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The exiled Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that Lolita was the record of his love affair with the English language. Well, it’s no Lolita, but John Crowley’s new novel, The Translator, is also a love affair of sorts—a college girl’s love affair with the Russian language, with her poetry professor and with the power of poetry.
It’s also about the Soviet Union, exile, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy ’40, the death of poetry in America, the place of poetry alongside technology, angelology, spies, the end of history and the opening into eternity through poetry.
It is 1993 and the Soviet Union has opened to foreigners. Christa (Kit) Malone, no longer a lonely adolescent girl, makes a pilgrimage to Russia to excavate the true history of her relationship with Innokenti Isayevich Falin, a recently exiled Russian poet. He has vanished under mysterious circumstances—with his life’s work—and Kit has published her translations of his poems under her name. Whatever she unearths about his mystery, it is also her own: Kit’s journey to Russia reconciles her to her own past as much as to Falin’s.
And Kit has suffered the worst of high-school horrors. Crowley assails Kit with everything he can think up: a criminal passion for someone too close for comfort, a teenage pregnancy, an attempted suicide by slitting of the wrists. This is hyperbole taking itself seriously: Kit is almost a parody of a modern romantic, too contrived, too much of an idea to become real.
So when Kit arrives at college and her brother Ben dies in the Vietnam War, we do not feel her grief. The incident stops up Kit’s self-expression and she vows never again to write verse. Then she finds Falin, the soul of poetry. When their student-teacher acquaintanceship matures into a love, he asks her to write English translations of his Russian work. Collaborating on the translations, they soon disburden themselves of startlingly parallel lives. She helps him, and he her, to exorcise the ghosts of the past, and she begins to rehabilitate a social life.
The “inexact mirror” of the pair’s personal histories ties into a broad theme of translation across warring cultures, Russian and American. The comparison reaches to such detail as the common motto of the Boy Scouts and the Soviet Young Pioneers—“be prepared.” In this story, mistranslation is the potential cause of apocalypse—the third, atomic, world war—and translation the cause of a peace-promoting sympathy between cultures.
But the sheer number of simplifications involved in the political message tends to undermine its effect; the novel should remain the story of Falin and Kit. There is something truly poignant in the image of two powerless people huddled in a house in the Midwest while the warring national powers fight overhead.
Instead, the book opens into widening circles. Crowley’s story soon has three principal figures, though the third, JFK, remains distant. Nonetheless, he is at the center of the novel as the last true American poet, the last person to carry the nation’s spirit. Falin speaks of Pushkin as Kit might speak of JFK: a national poet “must express our spirit, must stand for us and speak for us.”
Yet the characters share a common spirit. JFK, Kit, Falin and the rest feel the same feelings about the same issues. Where is the hardcore right-winger amid the peace societies and socialist social clubs Kit meets? It is easy to highlight essential similarities when there are only surface differences. These are all familiar characters, partly because their types are so worked-over in Hollywood mythologies: the concerned parents, the suicidal adolescent, her mentor the mysterious, wise old man.
But most importantly, in a book that exalts poetry, the original poetry presented does not move the reader.
Crowley excuses the mediocrity of Kit’s poems by making them the product of a high-school student, and of Falin’s by presenting them only in translations—which are, we understand, far inferior to the rhymed, rhythmic originals. But if the reader is to share the semi-religious experiences of Kit and Falin, the poetry in question must be more than mere scaffolding to advance the author’s themes.
When Kit resolves never again to write poetry, one might thank her. Her prize-winning poem, “May,” echoes Psalm 24: “Now lift up your heads oh you Gateses and Flynns.” Given the comic effect, it is difficult to believe (as we are told) that President Kennedy himself honored her for this poem, or even that it was published in an anthology with such a banal title as “Wings of Song.”
The poems make explicit the currents running through the narrative (“he wondered if symmetry were the deepest truth about the world”) and, like the dialogue, suffer from a problem of show and tell. The poems are more thematic exegesis than poetry in their own right.
Yet Kit learns that poetry is, in fact, “the saying of nothing. The Nothing that can’t be said.” Unfortunately, this vision is really only acknowledged in a narrow sense: fear the secret police, lose a child in the womb, write a poem about it. Poetry is, with few exceptions, the voice of unspoken grief.
When one wonders what the novel’s overriding purpose is, it is difficult not to think of the present war in Afghanistan. Is this a national epic, designed to express our spirit, stand for us and speak for us? Or is it only meant to speak for Crowley, as a kind of spiritual autobiography, somehow chronicling his own awakening to the power of poetry and love?
Crowley graduated from Indiana University in 1964, placing him right beside Kit during the main intrigue. Now, Crowley is a teacher of fiction writing at Yale, a documentary writer and a longtime novelist. Often called a writer’s writer, he is no longer writing science fiction and fantasy books; the novelist whose career has included such surreal masterworks as Little, Big and the Aegypt tetralogy (in progress) here absorbs the historical interest of the documentary writer. Mainly due to vagueness of its historical theories and its reliance on cultural archetypes in lieu of deep characterization, his book gives a sense of not having quite adjusted to the genre restrictions of the historical novel.
If “poetry is power,” as the inscription from Osip Mandelstam reads, Crowley’s The Translator almost convinces us of it.
By John Crowley
295 pp., $24.95
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