The Extinction of Irena Rey: A Novel

  • By Jennifer Croft
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Chris Rutledge
  • April 9, 2024

Translators attempt to find a missing author — and their own senses of self.

The Extinction of Irena Rey: A Novel

In The Extinction of Irena Rey, author Jennifer Croft examines the role of the translator in the creation of art and the various ways loss creeps into our lives. Narrator Emilia is handling the Spanish edition of celebrated author Irena Rey’s latest novel. She is joined in Irena’s native Poland by seven others translating the work into myriad languages, from English and German to Serbian and Slovenian. As is often the case when you bring young, talented creatures together, eroticism and competition ensue.

The story covers a lot of ground, and we’re brought in somewhere in the middle. Many of the translators, who’ve worked on Irena’s previous books, have known each other for a long time. This shared history fuels some of their competitiveness. Driving the narrative is the disappearance of the titular Irena. The translators go to check on her, and she is simply…gone. But where did she go? Did the translators upset her? Or was it something more menacing?

Much of the action takes place next to and in the Bialowieza Forest, which borders Poland and Belarus. The Polish government has begun to allow logging in the region, despoiling its natural beauty. Irena (and, by extension, the others) has adopted its protection as a pet cause. She herself has become the face of the anti-logging campaign, much to officials’ frustration. Are they behind her vanishing?

The sense of being “lost in the woods” is dually a trope and a metaphor, and both are used here. The translators set out to find Irena in the Bialowieza. They stumble around yet are unsuccessful in tracking her down. Reinforcing this actual loss, Croft fleshes out the idea of textual and emotional loss. When rendering a text, translators inevitably forfeit — intentionally or not — something from the original. In a notable scene, one of the translators unilaterally excises a passage of Irena’s work she feels is too traumatic to include.

As for emotional loss, as we move through our lives, we will lose people of import, including those we love and admire such as Irena. Is this loss always malicious or deliberate? Or is it simply part of being human?

A strength of the novel is Croft’s scrutiny of the relationships between the translators. They are intensely jealous of each other and guard the love they receive from Irena. When a new translator, Freddie, arrives, Emilia notes that “Swedish was new, handsome as a red deer, and we knew at first sight that he would be her favorite.” Envy much?

Croft also explores the role sexuality plays in creating art. Sex fuels Irena and “her husband, Bogdan — whose lust, we believed, worked like kerosene on her authorial imagination.” Among the translators, Emilia and Alexis both have affairs with Freddie the Swede. The result isn’t just hard feelings but also a mock duel to settle matters.

The idea of identity and mystery underscores the novel’s eroticism. For most of their working relationship, the translators have maintained a sense of anonymity by referring to their colleagues by their languages. So, when Freddie, heretofore “Swedish,” asks Emilia her name, she tells us:

“[S]omething blazed. The question was intimate, even illicit — we had never called each other by our names…I could feel all up and down my body the way his lips pressed together in the middle of my name.”

Croft is well suited to write a story about translators, and one is tempted to read much into her background. Best known for her campaign to have translators (deservedly) named on the covers of the books they help shape, she herself is a Booker Prize-winning translator of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights, among other works. Emilia is her avatar here, telling us, “I was gripped by an urge to inscribe our importance, the importance of us as translators, how we mattered.”

Ultimately, the novel focuses more on the interior universes we inhabit than an actual plot. One weakness is the somewhat fantastical nature of Irena’s disappearance. Her motivations and methods remain inscrutable, and the translators’ search for her has a bit of a knockabout feel to it. If they’re this inept at finding a single woman, they probably can’t be trusted with much else.

The takeaway of The Extinction of Irena Rey is that we all utilize translators in our lives, rephrasing and adapting meanings to suit our own understanding and experience. The more we recognize this, the better able we are to comprehend ourselves and others.

Chris Rutledge is a husband, father, writer, nonprofit professional, and community member living in Silver Spring, MD. Besides the Independent, his work has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, American Book Review, and countless intemperate Facebook posts, which will surely get him into trouble one day.

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