There are some research topics that are perennial at the library. Most of the time, I don’t mind these. One of the ones that I regularly struggle with is the value of a liberal arts education. I struggle with this because I don’t understand why students don’t just naturally see the point of it; it’s hard to rhapsodize about critical thinking skills, adaptability, and so on to someone who isn’t getting it. But when I read Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s wrenching contemporary fantasy novel, Vita Nostra (translated by Julia Meitov Hersey), I suddenly saw why they had a hard time understanding why their professors had them slave over obscure, difficult texts for hours. Sasha Samokhina, our protagonist, has absolutely no idea why she’s been coerced into attending Institute of Special Technologies in a remote Russian town. And, until near the end when the purpose of it all is spectacularly revealed, neither do we.
Sasha’s plans for college are vague when the unsettling Farit Kozhennikov finds her while on vacation at the beach with her mother. Using the threat that “something terrible will happen” if she doesn’t comply, Farit gives her a series of tasks to complete before informing her that she will attend the Institute of Special Technologies instead of a normal university. Once at the Institute, Sasha is set to studying incomprehensible texts and trying to perform seemingly impossible mental exercises. It’s only after a full year of this rough education that Sasha starts to see its possibilities. We, like Sasha, have to trust that there really is a point to it all.
But even though there is an objective—which her professors repeatedly tell her that she has to learn on her own and that they can’t just tell her—I had to wonder if it worth the struggle and the transformation Sasha experiences. Sasha has to content with her bizarre and rigorous education in addition to figuring out her feelings for Kostya Kozhennikov (the son of her “advisor,” Farit) and the scorn of girls who bully her. In that sense, Vita Nostra shares some of the tropes of the growing genre of magic school novels. Vita Nostra strongly reminded me of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy because these mundane concerns are given just as much time as the magical elements; the fiendishly complicated curriculum heightened the similarities. This book had so much emotional weight that there were times I didn’t think I could bear it. I shouldn’t be surprised that this is what happens when Russian language writers got their hands on the genre.
Vita Nostra felt like a paradox while I was reading it. On the one hand it’s a slow burn that encompasses the first three years of Sasha’s career at the Institute. I wrestled with the strange texts and exercises along with Sasha, eventually achieving an awareness of what the school is teaching its coerced student body. It really is an extraordinary course of study. I know I wouldn’t be able to hack it, but I am a little bit tempted because of what the students might be able to do once they graduate. On the other hand, I felt like I was racing along with Sasha as she devoured her magical training. The curriculum at the Institute is just as much about transformation (literally) as it is about training young minds to see the world for what it really is and Sasha wants as much as she can handle and more—to the frequent exasperation and occasional horror of her professors.
Which brings me back around to the question of whether or not a rigorous, bewildering education is worth the struggle, especially when students can’t see the end point. The things Sasha learns are firmly in the territory of things we shouldn’t mess with. To say that this kind of knowledge is worth having and using seems like something Faust would argue and look at what happened to him. But Vita Nostra responds to this question by having Sasha’s professors repeatedly stress restraint, warning Sasha that she’s not mature enough to exercise her new abilities. The question at the end of Vita Nostra is not why; the question is should. We have a lot to look forward to in the next books in the series because I strongly suspect that, even at the end, Sasha still hasn’t learned caution.
I hope that Hersey keeps translating these books. Her work seems perfectly faithful and imperceptible. Her translation never gives things away too soon, just like Sasha’s professors.