Ways to Disappear: A Novel
Ways to Disappear: A Novel by Idra Novey. (Little, Brown, 258 pp. $25)
A translator is like a Bunraku puppeteer—always onstage, essential to the action, but virtually invisible. Idra Novey, who renders Spanish and Portuguese fiction into English, would like us to know more about translators, so she has stepped into the more visible role of novelist.
At the heart of her story is Emma Neufeld, translator of five novels by the Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda. Emma, who knows the author through her work and also from regular visits, grows concerned when Beatriz suddenly stops answering emails; her worry mounts when she receives a message informing her that the writer—last seen climbing into an almond tree with a suitcase—has disappeared.
Confident that she can help unravel the mystery, Emma leaves her bewildered boyfriend in Pittsburgh and flies to Rio de Janiero. On landing, her first stop is a bar where she is to meet the person who sent word of Beatriz’s disappearance. Instead of finding the mutual friend she imagined, she encounters the loan shark who financed the writer’s online gambling addiction—and who thinks Emma may be the key to his unpaid loan.
Beatriz’s children can’t agree on whether Emma’s help is necessary. The daughter resents the idea that the American translator could have special insight into where her mother may be hiding. The son is more open-minded, at least, in part because he wants to get Emma into bed.
So begins the translator’s quest, juggling personalities and personal urges, obsession with her author and avoidance of her boyfriend back home, jousting with the words of publishing and the swords of the underworld.
Novey’s writing is tight but vivid, her insights acute, especially when exploring the ways of a translator. Here is how she describes Emma’s appreciation for her boyfriend’s disinterest in her annual pilgrimage to Brazil: “Having never reduced the trips to anecdotes, she could recall them more intuitively as she worked on her translations. She’d remember a morning in Rio as no more than an orange glow over the ocean and use that light to illuminate the strange, dark boats of Beatriz’s images as she ferried them into English.”
Ways to Disappear is a noirish, humorous, wondrous and topsy-turvy tale, one in which the writer remains in the shadows and the translator in the spotlight. Novey makes good use of Joycean twists that link scenes or build tension by altering the pace. The emails, news bulletins and dictionary entries she places between chapters recall the shouted headlines at the newspaper office where, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom sold advertising; in Ways to Disappear’s most violent scene, just before shots are fired, she shifts to free verse, creating a cinematic, slow-motion effect.
Also Joycean is the use of characters whose Jewishness simultaneously says little and speaks volumes. Novey’s most recent translation is a novel by Clarice Lispector, one of the seminal Brazilian writers of the 20th century—and whose Jewishness is largely unknown to her countrymen. Worthy of more exploration: translation as a disproportionately Jewish pursuit, from Arthur Waley (The Tale of Genji) and Michael Meyer (the works of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg) to Edith Grossman (Miguel de Cervantes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and Howard Goldblatt (Mo Yan and other contemporary Chinese novelists)—to mention a few.
If Ways to Disappear has a potential flaw, it is in the ending (not revealed here), which works well in English but relies on a plot device that would seem familiar and contrived to Brazilian viewers of telenovelas. Fortunately, just as ideas can get lost in translation, they can also be reimported and appear fresh. No doubt this will be a challenge for the translator who ferries Novey’s images into Portuguese—even as he or she remains invisible.