This is a book on paper. It has no embedded MP3 player, no YouTube video feed, just words.
Listen as the story takes slowly into flight for the sound of a violin played by a strange master in a little tavern in Prague. Musicians in old world taverns are not strange. A maestro is. Our narrator who may not later remain the narrator is a collector who has bought a rare and beautiful violin for a large amount of money. He is an aficionado of music and a lover of beautiful instruments.
The blurb describes Paolo Maurensig as having been “… a journalist, photographer and most recently a restorer of antique musical instruments…” who lives in Udine, Italy. With writing novels I would consider these to be a fine constellation of talents – restoring wonderful things like violins. Especially the ones that don't need a power cord.
Will this novel be about music and musical instruments? It appears so but, like much in the novel, appearances can deceive. There is always the sound of music wound into the words. Chords are served in the spaces between descriptions. The beauty of the violin is described and we need no further convincing. Just order up some Bach violin concertos from Amazon.
Many years ago in the Hudson Valley a friend older than ourselves was the sweetest of women, a violinist in the Symphony and Suzuki music teacher to streams of children. Her eyes were clear, sky-blue even the last time I saw her when her age was increased by the years I had known her. Her Stradivari was timeless and sang with a tongue of ancient clarity, the sound of perfectly aged wine turned from color, smell and taste to the vibrations of the final chord that slowly drifts into the night.
Once, at a party on a Hudson Valley estate where the owner affected the un-gentlemanly farmer as his persona, she lent it to a suddenly fiddle-less country music-maker and the tongue of that priceless piece of art strung square dances in the twilight. But precious they are, these masterpieces of musical tongues are blown or plucked or bow-lashed and their universal languages pulled, pushed, forced or allowed to reach for the stars and reach they do.
Now the music lovers in the book section will say, “Aha, a book about music.” Perhaps is the best I can do. It is a book about a musician, two musicians, a history of a time gone by in Europe and of the search for longevity, or about age, about insanity and about friendship. Maybe it is about the schizoid nature of the European century, that first half of the twentieth that brought it to a close and then, much later, brought it back to the front lines of world power.
One of the things I am afraid it is about is the difficulty of translations. One word in English is not, when translated into its equivalent, the same word in Italian or Spanish let alone Farsi or Quechua. Words are so seldom quite the same. They told me that long ago but only now that I am learning another language in my last years can I appreciate how delicate are the nuances of meaning in words as well as the meaning of words in the context of two cultures.
Here, I believe the book hit a snag in the music of the plot line. I have no proof for it because I cannot read it in Italian to know. However, the language and the plot are flowing and glowing with music and feelings about friendship and history and the feel of another time and place – Austria as the clouds of Armageddon gather over it as the world prepared for its own time of madness.
The plot concerns, at times –- time being one of the elements of the story –- the violinist and his calling, the kernel of need that calls the musician of genius to pursue perfection for the sake of perfection, music for the sake of perfect music. This violinist we have met, this vagrant with stringed sounds in the night of Prague. He, who becomes, at some time forward or back, our narrator, tells the collector,
Now, try to substantiate the conventional idea that you have of music, give it bones and nerves, blood and sperm, imprison it in a body, in a brain, imagine music as a person, who, in order not to die, must concentrate without respite on the sound of his violin, on the movement of a bow that bounces and rubs across the strings, eliciting chords, melodies, rhythms. Imagine that this was his only possibility of surviving, because silence would cause life itself to dissolve.
Music it is that flows along the plot and the story of the instrument. Also, the story of these friends and their relationship, the ties of family and odd, European class struggles, the wary tread of violence in the wind.
Finally, however, when the book had caught all my attention and the words were flowing like a well-played score in the final movement of the novel, something happened. I am not sure what it was, still. I finished the book with a feeling of let-down, of having lost the chance to gather the feelings that had been gathering and the nuances of plot and felt only confusion.
If I normally only read Tom Clancy, Stephen King and John Grisham, being unable to understand the end of a novel nor leave it behind with anything but consternation, would not be surprising. But that is not the case. I was let down. Personally, my theory is that the translator (like the butler in an English mystery) did it.
I have nothing much to go on except that it had been going so well and then I was lost and have not been able to find where the threads of narrative came un-raveled no matter how many times I re-read the ending. Oh, I know the plot convention he used and it can work well whether or not it has been used before. Hasn't everything?
I will, however, happily await anyone who wants to give me a clear view of all the characters and personalities at the end and how they fit together. If the end had kept the bargains of the beginning it would have been a fine read with music playing behind the words.