Fiction Review by Norma Lundberg

Miriam Toews, Irma Voth (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2011). Hardbound, 260 pp., $29.95.Irma Voth

In 1922, seven Canadian Mennonite farmers successfully petitioned the Mexican government for land and established a cheese-producing community in the northern state of Chihuahua. In 1929, revolutionary artist Diego Rivera began painting his huge murals about the history of Mexico in the National Palace in Mexico City. In 2007, Mexican director Carlos Reygados completed a film (Luz Silenciosa/Silent Light), about the contemporary Mennonite community, using the people themselves as actors. Today, Mexico frequently appears in international news as a country troubled by violent drug cartels and drugrelated killings. These skeletal fragments of a country’s history—religion, art, revolution, violence, and death—all figure in the novel Irma Voth, the name of the nineteen-year-old narrator, whose search for meaning in her life, her individual quest, adds flesh and feeling to historical bones. An engaging feature of this novel is the way it subtly yet powerfully incorporates strands of a larger cultural story in the struggles of a young woman navigating moral codes, family secrets, convenient lies, and half truths. Irma wants simply to make friends and escape her impoverished isolation among people who believe that “making friends with the world”— and with worldly people—will earn the enmity of God. Irma’s father had always chastised her for living too much in her imagination. Her power to imagine love and a better life led to a brief marriage that complicated her life but did not diminish her faith in her imagination.

As Irma Voth begins her story, she is living alone in a small farmhouse in a Mennonite community in Mexico, abandoned by her husband and cast off from her family. She is friendless, and the generator is broken. Her husband has left her with a flashlight for the darkness, but no answer to her questions about his departure, except to tell her that people always lie about their reasons for leaving. Six years previously, her father had uprooted the family from Canada to Mexico following the mysterious death of Irma’s older sister. When her father disowned Irma for her secret marriage to a young Mexican, she was forbidden contact with her family, especially her younger sister, and sees “no one, except the cows.” Despite the darkness, both literal and figurative, that surrounds her, Irma persists in her desire to discover answers to what troubles her.

When a film crew arrives from Mexico City to shoot a movie using non-professional actors from the Mennonite community, the conflict between the anarchic community of artists and the devout farmers gradually involves Irma. Her father, reluctantly agreeing to rent a house to the crew, hates the director and his companions, proclaiming that “art is a lie” and that “films [are] like beautiful cakes, filled with shit.” His anger is further fuelled when Irma begins working for the director instead of obediently doing nothing but tending the family cows. As a translator between the film crew and the Mennonite actors, she often has to alter the truth when mediating between the actors and the director. Her work with some of the outsiders gradually exposes her to their ideas and feelings. These developing friendships broaden her sense of the world outside her constrained experience, yet these new friends view her as a “living secret,” since she reveals nothing of the grim truth of her family history. Irma’s resilient endurance, her combination of courage and naïveté, drives the narrative through the continuous conflict between the two disparate groups. Her insight into people and her self-deprecating humour give her character an endearing candour as we follow the novel’s rapidly unfolding events.

Doubtless, there are parallels between the making of the fictional film and the 2007 film made by Reygados in which Miriam Toews acted. The first half of the novel is rich in detail about the difficulties of making the film as well as the inevitable tensions between the outsiders and the local Mennonites. In the novel, the confrontations are intensified by Irma’s father’s growing hostility to the outsiders. His relentless rage makes it crucial for her to escape with her younger sister. Her mother has just given birth to another girl and suddenly entrusts the baby to Irma to take, since she fears for the fate of daughters in her husband’s household.

Irma’s flight towards Mexico City is daring and dangerous for the three siblings unaccustomed to the ways of the outside world. The welfare of the infant adds an extra burden of anxiety for Irma, as does the immaturity of her other sister, while trying to cope with being transient and homeless. The baby’s beauty and vulnerability seem, however, to be a talisman, evoking compassion in strangers. Through Irma’s resourceful and cautious guidance, the three attract the attention of a group of students and artists who introduce them to people leading lives of creativity and resistance to authority.

An aura of fairy tale imbues the good fortune of the girls in the new world they inhabit. Seeing Diego Rivera’s murals in the National Palace portraying the people in Mexico’s history is significant for both of the older sisters as they envision a possible future among poets, artists, students, and radicals. Irma’s past, however, still weighs heavily. The ache of the secrets she carries, her suspicions about her absent husband, and her ongoing fears about her father, are mostly buried by the exhaustion of caring for her sisters. When she chances to see the film she had worked on before she fled, and hears the director talk about subsequent events in the Mennonite community, the unresolved matters of her previous life surface and undermine her confidence in her changed life. The history of lies and untold stories she so long endured sparks a crisis of conscience in Irma and threaten to sink her faith in her new identity. The reader is left to imagine whether it will be possible after all for her— indeed for anyone— to make a true friend of the world, and whether art truly has redemptive powers.

—Norma Lundberg

As in The Malahat Review, 176, Autumn 2011, 94-98