For a few hours last fall, we glimpsed history. Some of us watched from
our sofas, others from rooftops in Brooklyn, and still others from the
very jets that slammed into the World Trade Center. As the Twin Towers
collapsed in a cloud of ash and smoke, the world changed irrevocably-yet
in our sight. John Crowley, a professor of English at Yale, tries to capture
something like this in his new novel The Translator. What, he asks, is
it like to experience and to be a part of history? Modest, yet scrupulously
crafted, The Translator offers rare insight into the inner workings of
Critics tend to categorize Crowley’s fiction as magical realism or fantasy,
but The Translator hardly fits that mold. The novel is a work of historical
fiction. The angels, talking animals, time travelers, magical houses,
and elaborate, otherworldly milieus that pervade Crowley’s previous seven
novels and numerous novellas are glaringly absent, supplanted by normal
people and historical figures in familiar, earthly surroundings. Set mostly
in the sixties at an unnamed midwestern university, the world of The Translator
looks something like a baby-boomer’s college yearbook: Characters sing
Pete Seeger songs, get drunk, read the poetry of A.E. Housman, and go
to student protests.
The story begins in early 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis,
when the novel’s heroine Christa "Kit" Malone starts her freshman
year of college a semester late. Like most gifted poets, Kit has gone
through some rough times in her childhood. During her senior year of high
school, she gave birth to a fatally deformed baby; later, she attempted
suicide. None of this seems to matter, though, when she finagles her way
into a class taught by an exiled Russian poet named Innokenti Falin, a
Joseph Brodsky type, and quickly falls in love with him. Falin at first
appears gruff-he startles his students on the first day of class with
the warning that they will be graded solely on the memorization of poems
("Best to memorize all," he says. "Observe this motto of
Soviet Young Pioneers: Be Prepared")-but Kit finds his icy façade
enchanting. When she bumps into him one night at the library and subsequently
has coffee with him at an all-night diner, an improbable friendship develops
between them. As the summer approaches, with the
Cuban missile crisis looming in the background, Falin and Kit grow closer-so
close that he asks her to help him translate his corpus into English.
This storyline may sound sappy-and to some degree it is-but Crowley has
a knack for crafting beautiful sentences that redeem even the most mawkish
narrative. As Kit hugs Falin before returning home for a few weeks, for
instance, he writes,
She knew-she knew by now-that there really can be a person, one at least,
that you can embrace as easily and wholly as though the two of you were
one thing, a thing that once upon a time was broken into pieces and is
now put back together. And how could she know this unless he knew it too?
It was part of the wholeness, that he must: and that too she knew. With
her he was for a moment whole, they were whole: as whole as an egg, and
Though abstract, this is deeply affecting prose.
Though the story centers on the tensest moment of the twentieth century,
The Translator never turns into the sprawling war-epic, in the tradition
of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, that one might
hope for or expect. Although we learn that Falin is mysteriously implicated
in the Cold War and, what’s more, that he is somehow responsible for the
peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis, the details of that plotline
remain almost wholly unstated. When Kit asks Falin whether he is "some
kind of agent," he replies cryptically, "Ah. But not
all agents are secret. And not all secret agents are spies." Is the
implication that Falin as poet somehow saves the world and changes the
very direction of history? It is uncertain, and other details are similarly
obscure. The full extent of Kit and Falin’s relationship, for example,
remains cloudy, even after Kit wakes up one morning in his bed. "You
were lovers, then, in that summer?" a Russian scholar asks Kit as
Crowley zooms out to a conference in St. Petersburg thirty years later
commemorating what would have been Falin’s 75th birthday. Kit fumbles
for a second and then replies, "No, no Not then. But yes a
little later. Or maybe not. I mean I’m not sure." It is as
if Crowley has purposely omitted four or five hundred pages of intrigue,
action, and drama and left us with the more subdued interludes.
This subdued quality is not without value, however. Much of the latent
excitement of the plot, as well as Crowley’s affinity for magical realism,
seems "translated" into powerful metaphors and images. In one
striking scene, right before Kit slits her wrists, she opens the mirrored
door of a medicine cabinet, surprised "to find, behind her face,
not the contents of herself," but only toiletries. This poignant
mirror motif resurfaces throughout the work, especially in reference to
Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.
Kit’s favorite book, Through the Looking Glass comes to symbolize (perhaps
a bit too often) not only the Cold War, but also the sort of mirror-image
pas-de-deux in which she and Falin engage throughout the book.
The verse that Crowley ghostwrites for Kit and Falin is an achievement
in its own right. Few novelists dare to undertake such a difficult task.
Crowley, though, manages both to construct independent voices for his
two protagonists (though this is a major point of contention in the novel:
whether true translation is possible, or simply "new poems")
and to write a half dozen or so skillful poems.
It is in this careful attention to language, rather than in a grand,
bloated plotline, that The Translator succeeds most as a novel. Precisely
by rejecting an epic, multi-character narrative, Crowley achieves something
equally magnificient. He does not merely revise history; he puts a mystical,
dreamy spin on what it means to be a part of it and to articulate it.
In reference to a childhood marked by constant relocation, Crowley writes
of Kit, "To [her], the places [her family] lived were vivid, but
she remembered them like scenes from novels: separate and poignant and
hers, but not her." In Crowley’s own book, he has achieved something
like this: not so much a coherent narrative as a series of punctuated
moments, loosely connected to form a story. The Translator’s retelling
of the Cold War centers on individuals whose knowledge of the past is
vivid at times and fragmented or blurry at others. If nothing else, the
novel offers a unique and deeply personal vantage point from which to
reflect on the mysteries of language, history, and time.
To be sure, The Translator is one of Crowley’s least ambitious projects
in recent years. It represents a turn to accessibility for an author whose
novels have attracted only a small, mostly bookish following in the past.
But this may be more a sign of versatility than senility; Crowley is a
profoundly talented writer, and he deserves far better than to fall through
the cracks of history like his male protagonist.
Jacob Blecher, a sophomore in Davenport College, is associate editor for