Miriam Toews new novel Irma Voth is, amongst many other things, a meditation on the value of words and language and our ability to communicate with one another in an increasingly incoherent world. Throughout the story, words are presented in two opposing lights: as often meaningless or deceptive vehicles of pseudo-communication, or as a repository of profound and timeless truths, worthy of care, respect and protection.
Irma, the heroine of the book’s title, leaves the highly ordered existence of a Mennonite life and embarks on a personal quest for meaning in what at first seems an incomprehensible world. While words are linked to grace for Irma when Diego the movie director presents her with a pen of light (a novelty pen which doubles as a flashlight) and prove to be Irma’s salvation as she gains confidence in her ability to tell her own story, this is not a universal condition in the strange new world in which she finds herself. Examples of the devaluation of language as a vehicle of meaning abound, and a Tower of Babel atmosphere is pervasive. Although Irma shows an early sensitivity to the grandeur of language, as illustrated in the following passage,
On a clear day I can see the Sierra Madre mountains way off in the west, and sometimes I talk to them. I compliment them on their strength and solidity, and by hearing myself talk that way I am reminded that those words exist for a reason, that they’re applicable from time to time.
she is, early on, guilty of contributing to a general breakdown in communication and a disregard for the value of words when she accepts a job as a translator on director Diego’s film set. Although Irma has a working knowledge of English, Spanish and low German, she proves to be less than reliable in her role as translator, imposing her whims on the director Diego’s Spanish instructions to Marijke, the German actor. Thus while Diego and Marijke may believe they understand each other, in fact, they are at the mercy of the limits of their language and their communication has been subverted by the medium between them — in this case Irma. When eventually caught out Irma defends her actions by pointing out that because the movie dialogue is in low German which very few people speak, the audience will only understand the subtitles and so it didn’t really matter what the characters said. It only mattered what the viewers believed they said. Spoken language, in this case, has become a meaningless string of sounds far removed from any practical meaning.
Other references to frustrated attempts at connection and communication abound, some whimsical — like the “cows practising their English, trying with no luck to form words,” some apparently inconsequential, as in the passing remarks, overheard in a crowd, “If I’m not making sense then I’m not making sense. So what?” Others, like the conversation amongst university students bickering over the meaning of the words “plangent” and “trenchant,” are more troubling and seem to warn of the dangers of a terminal sort of solipsistic relativism. As one student explains,
One means incisive and one means sad or maybe reverberating but I just use them to mean HA, HA.
Here the words have become individual, subjective talismans and have, therefore, lost all collective meaning and power of communication.
Set against this disintegration of coherence and devaluation of words is a thread of images and ideas which remind us that words are as valuable as we wish to make them and can, in fact, be reliable vehicles with which to communicate profound and stable truths. Firstly, and as quoted earlier, Irma expresses an intuitive understanding of the power of words as she links them with the image of the Sierra Madre mountains. The value of language gains further support when the written word (a pen) is united with light in the pen/flashlight Irma receives as a gift from Diego, and which marks the beginning of her salvation. As well, mention is made of Zapatista rebel Marcos’ book Our Word Is Our Weapon, and the term “samizdat” a protest response to book censorship in the Soviet bloc, in which individuals, often at great personal risk, reproduced and distributed banned literature. These references stand as reminders of the transformational power of words, of their function as a repository of truth, and that people have, at different times, valued words as highly as life itself.
The secondary discussion about possibility of communication, meaning and the value of language taking place in Irma Voth, is an exploration rather than a lesson, and hence no definitive answers are forthcoming. It is obvious, however, that for Irma, words were a positive force if used with care and respect and it was her ability to write her own story that proved to be her salvation.
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