only to devotees of the avant-garde elsewhere.