Vita Nostra is an award-winning fantasy novel by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, first published in 2007. When asked to describe the book, Sergey and Marina say simply:
“As with all our books, it is an investigation of those things called love and meaning of life. “In the beginning was the Word,” that’s John 1:1. But what does it mean? So we just tried to answer that question.”
A visit to the book’s Goodreads reviews page left me stunned
by the outpourings of praise
in at least four languages — Russian, English, Polish, Ukrainian, and others I can’t recognize.
by the outpourings of praise
|look it up on Amazon|
An attempt to draw a comparison revealed that readers have likened Vita Nostra to the titles ranging from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game; with Chuck Palahniuk’s The Fight Club somewhere in the middle.
I turned to Vita Nostra’s English translator, Julia Meitov Hersey, and asked her to tell me more about the book.
JS: Tell us how you came to translate Vita Nostra.
JMH: Forgive me an old, but in this case highly appropriate, cliché --sometimes books speak to you, and VITA NOSTRA has been more than eloquent. I came across it by chance – I love books about learning, about colleges or private schools; it is such a rich setting -- an enclosed space, where one is encouraged, or even forced, to grow intellectually, all the while being stuck inside with the same demons, external or internal. VITA NOSTRA is an example of my favorite genre – a slice of reality placed inside a fantasy concept. I eventually brought VITA NOSTRA to the attention of Lev Grossman, the author of THE MAGICIANS trilogy. I found it remarkable how both the Dyachenkos and Grossman had the same technical approach to magic, providing a step-by-step description of each new task their characters had to master. I mentioned the book to Lev at his reading/signing for THE MAGICIANS, he asked me to translate a few pages, and I ended up translating the entire novel mostly for his benefit; my non-Russian-speaking family members could now read it as well. Once the manuscript was completed, I sent a courtesy copy to the Dyachenkos using the contact information listed on their website. Luckily for me, Marina and Sergey actually read their fan mail and even take time to respond!
JS: Any challenging or rewarding moments that you can share?
JMH: There were three rather challenging moments. I was deathly afraid of missing certain technical or scientific concepts – such as the “spiral arms” at the very end of the novel, or mental health terms that Sergey (who was a professional psychiatrist before he became a writer) was likely to hide in the text. I still comb through the text every now and then for anything I could have missed. I also had to pay very close attention to the literary quotes and allusions hidden in the text –anything from Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to Garshin’s The Scarlet Blossom, to Plato. And another thing that I found extremely difficult was translating those passages when all Sasha’s seemingly pointless labors begin to make sense to her. Those pages are so emotionally charged that I had an actual physical reaction to them. Here is a couple of examples of those passages:
Every second the world around her altered. Some connections strained and grew, others broke. The process resembled convulsions: every now and then Sasha would stand still, listening to herself: inside, an invisible thread would tauten, cutting and rehashing, weakening and twitching again. Occasionally, she saw herself from the outside: a small lake of melted ice cream, and in the coffee-colored slush swam a tiny acrid nubbin—Sasha’s fear. Sasha disliked looking at her fear. It resembled a half-digested chunk of meat...”
“…staring back into those eyes, Sasha realized with all her core being something that many understood before her. The creature did not care that she was loved by someone. And that she loved someone herself. And that she had a childhood, and she splashed on the sea shore; and that she had an old knit sweater with a reindeer embroidered on the front. There were plenty of people loved by someone, the ones who carried a seashell, a button, or a black and white photograph in their pockets; no one had been saved by memories, no one had been protected by words and pledges, and those loved greatly by others died too.”
There are some really frightening moments when Sasha’s body mimics the transformations that her mind is undergoing. You know how, when you study for too long, your eyes get red and your body feels all achy? Sasha takes it to an entirely different level:
“Her eyes no longer had pupils or irises. Only the whites with red streaks. Sasha threw aside the mirror but continued seeing herself; now she realized that she saw with something other than her eyes. She saw with the skin of her face, her elbows, neck; shaking, she pulled off her tee-shirt and saw the room through the skin of her back. She took off the sweatpants she forgot to take off last night, and with the sweatpants she pulled off her underwear. Now each spot on her body saw the entire picture, and combined, all these pictures constituted the world-without-Sasha. Her body—white, skinny, shaking in the middle of a messy dorm room—was the only entity outside this world.
Sparks ran along her skin. Shy little fires like rolling drops. Tiny flashes of lighting. Underneath the skin membrane, in nearly transparent places, she could see her veins, blood vessels and tendons—a mysterious forest. Her back itched like crazy—something was going on with her spine—it crackled, was nimble, alive, full of its own existence.”
This just makes my heart beat faster, and I wanted to make sure the reader’s heart would do the same. This would be the rewarding part of the process.
JS: As a translator, how do English and Russian compare as medium of expression? What things are best said in English and what -- in Russian?
JMH: What I find extremely frustrating about English is the word order. In Russian, one can throw things around as one pleases – and the nuances change ever so slightly. I don’t have this luxury in English. English forces me to be far more disciplined. And then there is this painful issue of utter disdain or any other emotion one can express by using a particular form of a person’s name – and in VITA NOSTRA the heroine goes from being called Alexandra by her professors to Sashka by her peers to Sashenka by her mother. I eliminated all those forms of her name from my translation to make it a little easier for the English-speaking readers, but a big part of me hates me for it.
JS: In your opinion, are there any barriers in understanding that an English reader can experience reading Russian fantastika?
JMH: The main barrier is that the sci-fi/fantasy market in the U.S. is so incredibly oversaturated! However, Russian literature offers plenty of brilliant examples of one genre that is almost non-existent in the U.S. – a realistic plot prompted or directed by a sci-fi/fantasy premise. VITA NOSTRA is not a book about transformations or wings, it is a book about learning and the power of fear. Another book by the Dyachenkos I translated recently, THE VALLEY OF CONSCIENCE, is not a book about supernatural deaths; it is an extended metaphor of love and the choices we make when we have power over other people. This genre deserves recognition, along with steampunk, apocalypse, space travel, etc. To me, the social fantasy genre is what blends the line between literary and genre fiction.
So what does it mean, “In the beginning was the Word”? I hesitate to interpret this statement as it is sometimes quoted in its partial form, because it is, in fact, followed by “…and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and the agnostic in me has a tough time truncating it. However, the linguist in me rejoices – of course it’s all about language, of course, the world is the ultimate hypertext! The Dyachenkos will tell you all their books are about love – but VITA NOSTRA is also about learning, about the power of information, about constructing a new informational structure. It is the most cerebral Dyachenko novel to date. Its loosely associated sequel, DIGITAL, describes just that -- a society built on the new informational structure, but this is a topic for another interview.