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Forget Hogwarts: Education Is Agony in the Russian Fantasy Novel Vita Nostra

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Vita Nostra proves how tireless and cruel and necessary is the pursuit of knowledge.

Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s novel, translated from Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey, concerns itself almost entirely with education’s tyranny. In an amalgamation of fantasy, science fiction and pedagogy, students at the mysterious Institute of Special Technologies learn to shed their human essence in pursuit of something higher: complete understanding. Through new student Sasha Samokhina’s education, we view the destructive nature of the process; she’s induced to vomiting gold coins, slut shamed, coerced into sex and silenced. She’s also gifted immense power of comprehension; she’s capable of reading and parsing the world, understanding the subtext upon which it’s built and editing that text in turn.

It’s said that words have power. In Vita Nostra, it’s literally so.

But the cost! This is not the bunny-eyed education of Hogwarts; this is the violent expansion of the mind. The answers slowly unspool, forcing Sasha to desperately grab each anchor in the torrent of information. The process is a painful one, endured more than enjoyed, until the answers are reached.

Aching backs and searing eyes, inflamed sulci and sleepless nights, congealed joints and cat-o-nine tails nerves—education through flagellation, as Vita Nostra reveals, is the cruelest path. To learn is to change; to change is to face discomfort that is untenable at its worst, daunting at its best and necessary in every aspect of the word. How challenging to learn the world’s lessons, be they academic, alien or actual; how empowering to be armed with the duly acquired answers, to lift a lamp at the encroaching shadows and push forward.

Vita Nostra reminds us that language and knowledge are the greatest powers, and it’s through the word that we’ve shaped everything around us. We’ve remade an entire planet so that we may drive back untamed Nature, who even now pushes back, requiring new education, new words, new suffering. But just as Sasha learns, ultimate knowledge is inscrutable in its end, and we are unfortunately doomed to remain in a constant, agonizing state of ignorance.


B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, he is a contributing reporter to A Beautiful Perspective and has been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Chicago, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.

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