Harvard in 1995 looked a little different from Harvard today. Email had just became a consistently used medium of communication, cellphones barely existed, and college courses were different. But some things—traditions like Housing Day, for example—have not changed at all. In her second novel, “The Idiot,” Elif Batuman ‘99 explores freshman Selin Karadag’s experience during her first year at Harvard. The novel successfully offers a meaningful reflection on culture, love, and personality through humorous quips, character building, and chronological structure.
Batuman emphasizes people’s and objects’ places of origin to bring attention to the importance of culture to the main characters. Selin, the protagonist, is born and raised in New Jersey and is Turkish. Her best friend, Svetlana, is Serbian, and her love interest, Ivan, is Hungarian. Selin even pays attention to where mittens and shoes were manufactured when she goes shopping—Central America and Poland. Ivan too finds interest in foreign places: “[H]e just cared about countries. He thought they were meaningful concepts, and that it really mattered which one you were from and which ones you visited.” He focuses on the spread of culture he observes when he visits different countries. Later Selin notices this same phenomenon in the small village in Hungary where she teaches English: “Even the bullets here had nationalities. There were Czech, Finnish, Yugoslavian, and Chinese bullets.”
Furthermore, Batuman’s exploration of love adds a romantic aspect to the novel that will likely be familiar to many students entering college life. Selin’s own love story begins with a correspondence with Ivan through email. Later, they start to meet and spend time together in person. Then, Selin decides to teach English in small villages in Hungary to spend more time with Ivan in his country of birth, even though he has a girlfriend. Batuman effectively manages themes of unrequited and star-crossed love, sexual self-discovery, and friendship by connecting Selin’s struggle with concepts that anyone can relate to. Svetlana and Selin, for example, wonder about their own sexual inexperience: “Okay, my sexual experience might be limited to kissing my cousin’s boyfriend in the Belgrade zoo at age thirteen, whereas Sanja is having an affair with a thirty-five-year-old married newscaster. But even so, I think I have a deeper understanding of love than she does,” Svetlana muses.
Batuman also strengthens her novel by adding humor to Selin’s daily life and personality. Selin’s fears of trivial matters are explained with hilarious bluntness. Selin, with her self-deprecating attitude, makes funny comparisons between other people’s successes and her failures: “That was how Owen would end up with students who said ‘savor’, while I end up with students who said ‘papel iss blonk.’” Batuman successfully adds levity to the novel’s romantic undertones with a character who is not afraid to make fun of herself.
Selin, Svetlana, and Ivan all work towards discovering the motivations behind people’s actions by focusing on their relationships with each other. Svetlana sees similarities between the way she and Selin perceive the world around them which she attributes to their own closely resembling personal characteristics. “For a while now I’ve been conscious of a tension in my relationship with you.… It’s because we both make narratives about our own lives,” she says. Selin replies that she doesn’t think it has to do with their personalities, but rather their equivalent socio-economic backgrounds, exploring the different impacts of personality and background, the places you come from and the person you choose to be. Furthermore, Ivan struggles in his relationship with Selin because of their different characters: “This thing with talking, for example, is easier for me. I have a lot of sisters, I’m used to talking to them,” Ivan reveals to Selin, who spent most of her life as an only child. The self-consciousness in the novel adds to the self-discovery the characters experience, and Batuman’s focus on personality and the way the characters compare themselves to others provides substance by shedding light on human relationships.
The chronological structure offers order to counteract the disorder in the many themes, thoughts, and ideas that enter the storyline. The structure allows Batuman to magnificently create a profile of one person, Selin, as well as show the progression of all the other characters. The story starts off by setting the scene at Harvard, in 1995, then progresses to Selin’s move-in day, her first- and second- semester classes, and then her summer trip to Europe. The novel ends in Turkey, where she meets up with her mother. This timeline brings the story full circle as Selin goes back to the origins Batuman so emphasizes, and grounds the story in reality amidst the potentially chaotic elements the author includes.
This novel evokes the crazy excitement that Harvard is in the daily lives of students today, but it is also a time machine to the year 1995, when life as we know it was radically different. Batuman beautifully incorporates love, culture, and humor through her character’s personalities. With this book, Elif Batuman tells a story of a student’s life at Harvard that you don’t have to be a genius to enjoy—on the contrary, you can even be the idiot Selin often feels like.
—Staff writer Kamila Czachorowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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