The Translator, by Ward Just

This 1991 work is not the novel I expected from this author. It is not about the Mid-West. And not about Washington, DC. Nor is it about the newspaper business. It is about being German, being a German after World War II. And it is excellent. It is a true literary work, as if Just sought not only to work outside his comfort zone but also to explore his subject matter to an even greater depth than previous, and also subsequent, work. As if there is a German heritage in the Just background.

This is the story of Sydney Van Damm. He is the translator. After a quick memory of growing up in northern Germany during the war and enduring the horror of Allied bombing raids, we learn he has rejected his homeland, even though his mother has warned that he would never escape his nationality. But he has fled to Paris, where he joins its expatriate world and soon meets and marries an American girl, Angie Dilion. He makes his living in Paris as a translator, working between English and German or French and German. He earns an excellent reputation, but he does struggle to earn the comfortable life that Angie is used to. He thus becomes open to renewing a friendship with Junko Poole, a former intelligence officer with an elusive reputation and no scruples, who is also living in Paris.

What makes this novel a literary work is that it is not driven by its plot, such as each new development in Sydney’s life. But it does engage the reader, by exploring the richness of each new experience. After Sydney marries Angie, their happiness is interrupted by tragedy, for they have a son, Max, who is brain-damaged, and they must adapt their lives to his. They live in an old Paris apartment house, where they also meet its various tenants, especially one German stewardess, Milda, and two others. These stewardesses enliven the setting through their adventures with Arab sheiks. He also meets for the first time a famous German author, Josef Kaus, whose work he has been translating. Indeed, to better understand the hero of Kaus’ current book, Sydney projects himself into the mind of Herr Hoerli, the German hero of that novel.

It is in Sydney’s memories of his mother, in his probing the mind of Herr Hoerli, and in heart-to-heart talks with both Milda and the novelist Kaus, that this expatriate translator engages in conversations that open up the exploration of the German character. How the war changed them, how they survived postwar poverty and then adapted to in the powerful economy that now flourishes around them in the late 1980s, whereupon how this has changed them, as well as how they have reacted to the freedom that now contrasts to the world of their German youth. Here is where Just truly explores the German character, the German psyche, each person seeing this new world differently but each one also revealing, despite the changes, how much they have in common.

Tying the novel together is the Van Damm family need for economic security, and the proposal of Junko Poole for a risky adventure that will resolve those economic needs. For me, it is the one artificial element of this novel, an element introduced by the author rather than by Junko himself. This is because the scheme is so nebulous. We know that material, or items, are to be shipped, without authorization, from one location to another, beginning in East Germany. But we do not know why they are being shipped, who has agreed to their being shipped, or even where it is being shipped from and where it is being shipped to. And this nebulousness is going to lead, for me, to a conclusion that is far from satisfying.

Despite this one caveat, I agree with the overall conclusion reached in the Detroit News and Free Press, that this novel “is a capricious and serious work—part love story, part political allegory….As the title indicates, it is a rumination on the nature of language, as well as that of national identity.”

Indeed, it is. It is an exploration of postwar Europe on one level and of the Parisian expatriate life on another. But it is also an exploration of the uses of language and of the different ways language is used by different cultures. And it is always focused on people, on their nationality, rather than on their politics, and on their struggle to survive more than on the economy they live in. And, of course, it is focused especially on individual Germans. On Sydney’s German mother who despises the Americanization of West Germany and flees to the comfort of her hometown in East Germany. As well as on the shady characters who arrive from the East. But it also compares, on the opposite shore, Angie’s father, who had inherited great wealth at home in Maine, but who has carelessly, incompetently, lost it, and who now wallows in self-pity.

And yet in the background is politics as well as people. Why does Sydney flee to Paris after the war, and turn to translation? Because he wants to escape the history of modern Germany. And he compares translation with his own move to a different culture; that is, “the moving of things from one condition to another; it was the same thing but changed utterly.” For that is what he wants, to escape from the German nationality, German politics, and especially his own history. And yet, inevitably, one cannot escape one’s past, one’s memories, nor, the author suggests, the tragedy that waits in the wings.

George Stade offers another summary of this novel in The New York Times. He says that Sydney and Angela “are also, after all, stand-ins for whatever in us is private, for that part of us that believes the matters of consequence in human life are family and work, for all in us that is threatened by the political waste that kills.” He also calls for an expression of hope, “though not because modern history warrants it.”

Yes, one wants to find more of Just’s work, more of these novels that immerse you in an interesting life in an interesting world. With the value of the work being in the interpretation of that life and that world, rather than in the events that these characters encounter, events that then sweep the reader along from one development to the next. (February, 2019)

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Warburg in Rome, by James Carroll

This is a religious thriller, and a good one, from one of my favorite authors, James Carroll. But this 2014 novel is not the literary work that I had hoped to read. What happened? My theory stems from the fact that of Carroll’s recent works, only one was a novel, and, indeed, a literary one. Whereas, the others were works of history—with the emphasis on Church history and power, the Church’s relations with the Jews, and American military might.

This novel represents a blend of those issues, and I sense that Carroll either thought his subject here did not reach the scale of his previous non-fiction works, or thought it would reach a broader audience as a novel. And he did want/need a broad public to be aware of this slice of Vatican history.

The story he tells is ironic, that the Vatican, with the collaboration of the American army, established a pipeline to help Nazi military officers and government leaders escape to Argentina. They worked together, in history, because both groups feared that Soviet military power would establish atheistic Communism in Europe; and had determined that these escaping Nazis could become a bulwark to help prevent this from happening. While the irony is that the same U.S. government that is allowing the Germans to escape is, in Carroll’s fiction, also helping to fit into the post-war world the Jewish people whom those Nazi leaders persecuted.

And so, in addition to its exposure of Church duplicity at the highest level, this work also raises both refugee issues and moral issues. These include the violent acts of terrorists, by both Germans and Zionist Jews; the guilt of the fictional characters who become involved in the intrigue among the Germans, the Jews, and the Vatican; and the commitment of these various characters to their ideals, in the wake of these revelations.

The basic story of the Vatican pipeline is true, says Carroll. His fictional story to complement it involves five main characters. These are an American government official, David Warburg, a Jew; an ambitious priest, Kevin Deane; a Red Cross worker, Marguerite d’Erasmo; an American military officer, Peter Mates; and an English nun, sister Thomas Aquinas. Some of these collaborate with each other, some work at cross-purposes. Two couples emerge from this intrigue, but they reach different resolutions.

Warburg has been sent by the U.S. government to Rome to aid Jews who have escaped German and Italian internment, and to help them settle in the U.S., Palestine, or other countries. He meets Marguerite, who is helping all refuges in Rome, especially Jews, and Father Deane, who serves Cardinal Spellman, and is as ambitious as Spellman, but who also expresses sympathy for the plight of the Jewish refugees.

The novel’s fictional story concerns the discovery by this idealistic trio of the reality of the pipeline, the involvement of the Vatican in providing the Nazis with the papers to emigrate, and the Americans, such as Mates, looking the other way for their own purposes. Whereupon, complications ensue, for violence intrudes on this “discreet” Vatican scheme, first when retreating German forces murder Jews and then when vengeful Jews seek to advance their cause through terrorist bombings in both Rome and Jerusalem.

It is this violence that challenges the idealistic beliefs of our trio. For one the challenge is to a belief in a vague Jewish faith; for another it is one’s conviction to remain in service to the Church; for another it is the ability to remain an idealist in the face of corruption everywhere; and for another the challenge is to retain one’s vocation in the face of failure and betrayal. And it is here that the novel reaches for the level of literature. If it does not succeed in doing so, it does lend more depth to all of its characters.

As a former priest, Carroll is adept at capturing both the emotions and the consciences of both good priests, like Father Deane, and bad priests. Among the latter is Father Roberto Lehmann, a Franciscan who is the key Vatican contact for the pipeline. Carroll establishes the mood and the thoughts of Deane, both when he is saying mass and when his conscience grasps his involvement at the fringes of the Nazi pipeline. Meanwhile, Carroll explores the rationalizing conscience of Father Lehmann, even as he comes to understand he has been sexually seduced to betray his pipeline friends.

At times, the political maneuvering among the Vatican officials, the Nazi sympathizers, the Jews, and the Americans can become complex and confusing. Indeed, I find such maneuvering often to be confusing in a thriller like this. Which only re-enforces for me that this is a thriller, that the emphasis is not on the characters themselves, as well delineated as they may be. No, it is story that matters here—the maneuvers themselves, and the message that the story carries. Namely, that the Vatican was more than complicit, was deeply involved at the highest level, in a pipeline designed to help Nazi officials escape Allied justice after World War II—the purpose being to use these officials later to combat the advance of Communist Russia.

In passing, I would note that despite the complexity of the plot, each time I picked up this novel I needed little help in recalling the overall situation. This is testimony to Carroll’s skill as a novelist and to the tightness of his structure. But more significant are the moral issues that the novel raises. Is it right to bomb a building, even without killing people? Is it right to assassinate one evil person rather than kill scores of innocent people? Is one culpable when betraying a person in order to reveal evil? Or in betraying one person in order to save another? And how much should one accept/believe in an institution or a vocation which contradicts one’s own beliefs?

Another theme of this novel is love. Both the love of mankind and love among individuals. Both spiritual love and sexual love. Both idealistic love and practical love. Both love of self and love of others. And the diverse resolutions of the human loves here bring home the complexity of love itself.

I do not expect more literary fiction from Carroll, but I will welcome any works that offer further insight into the Church and its spiritual mission in a world of pragmatic human beings. (March, 2015)