Translators in Search of a Vanished Author in ‘The Extinction of Irena Rey’

Lee Polevoi

 

Jennifer Croft is an award-winning translator of, among others, the world-renowned (and Nobel Literature Prize winner) Olga Tokarczuk. In Croft’s new debut novel, the story is narrated by an Argentinian translator, Emilia, and ostensibly translated from the original Polish to English by an American-based translator, Alexis Archer.

 

The Extinction of Irena Rey—the novel you can hold in your hands or read online—centers on eight translators of the works of a prominent writer, Irina Rey, identified throughout much of the book as “Our Author.”

 

 

Soon after the translators convene in Irena Rey’s village on the outskirts of the Białowieża forest in eastern Poland, “Our Author” makes an initial, harrowing appearance (as she has done with her translators many times before). Then, quite inexplicably, she vanishes.

 

The Extinction of Irena Rey, told largely in the royal “we,” is about what happens next among her devoted followers—a hot-headed, territorial and impulsive set of strong-willed characters:

 

 

“… When we were together, we didn’t think of ourselves as individuals with histories—not yet. We had always been connected to each other by fine, feeling filaments that had no origin, and we had no stable hierarchies or particular ambitions beyond translating her work. It was as though we were a single organism—Irena’s entourage—whose sole purpose was to conquer eight new realms in her name.”

 

But after the prospective Nobel Prize-winning author disappears, this “single organism” begins splintering across lines of gender and national identity. At first, we know these translators by the language they work in—English, German, Serbian, etc.—and, as the mystery of Irena Rey deepens, the translators quarrel, joust for power, and feel generally lost without the presence of their beloved Author.

 

Leveraging her knowledge and experience as a translator, Croft is obviously having a good time plunging her characters into intrigue and chaos. Adding to the fun is the novel’s “translator,” apparently at ideological odds with the “author” of the novel, who employs an array of snide footnotes to undermine the story’s credibility.

 

 

As a result, The Extinction of Irena Rey is a layered story, resulting in a sometimes uneasy blend of mystery, eco-fiction, and literary shenanigans. Some of the jokes in the novel have the feel of “insider baseball,” and may go over the heads of some readers (this one included).

 

“I love absurdity and wanted to fully embrace it,” Croft notes in an interview. “There’s nothing more absurd than language, as anyone with young children or anyone learning a language will know.”

 

Clearly, she knows whereof she speaks. The absurdity of language is the theme of Croft’s rich, unpredictable tale.

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of the novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Photo Credits: Depositphotos.com

 

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