Nina Schuyler’s uneven novel raises some interesting questions in the course of the protagonist’s quest, and there are many fascinating details about Japan and Noh plays and the power of silence.
The Translator, by Nina Schuyler, Pegasus Books, 306 pages, $25.00
By Roberta Silman
One of the interesting things about being a reviewer is that you are sometimes asked to review a book about someone unlike anyone you would meet in the course of your daily life, and if you ever did, someone you might not find particularly interesting. I find myself in that strange position in the case of The Translator whose protagonist is a highly intelligent woman named Hanne Schubert, whose freelance job is translating Japanese novels and who gives new meaning to the word, uptight. However, this is the second novel from Nina Schuyler whose first novel, The Painting, was named a “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle; and Schuyler’s prose is pleasing, accessible, and sometimes quite vivid. So I continued to read, and I must admit that the second half of the book is a lot more compelling that its somewhat busy, yet bland first half.
Hanne is in her fifties, widowed by her first husband from whom she was divorced when he died, and the mother of Tomas and Brigitte who are grown. Tomas has a wife and children and telephones his mother from time to time but Brigitte is no longer in Hanne’s life although we get snippets about Brigitte growing up and becoming more and more estranged from her mother. When the story begins Hanne has been translating a novel by Kobayashi for almost a year and she is so fascinated by its main character Jiro that she begins to feel as if she is living his life. This theme of how translation (and/or creation) can swallow real life is an important one in this book, but at the beginning Hanne seems utterly clueless, too timid to come to terms with it until she is, almost literally, slapped in the face by it.
In the meantime Schuyler clutters the beginning of this novel with Hanne’s plans to write her own play about Ono no Komachi, a poet who lived in the Imperial Palace during the Heian era (794-1185) when art was revered as at no other time in Japan’s history. So we have her going back and forth between Jiro, who is based on a famous contemporary Noh actor named Moto Okuro, and her own play as well as her thoughts about her mother, her children, her marriage and her present life, which, though orderly and calm, is clearly not as fulfilling as it could be. Added to the mix is her rather superficial relationship with her married lover, David. No wonder her head — and ours — is swimming: Too many people and themes are introduced too quickly and in such a contrived way that you can almost feel the writer taking a sigh of relief that she has done all this in the first forty pages.
But then comes a surprising turn. Hanne falls down a flight of stairs and loses her native English, but retains the ability to speak Japanese. Since her mind is still clear she realizes she cannot speak to her neighbors when she goes home and recalls what her mother told her about language: “[It] is the umbilical chord to other humans.” Overwhelmed by loneliness because of her strange (though apparently real condition), Hanne decides to attend a conference in Japan whose invitation she had declined earlier. Her excitement grows when she learns that Kobayashi will be there. But when she and Kobayashi meet, she is deeply disappointed; he hates what she has done with his novel and tells her: “You ruined my main character. Turned him into an asshole. A class-act jerk!. . . I am ashamed if what you did to my Jiro, . . . If Moto read what you did, he’d hate it. That makes me ashamed. Deeply ashamed!”
Kobayashi’s words wake Hanne up, and as she continues her quest for the truth and her real self — the self she apparently had as a child and adolescent — she begins to open up in all kinds of ways that are not unexpected but certainly make her more interesting than she was at the beginning. Thus, The Translator becomes a quest novel — the Holy Grail that Hanne seeks being better connection to others, especially her daughter, Brigitte. But because Hanne is becoming more aware of her own shortcomings and because we can feel the author’s sympathy for Hanne growing, our interest grows, especially when she and Moto and his brother Renzo begin to interact. Slowly Hanne realizes that putting words in their proper literal place may not be as important as she previously thought. And when she witnesses Moto’s comeback as an actor, she and we are riveted. Here is the high point in this uneven novel that doesn’t find its true voice until about halfway through, and it is at this very time and place that Hanne realizes what she must do.
We are propelled to India where Hanne searches for Brigitte. A lot of what ensues is predictable and, at times, a little tired. And there is too much of a travelogue feel to this novel, both in Japan and India. But as Hanne finally reaches the goal she has set for herself, we begin to feel her great grief at all that she missed with her rebellious daughter and what the future entails. Moreover, Schuyler does raise some interesting questions in the course of Hanne’s quest, and there are many fascinating details about Japan and Noh plays and the power of silence. An odd and rather splendid irony in a novel that seemed at first to be propelled by words and what they can do.
Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection now available as an ebook; three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again; and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She writes regularly for The Arts Fuse and can be reached at email@example.com.