April 30, 2008

The Translator

This book was either over my head or under it, I'm not sure which.

It's about a young college student in the early 1960's who befriends an exiled Soviet poet, who is also her professor. Her personal struggles, the Cuban missile crisis, a group of young American communists, and the poet all combined make her realize, extremely gradually, that the USA and the USSR aren't so very different after all.

I find it amazing that Kit simply decides to learn Russian and goes to a language school (which is somehow conveniently located biking distance from the poet's house- go figure!) for two months, and that the poet would accept this as qualification to translate his important poetry for him. Russian is a very difficult language, and poetry is very complex. The poet constantly explains the many ways in which true translation is nearly impossible, even for an expert, and yet he entrusts this task to an 18 year old college student with six weeks of language camp under her belt.

The author, John Crowley, tries to insinuate a romantic pull between Kit and the poet, but doesn't manage to pull it off. There's no chemistry or feeling between them at all that is noticeable to the reader until Crowley describes Kit or the poet making physical gestures to each other, which seem very out of place. On the other hand, the man she is actually dating never makes any physical or romantic advances, even when she spends the night with him in his bed.

After meandering in this way for nearly 300 pages, Crowley tries to strap everything together with bungee cords to make it all fit, but it just doesn't work. I get the impression of the Emperor's New Clothes here, a writer trying to seem deep without actually saying anything. The poetry wasn't even good, completely unremarkable.

The only things I found interesting about this book in the end were the nuances of the Russian language, some hints of conspiracy, and the comparisons between the USA and the USSR. That definitely made me think. And that two purported poets, lovers of language, use their words so sparingly that by the end they practically resort to sign language and occasional grunting to communicate. Otherwise, like I said, this book was either over my head or under it.

I would only recommend this book to a college student that wears black turtlenecks and kisses up to her professors because she hasn't enough intelligence with which to impress them.

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