The Translator

The Translator

5.0 3
by John Crowley
     
 

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A novel of tremendous scope and beauty, The Translator tells of the relationship between an exiled Russian poet and his American translator during the Cuban missile crisis, a time when a writer's words — especially forbidden ones — could be powerful enough to change the course of history.

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Overview

A novel of tremendous scope and beauty, The Translator tells of the relationship between an exiled Russian poet and his American translator during the Cuban missile crisis, a time when a writer's words — especially forbidden ones — could be powerful enough to change the course of history.

Editorial Reviews

Set in 1962, the latest work from this gifted, little-known author concerns Kit Malone, a sensitive, troubled undergraduate at a Midwestern college who comes under the spell of visiting professor Innokenti Issayevich Falin, a famous and mysterious Russian poet with a troubled and painful past. The two meet in Falin's class, and Kit later assists him in translating his poems. In a novel that affirms and celebrates language, Crowley nonetheless demonstrates the impossibility of translation—rhyme and meter, not to mention meaning, are so often lost. Yet in this dualistic world of Russia and America, professor and student, attempts at bridging language and culture must be made. Some readers will feel that Crowley's characters take themselves and their poetry too seriously and could benefit from a healthy dose of humor. Nevertheless, this simple and sincere novel, which masterfully renders a moment in history, possesses a certain beauty.
—James Schiff
Publishers Weekly
Writer's writer Crowley, who has been working for years on a series that weaves fantasy elements into larger, more naturalistic plots (Love and Sleep; Aegypt; Daemonomania), here abandons the otherworldly for a novel that builds realistically toward a historic event: the Cuban missile crisis. Christa "Kit" Malone and her brother, Ben, have rarely lived anywhere longer than a year: their father works on some hush-hush, inexplicable cybernetic business for the Department of Defense, and their mother has become an expert in packing. When Ben, with whom Kit is very tight, joins the Green Berets at the end of the 1950s, Kit, partly in protest, gets pregnant. Teenage pregnancy being more scandalous then than now, her folks stash her with some nuns until she has the baby, which is born dead. With this secret behind her, she goes to a midwestern university and meets a recently exiled Russian poet, Innokenti Falin. Kit, who has written prize-winning poetry herself, is attracted by Falin's story. An orphan raised on the street, his poems grow out of the intersection between learned and street culture, and are indigestible to the Soviets. After Kit receives news that Ben has died in a freak accident in the Philippines, she returns to the university and becomes, if not Falin's lover, at least his partner. Then the Cold War heats up over Cuba, an unnamed government agency starts nosing around Falin and the poet himself begins to act mysteriously. Since novels are built to show, not tell, few novelists, outside of Nabokov in Pale Fire, can both outline a great poet and produce the poetry. Although Falin does emerge as a vivid figure despite the faltering verses attributed to him, Kit never rings true. Crowley won't break out of cult status with this novel, and his fans may be puzzled by his hiatus from the fantastic. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Is it no longer possible for poetry to carry the soul of nations? That's the question raised by this tale of a love affair between a young American student and an exiled Soviet poet. In the late 1990s, Kit Malone heads to St. Petersburg to meet with friends of Russian poet Innokenti Falin, whom she knew in the '60s shortly after he was exiled and took up a teaching position in the US. She hopes to learn what became of her old flame, but it turns out the scholars and poets she meets are equally curious about what Falin was doing stateside before his death. Malone tells them her story: flashback to Kit as college student, interested in poetry, taking a course from the closely watched professor, once one of Russia's lost children. It's soon clear that the two are drawn to each other's history of sadness and loss, and the private lessons in poetry turn into mutual translation with all the earmarks of love and passion. It can only last so long, however; Falin is under the intelligence microscope, and that scrutiny only intensifies when the Cuban Missile Crisis heats up. Before long, Malone finds a creepy Fed in Falin's house, is asked to keep tabs on her lover, and learns that not all her friends are friendly. When it becomes clear that the world's survival is on the line, Falin suggests that by mysteriously disappearing he may be able to affect the outcome. Crowley's lovely, effortless writing (Daemonomania, 2000, etc.) and his accurate, earnest portraits of Russians make this a sad love story with an important piece of rhetoric at its heart. Did poetry survive the '60s? Does mutual assured destruction render verse obsolete? Falin, our hero bard, disappears into the netherworld he'd comefrom, but the world survives. A rarity: a love story with a core of intelligence and insight.
San Francisco Chronicle
“Wonderfully sensual... Layered and rich, The Translator is a remarkable novel.
Christian Science Monitor
“Effortless.”
New York Times
“Thrilling....[Crowley] succeeds with what no prudent novel ought to attempt.”
Time Out New York
“Nothing short of magical.”
Book Magazine
“A novel that affirms and celebrates language... [and] masterfully renders a moment in history.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061852886
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
10/13/2009
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
590,740
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The first time that Christa Malone heard the name of Innokenti Isayevich Falin, it was spoken by the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

In February of 1961, Christa stood in a reception line at the White House with twenty other high school seniors whose poems had been selected for inclusion in a national anthology of young people's poetry called Wings of Song. All but four were girls, a flock of ungainly bright birds in their suits and dresses, all with hats and white gloves too. A gravely courteous aide had arranged them in a row, instructed them how to respond and step away, and now looked at his wristwatch and toward a distant door; and Kit Malone sensed the quick beating of their hearts. The anthology had the sponsorship of a major foundation.

He was stopping to meet them on his way to a grander affair, Kit wouldn't remember later what it was, but when the far double doors opened he was wearing evening clothes; his wife beside him wore a gown of some unearthly material that gleamed like the robes of an El Greco cardinal. The aide guided them down the line of young poets; the President took each one's hand, and so did the First Lady; the President asked each one a question or two, talking a bit longer with a tall girl from Quincy.

A little longer too with Kit: making an easy joke in his comical accent but seeming to turn her in his gaze like a jewel or object of curious interest. When she told him what state she came from he smiled.

"You have a new poet living there, I understand," he said. "Yes. Our new poet fromRussia. Falin. You've heard about him?"

She hadn't, and said nothing, only smiled, her own smile compelled by his huge one.

"Falin, yes," he said. "He's been exiled. From over there. And come here."

Jackie took his arm, smiling too at Kit, and drew him toward the next poet.

There were photographs taken then, and a few words from the President about the importance of poetry, to the nation, to the spirit. He said that the poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world; he reminded them that he had invited Robert Frost to speak at his own inauguration. The land was ours before we were the land's. His pale eyes fell momentarily again on Kit, piercing or perceiving.

That night in their hotel, in the unaccustomed city lights and noise and the girl from Quincy unquiet in the other bed, Kit dreamed of a tiger: of walking with one in the corridors of a featureless palace (his?), watching the heavy muscles slide beneath his gorgeous clothes in the way a tiger's do and talking with him about this and that: aware that she was to listen more than speak, awed and alert but not afraid.

In that month she wrote a poem, "What the Tiger Told Me," the last poem she would write for a long time. And later, years later, she wondered if the President had lingered close to her for an extra moment and studied her with that smiling voracity because he perceived a sexual aura or exudate coming from her. His senses were inordinately acute that way, and had been alerted, perhaps, by something she herself hadn't yet discovered: that she was pregnant.

In January of that year, on his way to the United States, Innokenti Isayevich Falin had begun writing a linked series of poems whose titles were dates. The first was sketched on Berlin hotel notepaper with his new German fountain pen, and was revised on the plane to New York. The original — later lost with all the others — is a sonnet, fourteen lines in Falin's own peculiar rhyme scheme. The unrhymed rough translation that Kit Malone later worked out with Falin looked like this:

1961

Tip up this year on the fulcrum of its final serif
Revolve it through the degrees from right to upright
Like a lifted flagpole without a flag
Or a flat raised upon the stage of an empty theater
Before which histories will soon be enacted.
Now drop it farther, push it entirely over
As the statue of a deposed leader is thrown
Supine, his gloved finger that pointed Onward
Driven into earth to point Endward instead.
See what you have accomplished?
This rarity comes but once in centuries:
A year that can be overthrown but not reversed,
And after all our labors seems to become itself again.
It is not so. As always, we will never be the same.

The Translator. Copyright © by John Crowley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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