High jinks ensue in this picaresque novel when an author sets out ’round the world to shepherd his short story through several translations.
Novelist Story introduces readers to middle-aged Charles Abel Baker, who, like Story, is a writer and former professor of Russian history. Bored and stuck in his life, Charles desperately needs a project, an adventure. He decides to take a short story and have it translated through 10 different languages, then back into English to see whether at the end, à la a game of Telephone, it is even remotely like the original. He tries to interest high-powered publisher Derek Wainscot in the project and is rebuffed. But then Wainscot steals the idea himself, and that means deploying shady operatives to follow Charles and frustrate his plans whenever possible. But an old friend of Charles’, Jonathan Belknap, a retired CIA agent, smells a rat and deploys his own crew against Wainscot’s. The result is a merry, yearlong chase around the globe. Early on, Charles meets Svetlana Novgorodtseva, and love blossoms, fades, blossoms again. An unlikely adventurer, Charles gets out of one impossibly tight spot after another, sometimes by his own devices, sometimes thanks to Belknap’s long arm. There is more, much more, and it moves fast. Story is impressively inventive, and though this yarn is a zany one sure to induce a few grins, it’s not quite a gut-busting affair, especially when, for instance, a drug lord makes a point by executing a young kid in front of Charles. That hardly rates a guffaw. Still, the amusing spy-vs.-spy business involves old hands with handles like “Pig” and “Smilin’ Jack,” and Story is adept at the quick surprise and the odd plot twist. Short and punchy chapters feature background rumination about the beauty of words and the mysteries of translations.
A sure-handed narrative led by a hapless but resilient adventurer.