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Half notes and glissandos

The Cello Player A Novel Michael Kruger Translated from the German by Andrew Shields Harcourt: 200 pp., $23

March 28, 2004|Brigitte Frase | Brigitte Frase is a reviewer and contributing editor to the journals Speakeasy and Ruminator Review.

This is a devilishly clever novel about politics, art and varieties of failure. First it makes you think you're in an absurdist comedy, then in a satire of modern business and aesthetics. Just when you're thinking you've got the tone (disgust aiming for cynical detachment) and the theme (the difficulty of pursuing art in a climate of venal ambition and shallow ideals), it dives into a black regress to Stalinist Russia, takes a stylistic respite in sensitive evocations of landscape and ends where it began, in a Hungarian cemetery with an unstable tone of tragi-comedy.

The narrator of "The Cello Player" is a middle-aged German composer of avant-garde music. He appears to be somewhat famous but consigned by critics to the fringes of importance. Their bloviations about "music and society" make him furious.

After a performance of his string quartet with texts by poet Anna Akhmatova, a radio panel decides he is "old-fashioned, if not reactionary." He feels himself vanishing into "a murk, which was only occasionally penetrated by such concepts as 'musical fascism' and 'stale musical rhetoric'; the rest was society." The novel's translator, Andrew Shields, perfectly preserves the narrator's tone, which moves between sardonic world-weariness and near-hysterical rage.

Our composer just wants to be left alone to read in his apartment and begin work on an opera about Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet who died in one of Stalin's gulags. He can afford leisure and solitude because he makes plenty of money composing the music for a television detective show; some of the tunes have even become hits, making him, one might say, as relevant to society as anyone could wish to be.

One day a young Hungarian cello player named Judit shows up on his doorstep and promptly moves in. She is the daughter of a Budapest singer named Maria, with whom the composer had a passionate affair 20 years earlier. She disturbs his misanthropic habits, but he seems unable to get rid of her. Is she his daughter? Has she been sent by Maria to -- what? -- remind him, torture him, punish him?

Her inexplicable power over him, coupled with the fact that we only glimpse her character through the narrator's contradictory reactions to her, is a warning that our composer, for all his trenchant critiques and seeming moral clarity, is not a reliable witness to an increasingly crazy series of events.

There is a wonderful set piece, which would be at home in an Ionesco play, featuring Judit's birthday party. The composer finds his apartment invaded by Hungarian relatives, obnoxious music students and a family nobody seems to know that takes over his bedroom. In another absurd scene, the composer has lunch with a most peculiar Italian writer who spits out his pea skins and asks him to come along on an expedition to buy underwear.

He and Judit repair to his house in southern France and settle into a domestic routine that feels decidedly un-reassuring. She rearranges the house, he works in the garden, they adopt animals. But the atmosphere is tense, fraught with suspicions, tantrums, evasions. In a cold reckoning of his life, he writes his own obituary.

He does, however, manage to begin his opera. His efforts to encompass Stalinist brutality and the tragedies it caused are given counterpoint with his satiric commentaries on the aristocrat lawyer next door who is restoring a chateau and whose son cozies up to Judit.

This juggling of two radically different levels of reality becomes rather awkward. Why does Judit become paranoid and have a nervous breakdown? Is it her funeral the composer attends in the first and last chapters? Perhaps he has been looking at a tragedy all along, a girl falling apart in front of him, without seeing anything but his own malaise as a man and a musician.

The most absorbing parts of "The Cello Player," in which satire and pathos mingle without false notes, are the flashback chapters where the composer recalls his visits to Poland and Hungary, then still in the Eastern Bloc. There, amid spies, informers and pedantic Marxists, he finds some real music and the love of his life. He never admits it, but he might never have been happier. *

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