by Miriam Toews
Knopf, 2011; 255 pp., $29.95
Irma Voth is quintessential Miriam Toews. Written in the quirky yet melancholic voice that has become Toews’ hallmark, it is more accessible than her early hit, A Complicated Kindness, and more profound than her recent road novel, The Flying Troutmans. In it, Toews revisits with increased urgency her characteristic motifs of family crisis, repressive religion, and resilient youth, also exploring themes of translation, art, and agency.
Nineteen-year-old Irma Voth lives in a Mennonite “campo” near Chihuahua, Mexico. Raised in Canada until age thirteen and speaking Low German at home, Irma knows three languages but fully inhabits none. Whether due to isolation, trauma, and/or lack of education, she often cannot articulate herself beyond “I don’t know.” Yet her interior monologue, though sometimes naïve, is by turns fast-paced and meditative, occasionally even reminiscent of Lydia Davis: “On a clear day I can see the Sierra Madre mountains way off in the west, and sometimes I talk to them. I compliment them on their strength and solidity, and by hearing myself talk that way I am reminded that those words exist for a reason, that they’re applicable from time to time. It’s comforting.” Indeed, comfort is in short supply in Irma’s world.
Disowned by her father for marrying a Mexican and quickly abandoned by her young husband, Irma fends for herself, while loathe to move away from her mother and younger siblings, especially her twelve-year-old sister, Aggie. When Diego Nolasco, a Spanish-speaking filmmaker, arrives in the area with his crew, Irma translates—and often intentionally mistranslates—his directions to a German actress. A vehicle for Irma’s own self-expression, this creative mistranslation also transforms the movie’s female lead from a passive victim into a spirited rebel. Encouraged to keep “a diary of the ‘shoot,’” Irma takes notes that, we are led to believe, eventually develop into the novel itself.
Though structurally ragged in spots—the intermittent, present-tense diary entries feel somewhat contrived and paradoxically disrupt the immediacy of the central, past-tense narrative—the novel possesses an intensity rooted in frequent crises as well as poignant discoveries: for the first time, Irma wears a bathing suit and swims in the ocean; confides in a stranger and receives support; watches a film and sees her life reflected on screen. In its closing pages, the novel delivers a pair of wrenching revelations that both account for its pain-drenched tone and prompt Irma to confront her own deep-seated guilt.
“Art is a lie,” opines Irma’s father, a rage-filled patriarch deeply opposed to his daughters’ involvement in Nolasco’s film. But when the sisters eventually flee to Mexico City, Diego Rivera’s mural at the National Palace releases a tidal flood of emotion and recognition. As Irma explains, Rivera is “asking all Mexicans to look squarely at the history of their lives, at the beauty and the misery and the pain and the struggle and the wreckage.” Similarly balancing suffering with grace, Toews’ novel itself powerfully testifies to art’s capacity to express emotional truth. »From issue #60