Ward Just is in many ways the contemporary American equivalent of the late C.P. Snow. Like Snow’s, his novels are situated with great precision in the “real” world, realistically rendered, and they are concerned with power, with decision making, and with the far-reaching consequences of the decisions made. While they often include family conflicts—most poignantly those of fathers and sons (as in Snow’s The Conscience of the Rich and Just’s The American Ambassador, 1987)—the domestic struggle is nearly always placed within a larger, more public sphere. The ethical quotient in their novels is always high, for the choices made typically involve questions of loyalty to one’s colleagues or (as in Just’s Jack Gance, 1989) to one’s sense of personal integrity. Expert or “inside” knowledge plays a large part in the fiction of both men—Snow drawing heavily upon his experience as a scientist and civil servant, Ward Just upon his years as a Vietnam War correspondent and prominent Washington journalist.
The Translator, Just’s ninth novel, is probably as topical as a novel can be, given the time needed for writing and publication. The action, which takes place in the winter of 1989–1990, as the Wall crumbles and the reunification of Germany becomes an inevitability, involves a scheme, engineered by one Junko Poole, a shady American entrepreneur with past CIA connections, for the transfer, at great profit, of stolen Warsaw Pact weapons in East Germany—weapons whose ultimate destination is presumably the Middle East. Poole in turn enlists the services of Sydney van Damm, an expatriate German living in Paris, to assist him in the enterprise by translating documents and transcribing tapes. Van Damm, the novel’s central figure, makes a barely adequate living as the translator of German novels into English; he badly needs money for the sake of his discontented American wife, Angela, who was brought up with greater expectations, and their brain-damaged son, whom Angela longs to reclaim from the hospital where he has been placed. While the above may look like a plot outline for an international thriller, the appearance is misleading. Just has other, weightier matters to pursue.
One of these is the exploration of the contemporary German “character” as manifested in Sydney (once Siggy) van Damm; his hard-bitten old mother, Inge, who, loathing the “Americanized” hedonism of West Germany, has moved to her ancestral village in East Germany; Milda, a sexy German airline stewardess who stays, between flights to Bahrein, in the van Damms’ apartment building in Montmartre; Erich, a dour, disillusioned East German Party member who is now involved in the arms deal; and finally the distinguished German novelist Josef Kaus, whose works Sydney translates.
Between them, they represent the old, dutiful, patriarchal Germany, clinging to its Teutonic myths, paranoically obsessed with its place in Europe, and the new, prosperous Germany with its fast cars, dirty movies, and backyard swimming pools, a Germany which, in the words of the stewardess, is “waiting for …