Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

Themes

  • existentialism, conceptual & abstract philosophy, existential crisis
  • psychological conditioning, metamorphosis, science fiction
  • personal evolution, maturation to adulthood, personal growth, introspection

“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 those 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…”

This novel was spellbinding, at times I struggled to define it and explain it to others. While reading it I was enthralled in the process of mental development and existential crisis that Sasha unwittingly consents to begin. At the time of her inception into the admissions process for the Institute of Special Technologies she is a quiet, unassuming 17-year-old girl. Over the span of the next few years she is forced to exceed her full potential in spontaneous and disarming ways.

The original work was translated into English from Russian, and at first I worried that some of the nuances and metaphors might be lost in translation. I am extremely excited to say that is not the case, Julia Meitov Hersey has succeeded in translating the Kafka-inspired, conceptual powerhouse that is Vita Nostra! Countless times I tentatively picked up this book intending to only read it lightly but became engrossed in Sasha’s narration. Unlike most books, dependent on external events to propel the story and realize the tension between the characters and their world; this meaningful bulk of this novel exists predominantly in the internal and psychological space of the main character. This by no means makes the story less engaging or boring. On the contrary, the reader is treated to flashes of insight balanced expertly with traces of hyper sanity. The ideologies of the Institute of Special Technologies are unique, students are uniquely characterized, and I begin to wonder what my identity might be if I were categorized in those same terms.

“It’s the nature of our specialty: nothing can be explained. One can only achieve understanding on one’s own. You are a command, a part of the Speech of Creation. A load-bearing structure. I told you once you were a projection. Remember? Here it is: You are a projection of the Word that is destined to reverberate. And every day you get closer to the original. You are a foundation upon which an entire universe can be built. And this cannot be explained, Sasha, it can only be understood.”

A week after finishing this novel, I’m still struck by moments that remind of scenes in the book that seemed almost inconsequential at the time. Know now that nothing is coincidence, but everything is up to chance. Up until its final pages I was wondering where this was going, what was the end game? Not because the book lacked direction, but because its direction was straight ahead and Sasha while willing to transform herself, never gave fully. We wavered on the edge with her, wondering the same questions. The book will not end as you expect, or when you expect. I have many questions, I wanted more, I realize now that it was always about the little interactions between characters. This is a psychological thriller of sorts, but it is not “physical action”. She is not an action hero. In the end I left with the feeling that I could have known more, but I was given all that I needed.

I wholly believe in the power of the written word, in the magic that occurs when they are selected by a book and not the other way around. It is an experience I had when I was drawn to House of Leaves, another book I will be reviewing in the future. I had the thrill of being drawn to this novel entirely unsuspecting of the experience I was about to embark on. When this happens, I am never disappointed. Equal parts intuition and fate, a “perfect pairing” between book and reader will find you at periods in your life that it will speak to you most and never quite the same again. My recommendation for this book is to lovers of absurdity, science fiction, and dense philosophical concepts as Vita Nostra is rife with the prose and complexities of all.

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