Ward Just doesn't make it easy for himself. He has chosen as his protagonist a translator, the antithesis of action, of imagination. Further, he makes the translator German, with all the baggage that implies. Lest we miss the point, Just saddles him with "a square head and broad shoulders," "deliberate movements," "a severe face without dance."
Finally, Just takes the boy out of Germany, but . . . Sydney (ne Sigmund) van Damme, the translator, lives in Paris, and anyone familiar with the Just oeuvre knows that dislocation, a favorite theme, leads to terminal anomie.
("Europeans," Just wrote in "The American Blues," "understand that you bear the weight of your childhood and your parents and their parents and where you were born and grew up. . . . Try to change any of it and all you do is thrash around and make trouble." It should be noted in passing that Just, a native of Illinois, now lives in Paris. . . . )
Sydney's childhood in the waning days of World War II is grim: officer father missing in action; stoical mother reduced to rifling the pockets of dead Yanks for food. He has, however, picked up a love of languages through American private-eye movies, and delights in repeating--out of the side of his mouth--those immortal Yankee epigrams "Twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses" and "You'll shut up and like it."
"German words," observes the young linguist, "were composites, the sentences as heavy and implacable as a freight train. The English sentence was an express."
This is about as light as Sydney gets. Further burdened by his mother's malediction--"You will search for a joyful life but you will not find it"--he takes up the translator's trade in Paris, where he lives in a utilitarian flat and reads Rilke, Mann and "the unreadable Goethe" for fun. For work, he translates into English a cumbrous German novel called "Die Katastrophe," whose own "dour protagonist" reflects on his joyless youth, on "the tombstones of childhood."
All very ponderous--Germanic--nor is "The Translator" buoyed by Sydney's marriage to Angela Dilion, expatriate daughter of an idle Maine millionaire. Appropriately, they honeymoon in the town of Sylt, a German resort in the Frisian Islands and "the quintessence of gloom."
Back in Paris, the Van Dammes have a son, born severely retarded. (The passage where Sydney breaks the news to Angela is excruciating. No one conveys pain more movingly than Just does.) Angela's father loses his money. Sydney unwittingly becomes involved in a scheme to smuggle guns from East Germany, an enterprise cooked up by Junko Poole, a charming if solipsistic American con man.
Angela returns to Maine, from which vantage point she proceeds to do what she does best: worry about her father; worry about her son; worry about her husband; worry about herself. . . .
And from what used to be called this Slough of Despond, Ward Just rises regularly to do what he does best: take pot shots through his characters at a world gone awry:
--At America: "Disequilibrium and despair everywhere." "Baffled, self-indulgent America, land of nightmares and vigilantes." "All too plainly powerless, fallible and out of it."
--At West Germany: "The least charismatic of nations, misshapen, a huge head and a short, powerful body; its hand on its wallet, a burgher's wary smile concealing clenched teeth."
--At Eastern Europe: "We pretend to work and you pretend to pay us." "A Third World of white people."
--At Israel: "Monstrous suppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories."
--At Paris: "There is such a thing as too much beauty."(!)
--Even at Belgium: "Anonymous."
In short, this is Just's everything's-going-to-hell book, less a novel than a bully pulpit. He writes with customary grace and economy, a straightforward style that draws you in, no matter how you protest.
He is that rara avis of American letters, a "serious novelist," and he is always worth reading. But why this book?
A bit of banter may provide a clue:
Junko: "This city's dying."
Sydney: "So what are you doing here?"
Junko: "I love dying cities."