Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It seems this is the year for revisiting classics. Hot on the heels of Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young (a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear) and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone) comes The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The Idiot is not precisely a retelling of Dostoevsky’s novel by the same name – but it clearly flows from the same well-spring.

The ‘idiot’ (or innocent) in this case is a young Turkish American woman arriving for her Freshman Year at Harvard University in the 1990s. The time period is important. Email is still a novelty – widely available at university but still a rarity in the wider world. Smart phones – or even cell phones – non-existent.

Free to choose what subjects to study, she makes an eclectic selection: linguistics, maths, ‘Constructed Worlds’ (a creative arts module), and Russian. On the Russian course, she acquires a new name (Sonya) and she also meets William, a Hungarian student in his senior year. She and William seem unable to hold a conversation face to face. But taking on the characters from a text they are studying in Russian, they begin a correspondence over email that becomes an obsession.

The Idiot perfectly captures that nihilistic stage of late adolescence. That feeling of being out of phase with the rest of the world. Desperately seeking meaning in the most mundane of words and actions – and feeling depressed because you fail to find it. The inevitable passion for someone just out of reach. Mistaking sophistry for sophistication.

The novel moves from Harvard in the depths of winter to Hungary in the summer, where ‘Sonya’ goes for a working holiday. The mood echoes that of a lot of 19th C Russian literature – that sense never quite living in the present but always longing for something that is just out of reach.

The novel also plays with ideas of what language is and what it can convey. The narrator at one point takes issue with her linguistics lecturer’s rejection of the notion that the language you speak affects the way you think. Turkish, she points out, has a case that is used specifically to convey that what you are saying is reported information, not firsthand knowledge. She argues that it forces you to constantly question your own objectivity.

An unusual first novel from someone who has previously explored similar themes in a non-fiction format.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Idiot by Dostoevsky, The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician by Tendai Huchu, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Avoid If You Dislike: Story lines that drift rather than drive

Perfect Accompaniment: Hungarian vodka

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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