In the mid-nineties, before Junot Diaz’s sudden rise to success with the publication of his collection of short stories, Drown (1996), America’s most famous Dominican writer was Julia Alvarez. The daughter of Dominican exiles who had fled to the United States in 1960, escaping the horror orchestrated by Rafael Trujillo in their home country, Julia Alvarez merited great attention when her first book of fiction, How the García Girls Lost Their Accent (1991), became an instant success. An ambitious novel with an unorthodox structure, Alvarez weaves the tale of four Dominican émigré sisters through a series of stories that adopt shifting perspectives and flexible timeframes to create a dynamic rhythm.
Her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), also features four distinct voices, in the shape of the main characters: the Mirabal sisters, a group of revolutionary heroines who engaged in underground subversive activity against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in the late fifties, right as the same time as Alvarez’s own parents got into the sort of trouble that forced them to head for the United States.
Indeed, this polyphony is precisely the novel’s greatest accomplishment. Julia Alvarez frames the tale of the four sisters inside a rather trite device, whereby a clumsy journalist comes to interview Dedé Mirabal, the sole survivor of the bunch, on yet another (the thirty fourth) anniversary of her sisters’ ruthless murder. Simple questions let loose Dedé’s memory and her reminiscences take us back to the start. From this point onwards, Alvarez leads us more or less chronologically through the lives of the girls, which, together, form a tightly sown pattern, at first, that grows looser as the sisters age, only to be joined again during the agonizing last few months of their lives, when incarceration, torture and estrangement is dished out equally to Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa, and suffered, by association, by Dedé, their mother and the rest of their family.
Much like in the best mystery stories, what is important in Alvarez’s novel is not the outcome – that the sisters are murdered in 1960 is known to the reader from the very start – but, rather, the circumstances that lead to such outcome. In building the context within which the Mirabal sisters exist, Alvarez shows a remarkable capability to equip her characters with discernible traits, and to stay with them for the duration of the book. If, at times, she seems patronizing in her recurrent assertion of her character’s primary attributes, this happens only because the reinforcement becomes unnecessary, given the sharp differentiation there is between four voices that are, all, equally central to the story and equally intense in their responses: where Minerva is obdurate, Patria is every bit as pious; where Dedé is devoted to her family, to her husband, María Teresa is enthusiastic and, being the youngest, naïve.
However, the clue to appreciate In the Time of the Butterflies is given to the reader in a curious frame that stands outside the actual tale. A clarifying note, almost as an epigraph, on the opening page of the book explains that “This work of fiction is based on historical facts referred to in the author’s Postscript on pages 323-324.” These, of course, are the last two pages of the book, where Alvarez puts into context the place of the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican lore, in relation to her family, who were part of the underground movement against Trujillo, and, crucially, in relation to the characterization she makes of them in the novel, where, she confesses, she seeks to retrieve them from the mystic status they have attained in the Dominican Republic, not by means of historic reconstruction, but merely through an act of her imagination.
Thus, Alvarez encourages – almost forces – the reader to read the first and last line of her book in order to be able to appreciate the content of the book itself. Unlike Mario Vargas Llosa in The Feast of the Goat, Julia Alvarez manipulates hard facts and history in order to create a fictional world where she can best address the general questions of freedom and oppression, the family, government and individual ambition that interest her. In this respect, her Mirabal sisters might as well be called García, not because they are not truthful to the historical figures, but simply because it does not matter whether or not they are. Indeed, it is a shame that Alvarez cannot fully detach herself from the heavy burden of the Mirabal name, and seeks to vindicate every aspect of womanhood through her heroines, treading carelessly on the dangerous line of female sensibility where she might have been best advised to opt instead for more sober (though not necessarily male) language. Nevertheless, if the reader can look past certain (and they are not just one or two) unsavory, almost corny, moments, then there is a lot to be derived from Alvarez’s clever use of history as fiction in the creation of a fictional world that mirrors reality.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON MARCH 27, 2010.