The desert of Northern Mexico seems an unlikely place for religious dissidents to settle. Yet, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mennonite families exited Canada in droves, en route to Chihuahua, Mexico in hopes of finding freedom, cheap land, and the opportunity to maintain their religious and cultural practices – the most important of which included the right to speak the Low German language. Miriam Toews’ latest novel, IRMA VOTH, (Harper; Sept. 6, 2011; $23.99), draws on the Mennonites’ history to present a concept of language that is at times both humorous and haunting.
First, Toews uses language to fundamentally distinguish the Mennonite wayfarers of Chihuahua from the broader Mexican population. Early on, readers learn that the novel’s eponymous, main character, Irma Voth has married a Mexican man named Jorge. The union creates a host of problems for Irma, not the least of which includes a strained relationship with her mercurial father – who would very much prefer that the Voths live “in” the world while doing all they can to avoid becoming “of” the world.
The clash between father and daughter results in Irma’s painful exile from her immediate family to a second house on the Voth family property. It’s unclear whether Irma’s father reacts to her marriage angrily because of racial, cultural, or religious differences. All three justifications make an appearance, yet, all three are united by Toews’ use of language as a differentiator. Race and cultural differences between Mexicans and Mennonites are typified in the novel by each group’s embrace of its particular language – obviously, Spanish in the case of the former, and Low German for the latter. The same divisions are present when analyzed from the perspective of religion. Low German is venerated by Irma’s father as the principle method of maintaining religious purity and social homogeneity among the Mennonite campos.
Second, shortly after Irma’s banishment, Toews uses language in a markedly different way. Rather than using language as a tool for division, Toews uses language as a source of unity to develop the relationship between Irma and her sister Aggie. The entire Voth family has been instructed to avoid Irma. But Aggie is a fiery pre-teen and has absolutely no intention of avoiding her older sister. She mischievously begins a routine of making her way over to Irma’s house. Although somewhat precarious, the clandestine visits restore a sense of family, and love missing from Irma’s otherwise isolated existence. Irma and Aggie communicate in the hushed whispers of Low German to share news from home, and to share hopes for a brighter day.
In this way, Aggie’s entry into the story presents language as a stark foil of the earlier scenes. Rather than using language to drive Irma away, Toews uses language to draw Irma and Aggie closer together. Language is used in a similar way when the novel’s other gaggle of characters arrive. A ragtag group of Mexico City film makers have designs to shoot a movie about life in the rural campo. The bulk of the novel develops as a result of Irma’s ability to communicate trilingually, landing her a gig as a translator for the film crew. This sets Irma up for exposure to a number of foreign, and secular ideas about life, culminating in a formative decision, that shakes the very foundations of existence as she knows it. But the point about language as it relates both to Aggie and the filmmakers is really the same: language is redemptive, wielding the ability recast a mechanism for dividing into a mechanism for uniting.
And this manipulation of language is the point of the novel in a macro sense. Toews uses language not only to advance her plot, but also to communicate ideas, thoughts, and emotions. This is true of any story, but what makes Toews’ novel unique is its ability to immerse readers in the exercise of language manipulation from page one. Her prose has been called minimalist, but this is an understatement. The writing style is absolutely Spartan. This has the odd effect of causing readers to dive into her works not only for the sake of understanding the story, but also for the sake of carefully exploring each word for meaning.
This is largely how the novel reads in its entirety. Each page is a potential hiding place for beauty – whether it’s a thought, a feeling, or an insight. And all the while, a reader’s search for these gems inexplicably unveils the novel’s plot.
I suppose in this way Toews’ work mirrors life. In Irma Voth, she demonstrates life’s complexity through language, underscoring that life is not often lived in the world of black and white envisioned by Irma’s father. Rather, it is lived in the shades of gray where our ethical, moral, and religious suppositions are challenged by life itself – a world trafficked by Irma and Aggie, and all of the wonderful characters they meet.
Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth is set for public release on September 6, 2011. It is available for pre-order here.