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."

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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

Most of Crowley's novel is the story of that semester when Kit arrived midyear, a defector from her own dark tragedies, and managed to finagle a spot in a writing class with the university's new celebrity poet.

A survivor of long imprisonment and grief, Falin hovers tentatively in the free air of America, "at once gaunt and tender, merry and haunted." Outside the classroom, he strives for invisibility. Crowley writes, "It was as though he himself existed here in this town in this state in translation, ambiguous, slightly wrong, too highly colored or wrongly nuanced."

In class, he looks at his students "amused and maybe a little alarmed." Expecting to be taught the secrets of great verse, they're surprised that he wants them to memorize poems rather than explicate them. When he recites a stanza from Pushkin, "it was as though he sculpted the poem in the middle of the air with broad steady strokes of rhythm and rhyme."

Crowley captures the unabashed wonder ignited in a great college class- room, that unique arena in which the world can seem to hang on the careful consideration of a few lines.

Quickly moving past her own sense of inadequacy, Kit falls into a special reverence for her professor, a mingling of intellectual awe and romantic attraction that brings her academic exploration to a sensual pitch.

Both Kit and Falin sense the danger in this situation. They are, after all, students of subtle meanings and implications. Crowley handles this romance gently, rendering it all the more erotic with excruciating restraint. Indeed, the most intimate moments of their affair take place at the kitchen table as they struggle to translate his poems into English. Kit is smart enough to be intimidated by the responsibility of such a task and naive enough to think she might be able to do it justice.

Crowley's greatest achievement is his treatment of this tedious work, depicting the process of translation as a kind of lovemaking. Each is unsure of the other's language; only the most tender solicitude can carry their meanings back and forth between them to create something new and wondrous.

But Falin never lets Kit forget the dangerous times in which they work. Having once irritated a giant with his haunting verse, the Russian dissident knows that poetry – his poetry at least – is not a private affair. As the argument over Cuba escalates, Kit finds her life snared in the machinations of geopolitical intrigue.

Crowley is a master of ominous ambiguity, spreading Kit's anxiety through every line. In the house of mirrors erected by cold-war paranoia, she begins to see dangers everywhere.

It's madness, surely, to infer a connection between her poetic lover and the nuclear terror hanging over the world, but Kit can't ignore her suspicions or Falin's Orphic warnings about his final burden.

Ultimately, this is a frustrating book, but for all the right reasons. Its crisis remains slightly out of phase, strangely muted like an evocative metaphor that refuses to disrobe its meaning. Even with glasnost and the Freedom of Information Act, how the world sidestepped destruction that week remains something of a mystery. We could do worse than attribute our survival to the sacrifice of a poet willing to make the word flesh.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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