The Translator, by John Crowley
a review by Rich Horton
John Crowley is one of my favorite authors, but I am familiar primarily with his Science Fiction and Fantasy. He has also written impressive realistic (or near-realistic) fiction. I finally rectified a major omission in my reading by getting to The Translator, from 2002. (I still haven't read Four Freedoms.)
The Translator is set primarily in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Christa (Kit) Malone is a new student at a Midwestern college (it could almost have been my school, the University of Illinois, though it could have been Illinois State, or somewhere else, or purposely unspecified). She is an aspiring poet -- indeed, the book opens with a prologue in which she meets JFK at a ceremony recognizing high school poets.
But I should say first that the story is framed from three decades in the future, in the newly non-Soviet Russia, where Kit is visiting St. Petersburg, for a conference on a poet named Falin. Falin had been exiled to the US, and had taught briefly at Kit's college -- and Kit's first book of poems included a section of translations of Falin's poems. At this conference, then, she tells the story of her involvement with Falin to her hosts. We also know, because of this future viewpoint, that Falin disappeared shortly after the main events of the book -- he drove away from the college, and his car was found in a river -- he was presumed killed accidentally, perhaps a suicide, though of course some people assume murder, or even that he escaped to a new life.
Back in the past -- Kit's life is more tangled than just being a college freshman. She's late to enroll, because she became pregnant in high school, and had to delay matriculation while at a Catholic institution having her (eventually stillborn) child. And her much loved brother Ben has joined the Army, and gone to Vietnam, in the "advisors" period before it became a real war (as if!) -- and Ben is killed, in what the Army calls an accident. All this is essentially prologue to the heart of story -- but powerful and very affecting prologue.
At school Kit decides, partly at random, to take the class in Poetry that Falin is teaching. This leads to her getting closely involved with him (inappropriately so, one might say). One thing they do together, of course, is work on translating some of his poems. Kit also learns a good deal about Falin's early life in Russia -- a rather horrifying time as basically a feral child, lost or abandoned by his parents and "adopted" by a group of similarly situated children. And something, too, of some of Falin's major work, particularly a series of poems about a sort of alternate, or parallel, Russia.At the same time Kit gets involved with a group of radicalized students (their main cause is Fair Play for Cuba.)
That's the first part of the book -- part II brings events to a climax, centered around the Cuban Missile Crisis. The book foregrounds the feeling people apparently had at the time -- that a nuclear war, and even the end of the world, might really be imminent. All along, as well, Kit's feelings for Falin, and his for her, are intensifying. It's never entirely clear whether they actually have sex -- it is clear that Falin is concerned that his feelings for Kit are wrong, though the real source of the danger he feels she's in is also a bit ambiguous. For Kit has been approached by a man who is apparently a US agent of some kind -- it seems that some people are wondering if Falin is really as anti-Soviet as he appears -- could his exile be a front, and could he be a spy?
All this could be pretty mundane -- and still effective -- but in this novel it is heightened -- by Crowley's amazing prose, for one thing, but also by the themes behind the themes -- the nature of translation, for one; and the responsibility of poets -- and everyone -- to intervene, to be the better angels of their nations, as opposed to the darker ruling angels. In the end this novel is quite beautiful, quite profound, powerful and moving and a plea, above all, for peace, and for what understanding is possible between people who can only speak through translations.
To finish, perhaps a couple of quotes. Here's Falin, in class, speaking about Housman's poem usually called "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now": "do you see: the only other figure in the poem is very last word, and it compares white blossoms to tree in winter, covered with snow. With snow, when all blossoms and leaves will be gone. In the very moment of his delight the poem reminds him, and us, that time will pass, blossoms will fall. ... And it may well be that it was not Housman's thought but the poem itself that produced this meaning, that the poet reached next-to-last line and this rhyme arose of its own accord, with all these meanings. Yes I am sure, sure it did. A gift that came because of rhyme, came because rhyme exists. Because poetry is what it is. And because this poet was faithful." That's pretty significant, of course, because in translating rhymed poetry the poem may give you a different rhyme -- with a different meaning. And what is most faithful? To accept the new meaning in the new language? Or to force what you can of the original meaning in the original language, even if that betrays poetry in the new language?
And another quote from Falin, in a letter to Kit: "Well we have kissed at that frontier, my love, haven't we? We ourselves. I have come into a world where West is away, where freedom does not rhyme with fate, and where alone you can be found. So it is enough, and must be; for unlike Alice I know no way back."
There's much more of course, bravery and sadness and love, and a whole lot of seamlessly fresh and lovely prose. A wonderful novel.