Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman

It’s 1995 and Selin Karadag (the g is silent, as she is always explaining), daughter of Turkish immigrants, is a freshman at Harvard.  Email is new and cellphones are nonexistent.  A linguistics major, she begins to study Russian and through this connection begins an email epistolary friendship with Ivan, an older student from Hungary who is studying mathematics.  Selin falls in something like love with Ivan through their self-conscious email interchanges, but things go less well in person.  After a lengthy dance around each other, the school year is winding down and Ivan encourages her to join his friend Peter’s summer language program in Hungary.  She will be sent to a village to teach English.  Ivan, himself, will only be there part of the time to visit family before going to Thailand.  The scenes in Hungary are hilarious.  Housed by different families each week, Selin is often desperate to escape to her room and have a little time to herself where she is neither expected to be holding English conversations nor learning Hungarian (a language that shares a grammar and some cognates with Turkish).  Separated from Ivan, she debates about calling him on a pay phone.  She hesitates and delays, but he is always in her thoughts.  I loved Selin’s and the author’s interest in language – how it both unites and divides us.  In many respects, the subject of the novel is communication, and miscommunication.  Anyone who has been a clueless freshman or stranger in a strange land on a summer abroad will identify with Selin. The largely autobiographical novel is, however, long and as plotless as your freshman year in college probably was.  Nonetheless, I found it a very satisfying read.  423 pp.

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