Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, a Book Review by Miriam N. Kotzin

Kuzhali Manickavel.  Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings.  Chennai, India:  Blaft Publications, 2008.  pp. 142.

While you might not be able to judge a book by its cover, the title of this one by Kuzhali Manickavel, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, provides a clue to the sort of logic and world view that you’ll find between these covers.  Imagine Chekhov with a comic streak.  Now imagine that he wrote Magical Realism.  Now transform him into a woman living in a Temple town in twenty-first century India. Then you’ll have some idea of what you’ll find in this collection.  But it will be far more rewarding to read the book of short stories--flash fiction--and drawings.  

Manickavel has a distinctive voice, and this collection brings the reader into her world in which the protagonists are caught by circumstance, and the tiniest event takes on great psychological significance.  The title of the collection, is relevant not only in the drawings, but in the content of the stories, in which insects are either present in figures of speech or concerns of a character. 

In “The Butterfly Assassin,” Malar is an assistant of an Entomologist, never named, who has been evicted.  The opening sentence is typical of the imagery in this work:  no mere decoration.  “The Entomologist’s smile is a tiny half-moon, weak and incapable of casting any light.” In the midst of a rain-storm in the Entomologist’s room, Malar carries on conversations with butterflies about the move, about killing jars:

            “It’s almost done you know,” says Malar.  “All I have to do is get him        out of the room.”

            “You’ll never do it without a killing jar,” says the Cobweb Butterfly.

            “I don’t need a killing jar.  Besides he won’t fit.”

            “It’s not that hard,” says the Shoebrush Butterfly.  “Besides,           everything in the world can fold, you know.”

            Malar doesn’t think she will be able to fold the Entomologist that far. 

            Even if she does she has a feeling he will break the bottle.

            “I really don’t think he will fit,” she says.

            “Nobody fits into a killing jar,” says the Cobweb Butterfly. 

            “They have to be put.”...

 

This chilling conversation is followed by an appropriately weighty discovery. 

Two of the other stories in which insects are featured are “The Perimeter” and “A Bottle of Wings and Other Things.” In the opening paragraph of the latter, a spider dies, “There was no extravagance in its death; just a gentle curl, a folding which no one had seen or heard.” ” Reflecting on the description of the spider’ s death, this reader thought of the butterfly’s “everything in the world can fold.” 

Moreover, Manickavel is a mistress of figurative language, so nothing just falls into the road.  Instead “postcards fell from the window in soft jagged pieces, scattering onto the road like flowers on a dirty river.”  And pieces of paper fly, “fluttering onto the hot, sticky tar like a flock of dying birds.”  These function not as decoration, but as effective communication of emotional states.

The stories also have a quirky humor.  In “Cats and Fish” the narrator watches a man in the street “pulling small, white cats out of his mouth, each one twisting in his hands like a scorpion caught by the tail.”   When the narrator asks him why he’s doing that, he responds with his own question, “Why, are you allergic?” And she simply answers “No.” And their conversation continues as though no magic or illusion.

These selections offer the reader far more than their brilliant prose style and off-beat humor, though if they offered nothing more than that they would be well worth reading.  But instead, they offer a series of psychological portraits, the poignancy of attempted communication, and reflections on those attempts.   Not only emotional resources are scarce: in “Monsoon Girls” water arrives rationed in buckets not from a tap.

The drawings adopt the style of scientific illustration from a textbook of entomology, but with captions and anatomical elements identified to fit the captions.  For example, Fig. 2 The Progression of Insanity in Women as Represented by the Life Cycle of the Assassin Bug [p. 21] has four pictures, beginning with the larvae.  Each stage is identified:  I am the woman in the kitchen, I am the woman in the kitchen with the spider, I am in the kitchen with the spider, and I am the spider.  These illustrations are interspersed with the stories.  Another, Fig. 4 is Guide to Life in a Small Indian Town Represented by a Lateral View of a Locust with the Legs and Wings Removed. [p.57] The subjects of these diagrams are connected to those of the stories, and, like the fiction they accompany are an expression of  Manicakavel’s original wit and imaginative spirit, including the last, a meta indulgence: Fig. 7 The Rhinoceros Beetle Seen as a Decorative Element on the Endpaper of a Short Story Collection. 

Don’t miss it--or any of the stories that it follows.  In the spirit of full disclosure, Per Contra has published, Kuzhali Manicakavel’s fiction, and has another story slated.  From this volume, we’ve been privileged to present “The Dolphin King.”

 

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