The Translator by John Crowley

Morrow, 2002, 295pp, $24.95
reviewed in Foundation 87, Spring 2003

We are no longer short of a critical language with which to discuss and dissect fantasy, whether the austerities of Tzvetan Todorov or the baroque coinages of John Clute. But that does not mean that we are any closer to understanding what fantasy is. It seems such a simple thing, a playful fiction that takes us through a door into another realm, or that brings the denizens of that realm through the door into our world. A story of magic, or the perverse, or the supernatural, or the unreal. We know what fantasy is, yet the closer we look the more it seems to dissipate like an early morning mist. We hesitate, in Todorov’s sense, not because the story might go either way, but because we sense that trying to pin it down as one thing or the other would prick the bubble. It is not the story that is magical, but our reading of it.

A few years ago, the World Fantasy Award was presented to Christopher Priest for The Prestige, a novel full of stage magic yet which, on any careful reading, contains not one single word of the supernatural. Nevertheless, The Prestige undoubtedly has the feel, the sense, the spirit of fantasy. This year, if those who decide such matters have any taste or discrimination, the World Fantasy Award should go to John Crowley for The Translator. It is another novel which, the more carefully it is read the more thoroughly it hides away any supernatural content, like a flower closing up against the night. Yet it is a novel which embodies that numinous sense of the fantastic in the reader more completely than any other work of recent years.

It is set, primarily, in those evanescent years when America was part of the realm of Camelot, and it is, in a sense, America’s own ‘parfit gentil knyght’, John F. Kennedy, who sets the story going. These were years, the early 1960s, when America was a land of awesome hope and overwhelming dread all at the same time. The promise of the future, which had drawn the country through the Fifties like a carrot forever dangling just out of reach, finally seemed to have been grasped with the election of Kennedy. At the same time, the nuclear dread which had been pushed ever more firmly to the back of the mind was brought irresistibly to the fore by the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it seemed that every promise would be broken. This is the background deftly and economically drawn by Crowley. And in the midst of this wonderful dream and fearsome nightmare, a young woman at a Midwestern university finds herself being taught by a Russian émigré poet.

The first time that Kit Malone hears the name I.I. Falin it is from President Kennedy. She is one of a group of schoolchildren being presented to the President because they have contributed poems to a new anthology. But Kit has already stopped writing poetry; her older brother, with whom she has had an intense relationship, has left to join the army, and with his going her inspiration seems to have gone. (Though she will not realise the connection until later; like so much else in this novel it is a thing revealed tangentially, by implication, everything is open to interpretation, to translation.) Nevertheless, when she goes to university the following fall, she finds herself taking Falin’s class.

There is something strange about Falin. He seems to turn up at curiously opportune moments: when she has lost her money while registering at the university, for instance, a coincidence that leads to her taking his class. And he teaches by an oddly indirect way to which only Kit seems really able to respond. Chance, or something more than chance, pulls this unlikely pair together, until he invites her to collaborate on a translation of his poems. Even this is far from what we might usually think of as translation, it is more like Kit writing new English poems inspired by Falin’s original Russian verses. We should bear this notion of ‘translation’ in mind as we, the readers, are asked to translate this book. There are subtle moments of fantasy that may be there more in our versions than in the original, but like Falin the author is always there quietly directing the way we read and interpret the book.

As Kit works with Falin, learning about herself through his poems and rediscovering her own poetic abilities, Crowley fills in the background. Kit’s brother is killed during some unexplained incident in a south-east Asian country she has never heard of before. She gets involved with a boy who is part of a would-be radical group who may or may not be communists. And a threatening figure from outside may be a government agent watching Falin, though why Falin, the anti-communist refugee poet, might be considered any sort of threat, Kit cannot imagine. Meanwhile, in the television news reports and the conversations of her radical friends. we follow the rapid, inevitable escalation of international tension as Soviet rockets are seen on Cuba.

Then, as the crisis reaches its peak and it seems that there is no hope, no way out, Falin disappears. His car is found later, in a river, but there is no sign of his body.

Years later, Kit Malone is an internationally-known poet. Her early ‘translations’ of Falin’s poems sealed her reputation. Now she is on her way to post-Soviet Russia as the guest of a conference in memory of Falin. Here, in conversation with old men, she learns something of Falin’s youth. As a child he was one of the ‘besprizornye’, the abandoned children who lived rough in the interstices of the Stalinist regime. It was a harsh existence swinging wildly between the horror of institutions and the horror of life in the wild, yet somehow goodness followed Falin, somehow he rose from this to become an acclaimed poet, somehow he found his way out of the Soviet Union to the United States. And in the midst of this inexplicable life we rediscover something that is there also in his poetry: the idea of angels protecting the nations of the world. And the question is left hanging at the end of the novel, as the world learns to breath once more and the Cuban Missile Crisis ends: was Falin an angel who sacrificed himself to save the world?

If he was, this novel is an exquisite fantasy; if he was not, then it is an exquisite novel. We hesitate to translate such wonders into solid reality only because the magic is so delicate.