The Idiot by Elif Batuman

When I was in Prague a couple of years ago, I was struck by how completely foreign the language (and alphabet) was. Yes, you’re probably saying ‘Duh’ but despite attempts, I came away with no more Czech than I started with (i.e. zero). Nothing stuck. Even things as simple as recognising the name of the train station near to where we were staying – I simply couldn’t find a way of retaining any of it.

I was reminded of that feeling of absolute foreignness when I read Elif Batuman’s oddball novel, The Idiot.

The Idiot focuses on Selin, in her first year at Harvard (it’s set in the mid-nineties, so expect enjoyable details such as the wonder of email, and the jumpy delivery of music via a Discman). Selin is the daughter of Turkish immigrants, and with the hope of becoming a writer, she takes classes in linguistics and Russian. But despite Selin’s close observance of everything happening around her, university life is a foreign language in itself, and one that baffles Selin.

In a black room with orange lights and pounding Spanish music we stood in a big circle dancing. It reminded me of preschool, when you had to stand in a circle and clap your hands. I began to intuit dimly why people drank when they went dancing, and it occurred to me for the first time that maybe the reason preschool had felt the way it had was that one had to go through it all sober.

The story centres around Selin’s relationships with her roommates; her confident and extroverted Serbian friend, Svetlana; and the person she’s infatuated with, Ivan, a Hungarian maths major.

It was a mystery to me how Svetlana generated so many opinions. Any piece of information seemed to produce an opinion on contact. Meanwhile, I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.

Batuman writes as Selin sees and thinks – with an immense amount of detail. It makes for a curious reading experience – the detail was mesmerising in parts, superfluous in others. Toward halfway, I questioned whether long descriptions of Selin’s Russian class, her conversations with Svetlana, or the thinking behind buying a poster of Albert Einstein, contributed to driving the story forward. But, just as my patience was wearing thin, Selin travels to Hungary for a summer placement as an English teacher, and the story picks up pace. In fact, Selin in Hungary had my full attention (perhaps because her experience reminded me of my own time as an exchange student in Germany, when I would be taken to places or shown things that to this day I still can’t explain).

At noon every day, everyone went home except for me and Róbert, whose mother was the school principal. Róbert and I went into a large but windowless supply closet where, surrounded by rolled-up maps and projector screens and slide carousels, we sat at a wooden desk and were served lunch by the school cook, Vilmos, who wore a white apron and a chef’s hat…  We addressed these meals with dedication, industry, and few words… At first it seemed strange to me to go into a supply closet every day with a fourteen-year-old boy and eat a three-course meal, but soon I came to view it as part of the natural course of things.

There’s probably lots I missed in this book in terms of theme and style, simply because I’m not familiar Russian literature (and even then, I’m making assumptions on the basis that Batuman has borrowed her title from Dostoevsky). I did enjoy the dead-pan humour; and Batuman’s ability to take an ordinary situation (Selin falling for the accomplished maths major, who strings her along in a way that will feel all-too-familiar to many readers) and make it feel new. And the ending? Insightful!

I received my copy of The Idiot from the publisher, Penguin Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

3.5/5 Hmmm… how to score a book that was intensely boring in parts and wildly entertaining in other parts….?

I went to the student center, where I bought a tuna sandwich on a baguette and gnawed on it for a while. The consumption of that baguette seemed to require some kind of ear muscles that I had lost during the two-million-year course of human evolution.


8 responses

  1. I read something else by Batuman some years ago, so I thought maybe I might reserve this, but *sheesh* Goodreads says it’s 423 pages. What is it with these too-long books lately? Don’t get me wrong, there are books that need to be long, but it doesn’t sound as if this one needs to be.

    • I would have been happy with 70 fewer pages in the first half – once it moved to Hungary, it was all fantastic.
      Interestingly, opinions are divided on Goodreads, and when I say divided, I mean within one review – like me, many found it funny AND boring.

  2. So much of what you’ve highlighted here sounds tempting but it’s a shame it couldn’t have had a tighter edit and been more consistent. I’ve definitely had a baguette like that though!

    • I highlighted so many passages that were really terrific, but to appreciate them I would have been retyping paragraphs and paragraphs… which says everything about my frustration with the book.
      The quote about the baguette really made me laugh because I have frequently been in the middle of eating a crusty baguette, thinking ‘I feel like I’ve been eating for a month…’ 😬

  3. Interestingly for the couple of weeks I was in Greece I thought if I stayed here just a little bit longer I could work the language thing out, the Greek letters were just starting to make sense. But I was probably wrong. I like the idea of this book, and no, I don’t remember Dostoyevksy’s The Idiot either. And I empathise with Selin’s reaction to dance. I grew up with 50:50s in the Bush, and that other stuff is just foreign. In later life my ex and I tried rock n roll dance classes in an effort to reconnect and drink would certainly have helped.

    • I felt much the same about Greek as I did about Czech – I really struggled (and I hate not making an effort!). That said, it didn’t feel as challenging in Athens and I suspect it was because since they hosted the Olympics, a lot of the city (signage, transport etc) was given English subtitles.

      Not a dancer, Bill? I LOVE going out dancing, although I certainly feel the physical strain of it the next day – my clubbing days are long gone.

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