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Some say the world will end in fire, some say in verse

Did a few lines of poetry defuse the Cuban missile crisis?

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Set solidly in a Midwestern college during the 1960s, "The Translator" seems at first a major departure from the magical realism that John Crowley's audience has come to expect. But in fact, the author hasn't moved. The story of going to school near missile silos primed to destroy the world is phantasmagoric enough without any stylistic elaboration.

Rather than flights of fancy, like the enchanted house in his classic "Little, Big" (1981), this latest novel delves into an even more magical world: poetry – language that "says the nothing that can't be said."

"The Translator" opens in the age of glasnost. Kit Malone, an American writer, arrives in St. Petersburg to speak at a conference on Innokenti Falin, a poet once so irritating to the old Soviet state that Khrushchev first imprisoned and then, in 1961, exiled him. The West embraced Falin as a glittery trophy in the geopolitical chess match played on the eve of mutually assured destruction. He was given a university professorship deep in the land of ICBMs and praised by the handsome new US president who, quoting Shelley, called poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

The thought of living on the edge of nuclear armageddon has lost some of its shock value lately, but Crowley's reminder that poets once rocked the superpowers is still startling.

Thirty years after the Cuban missile crisis, Kit worries about how Falin's devotees in postmodern Russia will receive her. Who was she, after all, to publish English versions of the master's poems in her first book? Surely, she thinks, they'll demand to know her source for those verses and the meaning of her paradoxical title: "Translations without originals." Did she steal them, did she fabricate his authorship, was she involved in his mysterious disappearance? Ironically, she would love answers to all those questions herself.

When earth held its breath

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