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.
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.