First published in its original Russian in the 90s, Sergey Kuznetsov’s Butterfly Skin quickly attained cult status. Now, translated by Andrew Bromfield, Kuznetsov’s novel of sexual obsessives and serial psychopaths is given a fresh airing amidst a world as tense politically as that of his narrative. It’s immediately clear when reading the novel that the world crafted by Kuznetsov does not exist in an eastern vacuum shut off from the rest of the world. Butterfly Skin is so tantalisingly alive with references to western culture that new readers are instantly “welcomed” by its sinister allure into its uneasy fug of death and diaspora.
This is how the day begins. Outside the window, a colourless sun in a gap between the December clouds. Good morning to you, darling Ksenia. Don’t forget to dress warmly, there’s a strong wind today… take good care of yourself.
The narrative chiefly follows Ksenia, an ambitious on-line journalist at a small-time Moscow internet news site, as she searches for the story that will ignite her as-yet-uninspiring career and set her on the path to greatness (and take her mind off the lover who jilted her). Happily for Ksenia, a fellow denizen seems anxious to further her career at the cost of his own name: a serial killer, known only by the relatively unremarkable moniker “the Moscow Psycho”, who targets women in the city and exacts meticulously sexual tortures upon their bodies. At the risk of awaking her own lusty dark side (she has some shared interests and preferences) Ksenia begins an investigation and sets up a dedicated website in the hope of uncovering the killer’s identity and subjecting him to the pleasure of Moscow’s finest (pun not necessarily intended, but welcomed).
This then, as readers may gather from my earlier use of inverted commas, is not your typical crime thriller. By that token, it isn’t even the psychological cat-and-mouse chase that you might expect either. In Butterfly Skin, Kuznetsov weaves an intricate tapestry that, while reflective of the killer’s pyschosis, can appear needlessly fractured and result in frustration.
When you kill, you do not think about the seasons of the year. When you kill, you just kill. And there is nothing inside you but horror.
Horror and arousal.
Kuznetsov’s elastic approach to structure and perspective lend the novel much of its claustrophobic appeal as he alternates wildly between first, second and third person. On the whole, I liked being unbalanced by this element of his writing, but felt there needed to be more constancy to avoid losing readers entirely. In places this is exasperated by the sudden introduction of different names for the main characters. Ksenia is referred to as Ksyusha, Olga (her friend) as Olya, Marina (another friend) as Marinka; as a reader (and a friend myself) I can accept that people have nicknames that are often used, but these are used so sparingly in the narrative that they might as well not be there. As it is, they are. This is at best a minor hindrance intended to unbalance the reader and at worst simply an error.
Perhaps it’s because I’m of the MTV generation, possibly it’s a symptom of something lacking in the narrative, but I felt relatively unmoved by the killer’s propensity for violence; though that might also be because the murders seem to leave little mark on the landscape of the novel. Despite Ksenia’s day job and her efforts to bring him to justice, it’s hard to tell that any crime has actually been committed. Though, that being said, when he is killing, Kuznetzov’s Psycho is as inspiringly vulnerable as he is chokingly antisocial and it is in the chapters narrated by him that readers will find most reward. The best of these are those presented as confessional poems (think back to reading “My Last Duchess” and you’ll have some idea of what’s going on).
I took you in my arms and carried you to the / basement / you were really light, believe me / you didn’t need to worry about your weight / I put you on the table where a few hours earlier / I undressed you, and then turned out the light
Not only do these offer much needed insight into the killer (if only to remind us that there is one) but they raise Butterfly Skin from being simply a canny imitator of Harris’s Silence Of The Lambs to being on a par in its own right.
Phillip Clement studied English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Since he left there he has lived in a library, written short stories and reviewed books. Currently he is preparing to begin a PhD exploring themes of identity and self in fiction.