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Idra Novey’s Troubled Activists

Her new novel "Those Who Knew" explores the prejudices, fears, and desires that are bound up with political impulses.

Illustration by Eugenia Mello

The women in Idra Novey’s novels—activists, dissidents, and translators of fiction with high ideals—set out to do the right thing. But they often get trapped in the details. What begins as conviction is quickly thwarted by logistical hurdles and self-doubt. The relationship between the self and the rest of the world is a particularly anxious one for these characters: They might ask how they can live with themselves, but they know, guiltily, that the more important question is how we live with other people. How do we balance our responsibility to others with our own commitments?

Few contemporary fiction writers have depicted this fraught state more effortlessly (or less obnoxiously) than Idra Novey. Set in an “aging port city” in an unnamed island nation, her new novel, Those Who Knew, unfolds during the early years of its democracy, “near the start of the new millennium.” It centers on Lena, a teacher in her thirties who has been (mildly) estranged from her wealthy, factory-owning family for more than ten years. When the island was under authoritarian rule, they supported and profited from the regime. She “invented sleepovers to study with girlfriends,” when really she was staying out all night planning protests with her boyfriend, Victor—a magnetic, serious, and scary figure. He has since become a beloved progressive senator, campaigning against the corruption that has plagued the young government, and taking advantage of it himself.

THOSE WHO KNEW by Idra Novey
Viking, 256 pp., $26.00

Lena’s activist years illuminate how easily self-interest can blur with political purpose, a central tension of the book: When Victor put her in charge of flyers for a march, it felt “like a baptism.” When he told her to be “more brazen”—her family could always bail her out—she responded by “throwing more Molotovs than all of the other girls combined.” If the Molotovs are being thrown righteously, what does it matter if the person throwing them is doing so out of guilt, or to impress a man? That question gets a little more difficult when we consider the particular man: Although they weren’t together long, Victor and Lena both still think about the relationship more than a decade later. He does because he has struggled to re-create the intensity of their intertwined political and romantic lives with each subsequent beautiful young girlfriend, and she does because he almost choked her to death in his basement.

Despite the book’s brevity—its 256 pages contain a lot of blank space and, according to a publisher’s note, clock in at less than 60,000 words—it deftly encompasses a sweeping time frame and impressive range of points of view. Though it’s packaged as a kind of literary thriller, the narrative spreads outward in many directions, becoming ever more diffuse and irresolvable. Short, third-person sections alternate with snippets of plays, newspaper articles, and the transaction log of a crumbling communist bookstore/marijuana outfit addressed to the owner’s dead lover. Novey wants to draw out the prejudices, fears, and desires that are bound up with political impulses—to see whether an individual can ever untangle those knots.

The novel begins with Lena receiving what she believes to be a message from one of those subsequent beautiful young girlfriends, Maria P., when she finds a sweater that doesn’t belong to her inside her tote bag. With “a white zigzag” across the front “like the pulse line on a heart monitor,” the sweater looks a lot like one Lena used to wear in college, in an era that shaped “the pivotal aspect of who she was.” It also looks like the sweater that Maria P. is wearing in the photo alongside her obituary. Or maybe not exactly like that one, but very similar. A week before the sweater appeared in Lena’s bag, Maria’s death had been declared an accident—she had walked, drunk, in front of a bus.

This opening suggests the narrative will follow Lena’s inquiries into Maria’s death, as she determines whether the younger woman was, in fact, pushed. Another photograph gives Lena a bad feeling: a picture in which Maria can be seen beaming at Victor. Putting these clues and her own past experience together, Lena frantically goes to her friend Olga, a former political exile and current owner of the now-legal communist bookshop Sublime (full name: Seek the Sublime or Die). She tells Olga she’s certain the death was no accident. “I could go to the police right now,” she insists:

I drank at the Minnow in my student days. I know that curve on Trinity Hill where she was killed. I could describe it, how I was walking up Trinity that night and saw Victor push her in front of that bus.

She wants to protect other women from Victor, but she quickly realizes that coming forward with her accusations, particularly with her background, would cause problems for herself without effecting much change. Besides, she certainly had not, Olga points out, gently but sassily, actually seen Victor push the student in front of the bus.

Meanwhile, we learn (but Lena doesn’t), that in the days following Maria’s death Victor has proposed marriage to another woman—wealthy, whose father is also a senator—in order to quash any talk of his involvement with Maria. (Though Maria had promised not to tell anyone about their affair, she nevertheless “was a girl, and girls were feline, always purring up to one another with their secrets.”) Lena, it seems, is onto something. But the sense of mystery the novel goes on to evoke is not the result of clever contrivances in the plot. Instead, through steady pacing and delicate representation of the ways people circle around the truth, Novey creates an atmosphere of uncertainty. She is less concerned with what actually happens—though she knows we can, like Lena, imagine—than with the ways people try to approach it and respond.

This is best illustrated in the most dramatic confrontation in the book. Attending a play written by Victor’s flamboyant younger brother, Freddy, Lena sees Victor across the room and decides to yell the name Maria; when she confronts him, he forcefully grabs her wrist. Rather than present this in traditional narration, Novey includes it as a scene from The Pruning of a Future Presidential Candidate, a work-in-progress by Freddy. (Freddy’s use of their family’s story in his work makes Victor more than uncomfortable: At one point, he calls the fictions “libelous.”) We only learn that the scene truly happened—such as things truly happen in fiction—much later, when Cristina, the new fiancée on Victor’s arm at the show, remembers it resentfully. Gossip, wishful thinking, speculation, fantasy, memory, fiction, art: When corruption is blatant, hypocrisy unchallenged, and power obviously unattainable, Novey suggests, these are the tools people use to comprehend the world.

When Novey’s women find they can’t trust their own judgment, they spiral into a crisis. Her first novel, Ways to Disappear, is similar in structure to Those Who Knew, composed of short narrated sections, text from radio broadcasts, dictionary entries, and emails. It, too, focuses on a woman pursuing a quest that is urgent but also vague and confusing to her: A professor and translator, Emma Neufeld flees her mostly comfortable life and fiancé in Pittsburgh to travel to Rio when she learns the author whose work she’s devotedly translated for years, Beatriz Yagoda, has climbed into an almond tree with a suitcase and cigar and vanished. As in Those Who Knew, an intriguing magical realist beginning gives way to practical concerns: A loan shark threatens, and though Beatriz’s two adult children knew of previous gambling debts, the author’s laptop reveals negative sums that even their wealthy aunts in São Paolo can’t be asked to cover.

While Emma starts out confident that her deep knowledge of Beatriz’s work will yield clues to the author’s whereabouts, she’s quickly deflated. Traveling to significant locations in Beatriz’s fiction—accompanied by her gorgeous adult son, who soon becomes Emma’s lover—only leaves Emma with a horrific sunburn. She finds she’s been too straightforward, too literal in her approach to both her author’s work and her own life; she’s missing a sense of ingenuity and risk. On a previous trip to Brazil, Emma “confessed she hadn’t been quite as dutiful in her last translation as in Beatriz’s earlier books, and Beatriz had replied that duty was for clergy. For translation to be art,” the author told her, “you have to make the uncomfortable but necessary transgressions that an artist makes.”

Now, indeed, Emma feels she’s transgressed by showing up to help with the search without being asked: She worries that “in coming to Brazil in her author’s absence, she had put herself on trial.” Standing in her author’s bathroom, leaving her own hair in her author’s hairbrush, Emma begins to imagine herself in a courtroom: Dozens of spectators were squinting at her.... Her hands and arms had turned hazy at the edges.... Yet everyone in the gallery … could see her, or at least found her legible enough to be tried for her alleged crimes.

A translator’s failure to be “present but invisible” is of course not an actual crime, but Emma’s sense of transgression—like Lena’s guilt at not having blown the whistle on Victor’s abuses—feels like the only available response to the impasse she’s reached. She is only confident that she can’t be confident about anything. Both she and Lena feel they must do something with their knowledge, even as they realize that knowledge is elusive and anyway does not bring much power at all.

Of course, faced with problems borne of vast, intricate political systems, hand-wringing is not much use either. In this, Novey might present a bleak vision of the world, but she also allows her characters to carve out spaces for resistance, and even to build a life outside politics. This is also probably why, despite the suffering she depicts on many levels, both novels have endings that are, if not happy, at least partially optimistic. If her characters can’t enact the justice they want, they’re still able to respond to their circumstances in their personal lives, difficult as that may sometimes be.

Most of the characters in Those Who Knew have learned to read power, and their happiness is related partly to their willingness, or not, to ignore it. Olga keeps her bookstore afloat by dealing pot on the side, and she smokes a lot of it to cope with the loss of the “love of her life,” who was disappeared by the regime years before; there’s also an entire section of the shop labeled conspiracy, targeted to “earnest-faced young northerners”— Novey leaves little doubt that they are Americans—who backpack across the island hoping to pick up souvenirs in the form of disintegrating volumes of Trotsky and Marx dug up from people’s backyards once they were legal to own again.

Lena begins an affair with one of these northerners, a very blond baker named Oscar, but their tender, promising romance is cut short when they wake up one morning to the news of “the attack.” On television they watch “a fuzzy feed of an immense, distant building, the upper half of it in flames. Beside it, another structure was engulfed in smoke.” Oscar’s incredulity—“This sort of incomprehensible thing didn’t happen in his country”—annoys Lena, though of course she’s always been insulated from political incomprehensibility, too.

When he asks how she could eat while they watch the towers collapse, only to stare at her breasts moments later, she flies into a rage at his uneven sensitivities: “I can’t eat because your city is the one on fire for once but you can stare at my chest because you’re the northerner and you get to set the rules for everyone.” He claims he’s traveled to the island to understand what his government did there; she wonders if that involves “screwing women who are supposed to feel grateful and lucky when you show up with dinner for them?” They don’t see each other again for years, and when they do, Lena commits what could be considered either a betrayal or an act of mercy, depending on which of them you believe has the power.

And then there’s Victor, the revered progressive, campaigning to eliminate tuition and improve the island’s schools, among other valiant causes. Even if we never learn, for sure, what happened with Maria, it is clear that he’s a violent misogynist, who relishes manipulating women. (He prefers women, he says, with “ideas of their own, ideas they were hungry for him to hear and respond to” so that he can be “the one to dispense the sentence or two of affirmation they were after, and gauge what might happen after that.”) But that doesn’t mean he sees justice. Within the morass of the personal and political that Novey depicts, there are certain dead ends. One of Novey’s more direct statements on this concerns Victor’s eventual fate: Though Lena continues to feel guilt for her “passive role” in the suffering he’s inflicted, his ultimate comeuppance, after a long downward spiral, is related not to his abuse of women, but to a crime he commits against a man.