And wasn’t the splendor of translation this very thing—to discover sentences this beautiful and then have the chance to make someone else hear their beauty who had yet to hear it? To arrive, at least once, at a moment this intimate and singular, which would not be possible without these words arranged in this order on this page?
Ways to Disappear is a beckoning mix of comedy and noir, romance and violence. Perhaps above all else, it is a love letter to the art of translation. That most particular, intimate act is threaded throughout, and the question arises again and again: how do you know a person? Through words, or through blood? And aren’t relationships between people translations themselves, in a sense? The epigraph to the novel is a quote from Edmond Jabès, “For a time we became the same word. It could not last.” That singular moment.
Idra Novey has translated, among other authors, Clarice Lispector, widely considered to be Brazil’s greatest modern writer and the recipient of much attention over the last few years, with new translations of her work published by New Directions and the 2009 critically acclaimed biography by Ben Moser, Why this World. When asked about the relationship of Lispector to the missing author at the heart of her debut novel, Novey said Beatriz Yagoda “is definitely not Clarice Lispector but was inspired by my relationship in my head with this author I had made for myself,” the version of Lispector Novey has imagined communicating with, in the absence of the author’s live presence.
Beatriz Yagoda is a preeminent Brazilion novelist who climbs up a tree in Rio, suitcase in hand, cigar in mouth, and disappears. Her American translator, Emma, hears the news in snowy Pittsburgh, where she is very much not interested in planning a marriage to her fiancé Miles, and jumps on a plane. She doesn’t question that the news arrives in an email from a man she has never heard mention of before, Flamenguinho. Miles protests her decision, citing practicalities like needing to save money for the wedding. But Emma “knew Beatriz too intimately not to go and help now. What if no one else thought of the scene in one of Beatriz’s earliest stories with the warden who disappears into a tree?”
The humor is sharp and tender in this line, and throughout the entire book. The form of the novel is itself playful and clever. Brief chapters spliced with emails, and definitions of words according to Emma’s use of them (“Permission” is partly defined as: “Formal consent, as in: A translator must acquire permission to publish a story consisting of words that are not her own but that also incidentally are.”) There is the occasional wink to Lispector, but it’s just that. Novey’s debut has a warmth and humor all her own.
Emma is often slightly ridiculous and seemingly clueless, but Novey doesn’t hang her out to dry. In a recent interview with Francisco Goldman, Novey says her intention was “to write a particular kind of North American naiveté with a sense of humor, and without condemning it. To just understand it for what it is.” Emma’s wits are about her and she needs them, for from the first it’s clear that neither this trip to Rio nor the search for her author are at all what she had in mind. Flamenguinho is a loan shark, after $600,000 he claims Beatriz owes him in gambling debt. As he threatens Emma with violence if she doesn’t come up with the money from the sales of Beatriz’s work, she doesn’t feel it’s “the time to explain that Elsewhere Press was just a woman named Judie in upstate New York and various interns from a small university nearby.” And that Emma and Beatriz each only make $500 per work. Not quite ransom money.
Of the various scenarios in which she’d imagined herself in Rio, receiving a threat of this nature was not one of them. She’d also never imagined her author as someone who would conceal an addiction, and certainly not to gambling. She’d translated every emotion Beatriz had ever written. They’d discussed hundreds of words and why Beatriz had chosen them over others . . . If she couldn’t find Beatriz, she couldn’t find anyone.
Only much later in the novel does Emma question her knowledge of Beatriz: “In the nearly ten years that Emma had spent translating Beatriz, it had never occurred to her to consider whether her author’s body possessed as many complicated secrets as her fiction did. But why wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it have to?”
The action of the novel is presented in a fluid series of moments; things proceed at a brisk pace, but we still soak in the languor of the heat, of the unraveling of stories, of intimacies. That languorous heat is its own character, its presence pronounced from Emma’s first steps off the plane. She can already “feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the sticky sensation, the rising odors were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere.”
After her meeting with Flamenguinho, Emma proceeds to Beatriz’s apartment to see her children, steely Raquel and beautiful Marcus. The former is skeptical of this gambling story, but a search on their mother’s computer reveals that the torrid tale is true, and far worse than they could have anticipated.
Raquel scoffs at Emma’s belief that she can help because she knows Beatriz’s words, and has her own take:
When people asked what it was like to be the daughter of someone who came up with such peculiar stories, Raquel told them the truth. She’d never read her mother’s books. She had no patience for the illusion that you could know someone because you know her novels. What about knowing what a writer had never written down—wasn’t that the real knowledge of who she was?
Emma may have translated every emotion her author had ever written, but Raquel has had to find a means of understanding her mother’s silences and indirect communications her whole life. Marcus himself, we learn later, has never really read her work either. “I’ve never finished any one of my mother’s books…I knew her books were all in the apartment, but so was she. It never felt right to read her when I could hear her in the next room. Or maybe I wasn’t ready to know what she said in them. He shrugged. Or it was just laziness.”
Yet Raquel shows the particularly intimate way she knows and, even if she doesn’t see it as such, understands her mother:
Every six or seven years her mother produced a book. Of all the unreliable things about her mother, this pattern had remained unchanged. It was as true to her mother’s mysterious nature as it was of a palm to produce coconuts.
Even if she never read them, Raquel had appreciated her mother’s books for the sureness of their arrival, for proving that her mother was a functioning person, and despite the reputed darkness people found so alarming in her work, in person her mother was reassuring.
While Emma thinks she has a clue as to where Beatriz is hiding from one of her stories and heads to a nearby island with Marcus in tow, Raquel remains home, positive her mother wouldn’t be anywhere near Rio. “If her mother was hiding on an island, Raquel was certain it would be one much farther away. Ilha Grande was too close to Rio and full of bourgeois bohemians. Her mother wouldn’t want to be surrounded by a bunch of bobos in flip-flops smoking pot while they texted on their iPhones.” (Would anyone?)
Raquel’s hunch is confirmed by a letter Beatriz sends to a man named Roberto Rocha, her first publisher and forever dedicated editor. He comes from a wealthy family, and it is to him that Beatriz writes, under the names of her characters, asking him for money to pay for her hotel in Bahia.
The action unfolds seamlessly in a series of episodes that jump between the principal characters, though we don’t enter Beatriz’s own mind until almost the end; we only see her through others’ impressions and snippets of her writing. Novey not only thus builds her portraits, but gets at an element of relationships and time, ways of knowing a person, a writer, through her own language and that of others’. Meanwhile, Emma and Marcus turn up no clues on the island, but the heat and the attractiveness of Marcus overwhelm Emma’s fidelity to her fiancé. They begin an affair, making fodder for the Brazilian tabloids that are closely covering the disappearance of their beloved author, whom they refer to as South African even though, as Raquel remarks to herself, Beatriz came to Brazil when she was two. (Alluding to biographers’ noting that Lispector, no matter that she considered herself fully Brazilian, migrated from Ukraine, though for years there was a haziness as to exactly how old she was at the time.) Raquel isn’t surprised about the development between Marcus and Emma, just further annoyed by her presence. The antagonism continues, even as they are forced to work together not only on Beatriz’s trail, but also to rescue Marcus when he is kidnapped by Flamenguinho and held for ransom.
All is far from lost, as Emma proves her steadfastness, while Raquel is devastated and for the first time seems to lose some control. And yet Raquel also found the key to her brother’s rescue: while digging thought Beatriz’s computer, she discovered the final manuscript her mother was working on, which is not only the first thing she’s read by her mother, but it also seems to hold an answer to a lingering question about who her father really is. However, while Raquel discovers the manuscript, it is Emma who has the bold savvy to bargain with Rocha for the ransom money in exchange for it. She knows its worth and understands his desire for Beatriz’s words, because she shares it.
Rocha is also Novey’s means of getting at another side of publishing – the struggle of a small independent publishing house in an age of corporatized publishers, as well as the struggle of the true (and perhaps idealized) editor who has, in a sense, lived and toiled for his one great author. Rocha is a wealthy snob, but he is an editor through and through. The women ask for a lot of money to pay for Marcus’s freedom, and while Rocha imagines the complaints of his lover, he thinks to himself, “but what was money for if not to halt the mutilation of some boy’s face and his possible death? What was the point of being an editor if he didn’t have a manuscript like this one in front of him, if his days contained nothing but enervating sentences that risked nothing, asked nothing, did nothing but require ink in a book that generated no real emotion, no genuine unease, not even from the editor who published it?” (A passage that will likely resonate with many members of a certain branch of publishing.)
As we follow the characters through mounting threats, ever-higher stakes, the realization of threatened violence and the mystery of Beatriz, each of them has his and her role in the fate of the novel – ultimately in the way each person knows Beatriz is how they find her, but also how they find themselves, and each other.
There’s a joy in discovering a richness to what at first seems perhaps to be just a lighthearted caper. Embroidered into the theme of translation and the plot itself are questions of the role of the translator—Emma constantly is both at the center of the action and yet understands when she must be silently present, yet never disappear. During the scene where she and Raquel bargain with Rocha for the ransom money, her role as intermediary plays out: “With both chairs occupied, Emma was left hovering slightly to the side of the conversation. It was not an unfamiliar position or one without benefits. Present but unacknowledged, she was under no pressure to speak. This didn’t mean she couldn’t, however. Or that, timed right, her influence couldn’t prove significant, even pivotal.”
There is also a twist to her usual role, for as all of this is unfolding, in moments of great panic and anxiety, without a book to read, Emma begins to write her own story, of a translator on trial, who can only be saved by a defense mounted by the author herself. Emma’s writing isn’t just a meditation on her role as translator, but also serves to “steady herself with a little fantasy, to disappear for just a moment into the relief of make-believe – into the plea hidden in every fiction for immortality.” Until now Portuguese was her escape from her life in Pittsburgh with Miles; in Brazil, her escape is her own words.
For all this celebration and investigation of language, however, Novey also shows there are moments where language breaks down, when words cannot be found, and blood cannot fill the gap. Emma’s communication with Miles has broken down completely by the time he shows up in her hotel room and their relationship is effectively over. When Emma and Raquel rescue Marcus, the form of prose is literally broken up, in a scene of chaotic poetry and violence. When Beatriz finally sends word via Rocha for Raquel to visit her on an island that is indeed far from Rio, the mother-daughter reunion is at once both intimate and distant–the words that might bring them together aren’t spoken, only read by the reader.
And yet, there is hope—the end of the novel witnesses that “singular moment.” Ultimately, it is Beatriz’s words that finally bring Emma and Raquel together, spoken aloud, which reveals another aspect of Novey’s love letter – not only to translation, but also to the rhythms of language itself. Translation is a written activity but there is also the translation of communication—when language on the page literally has life breathed into it, and exists with varieties of cadence.
In the denouement of the novel’s final chapters, Emma is alone in her hotel room, thinking about how she worked through the translations of Beatriz’s novels—
With her translations, she’d learned to type for long stretches without ever looking at the screen. She’d keep her face turned to Beatriz’s book, propped open beside her on the desk, or she’d stare out the window and trust her fingers to key in the words as they occurred to her. When she looked back over what she’d typed, there was a kind of magic in seeing that her hands had indeed accurately translated what had come into her mind into sentences on the screen. There was no reason to believe that her fingers wouldn’t comply with a similar kind of magic if the words she was typing up happened to be her own.
Translation is not always such magical work of course; Novey says so when describing her experience of translating Lispector, who passed away well before she translated her novel The Passion According to G.H.: “You can ask a question but you don’t get an answer. The author just stares at you and says nothing and you wonder if the best thing to do would be to get up and run out of the room.”
Still, Novey has beautifully evoked a sense of what it’s like to exist, for better or worse, as Emma herself puts it, “in the vapor between languages,” and while Emma questions the worth of her own writing, it’s clear there’s no question as to the worth of Novey’s, whose fingers have produced a novel that will leave you in a glow, and perhaps yearning for that intimate and singular moment.
Lauren Goldenberg is Deputy Director at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. A former book scout and bookseller, she's a lifelong New Yorker with stints in Chicago and Paris.