Harlequin's Butterfly

Toh EnJoe

Illustration by Michela Caputo

Books that may only be read while traveling would be nice.

Books that may also be read while traveling are boring. For every thing, there must be a right time and place. A book suited for reading anywhere and anytime is nothing more than a half-baked sham.

This book, without a doubt, takes the form of A Book To Be Read In Two Minutes While Doing A Handstand and has indeed been made for the express purpose of handstand reading. Its significance cannot be fully grasped via non-handstand reading. You can open the book normally and follow the words on the page, but the feeling is nothing compared to the sensation of actually finishing the book while standing on your hands. The story ingeniously employs the rush of blood to the head. By adapting this principle, Revelations That Come In The Thick Of Anger and the like can be created easily.

This happens during a flight between Tokyo and Seattle. The copy of Confession To Someone With Three Arms that I have purchased from the kiosk sits on my lap. I try flipping through it, but as usual nothing sticks in my mind. It might be the flight speed, but the letters seem to lag ever so slightly behind the page, scrambling to catch up. Absorbed by their movements, I am only able to see a mass of print; I am utterly distracted.

At this stage, I give up the pointless struggle and start to think about books that make use of the movements of letters. Every time I travel, the same thing happens. I stuff two or three books in my bag, even buy additional books during the trip, but strangely, I have yet to get very far in any of them.

The ability to convert these vague feelings into wealth instead of words is called business sense.

While no multimillionaire, it is by listening to such fancies as these that Mr. A. A. Abrams amasses a respectable fortune.

This all happens during a flight between Tokyo and Seattle.

Mr. Abrams is a man who is continually onboard planes, without having any particular destination. Flying is his business, and so he flies as much as he can, staying in hotels near airports when forced to remain on land. He is neither flight attendant nor pilot, just a traveler with nowhere to go.

Having forced his corpulent body into an economy class seat, he waits for the folds of flab to gradually adjust. In the high skies, with both flight and flab positions stable, he orders one bottle each of red and white wine, then slowly removes an instrument from his inner coat pocket.

It is a tiny bag woven from silver thread, which is wound around an oily, shiny black pen-sized stick. His extra-thick sausage fingers move nimbly in loosening it. Suggestively, as if straightening a doll's hair, he holds the bag and gently opens its mouth.

Almost by magic, a small insect net appears between his hairy fingers. Like the giants of Brobdingnag, he carefully brings his index and middle fingers to his thumb and lightly pinches the net, holding it horizontal.

He waves it around a bit, as if conducting his own humming.

Casting a sidelong glance at me in the seat next to him, he takes one look at the book on my lap and frowns. Then, in a heavy American accent, he starts to say some fairly astounding things, since there is no doubt he has my full attention.

"What I do for work, you see, is walk around and catch ideas with this net. I've tried all kinds of places, but in the end I found out nothing beats being onboard a big airplane. Travel is when all types of ideas bubble up and leave the body to go floating all over the place. There's plenty of useless junk, but even so, it's one heck of a lot better than gathering a bunch of birdbrains in a meeting room to squeeze out knowledge that never existed to begin with. It's ideas, to sum up, that keep everything going, and what we call business is a living thing, one that cannot be maintained without the constant injection of ideas. That's why I walk around gathering food for it with this."

He holds up the net in the fingers of an imperious left hand and directs it at me, his dumbstruck listener.

"It's made of silver thread, using filigree techniques. There are countless minor enchantments woven into it, too small to be seen. I had it specially done by an artisan in Afghanistan. Ideas, they tend to avoid metal, but there's no catching them with organic materials. It took me a great deal of time and money before I figured out that silver thread was suitable. Evil is repelled by silver. In short, bad ideas will naturally avoid this net, so I don't have to deal with irrelevancies. Two birds with one stone."

I alternate my gaze between the net and Mr. Abrams' triumphant face, playing for the time I need to translate what he said. I reorder his sentences, and then wait quietly for the little dictionary in my head to verify the meaning of each word. When I have a rough idea of what this fleshy giant has so abruptly uttered, I smile and say,

"Oh yes, I think I understand," expressing my agreement.

"Because, you know, you can't read books while traveling."

Whether Mr. Abrams has caught all of my wobbly English, I am unable to judge, but he furrows his brow. The insect net, which has been waving jauntily all this time, comes to a sudden halt.

He stares at my face for some time, then ceremoniously raises a log-like arm and places the net of silver thread on my head.

"Let's hear the whole story, shall we."

Well, the story, if you can call it one, is nothing more than a personal matter, a mental state or constitution that prevents me from reading books while traveling. I get distracted, the words don't stick in my head. There must be some reason the words don't stick in my head, and if this reason exists, it can be used to create books, surely. That's all. Mr. Abrams weighs the thesis that I tentatively lay out in translationese, and intones,


Whereupon he continues,

"You can't read them, is that it?"

"No, I can't."

"And this inability has nothing to do with your not having three arms."

He looks once more at the book on my lap. Contemplating my two-armed state, and still wearing the hat of silver, I let my eyes fall on the book too. The paperback edition of Confession To Someone With Three Arms—the hardcover edition is on the bestseller list, it claims—may be some piece of nonsense piled high at airport kiosks, but here it is, with a heft befitting a tale that only those with three arms may ever comprehend.

"You don't read books?" I ask.

"No, I don't."

Mr. Abrams snorts, then proceeds to expand on his position, as a man of business. "First of all, I have never found books to be of any help to me, and after high school, I completely gave up on them. That isn't to say that I read any during high school. I don't have the time for useless activities. If I were forced into a situation where I had to read books, then yes, I'll hire someone to read for me. Of course, I have no intention of asking for the main points afterwards. A summary done by other people is bound to be worthless. As for the books themselves, they don't care who reads them, only that someone does read them. And so the books meet their objective."

Mr. Abrams removes the net from my head—perhaps he judges that he has collected enough of our conversation—and continues,

"But if there is demand, then that's a different story altogether. You seem to me to be a reader, yes... but you can't read, is that right? And you say you would like books that can be read while traveling."

I nod.

"When I move, as we are moving right now, my thoughts fly far off somewhere and I become unable to concentrate on my book. I only see printed words, I lose track of time and place and connections, the plot falls apart quickly, I cannot recall what came before, and what comes after is completely shrouded in fog. Even though I can somehow read on the train to work, I cannot read on the shinkansen or the ICE, no matter what. Because it is even worse on planes, there has to be some relationship with speed. My thoughts are left behind in this speed, they detach themselves from my body. And there you are, the one who walks around and catches these ideas, as you choose to call them."

I point at the net, which has started waving jauntily once more.

While talking, I begin to see how large airplanes are a good choice for Mr. Abrams' purpose. Large numbers of people strapped into their seats, trapped in a high-speed moving box, releasing their thoughts as formless ideas. Should he describe this to me in all seriousness, I have a feeling I may be convinced.

"How do you write a book that can be read while traveling?"

Abrams poses this simple question, now leaning out of his seat with his meaty haunch thrust in my direction. I tilt my head to one side, I do not have an answer. If such a book can really be made, I feel it should have been done a long time ago. Then again, I may have merely overlooked it. Readers tend to shun books written for specific purposes: gift books, books for friends in hospital, books to be read while doing a handstand, books for reading in transit, books for businessmen. Books that can be left unread. Books that one is in fact better off not reading. Somewhere, in every book that is written for some particular use, lurks the shade of disenchantment.

"By translation, perhaps."

"Translation," repeats Mr. Abrams, the parrot.

"By which you mean the rewriting of other country's bestsellers into your own language?"

"No, not that. I mean the translation of a book for a certain purpose. Dostoevsky for reading in transit. Pushkin for businessmen."

I am unconvinced even as I speak.

"It must be something specially made for some purpose, don't you think?"

Mr. Abrams rolls his big eyes.

"Do you mean to say that the writing environment is important? For instance, let's say I hire a writer and keep him in an airplane near-permanently, just like myself. Doesn't it seem that whatever this writer produces would suit reading in transit?"

I give a vague "hmm I wonder" reply. The notion is too absurd, I have trouble accepting it.

If that is the case, will writers on the brink of death be able to write songs inviting listeners to their demise, can an impoverished writer produce works that plunge readers into privation? It seems plausible, and at the same time entirely mistaken. I simply cannot collect my thoughts, perhaps because those ideas keep escaping me.

"Who knows why writers write what they do anyway?"

I toss out a benign chestnut.

"But that's just indolence, surely!"

Mr. Abrams suddenly straightens his flabby trunk, incensed.

"Having accepted an order, writers are duty-bound to produce a work according to the specifications. It's a contractual matter. If one takes a job to produce works that can be read in planes, it is only when they are proven suitable for airplane reading that we may consider the product delivered. Yes, in this case, the contract should stipulate that at least thirty percent of passengers selected at random must be able to finish the book."

The obese Mr. Abrams has turned bright tomato red. The vision of a pork chop crosses my mind and vanishes. I wonder if this is how all people who don't read think about books. I very much doubt if any sane writer will sign such a contract.

"Just because someone managed to finish a book doesn't mean that he enjoyed it, right? If finishing a book were the only condition, you could just write something extremely short... for that matter, a book with just one word!"

Mr. Abrams' reply to my attempt at humour is, in a word, stunning.

"And just what would be wrong with that?"

A. A. Abrams, born 1952 in Michigan.

Guided by an unorthodox business philosophy, he went about building a minor empire through the cultivation and repeated selling off of a diverse range of companies.

In the early stages, he made a fortune by developing a Manchu Han Imperial Feast for babies. Apparently, he caught the idea while observing a persistently difficult baby in a plane he just happened to be on. These packs, stuffed full of tiny fingernail-sized blobs of paste, served as multi-course banquets that took infants a full day to complete. While baby goggled at each new delicacy presented, it would either fall asleep from sheer exhaustion, or the plane would arrive at its destination. This product was, for a time, very popular with parents who were forced to take peevish children on long-haul flights.

The baby food business provided him with a permanent economy seat, but what enabled him to upgrade this to business class was the success of his unexpected foray into publishing.

His first big hit Best Read On A Plane came to prominence after news of it spread by word of mouth among the well-heeled passengers of luxury cruise ships. Sales at airports were lacklustre, but when a literary critic discovered a copy in his bag during a cruise (it had been sitting there for some time), it was apparently circulated and read with explosive speed. Well, if it garnered that kind of response, was what the owners of general bookstores thought, as they pitched the book with the tagline "Trusted by generations of luxury liners". It flew off the shelves. The reviews that followed were unfavourable, but in retaliation Mr. Abrams protested that the book's true value could only be known to readers aboard luxury cruise ships. Thus rebuffed, wasn't it only natural to feel compelled to confirm things for oneself? By this queer logic, the book gained more publicity and its consumer base grew even further. It appears that few readers actually finished the book, but I doubt this bothered Mr. Abrams at all.

He hoped for another success with Best Read On A Luxury Ship, but this far-too-obvious effort was, as one might expect, ignored for a considerable time. This was followed, without a hint of contrition, by Best Read In A Commuter Train and Best Read On The Slope Leading To High School. After these flops, however, the German translation of Best Read On Top Of A Motorcycle—a title redolent with despair—was deemed suitable for trans-Pacific large aircraft reading, and subsequently made the bestseller list. By this point, the Best Read series had gained popularity as a game where readers tried to figure out the actual best location for reading edition x in language y of title z.

Mr. Abrams became known primarily for this bizarre enterprise, and spent the latter half of his life almost entirely in airplanes. He adopted the silver insect net as his trademark, which will be found on all of his companies' products. A photograph of him seated in first class with, in place of a handkerchief, the insect net peeking out from his breast pocket has graced the covers of several industry magazines.

He continued to try his hand at assorted projects, while always maintaining that all his ideas were gathered from plane cabins.

"Using an insect net as a conversation starter is pretty clever, where did you come up with that?"

When asked this in a certain interview, Mr. Abrams' reply was somewhat forceful.

"You have completely misconstrued my story. This net actually catches ideas."

"So objects really do get caught in it?"

That objects should get tangled in nets seems obvious enough.

"The year was 1974, I was on a plane headed for Switzerland. I noticed that a butterfly had flown into the hat with which I was fanning myself."

"You mean there was a butterfly inside the plane?"

Mr. Abrams was outraged.

"You have completely misconstrued my story. I am talking about ideas. I'll have you know that the butterfly slipped through my hat, proving quite clearly that it was not a thing of this world. At the same time, because it was visible, it was material. It was a thing that existed."

The interviewer must have observed his subject's agitation, and quickly changed the topic in his write-up. Entrepreneurs who enjoy consistent success often have unshakeable faith in their own luck, but this comes down ultimately to personal experience, and is hardly a matter suited for the readers of distinguished industry magazines.

So I will write down how the story continues. This is what Mr. Abrams told me, in hushed tones, during the remainder of our flight together. It seems he was always telling the same story to anyone willing to listen, and I found his quaintly experienced handling of the tale charming.

This butterfly, apparently, was visible to Mr. Abrams alone. Frantically waving his hat about, he was about to be led off to the emergency sick bay, when he glibly made up the pretext of wanting some sugar water. The fictional butterfly, which kept slipping through his hat, eventually fluttered over to rest on the glass of coffee sweetener syrup that the flight attendant had warily put on his tray table. He placed his hat over the glass, whereupon the butterfly went to sleep.

Mr. Abrams said it was sheer luck that he managed to bring the butterfly to the Montreux Palace Hotel, where it was safely shown to a lepidopterist who happened to be residing there.

"We have here a fictional butterfly," declared the lepidopterist after taking one look at the butterfly resting along the rim of the glass. Mr. Abrams, who was on the same page, had no objections.

"A new species of fictional butterfly. A female, at that."

Masking his excitement with inaudible mutterings, the lepidopterist deftly extended a hand and grasped the butterfly between his fingers. Mr. Abrams was not surprised; the gesture seemed utterly natural, no different from the fact that the butterfly should be visible to his companion. There were four coloured bands on the butterfly's abdomen, from the top: blue, red, purple, black. On the wings were squares marked out by black lines and coloured white, red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, by sheer whimsy.

This pattern appeared only while its wings were closed. Or for the blink of an eye, as one stared at it in flight.

"A veritable Harlequin."

Looking quite satisfied, the lepidopterist paused a while in thought.

"Arlequinus arlequinus."

The lepidopterist smiled at the mystified Mr. Abrams.

"Its scientific name."

And so he received the name of that butterfly.

"A. A. Abrams."

Introducing himself thus, he extends an enormous hand to me.

* * *

And that is the near-complete translation of Best Read Under a Cat, a novel by the peerless polyglot writer Tomoyuki Tomoyuki. Since I was responsible for the translation, any literary effect that may be said to exist in the original has surely been lost. Before talking about effect, I'm not even sure if the literal meaning has been preserved. Best Read Under a Cat is written in Latino sine flexione, or Latin without inflections. Of the manuscripts left behind by Tomoyuki Tomoyuki, who wrote in some thirty languages throughout a life of continuous relocation, it is the only work written in this language.

translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang and Sayuri Okamoto

Excerpted from Doukeshi no chou, published by Kodansha (2012). By permission of EnJoe Toh and Kodansha.