Friday, November 09, 2007

our blood does not forewarn us / like migratory birds

I’m reading an excellent book: The Translator by Ward Just. Two months ago I had never heard of Ward Just, but turns out he’s nearly as prolific as Iris Murdoch, and way worldlier. Even his name is a kind of big-impact commodity: Ward. Just. Very punchy.

I have about 40 pages to go and I can feel the doom clotting up, getting ready to burst, and I am committed to watching it. The protagonist, Sydney, is a German who translates novels into English. He lives in Paris with his American wife, and their retarded son lives in a home. The wife longs to leave the city and find a place in the country where the son, she believes, will be happier, so Sydney gets involved in a shady deal to earn a one-off lump of money. I don’t know the particular flavor of tragedy that’s due, but I know it’s coming.

Just is good at evoking atmosphere, and he sets a scene so well. The book takes its time but does not feel slow. The story takes place in Paris but is very German, heavy, fraught and dark. The main character may enjoy oysters and Sancerre, but there’s nothing carefree going on. And Just is spot-on in describing the conflicts of ex-patriates, I feel directly spoken to over and over – being torn from “home,” being separate from “home,” watching “home” disintegrate, rationalizing, romanticizing. I haven’t been this engrossed since White Noise, but for all of that book’s dazzle and smack, maybe this is better.

Part of the fascination lies in how the book and mood are couched in recent history, around 1990, the fall of the wall, Glasnost, German “reunification.” Here’s a scene where the main character and his wife are watching Romania’s Ceausescu (“Eyebrows”) seal his doom on tv:

Ceausescu was shaking his head. Not a denial of the charges but a refusal to dignify them with an answer. His wife sat beside him and looked at her hands. She had a peasant’s shrewd face and large hands. Suddenly she looked at her husband, and Sydney said aloud, she knows. He doesn’t know but she does and she’s trying to tell him but he won’t listen to her, because he still thinks he’s a dictator and she knows he isn’t.

Why hadn’t I heard of Ward Just before? maybe I don't get to the states enough.

1 comment:

feather said...

I've not heard of him before, but this post on him is intriguing and persuasive, so I've added him to my epic to-read list.

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