THE TRANSLATOR by Ward Just

THE TRANSLATOR

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Two expatriates (he's German, she's American) make a life together in contemporary Paris; characteristically, Just makes us pay attention to the political/cultural context of his domestic story and then, almost as an afterthought, spices it with East/West melodrama. In a small town near Hamburg, in 1945, ten-year-old Sydney van Damm watches a Wehrmacht unit, unaware that the war is over, ambush and kill some friendly Americans; tied by blood to the Germans, but idolizing Americans in his fantasies, Sydney is heartbroken. His father, Major Klaus, has died mysteriously in a Berlin prison; his mother, Inge (``a figure from German folklore''), is keeping them alive on scraps. Inge represents continuity, the desire for a life of ``strict exactitude'' in a ``rightful place''; recurring phrases, these--they form the clearest expression of the German soul. She disapproves bitterly when Sydney emigrates to Paris in 1956; eventually she will return to her roots in the East. Sydney becomes the translator for the German-American Foundation, a CIA front; his boss is the American Junko Poole, a flamboyant opportunist. Through Junko he meets classy, independently wealthy Angela Dilion, who fled America after her brother was killed in Vietnam. They fall in love and marry (by now it's 1975); their son Max is born damaged, autistic. Sydney, the Foundation behind him, has become the best in his field, translating Germany's most respected novelist, a labor of love, though tinged with regret that his ``life has disappeared inside the product.'' Forward to 1989, Europe's tumultuous Year of Change; where the Germans see freedom, Junko sees big bucks. He involves the reluctant Sydney in a shady arms-deal, and the hapless translator reaps the whirlwind. There are some disturbing gaps in this novel-without-a-center; what happened, for example, to the long years when the van Damms coped with autistic Max at home, presumably the greatest challenge to their marriage? Just is one of fiction's free spirits, impatient with plotting, but meticulous with detail work. Fortunately, his spacious work charms and enriches more than it puzzles and confounds.

Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 1991
ISBN: 0-395-57168-5
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1991




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