The Translator Hardcover – 1 Mar 2002
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The second half depicts her first turbulent summer at a Mid-West university, where the said Falin, recently exiled, is teaching poetry. An intense relationship develops between them, built around her efforts to translate his poems into English.
So this is a love story, a powerfully felt romance between two outcasts, each with a troubled past. But it is also a fable about communism and its victims; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the fate of the individual under the weight of society; the dangers of poetry to poet, reader and earthly powers; about moving between, and changing, worlds. It is offered of course in Crowley's unfailingly graceful prose, marinaded in subtle emotion, nothing by accident:
She shut her eyes, to feel his hand so strangely light on her. "What do you love," she said. "What are you afraid of, what do you need." She lay still, seeming to have become something other than flesh, electricity maybe or pale silk, and wondered what she would do, what would become of her, if he were to answer.
Enigmatic and hopeful, this is how a John Le Carré Cold-War novel might read, from the perspective of an angel. I'm a sucker for Crowley's rich, elegantly crafted books, but the newcomer might find this untypically 'mainstream' novel a good place to start.
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It's a story about poetry, but it's not a literary criticism. It's about love, but it's not a love story. It's about politics, but it's not a political thriller. It's about coming of age, but it's not a Bildungsroman. It's also about Caribbean Missile Crisis and immigration and post-USSR Russia and suicide and tornadoes and using words on backs of multi-volumed encyclopedia as a road map for childhood fantasies.
The beauty of the book is in the way it moves from one aspect or topic to another, not dwelling on them too much, but just enough to convey emotions and provoke thoughts, intertwining them into a cohesive whole and combining lightness and intensity in a very compelling way.
Meanwhile, here we are in a novel that has nothing to do with fantasy at all.
This one is a bit of a curveball in his oeuvre, coming in between the last volumes of his Aegypt tetraology and it's not clear whether this was just a minor idea he wanted to pursue as a palette cleanser of sorts between other works or an attempt to do something different than his usual tales. Set in the early 1960s just before and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it depicts the coming of age of a young girl in college as she learns what it is to be a woman while hanging out with an old exiled Russian poet whose name might as well be Metaphor For Our Sins. Christa "Kit" Malone has some skill in poetry, having once won a contest already, finds herself fascinated by the recent campus acquisition of Falin, a poet who was so good at what he did that the Russians didn't see any reason they shouldn't share his gifts with the world and kicked him right out of the country. Near to swooning, she manages to finagle a way into his class and along the way the two of them strike up a friendship that eventually leads to her being offered to translate his poems from their natural Russian into English without losing any of their meaning, kind of a tricky skill that almost requires rewriting the poems in your own words.
People who have come here hoping that John Crowley's prose remains John Crowley's Prose(tm) will not be disappointed here, as the man's gifts have not diminished at all and in fact adapt quite well to a more mundane setting. Stuck with having to describe cars and campuses and coffeehouses forces him to pare his vocabulary down slightly but his descriptions maintain their usual high standard, setting the mood effortlessly and painting with a delicate eye that captures the period without becoming some kind of winking documentary on the Good Ol' Days, where everyone namedrops references to Dylan and the Beatles merely to prove that he did his research. He evokes the era without explicitly having to dress everyone in hats that say "This is the 60s!", capturing the mood of the times (quiet, desperate doom, apparently), the slowly evaporating optimism of the 50s (built on shaky ground to begin with) turning into the queasy undercurrent that would eventually erupt into Vietnam, and everyone's highly differing opinions on Vietnam. With her father involved in some government work he never seems to talk about, and her brother joining the Special Forces, you get a sense of real life intruding, or making an attempt to, knocking quietly on the window and asking to be let in, promising it won't make too much of a mess. Unfortunately for everyone, the Cuban Missile Crisis gives everyone a reason to consider, however briefly, the avoidance of making any long term plans that don't involve mushroom clouds.
The underlying fear of nuclear war forcing an entire nation to simultaneously contemplate their own mortality (or, conversely, delusionally pretend that everything was going to be okay no matter what) is a big topic for any novel, especially a small one and at times the novel awkwardly seesaws between focusing the relationship between student and teacher, poet and translator, and the entire country attempting to wrap their heads around imminent annihilation. Neither are beyond Crowley's skills ("Little, Big" for one managed, among other things to mix the mundane with the consideration to a crisis in the larger world so that one became a microcosm of the other) but here he tries to do both at once and the scope isn't quite set for it. The novel works best when the lens stays on Kit and Falin acting as two people sort of exiled from themselves, in the process of shedding their old skins and not yet comfortable with what the new skins are going to settle them as, enamored of words and using them as a way to bridge the gap, not just between each other but perhaps between nations and eras as well. Crowley's evocation of Falin is fascinating on some levels, perhaps moreso than Kit's at times (who gets a Difficult Past that may be deeply felt but sometimes veer right into melodrama) as he depicts a man who is not very open to begin with coming to grips with the knowledge that he's lost everything, including his own country, in the pursuit of the written word and that need for expression, that desire to say what cannot be said, trumps all else, maybe even including life. Falin doesn't always come alive as a person but as an Idea he works just fine, the notions that poets (and by extension, perhaps, writers) are the soul of a nation and perhaps the voice of a people but more importantly, the voice of just one person speaking personally and without ego. Played off against that, Kit pales, and she (and the book) can never quite overcome her awe of the mighty yet humble poet's powers. As the book winds along, contrasting Kit's misadventures with her quieter moments as her and Falin grow closer as poets and perhaps lovers, it tries to steer us into metaphorical territory that works somewhat awkwardly, trying to give a thematic heft to the novel that it doesn't really earn (the same with the constant mysteries the book dangles at us that threatens to push it into spy novel Le Carre territory, resulting in a weird hybrid at times).
But when it stays small it works brilliantly because Crowley's prose is best for capturing those small and idle moments that wind up being the most important moments of all. For all the certainty of the setting (and a portion of this is probably drawn from Crowley's own memories, as he was also just entering his twenties at the time) it never comes across as strictly personal and instead more a love letter to poets and the power they have. Not bringing Falin into complete focus both helps and hurts the book, in a way he stands in for all those people abandoned by their country and unable to voice the guilt of being stuck on the outside unable to do anything other than make noise, fully aware that people are still suffering inside the borders and its not going to stop. But we don't quite feel his ache the way we should, for all the mastery of prose demonstrated here, the story never hits the gut the way some of his other stories could (as good as he is here, there's a line in "Little, Big" about watching someone cry that doesn't normally cry that packs more emotion in that sentence than the whole novel does), never quite brings the longing and desperation of his poetry to life, even if the lives of the people involved are finely detailed. There are plenty of small joys to be found here regardless, especially since Crowley isn't so prolific that a new book from him is a common occurrence, but it works best when it focuses on the small scale and not the sweep of history. History can tell us that others have come before us but poetry can do the one thing that history isn't so good at sometimes, which is to remind us that we're not alone now.
In a sense, all of Crowley's novels, even those set in some far future, have been historical novels. Lately, he's become confident enough to choose periods his readers can remember. His ongoing tetralogy (begun in "Aegypt") has been bringing the mid seventies back to life with perfect political and cultural pitch; "The Translator" does the same for the repressed, restless, hopeful, doom-haunted Zeitgeist of the few years between Eisenhower's fifties and LBJ's sixties. Within that grey-lit zone unfolds the story of a campus romance. Its special tincture of the erotic with the Platonic - when a Russian interlocutor, many years later, asks our heroine Kit whether she and Professor Falin were "lovers", she is honestly unable to remember - would have rung false in any other epoch.
But while Kit narrates her simple story, Crowley has many other fish surreptitiously sizzling in the fire. He is studying the nature of translation, the nature of personal identity, the nature of national identity; the ways in which poetry fails to be genuine poetry both when it is, and when it is not, politically "relevant." And finally the themes and the personal histories of this uncharacteristically realistic novel do not appear to be resolvable, apart from the angelic mythology explored in Falin's final poem.
I rate this book at four and a half stars, but I round it up because of my strong feeling that there's much more here than has yet met my eye. Perpetually fluttering his wings at this volume's edges and crannies is the figure of Vladimir Nabokov - also a "translator", also a Russian poet in exile, like Kit a fan of Lewis Carroll's Alice, and who famously adopted a position with regard to political relevance in art seemingly diametrically opposed to the one taken by Crowley's Falin. So, I suspect that this book is even more carefully crafted than its exquisite surface would suggest. In particular, its' worth considering whether by the time the story ends it is only poems that have been "translated."