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Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko: Vita Nostra (Vita Nostra)

Sasha (Alexandra) Samokhina is sixteen years old when the book opens. She has gone on holiday to a beach resort with her mother. Her father does not seem to be around any more. She has been eagerly awaiting the chance to swim in the sea, which she soon does. She notices a suspicious man watching her and is frightened of him. She sees him again and again and is frightened. He accosts her and tells her that he merely wants to talk and is not a pervert. Eventually, he gives her a task. Every day, at four in the morning, she has to go to the beach, undress and, swim one hundred metres, and touch the buoy. She is naturally reluctant to do this but is so frightened that she does so. When she returns, she throws up and three gold coins are thrown up as well. She does this every day and the gold coins continue.

Her mother, meanwhile, has made a friend, Valentin. One day, when Sasha’s alarm fails to go off, she misses her swim. That day Valentin has a heart attack. It is clear this is a warning.

Back home, she is given another task with the same gold coins and the slightly odd instructions. She dutifully if unwillingly carries them out.

Meanwhile Valentin has moved in with her mother and Sasha is not overenthusiastic about her stepfather. Nevertheless she is doing well at school and looking forward to going to university to study philology. However the mysterious man intervenes and she is told that she will be going to the Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa. She has heard of neither. She has to deliberately do badly in her exams so she can tell her mother that the Institute is the only option.

She sets off by train and finds one other student getting off at Torpa, Kostya. There is no-one at the station, staff or anyone to meet them though they do find an unsigned note which reads Leave Now.

They manage to find the fairly unprepossessing institute and soon find that their life is about to change. On the surface the institute seems not much different from more conventional colleges. Sasha shares a room with two others and there are other first years there.

However what Sasha and the others soon find out, the teaching is different. Some of it is conventional teaching. They study history, philosophy, English and physical education in a fairly conventional manner. However Specialty is … special. Their teacher is Oleg Borisovich Portnov. He tells them:

You are at the beginning of a journey, during which all of your strength will be required. Physical and mental. What we will be studying is not for everyone. Not everyone can handle what this does to a person. You have been carefully selected, and you all have what it takes to make that journey successfully. Our science does not tolerate weakness and takes cruel revenge on laziness, on cowardice, and on the most infinitesimal attempt to avoid learning the entire curriculum. Negligence and indifference bring students to a sorry end. An extremely sorry end.

He is not kidding. They are presented with what seems to be meaningless nonsense and have to learn it word for word without a mistake and woe betide those that do not. We know from Sasha’s previous dealings with the strange man, Farit Kozhennikov (who turns out to be Kostya’s father, though Kostya barely knows him) that punishment can be cruel and that they seem to have a way of affecting the lives and families of the students. All of the students struggle. One or two try to give up and/or rebel.

The world, as you see it, is not real. And the way you imagine it—it does not even come close. Certain things seem obvious to you, but they simply do not exist, Portnov tells them. And if they do not? You may not cancel your enrolment. You will study here; otherwise, you will be dismissed and simultaneously buried.

We follow the story of Sasha and the others over a long period of time. Sasha gradually does start to get it but others do not. There are tears, attempted suicides and a lot of anguish.

They do do what other students do – sex and drink (and possibly drugs though they are barely mentioned). However, vodka is tolerated early on but then completely banned. All of them change, which is the purpose of the course. But what is it to lead to?

I think we’ll stop being human altogether.”
“Then what are we going to become? Robots?”
Sasha said. “If we learn all this, if we get to the end of the course, we shall become just like them. And we shall speak their language. Then we’ll take revenge upon your father. I promise.”
(though he barely knows him.)

Sasha does well on the whole but very much has her ups and downs. The teachers can be brutal though, occasionally, they can be supportive and kind. More particularly, the focus is on what they are studying. It becomes clear that while there is a fair amount of conventional study of the subjects mentioned above, the main aim is the Specialty study which seemingly makes no sense to the students and none to us. What it does do, as the teachers repeat over and over, is change them and the changes to Sasha are both mental and physical. To get there, it is not just a matter of rote learning, though that is part of it, or understanding complex subjects, though that is also part of it, but of somehow breaking through conventional thought processes and grasping the subject, with a huge change to both the mind and the body. Does it make sense to us? No, not really but that is part of the point. It is something beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals as the teachers are clearly something not human, as is shown by their powers to stop time, change the lives of people and other inexplicable powers. As Sasha says to one of them I am a concept. I’m not human. You are probably a concept as well. All of us are structured fragments of information.

We gradually learn that the students will become parts of speech (really!). Sasha becomes an imperative verb. One of the teachers comments about the students: They are Words. They must realize their preordained purpose.”
“And other people? They . . .”
“They are different. Prepositions, conjunctions, interjections . . . expletives
and adds Time is a grammatical concept.

I must admit that I found this novel quite disconcerting. Firstly, nobody in this novel seems even vaguely happy and quite a few are thoroughly miserable. More importantly, it is clear that the students are coerced (though why they allow them themselves to be coerced is not always clear). Why, for example, does Sasha allow herself, at the beginning, to be persuaded by a somewhat sleazy stranger to carry out useless, inconvenient and, frankly, perverted tasks? Why does she agree to go to their college when she has ambitions elsewhere? Why do she and the others carry on with the course when it is brutal, tiresome, seemingly meaningless and very demanding? And finally, who are these people who do the teaching? They are clearly not human (as they themselves say) but what are they? But despite apparently not being human they have human foibles. They smoke and drink and one even gets married and has a child.

Having said all that, this is clearly a very original novel, not least because we (and the characters) do not know what is going on nor why, who these people are, what they want and why they are essentially hiding out in a remote and unknown Ukrainian town.

Publishing history

First published in in 2007 by Èksmo
First published in English in 2018 by Harper Collins
Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey