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Book Review

Complex Tale Woven of Music and Mystery

CANONE INVERSO, by Paolo Maurensig, Henry Holt $21, 202 pages


There is a certain kind of appealing novel, compact and usually European, that is configured like an 18th-century traveling lap desk--a slanted writing board conceals compartments, compartments are fitted with drawers, drawers contain pen trays, and the whole folds up into a snug and burnished box.

"Canone Inverso," Paolo Maurensig's second novel, is designed in this way, and with much cunning and verve. Where Maurensig took chess as his ostensible subject in his first book, "The Luneburg Variation," here he turns to music, an art of "elusive essence" that provokes in some of its players "the overwhelming and destructive desire to reach perfection." The quest for perfection is but one of the themes of "Canone Inverso," a musical term that means descent or countdown. Maurensig also explores the origins of identity and talent, the emotional and psychological cost of obsession and the meaning of immortality. All the while he tells a story that is as suspenseful and engaging as it is mysterious.

Three separate narrators speak in "Canone," which has been elegantly and crisply translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee. Their ultimate identities remain elusive until the end, but they begin as the purchaser of a choice violin (Tyrolean and made by Jakob Stainer in the 17th century); an unnamed writer who knows the violin's story; and Jeno Varga, whose story it is--or at any rate seems to be.

Visiting Vienna in 1985 for the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth, the writer one evening wanders into a tavern, where he meets Varga, a seedy, pony-tailed, 50-plus vagabond of a musician who plays Strauss and Lehar with a "mastery and a torrent of variations that sent the listeners into raptures."

Born poor and out of wedlock in a small town in Hungary, Varga was incongruously left his sumptuous violin--a Stainer--by his father, whom he never knew. In the early 1930s he won a scholarship to the Collegium Musicum near Vienna, a draconian school whose coat of arms depicted Sisyphus pushing his boulder. In this school, despite its climate of hatred and jealousy, Varga eventually made a friend in the aristocratic Kuno Blau. Varga saw Blau as his double, a replica of his emotional self whose life, like his, was "crucified" to his violin.

During a break one summer Blau invited Varga to his family's castle in Hofstain, in the Tyrol. The place was ghostly and gothic, its cavernous rooms decorated with stuffed birds and pendulum clocks. There were dungeons, myriad musical instruments, a family who debated the nature of immortality at the dinner table. For Varga, only music ever evoked immortality; for the Blau family, the memory of their lineage sufficed. Similarly, the Blaus believed that talent was passed down through the generations, like a patrimony, which was a problematic stance for Varga, who knew nothing of his origins and insisted that talent was a gift of the spirit.

As the days and nights passed, the Blau household became ever more peculiar. Gradually Kuno Blau himself turned arrogant and condescending toward Varga, and one day he offered to buy or trade Varga for his precious violin. "Could I ever trade or sell my head or my heart?" Varga asks the narrator. "Naturally, I refused." Yet after a strange dream he had one night in the castle, Varga recognized that his violin and his music generally may have been a way for "destiny to enable me to discover my past," which is somehow intertwined with the inhabitants--and the history--of the castle.

What Varga discovers about his past is a puzzle that is solved only when the writer-narrator decides to do some research into Varga's story. The Collegium, it emerges, never existed. Varga died in 1947. Yet the violin and the castle are real, as was the man who spoke to the writer. Discovering how all this can be possible is one of the many surprises awaiting the reader of the final pages of Maurensig's clever and intricate book.

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