Miriam Toews: Irma Voth
Knopf Canada, 2011
Hardcover, 255 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
In her new novel, Irma Voth, Miriam Toews returns to familiar territory, using a Mennonite upbringing as a backdrop upon which to illuminate the challenges and absurdities of existence in this modern world, an exploration already in play in A Complicated Kindness. Like Nomi, the young protagonist of the earlier work, Irma is a teenager in the throes of self-definition, with secret burdens of guilt and regret. However, although Nomi’s challenges were not inconsiderable, those faced by Irma are far more extreme. In keeping with this increase in narrative pitch comes a broader thematic reach, the extremes of Irma’s particular situation used to throw our modern Western existential dilemma into high relief, the better to discern its particular challenges and absurdities, and to begin to map out a tentative response.
We first meet Irma as a young Mennonite woman whose immediate future is uncertain in the extreme and who is facing rejection on a number of fronts. Her family has moved from Canada (for its own dark and secret reasons) to a small Mennonite community in Mexico, a country that does not immediately spring to mind when the word “Mennonite” is mentioned. However, as Toews takes pains to explain, there is historical precedent for this premise – a group of Mennonites from Manitoba had established a community there in the 1920’s, reacting to perceived pressures from the Canadian government to assimilate. This is, as Irma indicates, a long-established pattern of Mennonite behavior. As she explains,
Different countries give us shelter if we agree to stay out of trouble and help with the economy by farming in obscurity. We live like ghosts. Then, sometimes, those countries decide they want us to be real citizens after all and start to force us to do things like join the army, or pay taxes or respect laws and then we pack our stuff up in the middle of the night and move to another country where we can live purely but somewhat out of context.
Being out of context is a bigger problem for Irma than for the rest of her community. Having been shunned for marrying a local Mexican (non-Mennonite) boy, she is living as a ghost among ghosts, the members of her community discouraged from even acknowledging her existence. The very isolation of this community, both physically and philosophically, leaves Irma as an eighteen-year-old, expatriate Canadian outcast, without contacts, or support networks of the sort available to more conventional citizens. Unfortunately, she has also been recently abandoned by her young husband, Jorge, who, for various and sundry complicated reasons, has decided he must go, leaving Irma, as she describes in her metaphorically vivid way, in “a very pitch-black part of the world.”
Before Jorge left, the couple had lived in a house owned by Irma’s father, working on the Voth farm as virtual slaves, in return for lodging. Simultaneously sympathetic and monstrous, a set of mutually exclusive polarities bound up in a single human, Julius Voth, the father, is an unsettling character – a dangerous enigma capable of both human warmth and psychopathic detachment, neither one precluding the other. Now, however, with Jorge gone, and the labour contribution diminished, Irma’s father has decided he may sell the house, content to leave Irma homeless and her fate in god’s hands. In any case, with the electricity off more often than not, and her father seemingly in no hurry to remedy the situation, life for Irma is increasingly untenable, and it becomes clear she must find a new way to be in the world. A dark night (quite literally) of the soul ensues. In a moment of extreme isolation and loneliness that has prompted her to briefly consider inviting a cow (a small one, she is quick to note) into her house for company, and to plead with god for guidance with no discernible results, Irma comes to terms with the fact that she must create her own story, and asks herself a crucial question:
“How do I behave in this world without following the directions of my father, my husband, or God?”
It is a very Descartian moment, as Irma realizes she must start from first principles to rebuild a world view for herself using only what she can know with certainty, which, due to her lack of worldly experience and the general relativism of the times, is not a lot. Her journey towards an answer provides the framework for the rest of the story.
Alone and engulfed in darkness, Irma is drawn to the light of a nearby house where a film crew has rather incongruously set up camp. This chance encounter provides her with a tentative entry into life, as she is quickly employed by Diego, the movie’s harried director, who has come to this strange corner of the world because of the simultaneous presence of Mennonites and desert light, both essential, it seems, to his creative vision. Although no one is quite sure what the movie is about, the story line revolves around a Mennonite family, and employs a German actress. Irma’s facility with her native Canadian English, the Spanish of her adopted country, and the Low German of her Mennonite community make her indispensable and she is quickly pressed into service as a translator and sometimes cook.
Interaction with the film crew is a mind expanding experience for Irma but when her younger sister Aggie threatens to become involved too she knows her father may be pushed beyond his limits. Never in doubt as to the danger this represents, Irma is forced to make her move. During her final goodbyes, Irma’s mother (a shadowy figure) presses her newborn daughter, Ximena, into Irma’s arms, imploring her to take the infant, thus presenting the reader with her only real comment on life as the Mennonite wife of Julius Voth. Irma heads off into the wide and mostly unknown world with intrepid resolve, and not one but two sisters in tow, clinging to her belief in happy endings, and a farmacia bag containing the sum of their possessions.
Thus begins a series of adventures, each providing Irma more data with which to begin to piece together her understanding of modern life. Along the way, various guides and helpers are encountered. Eventually the hapless trio finds itself in Mexico City, as Irma describes it, “walking toward the Zocalo with ridiculous grins on our faces in spite of being almost completely broke now and having no discernible future. ” Serendipity, once again comes to the rescue, in the form of a chance encounter that leads to a job, and a new home for Irma and her charges. In the end she finds herself firmly enough in control of her own story to return to Mexico and re-establish contact with her remaining family.
A master of apparent non-sequitors, Irma is a character full of surprises, a simultaneously entertaining and unsettling mixture of innocent (or possibly simple-minded) ignorance and profundity. With her limited experience of the world, she often fails to understand and therefore react appropriately when judged by modern sensibilities, yet hers is a thoughtful, seeking intelligence, as indicated by her ruminations on a conversation with her husband:
I wanted to tell him that I had tried most of my life to do things that would make people stay too, and that none of them had worked out but then I thought that if I said that our relationship would always be defined by failure.
The same character who can announce that,
I spent the rest of the day cleaning the house and milking the cows and embroidering dangerous words onto the insides of my dresses, words like lust and agony and Jorge…
with no apparent sense of incoherence, can also tell us that,
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.
Although initially and perhaps patronizingly entertained by her random loopiness, the reader soon comes to suspect that the isolation of Irma’s upbringing, far removed from the myriad distractions of the modern reality, has left her mind free to ponder far more profound issues, and in the end we are humbled by her purity of spirit, and tenacious optimism. Readers may also come to see that Irma’s quest to distill what is essential from the tidal wave of incoherent information that is our modern world, find personal meaning in a sea of relativism, and live life accordingly, is a universal one — and all the more reason to rejoice in her successes.
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