Here’s a book that I happened upon, intrigued by it’s bright cover and the fact that it was a debut novel by a poet. The advance quote from Karen Russell on the cover pulled me a bit deeper and I decided to take a chance on this one.
Boy, am I glad I did!
When a famed Brazilian author whose books often deal in magical realism climbs a tree and disappears, her American translator Emma feels compelled to leave her life and her fiancé behind to fly to Rio de Janeiro and join the author’s two grown children, Raquel and Marcus, in the search to find her. What follows is a compelling tale with such a sharp, detailed attention to words, it’s more like a love affair.
Though the book is definitely an exploration of (and for) Beatriz Yagoda, the acclaimed Brazilian author who although fictional could probably be compared to real-life Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the story is really more about Emma. As a devoted translator of Yagoda’s works, Emma feels she knows Beatriz intimately and because of this believes that she has something to offer the investigation into her disappearance. So much weight rests on words for her—she spends every waking moment thinking about them, deliberating the meaning between one language and another. Emma believes in the importance and worth of words; that they impart some form of truth and that Beatriz’s works may even have hidden meaning as to her location.
It is definitely a rash act for Emma to fly to Rio alone to help these people who she barely knows, and who honestly, don’t even really want her help. Rio isn’t the safest place on the best of days, and now she’s wandering around looking for someone that has racked up online gambling debt and has loan sharks looking to extract payment or revenge. Emma’s decision to go to Rio is her own act of vanishing—vanishing from her own life. Her upcoming marriage to Miles is not something that she’s entirely set on, but she hasn’t quite been able to say that to Miles yet, or even to herself, really. She’s been floating along in the background of her own life and this trip marks the moment that she’s finally taken the step into the foreground.
This theme is echoed in her work as a translator—that oh, so important role that is oft forgotten by the general reading public. Without the translator, where is the book? It can’t be shared on a global level, across languages and cultures, becoming a phenomenon. But translators remain in the background, living in the white space between the lines. They create language, but they don’t create it anew. Such a delicate balance: sussing out the author’s true meaning and deciphering how to relay that to a different cultural audience. And for all that work, they tend to get very little recognition. Arguably, this is as it should be. The author should be first and foremost recognized for their work, but I can’t help but to think about how the work would never have been available to so many people without the translator.
Living in the shadows never bothered Emma, in fact, it seemed to suit her—it was her way to disappear. But now, that’s not good enough. She’s coming into her own, even begins taking notes on their progress towards finding the author, which at some point turns into her own creative writing. She’s overwriting her disappearance, creating herself anew. In a way, Beatriz’s escape act is the impetus that forces Emma to jumpstart her life.
All this is not to say that translation is not a worthwhile career path, but for the purposes of this book, translation is the shroud that Emma hides behind, allowing it to make her invisible and her life to go on around her seemingly without needing any guidance from her.
One other interesting feature I want to mention are these definition pages that are scattered throughout the text. They take a word from the last sentence of the previous chapter and define it or explain its root as a dictionary would, but then the definition is taken even further to surround the context of the current situation. The best way to explain this is with an example:
Between: Preposition. 1. By the common act of <between the two of them> but also used to designate a difference, a setting apart <between an author and her son>. 2. Used to indicate an interval <between a brief tunnel in Rio and the distant Pittsburgh of one’s cats> (67)
I think these moments are happening inside Emma’s mind, as though her inner translator is taking over and trying to organize and put a box around her experiences—to translate and make sense of them, as it were. They are simply beautiful and make me as a reader so aware of every word on the page—that every word holds more meaning than is at the surface level if you’re willing to unpack it.
Throw in some romance, crazy, obese loan sharks, mysterious letters from literary characters, and Chekov’s gun, and you’ve got one hell of a story. Will Beatriz turn up? And why did she really leave in the first place?
This is a truly beautiful little debut novel. I can’t wait to see what’s next from this talented author.
Get your copy of Ways to Disappear
Find out more about Idra Novey
Connect with the publisher: Little, Brown (Hachette)
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.