Julia Meitov Hersey, translator of Vita Nostra, describes her effort as a work of love, undertaken so that other English language readers will be able to enjoy the delights the Russian-language book first brought her. The book has been described as an “anti-Harry Potter novel”, and insofar as it offers a darker, more mysterious and philosophical version of the ‘magical recruit’ trope, this is true. But it’s far and away a very different beast from J. K. Rowling’s celebrated series.
The story follows young Sasha, a high school graduate who’s been planning to enter university and study linguistics until she is recruited by a strange, vaguely menacing man during a beach resort holiday and ordered instead to attend a mysterious college in the little-known, provincial town of Torpa.
Unlike the excited young denizens of Hogwarts, Sasha and her peers are coerced against their will into attending the mysterious college, lest ill consequences befall their family and loved ones. Once there, they embark on a barely comprehensible course of study, which is designed to completely dismantle the paradigms of material existence they have hitherto taken for granted. The students aren’t even certain of the intended outcome of their study, or the nature of their college. Are they being immersed in occult arts? Are their teachers alien beings from another planet?
The outstanding quality of the novel lies in its authors’ – the Ukrainian team of Sergey and Marina Dyachenko – ability to maintain a deep layer of suspense and mystery throughout. One is not sure what the purpose of the esoteric college is, what the role of its graduates is intended to be, and whether the professors are good or evil. This layer of suspense is maintained until nearly the end; a prodigious and impressive feat on behalf of the authors. They manage to maintain an equilibrium of suspense and plausibility while giving away only the slightest glimpse of what lessons the school intends to instill in its unwilling pupils.
“There are words that are simply trash, refuse, they turn into nothing immediately after they are spoken. Others throw shadows, hideous and pathetic, and sometimes gorgeous and powerful, capable of saving a dying soul. But only a few of these words become human beings and pronounce other words. And everyone in the world has a chance of encountering someone whom he himself spoke out loud…”
As the novel progresses, the authors begin to construct a broad outline of the esoteric philosophical ideas on which their school is founded. Grounded in something called ‘Hypertext’, it conceptualizes existence and being as a form of language. The philosophical principles on which this system of knowledge is based are presented vaguely but plausibly; fundamentally, what the novel grapples with is the broad question of what makes us human. The more deeply Sasha is immured into the strange world of her tutors, the more she’s forced to question and reevaluate her relationship with her family and the world with which she was formerly familiar. The things that once mattered to her seem less and less important; she still loves her family but finds it harder to take their earthly concerns seriously.
There’s something here of the young adult theme of separation from parents and growing into maturity, but the dark and malignant contours of the narrative render the theme less one for young adults and more one for all adults to ponder; a sort of grim reflection on the nature of the attachments we form and the goals toward which we aspire. Sasha, who becomes a sort of prodigy at the school, becomes obsessed by the learning she is exposed to. One wonders whether the grim lesson of the former Soviet Union’s ill-fated dabbling with capitalism has exerted influence on the story; there’s an almost ascetic theme of eschewing material gain for the pursuit of pure knowledge and self-discipline.
It’s telling that in the book’s opening scene, which sees Sasha and her mother arriving at a summer holiday resort for which they’ve scrimped and struggled to save money, all Sasha cares about is spending the summer at the beach and going swimming. Yet by the end of the novel, such indulgent and material desires are long abandoned, replaced by the mysterious learning toward which Sasha applies such tremendous devotion and discipline. The result is both a rejection of indulgent pleasures by the young pupil, and a realization of the immensely vaster possibilities which perseverance, study and discipline offer. Sasha’s course of study begs the question: what is it, after all, that makes us human? Is our humanity something that’s really so important to hold on to? Or is our sense of humanity something that is actually holding us back from an even greater potential?
Vita Nostra is a mysterious sort of novel. The narrative is engaging and a pleasure to follow; the sense of slowly unfolding mystery and suspense is riveting and the book is hard to put down. Yet the sparse plot leaves the reader with no shortage of questions. Perhaps that is, in part, the point. Regardless, the Dyachenkos have produced a remarkable novel and one that will linger long afterward in the reader’s thoughts. The writing team (and married couple) have produced dozens — including several award-winning — fantasy novels in the Russian language, yet very few have been translated into English. Vita Nostra is itself the first book in the larger ‘Metamorphosis’ cycle. English readers shall certainly hope that more translations of the Dyachenkos’ remarkable works will soon follow.