My thoughts on Elif Batuman's novel The Idiot
One of the reasons why I bought—and brought with me this Summer to Barcelona to read—The Idiot, was because it was written by Elif Batuman, a staff writer at The New Yorker whose articles had made quite an impression on me, especially The head scarf, modern Turkey, and me. Batuman happens to be Turkish-American and I was curious about her writing in fiction. I chose to read the book at this point in time because I badly needed to read a fiction novel to remind myself that I am finally on vacation and away from what was happening in the U.S., and Turkey, and the sadness and devastation I felt about my father’s health. While on one hand I kind of was not crazy about the book’s title, The Idiot, I was intrigued by it because it reminded me of Dostoyevsky and I thought it would have something to do along the lines of Russian literature. I was not completely wrong, and I had a really good time reading it. I can’t say I understand the characters that well, or rather, I should say why they act the way that they do, but then what is the purpose of the novel, or any novel, really?
The book is a narrative by the protagonist Selin, who just like Elif Batuman herself, is born and raised in the U.S., to her Turkish parents who are both doctors. The book’s first part is about her freshman year at Harvard: Her roommates, her classes, the friendships she makes and a love she develops to a senior who is a Mathematics major. She always points out a comparative way of seeing and thinking as she encounters people of different cultures: With her Serbian friend Svetlana, the Hungarian love interest Ivan, her class in Beginning Russian, a freshman seminar on film where they watch foreign films, her experience in teaching English as a Second Language and even math, and her own thoughts and observations from her family’s Turkish background. I loved it. (It could be because I have always had quite an international and multi-lingual life). Also, the book takes place when e-mail first started, which is how her relationship, which is a really weird one in my opinion, with the Hungarian senior develops.
In any case I immediately was reminded of my college days, of dorm life, of writing diaries, of thinking, of debating. Last year around this time I had watched the movie “Barry” on Netflix, and was then also reminded of how college was, how we would get into these philosophical discussions, hours-long discourses about everything. Later in the Summer I had come across my diaries from those years and I was impressed by the stuff I wrote back then: Deep, thoughtful, norm-challenging, written in sentences as long as paragraphs. It should have occurred to anyone that I could not have continued studying Economics, my major when I started college right out of high school and that I would, as I did, keep studying a little bit of everything and then take years to decide on a major and eventually graduate.
I don’t know if somebody who hasn’t been to college would like the book, or if they haven’t lived in a dorm, or if they haven’t lived through the insecurity one might feel as you move to a new city, new school, new everything. While Selin is very different than me in certain aspects—she seems to be outwardly shy for example whereas I who occasionally does have episodes of shyness experience them inwardly and overcome them by brashness, by asking questions, and Selin has a problem with asking questions—I liked her immensely.
Fun facts: Some occasions in the book have in fact happened to me. For example, Selin sees the Red Cross truck and donates blood. I remember one day in February in my junior year seeing the Red Cross truck myself on campus and since I was in a happy mood with nothing to do went ahead and donate blood. What I had found out was that it wasn’t that easy. I had to provide so much information about myself and answer so many questions: “Was I sexually active”? For women, “Have I ever had sex with a man who had sex with a man?” Questions Selin is also asked in the book when she donates blood. I remember seeing the question for men was “Have you ever had sex with a man?” and finding these questions too much and wanting to leave but couldn't because of shyness. Then, the question was asked to me—as it is to Selin—to list all the countries I had traveled to, which I did. Now in the book, Selin is shown a map. Back in my time there wasn’t one. I just had to write the names of countries. I had to provide my phone number in the end. Now this was before cell phones and I was living alone in my one-bedroom apartment close to campus. I asked the nurse before leaving why my number was needed and if I would be contacted for any reason and she said that I would only be contacted if I was HIV positive or something.
Now the next day, I remember this so well, was my birthday. It was a beautiful, sunny February day in Atlanta. I came home and saw that the answering machine was blinking. I also had this Caller ID I'd bought from Radio Shack that was separate apparatus, where on the screen you could see whose name the phone was registered to, and it said “American Red Cross”. I think a part of me died at that moment. As I was contemplating ways of committing suicide to avoid my parents any more disappointment I played the message on the machine. It was Cindy from the American Red Cross who wanted to talk to me. She said, “Please call me at my number the soonest possible”. I must have held my breath until I called and surprisingly Cindy answered, and I said, “Cindy? Hi! Look, it is my birthday, and I was told when I donated blood yesterday that only if I had HIV I would be contacted, and I need to know this: Do I have HIV, or AIDS?’ To which she said “No, relax” and I let out a huge sigh of relief. Turns out one of the countries I had visited was Turkey and that in the southern part of it cases of malaria still existed, so Cindy’s question was, had I been to Southern Turkey? I said, “Cindy, I have only been to Istanbul and Ankara, they are the largest cities in the country. And you know what, if you are in any doubt don’t use my blood. At this point I don’t really care. I feel like I am re-born”. Reading Selin’s experience, I am assuming after this telephone call of mine that they must have decided on putting a map with the Southern part of Turkey highlighted as well as other parts of the world, that Selin sees on the Red Cross truck.
Mainly I loved how Selin has this multi-lingual existence in which she is comparing syntax, grammar, vocabulary, and thought processes. Her story within story in her Beginning Russian class reminded me of my own high school German class actually. I think this kind of a story exists in all books on learning a language—there was one in college when I took French, and then in Spanish in my late 20s—that there are a group of seemingly adult students who get together, talk the simplest language, and then throughout chapters, as you too learn the language, their conversations evolve as well. By the time you finish the course, and the Beginning Language book, you know them all, and their stories, all told in the language you have been learning.
Now it was when I started high school that I had to choose an elective class and the options were Music, Art, German or French. Almost everybody chose Music as it was the class with the least homework. In my case I was already taking piano lessons for the past 10 years despite having any talent at all and not going anywhere anyway so it was ridiculous. Art, since I had no talent in drawing or painting which was the main focus here, was pointless. Now, I wanted to learn French. In my family we all spoke German and English but my brother also spoke French, and I was very jealous of how proud our parents were once in Southern France, being lost, my parents asked a French man for directions in English, and German but the guy didn’t speak either. My mom tried Spanish, again, no. My dad with his minimal Italian from an Italian girlfriend he once had in college as if he would have understood his response, again no. And then my brother spoke French and found out the directions to get us out of Cannes. And there was no end to my parents’ pride. So I said, “I will take French”. My mom said, “No. You will take German”. I said, “No, I want to learn a new language”. To which she said, “No, you will take German. And you will for once give me pleasure of seeing a 10 (the highest grade) on my daughter’s Report Card for a course other than PE”. I didn’t know until then how much it really hurt her that I was not as studious as she would have liked me to be. So I couldn’t resist her anymore. German it was. For three years. Although I don’t think, except for my second year that I got a 10, because I was helping others with their answers and the teacher kept catching me, and giving me 0’s, which ruined my average of course. In any case, there was this occasion that the teacher asked one of my classmates, Alpar, to stand up, and in German, asked what his name was. Poor thing, had no clue. So, I leaned to hide behind the guy sitting in front of me and whispered to Alpar “Ich bin Alpar”. But Alpar just blurted “Ich bin Anton Brega”, one of the characters in the story of German book. We all laughed, and I felt terrible. Alpar was cool with it though, and it became a running joke, and in my family too. After all these years, whenever I need to speak German, which is very rarely frankly, and I have to introduce myself I so want to say “Ich bin Anton Brega”.
Look at all the stories coming out from just reading a book as good as The Idiot. Now it might sound boring, and perhaps even Selin’s life is boring, but the book never is. Let me tell you how: As I was reading it Orange is the New Black’s new season was released and I didn’t want to stop reading to watch it. Also, the final episode of The Handmaid’s Tale was aired and I didn’t stop. (I ended up watching them on a weekend, because somehow stupidly I left the book at a visit to doctor’s office on a Friday afternoon, and couldn’t go to pick it up until Monday). The book had come with me to Barcelona from Miami, and then went to Venice too because I wanted to continue reading. It is very funny. I laughed so hard so many times. Throughout the book.
In the second part of the book Selin travels. It goes faster here. And there are hilarious parts here too. I couldn’t believe reading the part where Selin flies with a Pakistani Air flight where Pakistanis think she is Pakistani, and as she says she is not, and they accuse her of being ashamed. I laughed, and recounted this to Dani, and he laughed too. Years ago when I took him to India for the first time, as we were walking to the jetway to the airplane that would take us to Delhi, a couple of Indian guys our age had said something to Dani in Hindi, to which Dani had replied, “I don’t speak Hindi and I am not Indian. I am sorry”. The guys didn’t believe him and kept saying “Why are you ashamed of your roots?”, and then, “ You have forgotten who you are?” It got worse, to the point when Dani said, “I would be proud to be an Indian. But I am not,” to which they replied “Why aren’t you proud to be an Indian?” It was funny, unreal. Something similar happens to Selin in the book.
On the other hand, Selin is so different than me. So she likes this guy, and falls in love with him. I think. But then makes no moves other than writing these emails. To me she is even a little asexual. I have a hard time understanding this. But it could be me. But I also don’t think millennials are this way anymore either. From what I understand they don’t wait for the other party to make the move. Fortunately! Because frankly, why not?
I also have a hard time understanding Selin’s continued interest in this guy who says he has a girlfriend, and is too late in answering her emails. I would never have had any more interest in this guy is what I think. But then I understand the whole world would be on Selin’s side. I know this from Grey’s Anatomy, and from Sex and the City. For the life of me, I never understood how Meredith could ever be with Derek, a guy who went back to his wife and tried to have a child, a new life, after her. Worse, how everybody rooted for Carrie to be with Big, after leaving her for Paris, marrying someone else, and on and on. I think all bets are off if the guy is a white, handsome, successful neurosurgeon with great hair, or if the guy is a white, handsome, successful businessman with great hair.
But the same thing happens in the Russian novels too. You keep saying do this, don’t do that. Why is this happening? Why is this person acting this way? Who is this person? Yet, you continue. You have no choice in the matter. Because the story telling is really compelling. The voice unavoidable. While reading The Idiot, I never thought to stop. I just wanted to read more and more. At one point in the book in the beginning, on page 17, Selin tries to decide on a literature class and says that she “wanted to know what books really meant”. She says that just like her mother, she believed, “that every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely”. And I guess this one doesn’t have one either, for me. But let me tell you, that Elif Batuman has written one novel that is fun to read, and is at many many times really funny.
This is what good writing really is.