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'The Extinction of Irena Rey' asks: Can anything be truly individual and independent?

Cover of The Extinction of Irena Rey
Bloomsbury Publishing
Cover of The Extinction of Irena Rey

Jennifer Croft is likely best known for her translations from Polish, Ukrainian, and Argentine Spanish — as well as for advocating that translators be more widely acknowledged and, at the very least, have their names included on the covers of the books they've worked on. After all, translation isn't copying, nor a simple process of reading and transposing.

"Translating," writes the character Alexis Archer in Croft's new book, "is being forced to write a book again."

(An aside: As a bilingual person who has dabbled in translation myself, I have always found it incredibly bizarre that translators' names aren't already routinely included on book covers.)

Croft is the winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize alongside Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, and winner of the 2023 Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. Her first English-language novel (after her 2019 memoir, Homesick, which started its life as a Spanish-language novel), The Extinction of Irena Rey takes the form of a translation by the aforementioned fictional Alexis. The novel she's translated was originally called Amadou, for reasons that become clear as you read it, and was written in Polish by a fellow translator, Emi, who is actually Argentinian.

Emi's language of origin, Alexis opines, "comes whooshing through the walls of every paragraph, breaking plates and continually flicking the light switch, creating an atmosphere of wrongness" that she's had to fix in translating the book to English. The novel is also inspired by true events, although Alexis won't say exactly which parts are realer than others. If your head is spinning at the layers here — a novel within a novel that is actually a translation of a Polish novel based on real events written by a non-native Polish speaker — you're exactly where you should be, and you're in for a delightful adventure.

After Alexis's translator's note, the novel begins with Emi traveling to a village near Białowieża Forest, a primeval forest that stretches across more than a thousand square miles across Poland and Belarus and is designated a World Heritage Site due to its biodiversity. Emi is not alone — indeed, she narrates much of the novel in the royal "we" — but accompanied by seven other translators, all of whom are heading to the home of Irena Rey, a world-famous author and presumed Nobel shoe-in. Most of them have been there many times before, always for the same reason: to sequester themselves with Rey's newest masterpiece and translate it into their various languages.

For years, these translators have followed Rey's rules during their lengthy stays: They've avoided alcohol, meat, and most recently, talking about the weather. Emi, who mostly refers to Rey as "Our Author," claims that she and her peers are all naturally in love with her, worship her, and that they'd never dream of criticizing her or disobeying her mandates. But as becomes clear over the course of her narrative, while all the translators respect the author's work, Emi's brand of obsessive reverence for Rey is quite her own.

Early in the translators' stay in the Białowieża-adjacent village, Irena Rey, who has behaved strangely since their arrival, disappears, although she first emails them her newest manuscript, Grey Eminence, which she instructs them not to open. Of course, eventually, they do, and over the coming weeks, they not only break all of Rey's rules (and admit they've broken them before) but become intimately acquainted with the author's bedroom, office, clothes, tinctures, computer contents, and more. They turn somewhat feral and irrational, making bizarre excursions to nearby events and sites, attempting various rituals and rites, and erecting a shrine to their author as if they will find clues to Rey's unexplained absence in these activities or at least come closer to understanding her thought process.

Croft's novel is about a lot of things: the complexities and beauties of translation, climate change and the mass extinction of species, art's potential to save or destroy the world, obsession, lust, and much more. But perhaps more than anything else, it is about how impossible it is for anything living to be entirely, absolutely individual and independent. Białowieża, Rey tells her translators, isn't a place — it's a network. The translators, too, make up a chaotic but necessary network, needing one another to bounce ideas and meanings off of when they're working, as well as to survive the strangeness they're faced with during their stay in Rey's home. Translations themselves are networks, collaborations between people and their languages.

This isn't to say that all members of a network are neutral — fungi, Rey insists, are "the epitome of evil, feasting on — rejoicing in — the deaths of everyone and everything around them. How many species of frog have been led to the brink of extinction by some fungus?! How many species of bat?" Yet, she continues, "they are a necessary evil because fungi consume death. Fungi make the forest possible. Without them, death would amass, death would obliterate life, leading to more extinctions, perhaps a mass extinction."

Similarly, over the weeks of isolation, Emi develops a deep and abiding hatred for Alexis (which Alexis comments on, occasionally, in often hilarious footnotes) whom she begins to see as not only disruptive or annoying but evil. At the same time, Emi is also clearly jealous of Alexis and at times desperately desires her — or, perhaps, to be her. Emi blames Alexis for much that goes wrong because, apparently, she needs someone to hold accountable, and that someone can't possibly be Irena Rey, because Irena Rey is perfect, a genius, a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, a true original. Then again — is she really?

The Extinction of Irena Rey surprised me at every turn, moving between profound observations about nature, art, and communication (which, I'd argue, always involves various forms of translation) and surreal and baffling happenings that push the characters into a kind of fever-dream reality. Croft has certainly added "novelist" to the list of writing-related skills she excels at, and what a joy that is to witness.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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