When The Translator was published in 2002, it came as a surprise, three surprises in fact. Firstly, it was not the expected final part of Ægypt, secondly, it was a mainstream novel, and a historical one at that, and thirdly, it appeared only two years after Dæmonomania, in complete contrast to John Crowley’s publishing schedule of the last two decades.
Because it was not of Ægypt, I did not buy it for some time, and re-reading it for the purposes of this blog, I can see that I have clearly underrated it. It’s a much simpler, more lucid book than its predecessors of that twenty year period. The absence of magic, and fantasy, leaves a more direct story, with which Crowley takes few liberties, and the absence of the constant philosophising and speculation of the Ægypt books makes for a much more direct read, without foregoing Crowley’s characteristic prose.
The Translator of the title is Christa ‘Kit’ Malone, a poet. We meet her, briefly, as a schoolgirl, one of a dozen or more young poets, briefly meeting President Kennedy in the first year of his Administration. Knowing which College she is destined for, the President speaks a name she has not heard before, Innokenti Isayevich Falin, a Russian poet in exile from the Soviet Union, who teaches there. We next meet Kit thirty years later, invited to Russia to discuss Falin with a small but intense group, some of whom knew him personally. She is known to them for having translated fourteen of Falin’s poems into English, publishing them in her first collection. They thirst for anything she can tell them.
The book then is made of her extended recollections, of Falin, of her younger years, of what she was when she first met him, at College, and what they became to each other, before Falin’s (soon foreshadowed) disappearance, without explanation on the night before the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
But Kit doesn’t get to College on time, not until the second semester. She’s been brought up a devout Catholic, her family committed to the Church, but her faith ends when her adored elder brother Ben chooses to join the Army. She has sex – once – with one of his friends, becomes pregnant, is sent to a Catholic institution to have her baby in shame (her mother refuses an easier option), and has a baby that dies within a few hours of birth. This is what Kit brings to her College, along with a loss of the desire to write poetry.
Despite this she seeks, in vain it appears, to join Falin’s class, though she immediately withdraws when it appears to be impossible. Only Falin’s own invitation draws her in.
Though it is never expressed as such, Kit is turning into a rebel. She associates with left-wing friends who seek Fair Play for Cuba. She has a not-quite boyfriend, Jackie, who is sensitive, patient and supportive, but who, in the end, will be found to be an FBI plant in the group.
Crowley moves ahead at times, returning us to the ‘present’ of the story, where Kit is telling her story, and sometimes he drifts outside the story, relating elements of Kit’s future that lie well beyond the time period of the main story. Falin produces a number of unseen poems, draws Kit into assisting him in translating these into English, a process that, after it s all over, reawakens her own instincts.
But mostly, Crowley delves into the mystery that is Falin, the former Bespryzonye, the lost boy, whose past is a complete mystery that he has chosen to fill in as he chooses.
It ends with Cuba. The FBI, or so we believe, is pressing Kit to spy on Falin for them, relay what he says and does, uncertain as to his true allegiance: poets in Russia who display open dissidence are executed or disappeared, not exiled to Russia’s greatest enemy. Kit refuses to co-operate, reveals all to Falin, who sends her away. But by now both are in love (though the relationship remains non-sexual, not for want of hoping on Kit’s part). The Crisis brings things to a head in so many ways, not least in that Falin disappears. A few hours later, his car is fished out of a river, by a bridge. There is no body.
What happens to Falin remains unknown. That he has, in some manner, played a part of the defusing of the Crisis, and in consequence has had to go away is all that we are allowed to learn. Whether he has died – Kit is convinced not – is unimportant: he has had to leave the world in which Kit knows him, and thirty years later this is all she can bring to what, we quietly understand, is a final and most probably unavailing attempt to lock him into history, somewhere, that he might be remembered when those who remember him personally are no longer here to do so.
Kit acts as a translator in two senses, one being her corporeal role as the translator of Falin’s poetry, debating and discussing with him meanings, interpretations, how to say things in English that open out the experiences, the shorthands, that are evident to Russians who have lived under Stalin. But she is also the translator of his life, such as it can be told, experiences for which English, and the life of a ‘ruined’ Catholic girl, has no equivalents.
But as we reach the end of this book, we see that Falin is, himself, a Translator. That his love and the things he holds within translates the disjointed Kit into the poet she will become, for him, for herself, for poetry.
It’s a quite beautiful story, steeped in the atmosphere of the period, and it really should have been published in the UK, for us to freely share. The advent of Amazon, the ease with which American publishing has become accessible, has blurred realisation of how many extraordinarily good writers – Gene Wolfe is another – simply do not get published over here any more.