Vol 11, Issue 9
In a moment of literary narcissism, I recently acquired the novel The Idiot by Elif Batuman. If you search my name online (Elif Şekercioğlu), the algorithm elves spit out a 2011 New Yorker article called ‘Natural Histories’, in which Elif Batuman interviews her friend Çağan
Şekercioğlu, a ‘conservation ecologist, ornithologist, tropical biologist, and nature photographer’. He is a fascinating fellow – the article notes, delightfully, that ‘In high school, Çağan found a rare beetle specimen and donated it to the Harvard entomology collection.’ Our algorithmic connection feels significant to me in some way.
Devastatingly I am not actually related to Çağan Şekercioğlu because he sounds like a very cool relative to have. None of this is especially relevant to the book review I am ostensibly writing right now, except that this gem of an article portends the pleasingly meandering style of The Idiot. The New Yorker article is about Çağan’s work in conservation, but Batuman also delves into the history of the city of Kars, made famous in the novel Snow by Turkey’s first Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk, a novel which Batuman then goes on to discuss (as a Turkish ‘person of letters’, inevitably she is asked about Pamuk in interviews; her scandalous response ‘I was unable to finish Pamuk’ made the headline). It’s not stream-of-consciousness but both the New Yorker article and The Idiot make good use of digressions to discuss more than what appears to be the subject-matter of the text. ‘Natural Histories’ is about bird conservation, but it’s also about the passions of the single-minded scientist and Batuman’s encounters with various colourful people, for example, ‘Emrah, Çağan’s science coordinator, was charged with retrieving dog carcasses from the city dumps and depositing them in random locations around Aras, to see how the vultures reacted. The vultures reacted well.’ Similarly, The Idiot is about an eighteen-year old American girl who goes off to Harvard and meets a boy. It’s also a novel about language. It does what the best writing should do, which is to articulate a feeling that those of us not bestowed with novelist talents are unable to express ourselves. In one stunning passage, Batuman hits upon something I sensed about Turkish but would never be able to find the words for: ‘the suffix – miş had no exact English equivalent… when you heard – miş, you knew that you had been invoked in your absence – not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity.’
The narrative is relatively straight-forward. Selin starts college at Harvard. She signs up to inexplicable and trendy classes like ‘Constructed Worlds’, and makes friends with fellow Harvardians who have names like Svetlana and Fern (it’s the 1990s). Selin becomes infatuated with Ivan, who is Hungarian and in her Russian language class. Because the year is 1995, naturally their relationship kick-starts via a series of e-mails about Lenin and existentialism. Ivan has a girlfriend (named Eunice!) who drifts in and out of the story. Selin is an unreliable narrator, because she never quite grasps how dodgy it is of Ivan to take her out to drink beer at basement bars and write her heartfelt emails whilst also maintaining a girlfriend.
Selin doesn’t know who she is yet. Like Richard Papen in The Secret History, she is swept up in events without quite knowing how she got there. Inevitably, in the second half of the novel she follows Ivan to Hungary to teach English to the children of Hungarian villages. Plaintively, she writes in an email to Ivan, ‘I don’t understand anything that happens, or how.’ I felt like that at eighteen too: how did people know they liked beer, and Russian literature? Where did such strong convictions come from?
I feel a bit traitorous admitting this, but I much preferred The Idiot to the works of that other famous Elif, the one you’ve probably heard of – Elif Şafak. Of her novels that I have read, I felt like Şafak’s characters and narrative were flimsy because they existed just to service a moral message, a style of novel that I find irritating.
The Idiot met my ultimate criterion for a bedtime read, which is the novel’s capacity to tranquilise my frenetic internal monologue. The font is large, the sentences are crisp, and the characters and narrative feel real and engaging. Elif Batuman is getting serious attention in the media, so I suggest you read her novel now, so you can say you thought she was cool before the whole world did too.
Elif Sekercioglu is a second-year JD student
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