The award-winning novel that appeared out of nowhere

NEW YORK — For Idra Novey, the art of translating is transporting, whether through words or actions.

“We are all translating ourselves all the time. The person you are at a meeting is not the person you are over dinner. You are translating your own self, depending where you put yourself, just like you do with a book,” said Novey, speaking with The Times of Israel via Skype from her Brooklyn home.

It’s an idea that goes to the heart of her debut novel “Ways to Disappear,” a literary mystery that earned the poet and translator the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

The plot centers on Beatriz Yagoda, an acclaimed Brazilian novelist, who vanishes after climbing into an almond tree holding a suitcase and a cigar. When Emma Neufeld, Yagoda’s American translator, hears about the incident she leaves her marriage-minded boyfriend and flies to Brazil to track down the author.

Along the way several characters pop up, including Flamenguinmho, a loan shark who thinks the publication of Yagoda’s next book will repay her $600,000 debt. There are Yagoda’s two children, Raquel and Marcus, and Yagoda’s longtime, and somewhat jaded, publisher and editor, Roberto Rocha.

The idea for the opening scene sprang from a daydream Novey had one afternoon. She had to be three places at once and didn’t want to be at any of them.

Ilha Grande, the island near Rio de Janiero where part of Idra Novey’s novel ‘Ways to Disappear’ takes place. (Courtesy)

“And I looked outside and I thought what I would really love to do is climb a tree with my book, leave my phone at home and do this unexpected, slightly irrational thing. That image stayed with me and I think when something stays with you it accrues meaning,” she said.

It works because it captures the vitality of Brazil, she said.

“People are far more accepting of spontaneity in Brazil than one would be in perhaps Boston or Connecticut. There is an openness to unexpected responses, and I think you see that in its literature too, which is part of what drew me to it,” said Novey.

Beneath the plot lie questions about what it means to disappear, both literally and metaphorically; how switching language allows one to slip on a different skin, and how what is left unsaid might be more revealing than what is said.

As Yagoda’s daughter says in the book, “She had no patience for the illusion that you could know someone because you knew her novels. What about knowing what a writer had never written down. Wasn’t that the real knowledge of who she was?”

For Novey, the blank spaces help give the story its weight.

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