Like a storm spinning passion across the mid American landscape with thunder, rain, wind, and sound, John Crowley's novel THE TRANSLATOR has all of the makings for a full force wonder. Unfortunately, like many storms with their blackening clouds, strong winds, and excited newscasters almost wishing disaster to occur, and then doesn't, this novel failed to live up to my lofty expectations. Perhaps the failure lies with this reader. Given the subject matter, a Russian exile, poetry, the Cuban Missile Crisis, emotion, and passion, I set the mark high for Crowley. In retrospect, the story was a good read, at times electrically charged, plunging headlong into the complexities of the times. The characters seem to be driven toward full circle completion, delving deeper toward answering their basic questions of who they are and why. My complaint is not with the story, but rather with the continuity.
Given all of the historical background, this tale is meant to be a classic, full of emotion, power, and poetry. One can almost hear the music of the time and feel the flow of free thinking coming into the land. Kit Malone, a young accomplished poet of some note, had the opportunity to meet President Kennedy in February of 1961. When Kennedy learns from what state she hails, he comments about "our new poet from Russia" living there. Innokenti Falin seems to be a conglomeration of sorts. A Pasternak, full of poetry and emotion, a Solzhenitsyn, complete with political baggage, exileable, but because of world pressure, not executionable, the Refusniks, and perhaps a few of those dancers, artists, and writers who were expendable who used samzidat, stage, canvas, and music to let their work live. Malone and Falin, two passionate souls, were destined to meet.
Kit enrolls at the university, a little older than her fellow students, ready to begin her disciplines. She meets by happenstance Innokenti Falin, and asks permission to take his class. Soon she learns the demands of his teaching. He insists his students learn poetry, feel the emoted desires, and be able to recite the magic verbatim. A friendship between the two slowly occurs, and soon she becomes his --- perhaps not so much sexually, but within the realm of sincere infatuation. Lovers eventually in the esoteric form of the word, they forge an alliance through the love of poetry and the translation of his work through her. The tumultuous time frame they live in tries the best of all souls and challenges them to hear what lies deep within them. One soon wonders where the alliances lie, who is to be trusted, and who is translating whom.
We soon find reason for their existence. As the novel progresses, the reader finds Kit has given up writing poetry, her personal tragedies cause her to question the need. In an emotional exchange, possibly to fill her void, Falin tells his story. They both have shared their hearts with one another and now must come to grips with where they are. I was once told by my Russian professor that the worst punishment one can do to a Russian is to exile them, to deny them their "Matya," their mother, their homeland. This writer suggests that this is Falin's greatest tragedy. Yes, he lived the life of Hell, and perhaps is not the person we think he is. Falin is too far from his birthplace. Vicariously through Kit, he goes home in the end.
The question still remained near the end of the story --- who was the translator? Perhaps this is Crowley's greatest achievement in his novel. The passion of the story is the relationship of poet and mentor set in a time when one really never knew their enemy. Friends and relationships were forged in what seemed like steel and iron, but turned out to be poor low grade ore. Crowley solidified the concept with the introduction of personalities designed to twist the trust of players within the story. Literally, Malone translated Falin's work, but soon we realize Falin translated Kit's life and allowed her to return to her poetry. Such a good concept, the artist given the gift of life translation to allow her to get on with her work, poetry.
To conclude, I would like to beg the reader's indulgence and allow me to express my admiration for John Crowley's novel THE TRANSLATOR, and my disappointment. This review has been the hardest I have had the pleasure to write. I say this because the story is wonderful and the language works well. My disappointment lies primarily with the stop and go aspect. I cannot help but feel the work was rushed to deadline and not cleaned up. The continuity seemed to hold back what could have been a beautiful novel. I found myself at times really not caring about the side characters --- and wondering why. Given that, I ask that you read this book and prove me wrong. It may well be worth your time.
Reviewed by Tony Parker on March 5, 2002
- Publication Date: March 1, 2002
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow
- ISBN-10: 0380978628
- ISBN-13: 9780380978625