John Crowley's The Translator
is a novel with a time bomb ticking over its head. It takes place during the dark days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as an American coed develops a complicated relationship with an exiled Russian poet who is her college professor, poetic collaborator, and perhaps lover. Innokenti Falin is a man of many secrets--but then, so is Christa Malone. Growing up, her father spoke only vaguely about his work with the government and computers; her Green Beret brother died under mysterious circumstances in Southeast Asia; and Christa herself has a few things in her past that she'd rather not contemplate.
In their power to evoke the physical pleasures of poetry, the scenes in which Falin and Malone work together evoke A.S. Byatt's Possession, another gripping novel about language and the life of the mind. Improbably, Crowley even makes the act of translation sexy:
She thought, long after, that she had not then ever explored a lover's body, learned its folds and articulations, muscle under skin, bone under muscle, but that this was really most like that: this slow probing and working in his language, taking it in or taking hold of it; his words, his life, in her heart, in her mouth too.
The novel's principal shortcoming is that it can't quite make up its mind whether it's a cloak-and-dagger cold war novel or a less realistic fable about love, loss, and the power of art. Nonetheless, as the depiction of an era, a passion, and one woman's helplessness in the face of history, The Translator
succeeds. Much can be forgiven of a book that makes us feel that words are important--that they can in fact change the world. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
Writer's writer Crowley, who has been working for years on a series that weaves fantasy elements into larger, more naturalistic plots (Love and Sleep; Aegypt; Daemonomania), here abandons the otherworldly for a novel that builds realistically toward a historic event: the Cuban missile crisis. Christa "Kit" Malone and her brother, Ben, have rarely lived anywhere longer than a year: their father works on some hush-hush, inexplicable cybernetic business for the Department of Defense, and their mother has become an expert in packing. When Ben, with whom Kit is very tight, joins the Green Berets at the end of the 1950s, Kit, partly in protest, gets pregnant. Teenage pregnancy being more scandalous then than now, her folks stash her with some nuns until she has the baby, which is born dead. With this secret behind her, she goes to a midwestern university and meets a recently exiled Russian poet, Innokenti Falin. Kit, who has written prize-winning poetry herself, is attracted by Falin's story. An orphan raised on the street, his poems grow out of the intersection between learned and street culture, and are indigestible to the Soviets. After Kit receives news that Ben has died in a freak accident in the Philippines, she returns to the university and becomes, if not Falin's lover, at least his partner. Then the Cold War heats up over Cuba, an unnamed government agency starts nosing around Falin and the poet himself begins to act mysteriously. Since novels are built to show, not tell, few novelists, outside of Nabokov in Pale Fire, can both outline a great poet and produce the poetry. Although Falin does emerge as a vivid figure despite the faltering verses attributed to him, Kit never rings true. Crowley won't break out of cult status with this novel, and his fans may be puzzled by his hiatus from the fantastic.
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