IF it's possible to speak of an "art novel" in the sense of an "art film" -- composed for a select rather than mass audience -- the term could certainly be applied to "The Wake." This brief, but baroquely circuitous novel by the distinguished Mexican writer Margo Glantz plunges us into the stream-of-consciousness of a woman attending a wake for the man she once loved. Nora Garcia, a well-known cellist, has returned to a small town in Mexico to attend the last rites for her former husband, Juan, a famous pianist, conductor and composer dead from a massive heart attack. As is evident from the very first page, her feelings are mixed.
Once, Juan and Nora made beautiful music together, as artists and lovers alike. Exactly what went wrong with their marriage is never made entirely clear, but, as Nora's intensely subjective first-person narrative gradually reveals, the deep mutual passion and harmony of their relationship was eroded by some betrayal.
At the outset of the funeral, Nora's reactions seem peculiarly hardhearted: Her mind is focused on irrelevant details -- the mustiness of the room, the unaccustomed mustache on the corpse, the fashionableness of her own and other women's attire. Yet these images are interspersed with mental pictures of the dying man in his last days.
Nora's disorientation is instantly palpable: "I am uncomfortable everywhere. I go outside again, my movements jerky, convulsive.... People are walking on the grass, throwing cigarettes (some lighted) into the rose bushes; nearby bougainvillea growing over the walls, its color as bright as the metallic register of trumpets. Snippets of conversations ... hypocritical sentences: they're hurtful, some of them leave wounds.... "
Her initial pretense of detachment soon gives way to anger and tears, to gruesome images of Juan's illness, and to memories of the life they once shared. For Nora, music serves as the key to understanding the meaning of life and the nature of passion: More than words, music seems the most accurate measure of sincerity, the truths of the heart. "Does open heart surgery turn the heart transparent again? How can we know whether the love others profess for us is sincere? Music doesn't lie, we know that perfectly well -- we feel it, there's no getting around that, we know that when an instrumentalist performs a piece well ... performs it with feeling, that it is with the most authentic passion that he or she performs."
The novel's very structure echoes musical form: Rather than proceeding straightforwardly, its movement is circular, making use of recurring themes, phrases and motifs, creating variations on them. Thus, the physiological facts of medicine ("the heart is just a muscle") are juxtaposed with Pascal's famous words, "The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of." Memories of civilized evenings in the couple's former social life trigger thoughts about a fiercely impassioned deathbed scene in Dostoevsky's "The Idiot."
Not coincidentally, it seems the best passages in this novel are ruminations on music: Bach, Schubert, the cello, the piano, the tango, the age of baroque, the angelic voices of boy sopranos, the more ethereal tones of the fabled 18th century castrati. Nora reveals something of the temperamental differences between herself and Juan in her recollection of the arguments they once had about the merits of two great 20th century pianists: Glenn Gould and Sviatoslav Richter. Although Juan worshipped Gould, Nora, who also appreciates Gould, feels an even stronger admiration for Richter, both as a pianist and as a man:
"The technical ability and immense knowledge that Gould brings to performances of his favorite musicians (but only to them), his expressive intensity yet simultaneous distance, and his strategic ability to gauge the market, make him a genius ... and yet the wise, modest, although sometimes prideful performances of Richter, the modulations of sharp edges that he employed when he played for example Beethoven -- especially the last sonatas, marking the terrible, echoing, yet delicate chords (played with all the strength of his hands and arms), those brilliant registers in the arpeggios that a deaf man alone is able to intuit -- make me prefer him....
"At the end of our life together, when we would be alone in the large living room ... listening to the recordings of the two great pianists ... Juan and I would have heated arguments that often culminated in violence. Were those, perhaps, two diametrically opposed ways of looking at life?"
Why did Juan stray? How did their marriage go wrong? Nora never arrives at an answer, but her faith in the power and truth of music emerges as the one unshakable element in her life. "The Wake" is less successful in conveying its characters' personalities and relationships than in illuminating the power and nuances of music, but that is no mean achievement.
Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.