by Alexandra Bowie
Pity Emma Neufeld, the protagonist of Idra Novey’s delightful novel “Ways to Disappear.” Emma is a translator – her specialty is a Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda, whose works Emma translates for Elsewhere Press, which Novey describes as “just a woman named Judie in upstate New York and various interns from a small university nearby.” Consider the plight of the translator: she must convey the words of her author but also all their connotations. She’s in the middle: she can read the words in their original Portuguese, and also the ways in which English, even in Emma’s translation, tells both more and less than the original. Beatriz’s work, which Novey outlines, has a strain of magical realism and contains challenging images that leave her many fans debating interpretations. In Novey’s description, Emma remembers “an orange glow over the ocean and use[s] that light to illuminate the strange, dark boats of Beatriz’s images as she ferried them into English.”
Emma lives in Pittsburgh with her dreary boyfriend, Miles, who obsesses about running and his wedding to Emma. Emma visits Beatriz in Rio de Janeiro each year. One day Beatriz climbs a tree and disappears, to escape a gambling debt that takes all around her by surprise. Emma, in wintry Pittsburgh, convinced that Beatriz’ work, which she knows better than anyone, will be the key to tracking her down, heads to warm and sunny Rio to join the search, over the protests of Miles and of Beatriz’s daughter, Raquel.
Emma is both right and wrong, the latter because she’s forgotten the difference between the work and the life. On her arrival in Brazil Emma encounters others who are just as devoted to Beatriz as she is – Raquel and her brother Marcus, the loan shark Flamenguinho, and Beatriz’s first publisher, Roberto Rocha. But when a draft of a new novel turns up in Beatriz’s computer, Emma’s skills are put to use. So are those of Marcus (he has inherited his mother’s seductive green eyes), Roberto (he has money, and a lover he wants to protect), Raquel (secrets of her own), and Flamenguinho (he intends to get his money, or as much of it as possible). Everyone agrees the police will be of no use, and Novey allows several of her characters to come to harm.
The writing is lively, evoking both the light and the danger of Rio de Janeiro and several Brazilian islands. Chapters are short, some just a few lines, and are regularly interspersed with emails from Miles back in Pittsburgh (“Subject: alive?”) as well as what reads like a translator’s dictionary:
(“Transcribe: From the Latin prefix trans + scribere. 1. To write something anew and fully, as with a score of music for a new instrument. 2. To convert a written work in such a way that it alters the expectations of others and/or oneself, often requiring the abandonment of such expectations entirely. See also: transform, transgress, translate.”)
The dictionary entries also serve as commentary, and may or may not be distillations of the thoughts Emma records as she digs deeper into Beatriz’s life.
“Ways to Disappear” is an absorbing, deeply satisfying, and extremely well-written look at the line between art and life. It’s brief – too short for a long plane ride, but perfect for a sick day or convalescent friend.
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