Do nations have souls? And if so, can they be lost, or saved? That's the question that emerges from what at first seems to be an intimate story of mismatched lovers in John Crowley's "The Translator." This sneakily momentous novel is set during a time when America's soul felt particularly invigorated and optimistic: the years of John F. Kennedy's presidency. In 1961, Kit Malone, a contributor to a national anthology of young people's poetry, shakes hands with Kennedy at a ceremony honoring the book's publication; the promise in her life seems even fresher than his own.
Kit will, however, within the course of the decade's first year, suffer in private all of the faith-shaking public losses of its end. Furious with her beloved brother for enlisting in the Army, she recklessly sleeps with a high school classmate and gets pregnant. A Catholic, Kit is packed off to a convent to bear her child, but the infant dies within hours. Shortly after that, her family is told that her brother has been killed in an "ammunition accident" in the Philippines (although Kit soon comes to doubt this account of both the cause of his death and where it happened). At the age of 19, starting her freshman year of college at a large university in an unnamed Midwestern state, she is harrowed by grief.
There, in a class called "The Reading and Writing of Poetry," she meets an émigré Russian poet named Innokenti Falin, who is even more closely acquainted with loss than herself. His family has died and he has been forced out of his homeland, forbidden even to take his poetry with him. His past is murky -- was he the son of an engineer, or was he abandoned in a train station at the age of 6 to grow up among Russia's besprizornye, or street children? In any case, he is a poet of supple genius (one of the novel's strengths is how convincingly Crowley creates a poetic voice for Falin) and an extraordinary teacher. He inspires in Kit a desire to learn Russian and, eventually, a desperate love.
Crowley has a small but devoted readership for his unusual fiction, novels in which the ordinary segues almost imperceptibly into the ancient, where the complex, mystical medieval arts of alchemy and allegory bleed through into the world of subways, East Village neighborhoods and hippie enclaves in upstate New York. These philosophical ambitions remain much more submerged in "The Translator," but they're still there. No one writes better about the way a land shapes the imagination of its residents, and the Midwest inhabited by Kit and Falin has a biblical quality. It's a place where big weather rolls through even bigger skies, a place of pestilential rains, heat lightning and tornadoes that rip trees up by their roots. Amid this doomsday starkness, Crowley's characters pass through the eerie days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Crowley's mystical inclinations only make themselves fully felt just at the novel's end, in intimations of a trade in sacrifices. Falin might be simply a poet in exile who dies in a car accident, might be a spy killed by our side or theirs, or he might even be a creature described in one of his own poems, a "lesser angel," the suppressed shadow soul of his homeland, who gives his life to save the world. If so, the question is, what American death will be required in exchange? This archetypal aspect of "The Translator," however, seems the natural product of the novel's more grounded and conventional literary pleasures. Crowley has an effortless command of metaphor, for instance, as in his description of Kit's father kneeling at the family stereo, as he "slipped the records from their paper jackets as though they were delicacies, turning them skillfully by their edges with his long white fingers," an image that is precise, loving and intensely evocative of its time.
In Kit, Crowley has created something remarkable: an entirely convincing young woman. She isn't either an androgynous personality in a woman's body or the projected object of her author's desire, as far too many female characters tend to be when written by men. The sensibility is in the details, how Crowley honors them, in the way that years later Kit remembers that "she lived the semester in three sweaters, her straight skirts and Capezios" or what she notices about her dorm room, "the Celotex walls where the amber rectangles of old Scotch tape remained." And it's in the halting way she tumbles into love with Falin and the pervading tenderness of their courtship.
The wonder of "The Translator" is that it handles emotion with great sensitivity, yet this carefulness doesn't thin the novel out or make it anemic, whether Crowley is tracing the paradoxes of literature or of love. The passages in which Kit and Falin discuss the difficulties of translation (and by extension the obstacles to their romance) feel sad and true and somehow equal to the novel's final mystery. "There is but one world," Falin says, "only there are many worlds within it, for it exists in more than one way at once; and these different ways cannot be translated into one another ... Like poems. You cannot translate. You can only make other poems."
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