This Debut Novel Is a Wondrous Babel of Ideas and Language


In gist: Oh my mushrooms, “The Extinction of Irena Rey” is incredibly strange, savvy, sly and hard to classify. I also couldn’t put it down.

At length: It’s nice to start a debut novel without a clue who its author is or why her pedigree should suit her so explicitly to the book she’s written. But when the author is Jennifer Croft, the Booker Prize-winning translator of the Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, and the novel is about translators, I think you can’t avoid having some expectations. I certainly had mine.

For instance, this novel will foreground the vital work of translation and the various polemics associated with it. Check. This novel will be rich with translator jokes, some of which I’ll get, some of which I — as a lay reader — am not meant to get. Check. Maybe, too, this novel will lampoon the process of translation alongside the translators themselves. Check.

What I did not expect was that Croft’s debut would frolic so joyfully, so rigorously, in the absurd, the inane, and stay there from start to finish. Or that I’d end up frolicking with her. Reader, if you’re looking to get your heart thrashed, this may not be the novel for you. But if you’re up for a romp through a wilderness of ideas, innuendo and ecological intrigue (who knew there even was such a thing?), stay with me.

Anyone read “Sartor Resartus”lately? Thomas Carlyle’s extremely odd novel (the title is Latin for, roughly, “The Tailor Retailored”) is narrated by an editor who’s attempting to review — but really to dismantle or, alternately, inhabit — an even stranger book by a writer he knows and feels strongly about. “The Extinction of Irena Rey”reminded me immediately of “Sartor” in part because of its recursions. Here we have a translator (Croft), who’s written a novel narrated by a translator (Emi), a novel that is itself in translation and annotated by yet another translator (Alexis). Woe to the real-life translator who will have to take on this challenge in, say, Punjabi.

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