The Extinction of Irena Rey Ania Szremski

Of mushrooms and mayhem: In Jennifer Croft’s novel, eight translators who work in eight different languages gather in their author’s rural home . . . what could possibly go wrong?

The Extinction of Irena Rey, by Jennifer Croft,
Bloomsbury, 309 pages, $28.99

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Poland is one of Europe’s largest nesting grounds for storks—20 to 25 percent of the world’s population flies to the country every March after wintering in Africa. They represent the hopeful arrival of spring after bleak months of suicidal gray and cold; to have a stork roost on your chimney is a sign of great fortune. But should that enormous, elaborate nest fall, it is the opposite—a terrible omen. When I was a girl, a cautionary tale still circulated in my father’s village from when he himself was young. Once, a stork’s nest had plummeted from the neighbor’s roof. The neighbor immediately disappeared. Three days later, he was found in the forest, sitting bolt upright against a tree, staring blankly at nothing—dead. No one knew why; yet no one was quite surprised, considering.

Storks roost all over Jennifer Croft’s new novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey, and I kept waiting for a nest to fall, given the story’s Easter-egg hunt of macabre premonitions, but one never did, which maybe is also a foreshadowing, a sign that the reader can’t be sure anyone actually dies in this mystery plot. Well, we’re told that somebody does, but also that they don’t, not really—and, on the contrary, more than one character will rise like Lazarus from a storied demise. A brief introductory note titled “Warning” reveals that what we are about to read is a fiction, partly based on real events, by an Argentine author (as yet unnamed), first written in Polish and translated for us into English by an American, Alexis Archer. The uncertainty over what’s fiction and what’s not persists because the trustworthiness of the author, who is also our first-person narrator (we later learn she goes by Emi), is constantly undercut by Alexis through slashes of sometimes edifying, often cruel, almost always snortingly hilarious footnotes.

Croft herself, who translates into English from Argentine Spanish, Polish, and Ukrainian, wrote her first book, Serpientes y escaleras, a semi-fictional memoir, in Spanish, which she then rewrote (not translated, she insists) in English and published as Homesick in 2019. Irena Rey name-checks that earlier title, “a strange book called Snakes and Ladders written for some reason in Argentine Spanish by the U.S. translator of Olga Tokarczuk.” (Could Alexis be making fun of Croft when, in an acerbic footnote seemingly directed at both Emi and Yoko Tawada, she sneers: “I do not support writing bizarre books in garbled versions of languages you don’t speak half as well as you assume you do”?) This beckoning to the real adds another scrumptious layer to this mille-feuille of metafiction and metatranslation.

Emi and Alexis became frenemies when they were convened as part of a group of eight translators by Polish author Irena Rey (question marks surround her birth name, which she had anglicized, to great market success, after the failure of her first two novels, at least according to legend—those books may never have actually been written). For every new work, the internationally celebrated yet domestically controversial Irena, who each year is predicted to win the Nobel but never does, calls her cult of translators to her home in the primeval Białowieża forest, which spans the troubled border with Belarus, to simultaneously spin the latest book into their respective languages. Emi’s narrative centers on their last summit, during which they are to work on Irena’s doorstopper of a chef d’oeuvre, Grey Eminence, but which swiftly goes off the rails when the author they all fanatically worship precipitously vanishes. Terrified and despairing, the translators do everything in their power to find her—and unearth deeply troubling truths about their adulated guiding star along the way.

When the novel begins, the translators are identified only by their languages—Spanish (our protagonist, Emi) and English (Alexis) along with French, Serbian, Slovenian, Ukrainian, German, and Swedish (a ninth will later join their group, nine being the most significant integer in this book’s tantalizing numerology, but to explain more would be to spoil too much). No indication is given, at first, of their respective genders, or any other identifying characteristic; they function collectively, like the brainless yet brilliant slime molds Emi describes, creeping all over Białowieża, which, even “if you tear [them] apart . . . will always coalesce again.” Their names aren’t revealed until after page 60 as, in Irena’s absence, the translators de-coalesce, take on individual forms, even begin to work against each other, with an enmity that can turn lusty—all these translators are seriously down to fuck (in the succinct words of a Goodreads commentator, “who knew translators were so needy and so horny?”).

One reason for so much rivalrous hostility is that each character adheres to a different set of beliefs as to what the act of translation should be, how it relates to its source, who it is really for. Emi avers that Irena’s writing is stunningly original, a generative work of unique, possibly divine creation, and certain rules must be respected in its rewriting, a fidelity must be maintained. She is appalled by Alexis, who takes liberties in her translations, cutting entire chapters, even adding in her own sentences. Emi is astonished that the unfortunately named Freddie (the hot Swede she crushes on) considers himself an author as much as a translator. Croft relays all this in nimble, fluid, easily graceful sentences that spiral out gorgeously in other places, such as when describing the savagely beautiful nature that surrounds her characters, and as I turned the pages, I was reminded of yet another layer of translation. Having read the author’s English-language renderings of Tokarczuk’s Flights and The Books of Jacob, I kept thinking I recognized that Polish eminence’s voice here. Then I realized what should have been clear to me much earlier: it is, in fact, Croft’s voice that I have been reading for years.

Emi’s perspective will change throughout the course of the novel, as she discovers that writing may not be so much a process of creating something out of nothing, thus superior to her secondary task of working with something that already exists, but rather could be parasitic larceny, or a magpie’s game of vicious, wanton theft, like the inexplicable acts of thievery that end up central to the plot. In fact, artmaking in any form may have something brutal in its impulse, something deadly, even—Irena’s Grey Eminence, an epic about mass extinction, elaborates a theory that art is at the core of the Earth’s destruction: “Art is the uniquely human impulse to relentlessly transform whatever we come into contact with, to undo in order to do or redo. To create, we first have to destroy . . . We were the only species so uncomfortable with passing away that we would sacrifice everything living to make anything permanent.”

The cohort worries over this theory against the backdrop of the deforestation of one of Europe’s most important woodlands, its climate change–induced illnesses, and the migrant crisis at the border the forest trespasses. As much as this novel is at once a truly fun-to-read genre mash-up (mystery, murder, romance, taxonomy of marvelous rare mushrooms), a story of the cult of genius and the literary market, and a contemplation of the complex act of translation, its inquiry penetrates to the very heart of why we write, and how that may be inseparable from how we live, and are killing ourselves, on this planet. And now, to reveal this tender heart of the book, I have come creeping in, the critic, one more opportunistic species invading the ruthless literary ecosystem, seizing Croft’s, and Emi’s, and Alexis’s words to feather a story of my own, all of us undoing and doing and redoing again.

Ania Szremski is the senior editor of 4Columns.

Of mushrooms and mayhem: In Jennifer Croft’s novel, eight translators who work in eight different languages gather in their author’s rural home . . . what could possibly go wrong?
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