THE mills of Ward Just's new novel grind slowly but exceeding small.Sydney van Damm, born in Germany at the beginning of Hitler's National Socialism, is the central character. After losing his Wehrmacht officer father to the SS police, he escapes from Germany to become a translator in Paris. His work moves slowly, and he and his wife, Angie, an American, are forced to live in comparative poverty. Sometimes he spends hours trying various combinations of words to get the right shade of meaning. German, he tells his wife, resists translation generally. A great many things in this novel resist translation - for example, Just's melancholy view of nations and men. But careful reading and a sensitivity to the main point - which Just always keeps offstage - produce the satisfaction gained only from reading about mentally intricate characters. Most of Just's novels are like this; however, this is his first departure from his usual setting - American politics. Sydney and Angie are befriended by a shadowy character, an American expatriate named Junko Poole. Perhaps he's an agent of some sort or just an American businessman with contacts at all levels of commerce. But he helps them solve many problems and is very helpful when disaster strikes: The van Damm's child is born with severe handicaps. Sydney has to make an immediate decision - whether to try to save the child with an operation. When Sydney tells Angie about the situation - an extremely suspenseful scene - her reaction is deftly related: "She nodded, trying to take it all in as you would collect the cards when they were dealt, taking them into your hand and looking at them, each one, before putting them into suits." With the birth of this child, Sydney is faced with a translation job of even greater subtlety and importance - the rewording of events into conclusive thoughts. When the child is 10, they can no longer keep his tantrums contained and put him in an institution. But Angie sees a way out. If they can somehow leave the city, live on a farm in the open air, she is sure the child will improve and they'll be a family - albeit a damaged one. She has one hope: inheritance of a painting. But that is squandered by her luckless father. It seems there is no other way to afford their escape. Then the past comes rumbling back into Sydney's life like a panzer with one tread missing. And the American agent, Junko Poole, makes an offer he knows Sydney can't refuse. The Berlin Wall has come down, the communists are in retreat, and events are in the saddle riding mankind. The Western interests Poole represents are getting set to move into the vacuum. All that's required is for Sydney to make a trip to East Germany. But no one is less suited for such a mission than the phlegmatic and reluctant Sydney van Damm. Just's books and stories contain warnings, which is why most of them end sadly. "The Translator" is about national character and the inevitability of its resurgence. Just delineates the American character as hopeful carelessness, but he also passes judgment on the morose and unforgiving German character. The dust jacket accurately describes Ward Just as a "seasoned writer." His style and structure require seasoned readers. He is not getting any more sanguine about humanity as he gets older - maybe quite the opposite, though his work does appear to be on a philosophical continuum. But given the general euphoria in the United States about the fall of the East-bloc dictatorships, his gloomy view is a an antidote for foolishness.
Jeff Danziger is the Monitor's editorial cartoonist.