In Vita Nostra, the Study of Magic is Scientific, Sinister, and Deeply Strange

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Admission into a magical school is the starting point for many a paranormal bildungsroman. Harry Potter is visited by a giant on his 11th birthday, and soon whisked off to Hogwarts, and, maybe more importantly, into a wizarding world that understands his true worth; the nascent wizard Sparrowhawk, talented and oh, so arrogant, goes from his meager beginnings on Gont to the vaunted school for wizards on Roke Island; the gifted student is identified, and jumps at the chance to escape a heretofore mundane existence. The magical school is a beacon of one’s extraordinary nature. Who would pass up an opportunity to realize their magical potential?

In Vita NostraMarina and Sergey Dyachenko turn this time-honored trope it on its head. Admission to the magical college at its center is terrifying, coercive, and deadly. Failure there is met with brutal results, and dreams of escape are quenched definitely and completely.

Alexandra Samokhina meets Farit Kazhennikov first on a beach holiday with her mother, on what I assume is the Black Sea. Sasha is a nervous 16, still hanging on her mother’s apron strings and swimming in the surf like a gleeful child while other kids her age are pounding out the beat in discotheques and smoking on street corners. She begins to notice a man with sunglasses everywhere she goes, a man whose presence fills her with dread, though to everyone else, he seems completely ordinary. After a series of near encounters that seem to loop through time, Sasha and Kazhennikov finally converse. He tells her she must wake up every morning at precisely 4 a.m., go for a run, and skinny dip in the ocean, swimming to the outer buoy and back.

Sasha completes the task dutifully (and with no small measure of confusion), and after every pre-dawn swim, she comes home and vomits up coins that look like the old Soviet kopecks. Until the morning the alarms don’t go off, and something bad happens to someone Sahsa cares about. Kazhennikov is both stern and vaguely apologetic: It is out of his hands what will happen if she shirks his prescripted actions, but happen it will. She continues her morning swims.

Meanwhile, Sasha has attempted to continue a normal life, immersing herself in the rounds of studying, test-taking, and socializing that characterize the life of a senior in high school. But Kazhennikov intrudes again, with more strange demands, and Sasha again acquiesces, with the sense that if she were to fail, recriminations more horrible than a heart attack that wasn’t fatal will be visited on her mother. By the time Sasha is ready to take her entrance tests to university, she’s vomited up dozens of occult coins, which she keeps in a purse hidden in her lower desk drawer.

This is when Kazhennikov tells Sasha, in no uncertain terms, that she will be attending the Institute of Special Technologies in the provincial town of Torpa.

In 1991, when I was 16 years old, I went on a school trip to the Soviet Union. It was March; in August the Soviet Union would break. We landed in Moscow and took an overnight train to our provincial destination, to Minsk in Belarus. The sleeper berths flopped down to pinstriped mattresses, where we slept uncomfortably while older Russian women slid open the door and yelled at us incomprehensibly at the top of every hour. We were disgorged into Minsk, and then into the dubious comfort of our host families. We came together again every school day into a strangely ornate room in School No. 30, a room designed with Soviet care to impress. I spent something like 30 days in that country, a place right on the seismic edge of irrevocable change. I think every one of us who applied to college wrote about our experience there in our entrance essays.

Vita Nosta—which means something like “the brief life” or “the brevity of life”—reminded me again and again of my time in a country lost to history, experienced by a version of myself that has been subsumed under years, decades, of who I’ve since become. Sasha boards a train and it takes her to provincial town where all the accents are wrong. She meets her roommates in a dorm in a school that no one, not even the son of the enigmatic Farit Kazhennikov, wants to attend. The pickles and boiled eggs; the curling irons and power outages; the cold radiators with laundry set upon it: all of this reminded me of my time on the edge of the Soviet Union, about to fall, about to shatter everywhere. It was a scary time and place for a careful kid from the Midwest. I had made my choice before I knew how dire the situation was. Sasha makes hers with the same kind of inexplicable terror. We had contingency plans to escape to Lithuania, Poland maybe, if things got too hot where we were, but I can’t even imagine now what would have activated those contingencies. That sort of thing is always too late, an idle daydream of safety, of escape.

Sasha and her fellow students at the Institute of Special Technologies work towards the inscrutable exams they’re expected, somehow, to pass. They’re given impossible mental exercises, passages of gibberish they’re to memorize and internalize. There are other, more normal classes: English, Gym, History; none of these provoke the fear of Specialty, a class in which failure will unleash unspoken horrors on their loved ones. Kazhennikov’s son Kostya fails an exam, and his grandmother dies. Sasha stumbles in her schoolwork, and the next time she speaks to her mother, her mother tells the story of a broken hand, but it could have been so much worse. Failure, escape: these are not options.

Even though Sasha doesn’t want to be there, and is terrified by both success and failure at the occult university that chose her (and not the other way around), she begins to succeed, insofar as anything in that place can be called success. Is she studying magic? It’s not quite clear. It’s certainly nothing so straightforward as dueling lessons and potions class—she listens to recordings of silence that are subtly different kinds of lack of sound, which tear up her mind in different ways. She encounters the usual enemies and friends and lovers and losers of a first year at college, but nothing, nothing, is what it seems.

The fantastic nature of the Institute is revealed gradually—clearly telegraphed in Sasha’s midnight swims in the Black Sea, but never quite in full flower, creating an odd sort of suspense that keeps the pages turning. Sasha begins to change, losing time, and waking with a sudden shock of scales glinting across her skin. The goal of her studies remains inscrutable, occult. The teachers insist one the importance of the curricula, but mostly it just feels like fear and threats. There is no Dark Lord looming outside the school grounds. There is no scar burning on her forehead. There is just the work, whatever it means.

Vita Nostra—published in Russian in 2008 and only the second novel by the Dyachenkos, revered for more than 20 novels penned in their native tongue, to be translated into English—is a remarkable story in many ways, not the least of which is because of how terrifying its supernatural school is: only attended out of coercion, with a magic that doesn’t feel desirable, but onerous and strange. It feels like the hard choices and the helpless quiescence of banal youth, tied up with a ribbon of magic with the sharpest of edges.

Vita Nostra is available now. Read our interview with its translator, Julia Meitov Hersey. 

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