Books: “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman
Having just returned from Europe where knowing the local language is helpful, I am more convinced than ever that words matter. So is Selin, the snarky protagonist of the very funny novel “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman.
The daughter of Turkish immigrants who wound up in New Jersey, Selin wins a scholarship to Harvard. Problem is, she isn’t sure what she wants to do once she gets there—except as she puts it, something to do with words.
So in a move that seems completely counterintuitive, she signs up for a class—not in English but Russian. There, she bonds with a group of very witty classmates, including a tall, handsome Hungarian named Ivan. She falls for him (and he for her) but neither she nor Ivan can get off the dime and have a proper relationship.
The humor from “The Idiot” derives from her snarky observations about her thwarted romance—and the students she has to tutor to make extra money. These include elementary school kids in the remote Hungarian village where she gets a position teaching ESL. “Being in Hungary felt like reading ‘War and Peace’,” she says. “New characters came up every five minutes and you had to pay attention to them because you might never see them again for the rest of the book.”
So, does she wind up with Ivan? Or is she doomed to a life of passivity and singlehood? Doesn’t matter—in “The Idiot” you get plenty of laughs along the way. No knowledge of foreign languages required.