Poet and translator turned first-time novelist Idra Novey learned a lot about writing through internalizing the words of other writers. “As a translator you have to get in the mind of a writer, and the writer becomes a character in your mind and you have to embody this other voice,” says Novey. Her delightfully sublime debut novel, Ways to Disappear, is in many ways about losing yourself in words as it follows the mysterious disappearance of a famous Brazilian novelist, Beatriz Yagoda, and her unsung American translator, Emma Neufeld, who leads an unconventional search party.
The idea for the novel was partly inspired by several books with translators as characters that Novey had read where the characterizations didn’t quiet ring true—the translators were presented as withdrawn, living behind-the-scenes. “I have found that translators that I know are really well traveled, have lived all over the world, and are speakers of new experiences and are not inhibited at all. They’re very generous, spirited people,” she says. “You translate because you love a book and you think it’s a crime that it’s not available in English.”
The crime in the case of Ways to Disappear is a series of high-stake transgressions that unfold when Emma and Beatriz’s family discover that the author has a secret gambling addiction and is being pursued by an unforgiving loan shark. Lured by an intimacy with Beatriz’s fantastical fiction and their decadelong relationship over words, Emma leaves behind a less inspiring life in Pittsburgh with a boring fiancé and staid teaching gig and is resurrected by the cause of finding her author:
When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeão International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in. Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the sticky sensation, the rising odors, were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere.
Every page illuminates Novey’s own love for South America—and the joy of discovering beauty in foreign experiences. Novey grew up in a small Appalachian town speaking only English and became a searcher for larger worlds first through books, then by attending college in New York. At Barnard, she majored in comparative literature and learned Spanish. She eventually lived in both Chile and Brazil, picking up other languages along the way.
The books and countries that she has translated from (including the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector) have become integral parts of Novey’s life, fueling the impetus of this novel. “I really wanted to write about my understanding and misunderstanding of Brazil as an American,” says Novey. “The longer you know a country the more you realize you don’t know it.” This fascination with the strange directly comes into play through Emma’s follies as she struggles to demystify her local entanglement with an illicit lover, spicy food and plastic napkins, corrupt politics, and exotic fashion. When the search for Beatriz turns dangerous and desperate, Emma’s outsider/insider existences collide: “Oh god, she said in English, and all the terror she’d been denying in Portuguese released itself inside her. She’d crossed a significant line in coming here.”
“I wanted to present the translator as the unspoken hero of literature,” explains Novey, who doesn’t make the task of saving the day easy for Emma. Novey calls her novel “a thriller with some theories on translation” and/or “a mystery with some manifesto tucked in,” as it provides a perfect blend of poetic attention to language with the captivating tropes of noir. Novey, who for over five years enjoyed laboring on the book covertly in the evenings, felt like she was cheating on her everyday life responsibilities: “If there’s no pleasure for the writer, then there’s no pleasure for the reader.” The result of Novey’s pleasure in writing is a highly pleasurable read on parsing one’s inner passion while hoodwinking a gangster.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. Her first book, What Is Not Missing Is Light, won Rescue Press’ Black Box Poetry Prize.