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Scouring Brazil For A Celebrated Novelist

What's the last novel you read that revolved around a translator? I couldn't think of any, though a Google search reminded me that Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov sometimes worked as a translator, and the narrator chasing his elusive muse in Mario Vargas Llosa's The Bad Girl was an interpreter at UNESCO.

Idra Novey, an acclaimed poet and translator of Spanish and Portuguese literature, has written a debut novel that's a fast-paced, beguilingly playful, noirish literary mystery with a translator at its center. Ways to Disappear explores the meaning behind a writer's words — the way they can both hide and reveal deep truths. It begins with a famously unpredictable, cigar-smoking, 60-something Brazilian writer, Beatriz Yagoda, who goes missing — and the devoted young American translator who drops everything in snowy Pittsburgh, including her loyal but crushingly boring longtime boyfriend, to fly down to Rio to join in the search.

The missing writer's daughter, Raquel, isn't exactly thrilled to have Emma Neufeld show up, claiming superior knowledge just because she's intimately familiar with every line of Beatriz Yagoda's books. Raquel has never read them, but she has "no patience for the illusion that you could know someone because you knew her novels. What about knowing what a writer had never written down—wasn't that the real knowledge of who she was?" This is one of many intriguing questions Novey's novel pursues in its quest for the missing author.

It doesn't take long for Emma, Raquel, and Raquel's dashing, sexy younger brother Marcus to discover the reason for Beatriz's disappearance; that's part of the setup for an ensuing game of cat and mouse which puts them all in danger (and which I'll leave for readers to discover for themselves).

Novey doesn't let any moss grow under her fugitive writer or her narrative. Ways to Disappear proceeds briskly in short, punchy chapters interspersed with gossipy news bulletins from Radio Globo, increasingly desperate emails from Emma's bewildered boyfriend back in Pittsburgh, and the word-obsessed translator's arch parsing of key terms, presented in dictionary form. Among these: "Promise ... 2. A verb used to assure a certain outcome, as in, With time, a translator gets used to promising the impossible the way a loan shark gets used to promising carnage."

Novey's novel delivers on its promises in so many ways. Yes, there's carnage, but there's also exuberant love, revelations of long-buried, unhappy secrets, ruminations about what makes a satisfying life, a publisher's regrets about moral compromises in both his work and his use of his family wealth and connections, and an alternately heartfelt and wry portrait of the satisfactions and anxieties of the generally underappreciated art of translation. Debating whether to clean up her hotel room to hide some incriminating evidence, Emma muses, "In translation, this kind of dilemma was known as domestication. A translator could justify moving around the objects in a sentence if it made it easier for her audience to grasp what was going on ... The problem with domesticating things this way, however, was the possible misplacement of truth."

Ways to Disappear is concerned not just with truth and the risks of its misplacement and misinterpretation, but with the importance of close reading. It's a delightful, inventive paean to writing that generates "real emotion" and "genuine unease." At one point Beatriz's publisher likens literature to steaks on a grill, testing both "for density" as well as "for something tender in the middle yet still heavy enough to blacken the air." This book is seared to perfection, medium rare.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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