There’s really no way to approach Vita Nostra but elliptically, so strap in. By way of orientation, imagine that Hogwarts has opened a satellite campus inside Harry Haller’s Magic Theater from Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, and assigned Kafka, Dostoevsky and Rod Serling to oversee the curriculum. This circumstance is likely to incite one of three reactions from readers: befuddlement, terror or magnetic attraction. When you crack the spine of the latest novel from acclaimed Ukrainian authors Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, you’ll get a full measure of all three, and just as with the famed five stages of grief, you may experience any or all of them out of order, and more than once.
Vita Nostra starts out simply enough, with teenager Sasha Samokhina colliding with a strange man who exudes an unexplainable influence over her. Drawing her under his spell, the girl’s unbidden mentor persuades her to enroll in the Institute of Special Technologies, much to her confusion and her mother’s consternation. Once there, the lesson plan is—to put it mildly—fairly opaque, and academic failure is met with unpleasant consequences for the students’ families.
The novel belongs to an expanding Ukrainian genre known as fantastyka, encompassing science fiction, fantasy, horror and folkloric traditions. Much of this genre has not yet been translated into English. This particular exemplar could claim both Piers Anthony’s Macroscope (1969) and Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) as antecedents from the sci-fi realm, but also Jose Luis Borges’ Ficciones (1944) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Instantanés (1962) from the lit-fic sphere. Kudos are due to translator Julia Meitov Hersey, whose task cannot have been a simple one, given Vita Nostra’s complexity and sophistication.
I realize that this is a bit of a tease, but if you are at all intrigued by the phrase, “Time is a grammatical concept,” you will find yourself swept into this book’s estimable vortex from page one.