Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
Literary translation in the US is having a well- and hard-earned moment. Organizations like Words Without Borders, PEN America Translation Committee, the American Literary Translators Association advocate for and push for increased visibility of translators, while more undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs in literary translation are popping up at universities across the country. Translators, often ignored, unconsidered, erased, and maligned, looked upon with suspicion and condescension if looked on at all, have been pushing back for credit for their work, better pay, and a seat at the literary grownups' table.
While enjoying its time in, maybe not the spotlight, exactly, but at least a well-lit room, and despite some excellent small presses that are really doing the lord's work when it comes to publishing international literature and literature in translation -- Open Letter, Dalkey Archive, Archipelago, Deep Vellum, And Other Stories, to name a few -- literary translation is also in crisis. The current figure given for translation's share in American and British publishing is just three percent -- for all work in translation. And of course this skews heavily to translations of German, French, and Spanish works, while literature not written in these languages claims an even slimmer stake in that sliver of the publishing pie chart. Monolingual English speakers are obviously suffering from the reduction of cultural exchange caused by this dismal state of affairs, but so too is the rest of the world: when literature is translated into more widely spoken languages, this allows for more translators working in languages with considerably smaller speakerships to access more of the world's literature and bring it into the literature of those languages, even if twice or thrice removed from the original.
So the stakes in translation are higher than they might seem; Idra Novey knows this. Novey is herself a translator from Portuguese and Spanish, having translated, among other things, Clarice Lispector's The Passion According to G.H. and Manoel de Barros's collection Birds for a Demolition, as well as being an accomplished poet, with volumes Exit, Civilians and The Next Country preceding her debut novel, Ways to Disappear.
Using her poet's -- and translator's --precision, Novey seeds her story with crystalline images, like perfect little dioramas through which her characters move. The first of these comes at the very beginning, in a series of actions you could almost picture illustrated in pencil and watercolor in an offbeat children's book. It did, in fact, almost send me running for my sketchbook: Once-popular and perennially eccentric Brazilian novelist Beatriz Yagoda, daughter of a South African Jewish lawyer-turned-shoemaker, walks up to an almond tree in a decrepit Copacabana park with a cigar and a suitcase: "After staring for a minute up into the tree, she bit into her cigar, lifted her suitcase onto the lowest branch, and climbed up after it." She attracts the attention of some nearby domino players, but continues to climb higher into the tree, until she stops and sits and "open[s] a book across her lap as if she were sitting at a train station," politely refusing assistance, and calmly carrying on with her reading.
Here, Novey seems to be playing with the -- often dismissive, othering, neocolonial-as-hell -- labeling of so much Latin American literature (and now beyond, particularly in the work of writers of color) as "magical realism." If the reader has any creeping sense of suspicion that the story might veer off into the supernatural-fantastic (not that there's anything wrong with that) for no other reason than that we've found ourselves situated somewhere in South America, Novey quells it fairly quickly. Subverting expectations is the name of the game in Ways to Disappear, as Novey disabuses readers and characters alike of their literary fantasies, hopes, and fears in rapid succession. Beatriz has not ascended an almond tree and sublimated into a flock of sparrows. But Beatriz has disappeared.
Enter Emma Neufeld, Beatriz's American translator, who takes her place among such translator-protagonists as Valeria Luiselli's narrator in Faces in the Crowd, and, recently, Rachel Cantor's Shira in Good on Paper. As is the all-too-frequent, all-too-familiar temptation to the reader, Emma has come to believe that she knows Beatriz's mind and life better than she knows her own, by reading and translating Beatriz's work and making brief annual pilgrimages to the author's home. When she gets an email from a mysterious figure calling himself Flamenguinho, informing her that her author has climbed into an almond tree and not been seen since, she drops everything -- her adjunct job teaching Portuguese to Spanish speakers, her reliable, safe, and flavorless fiancé/running companion, Miles (ha), and the increasing pressure to commit to their wedding plans -- and escapes the long Pittsburgh winter for the sizzle of Rio. Despite the protests of Beatriz's daughter, Raquel, a vehemently anti-union negotiator at an oil company, who insists that her help isn't needed, Emma hops on the first plane so that she can foist her aid upon her author's children. But, Emma reasons, who reads an author's work -- her author's work -- more closely, and so would be likely to be able to predict her movements and behavior, better than her translator?
When Emma arrives, she thinks that finding her author should be as simple as following a hunch sparked by an early story of Beatriz's, and embarks on a journey to a small former prison island off the coast of Rio with her translator's son, Marcus, inheritor of Beatriz's dazzling good looks and mysterious nature. Raquel, who, to put it mildly, is displeased with the plan and the translator's very existence in their lives; she is ferociously protective of her mother against her hangers-on, but also embittered, and for good reason: Beatriz's dreamy, neglectful nature and tendency toward bouts of catatonic depression have made for a parent of questionable efficacy. If suspicious, nonliterary Raquel embodies the archetypical resistant heir, blocking access and complicating the perpetuation of a writer's legacy due to personal interests, entrenched resentments, or orders set forth in dying wishes, Marcus is her opposite: collaborative and permissive, but ultimately passive, insouciant, and in it for equally nonliterary interests, i.e., Emma's hot bod.
Gradually, Emma begins to realize that she may have had it all wrong, that she can't always make herself understood in the adopted language she loves, that she doesn't know Brazil as well as she'd thought, that she was even, perhaps, mistaken in her feelings of closeness with Beatriz:
Emma had often spoken of her friendship with her author, how well they’d come to know each other. On her trips to Rio, she’d told Beatriz more about her boredom with Miles than she had any of her friends in Pittsburgh. Although perhaps those confidences had as much to do with being a visitor in Portuguese as it did with Beatriz. It had been so much easier to say that there was something deadening about running alongside Miles when she was speaking in another language and with a lilt and leaving in seven days. In response to this confidence, Beatriz had brought up a poem by Hilda Hilst, a wonderful line about a woman unwilling to keep to the room where her lover wanted her to remain. The line had tendered as much understanding, or more, as any reciprocal confession.
Or no, maybe it hadn’t happened that way. Recalling the conversation now, Emma wasn’t sure if it had been Beatriz who’d brought up the Hilst poem, or if she herself had, and Beatriz had just gone on sitting there, listening.
As Emma and Raquel each grapple separately with their common sense of helplessness and continuing inability to find the departed author, Novey highlights the failure of the celebrity-obsessed media to recognize the seriousness of art and of, well, many, many things. Emma and Marcus are trailed by "journalists" who sensationalize and scandal-make; a corny announcer for Rádio Globo, part of Grupo Globo, the real-life largest media conglomerate in Latin America, interjects commentary between chapters, almost always missing the point, directing listeners to view photos of the pair on their website. When a young hack copycats Beatriz's arboreal ascension and is later found murdered and castrated, he pleads: "All you other authors out there in Rio, please, please stay out of the trees!" The very people who are supposed to be cutting their way to the heart of the story are, instead, focused on frivolous fringe details (sound familiar?) and distracting from the search for the missing author.
While Ways to Disappear maintains a stylistic buoyancy with a touch of the appealingly absurd, dabbling in noir tropes with its alley-dwelling thugs, dirty cops, and vigilante justice, it also delves into important issues surrounding literature, translation, how we approach culture, the importance and inadequacy of language, and a few well-placed jabs at American illusions of superiority. Flamenguinho turns out not to be a concerned friend at all, but rather a crude and violent loan shark to whom the ethereal Beatriz is indebted for 600,000 dollars for, of all unsexy, pedestrian things, a gambling addiction to online poker. And, in a parody of the public's frequent misapprehension of the financial yields and the actual process of professional writing and translation, Flamenguinho demands that Emma obtain, translate, and publish Beatriz's latest manuscript, and pay off Beatriz's debts with the proceeds. Emma sits on the irony that, even if Beatriz has completed the book and she can get her hands on it and translate the thing before she and all involved are summarily executed, it won't amount to a speck of dust against the mountain of debt Beatriz has racked up:
It didn’t seem like the time to explain that Elsewhere Press was just a woman named Judie in upstate New York and various interns from a small university nearby. For each book Judie published, she’d paid Emma the same amount she’d paid Beatriz: five hundred dollars.
But Emma sidesteps, promising Flamenguinho: "Whatever it makes in the US is yours. I promise."
Translation itself can be a subversive act, a big fuck you to authoritarianism, censorship, and the status quo; but, like anything created for others' consumption, it can quickly slip out of the creator's control, especially when she fails to correctly interpret from behind her desk all the signals rushing at her: the politics, the history, the codes of a culture not her own. Like all manner of writers, journalists, iconoclasts, and truth-seekers, translators have been persecuted, imprisoned, threatened, and killed for their roles in disseminating literature considered dangerous by various entities attempting to control the circulation of ideas that could foment dissent. Take for example Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, for which Ayatollah Khomeini issued the 1989 fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers, resulting in the murder of the book's Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, attempts on the lives of its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher, and the 1993 Sivas massacre, where the book's would-be Turkish translator narrowly escaped an arson attack that caused the death of 35 Turkish intellectuals and artists. 27 years later, the execution order is still in place and the bounty on Rushdie was increased just this year.
Emma finds that she may not be the great hero she imagined herself to be: not only are her literary fancies and naïveté detrimental to the search for Beatriz, they result in real harm. In passages that attempt to illuminate the vulnerability of the translator through history, as well as underscore the creative nature of translation and the intellectual exchange that occurs in addition to the cultural exchange when translating another's work, Emma, who herself doesn't fully realize that she's gotten in too deep until she's already flailing, escapes the stress of death threats and shakedowns by working on her own story, experiencing for herself torrents of creative inspiration:
A jolt of words came to her, as if she’d just touched an electric fence, the sentences coming too fast to second-guess them. On the stand, the hazy specter of every translator ever put on trial rose and requested a mirror. For wasn’t it time for the eternal translator to be provided with an aid in the defense of her alleged crimes? At this late point in human history, didn’t anyone being tried for literary offenses have a right, even an obligation, to show the spectators in the gallery their own reflections as they watched her and what power their expressions had over her own?
Raquel and Emma eventually turn to Roberto Rocha, Beatriz's first publisher, and founder and editor of the publishing house Editora Eco, for assistance. Rocha, pessimistic and exhausted after years of fighting through the deluge of manuscripts that fill his office, from mediocre writers with visions of book optioning dancing before their eyes, wants nothing more than to go out on the glory of reissuing Beatriz's first two novels, "two of the most startling new works of fiction of the last thirty years." Rocha is the consummate beleaguered small press editor, facing down market pressures to maintain artistic integrity as the publishing industry eats itself, disillusioned but still hoping for someone like Beatriz who "[writes] like the room is on fire."
Using Beatriz's latest manuscript as her bargaining chip against Raquel's wishes, Emma finally gives Rocha what he's been looking for, the very thing that that had sent his editor-pulse racing to begin with. Where Raquel finds the manuscript frustrating, exhausting, and almost unbearable to read for the questions it may or may not open up about her own origins, and Emma is supremely disappointed, having "never read anything from Beatriz so relentlessly flat and void of magic," Rocha is electrified by the recognition of the old Beatriz he published so many years before. He's the real editorial deal:
What was the point of being an editor if he didn’t have a manuscript like this one in front of him, if his days contained nothing but enervating sentences that risked nothing, asked nothing, did nothing but require ink in a book that generated no real emotion, no genuine unease, not even from the editor who published it?
He's also the magician's assistant, putting in the work behind the curtain to pull the miracle out of Beatriz's garbled and repetitive jumble of scenes. We find magic in art, but it doesn't appear out of nowhere. And as the peek Novey gives us into Beatriz's manuscript suggests, whether the events therein are "true" or not, trauma and injustice echo across generations, and the price of being an artist, a woman, a human in the world can be very steep indeed.
There were a few moments when the frequent variations on the translator's plight, her invisibility and in-betweeness, felt a little too on the nose, But, then, Emma, "so thin and high-strung" is a character undergoing such rapid realizations and booming personal development, that we can forgive the occasional brief slip into carping about the unfairness of her erasure.
Like García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, everyone in Ways to Disappear is culpable in their own way for the events that transpire, and also, in the end, unable in their own way to prevent them. Each has been affected and afflicted by Beatriz and her art, and all have imposed on her their own judgments, fantasies, and expectations, fair or not. But Rocha, Raquel, Emma, and Marcus all find their own redemptive potential in what Beatriz has left for them. More than entertaining and deftly written, though it most certainly is those things, Ways to Disappear sweats the questions we should be asking, of ourselves, our art, our culture, our assumptions, about hanging somewhere in between knowing and not knowing, about responsibility and accountability. Novey has crafted a delightfully metafictional and metatranslational exploration into the creation and appreciation of literature, and about choosing to live a meaningful life, whatever that means to each of us. There are indeed many ways to disappear, but sometimes, what you're left with isn't only a loss, but a chance to rematerialize in a new and truer form.
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
Little, Brown and Company