Friday, June 23, 2017

Book review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

During her freshman year at Harvard, the American-born Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, is falling in love with an older mathematics student from Hungary, Ivan. Set in 1995, the love story starts via e-mail, a novelty form of communication at the time, but doesn't go beyond the word level, although Selin will decide to spend a couple of weeks in Hungary teaching English in remote villages hoping to be closer to him.
Although not rich in events and actions, this book has a continual flow of observations and intellectual games. This is an example: 'The professor was talking about the differences between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper  in a cardboard case; yet and this was ironic - there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn't yours'. 
Selin, an autobiographical character, lives her life through stories and believes there is a sense in language, but doesn't necessarily find any connection with feelings and encounters. Her virtual relationship with Ivan, although completed through meetings in real time is just a projection as she is unable to connect the words to life and real emotions. The entire book is Selin journey through words trying to start her life. The constant monologue is creating an image of an active interior life, the permanent struggle to make order in the daily chaos through words. It is Selin's search for meaning and her formation time. She might look lost and the dialogues can sound sometimes like absurd and non-sensical, but did you ever hear how does your interior life conversations sound like?
It is an intense intellectual novel, with unexpected references and associations, a delightful walk to discovery of the limits of rationality and words, with many comics and humorous episodes. 
It took me more than usual to read it because it is a different way of story-telling, but the reading adventure is fully worth the intellectual effort. 

Rating: 3.5-4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review 

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