Review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Idiot

‘On the first day of college, I stood in line behind a folding table and eventually received an email address and temporary password. The “address” had my last name in it – Karadağ, but all lowercase and without the Turkish ğ, which was silent. From an early age I had understood that a silent was funny. “The g is silent,” I would say in a weary voice, and it was always hilarious. I didn’t understand how the email address was an address, or what it was short for. “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” I asked, holding up the Ethernet cable’.

Described as ‘A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself’, The Idiot by Elif Batuman is a bildungsroman of sorts. At its epicentre is the awkward Selin, a young woman of Turkish American heritage who is attending Harvard College as an undergraduate student in the mid-nineties. It’s the new age of emails –  a very recent invention that is still finding its place within people’s day to day lives. Traversing the uncertainty of university life, new friendships and young love, Selin provides a dry and witty commentary to her experiences and interactions. Opting to take ‘the less conservative and more generous’ route when confronted with choice, Selin finds herself entangled in a confusing and ever-frustrating tête-à-tête via email which sees her fly off to Hungary in the summer to teach English. As a character intrigued by the use of language and communication, obsessed with reading and finding meaning, The Idiot provides many an opportunity for humour.

In the first few weeks of the semester, Selin navigates her way through which courses to take. Settling on beginner Russian, which meets daily, she soon gets into a routine. Here were are introduced to an array of characters, from Ralph, whom she’d known before at a summer camp, to the outgoing and blunt Svetlana who befriends her, and Ivan, the older handsome Hungarian student majoring in maths whom she has a crush on. Interspersed throughout the first-person narrative is a Russian story they have to read for homework which practices the grammar they have covered so far. ‘Nina in Serbia’ is a love story between the protagonist and a man who is, ironically, also named Ivan. When Selin reads the first chapter it becomes impossible to untangle her own fate with that of Nina’s. Striking up an email correspondence with the real-life Ivan in the style of the Russian story they’re studying, Selin sets off a series of miscommunications, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.

I absolutely adored the narrative in The Idiot. With an intelligent, witty and dry sense of humour, Selin is still working her way through who she is and wants to be in this world. With new advances in technology, not only is she traversing awkward face-to-face encounters, but she’s also having to explore the boundaries of digital interactions – what’s acceptable and what’s not. Through her epistolatory relationship with Ivan it becomes increasingly clear how miscommunications arise through written correspondence and how language is not always so adept at expressing the true depth of our emotions, especially in situations that we have no experience of.

A hefty novel for one that doesn’t really cover much time or many significant events. However, The Idiot is an entertaining literary sojourn that had me laughing out loud numerous times. As I neared the last few pages of the novel I began to get that dreaded feeling when something good comes to an end. I could have carried on reading about Selin’s life – even the dull, monotonous parts – far longer than the last page. Elif Batuman is a master at crafting characters.




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