As you know, I love books about poets and the power of language. This book won me over on the second page with reference to Shelley’s famous ‘defence of poetry’: Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. (“of the world!” the main character exclaims later.)
Set in the time of the Cuban missile crisis, poetry and politics are vying for power. Kit Malone attends college in the midwest with missile silos nearby and exiled Russian poet, Falin as her teacher. The novel follows the development of their relationship through Kit’s translations of his poetry and their growing love for each other.
The politics of the time is conveyed through the secrecy of the government – the mysterious Milton Bluhdorn asking questions about Falin’s whereabouts – the radical student groups that form and the tragic reality of Kit’s brother joining the armed forces. Falin tells Kit about his childhood in Russia as an orphan and when she lends him Through the Looking Glass, he seems to relate to Alice’s surreal journey from childhood and being in a world of opposites:
When I read I believed I discovered a flaw in it: would it not be impossible for Alice to pass through the mirror? She would I thought only kiss herself there: face to face, hand to hand, breast to breast. How to pass through? Then I saw, no, this is supreme genius of the book: that if Alice passes through her mirror, then Alice from the other side must also pass through; and while we read interesting adventures of Alice in her mirror, at the same time there is another story not told, the adventures of mirror-Alice here, where she does not belong, strange world where clocks run only one way and you cannont tell red kings from white.
These two ‘selves’ of Falin are evident too, when he discusses with Kit the impossiblity of translating a poem. He insists that translations of his poetry are no longer his and a new poem has been born that could never capture the nuances of the original language (in Russian, Freedom, volya rhymes with Fate, dolya) Therefore, when he asks Kit to translate his Russian poems into English, she soon realises that it’s not a way of preserving his poems but a way for her to create her own work and let go of what she sees as the dangers of writing.