Tag Archives: Violin

Orpheus Lost – Janette Turner Hospital

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In Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital turns the story of Orpheus and Euridice on its head. This time it’s Orpheus who goes missing and Euridice who descends into the underworld to find him.

Leela is a motherless southerner who escapes to Boston from her very small town through her mathematical genius. She leaves behind a slightly cracked Pentecostal father, the sister born as their mother died in childbirth, and a lifelong best friend, a boy named Cobb whose mother committed suicide and whose father has been prone to drunken, violent rages since his return from the Vietnam war.

Mishka is a very eccentric Australian from a family of refugees who escaped the Nazi death camps and settled in the rainforest. Music is the center of their broken lives, as it was in a cultured, prosperous existence before Hitler. Mishka grows up playing the violin and believing his unknown father is dead. Music propels him to Boston where he takes up the oud, a sort of Persian lute, and plays his violin deep underground in the subway. When Leela hears the heartbreaking lament from Orfeo ed Euridice, she is hypnotized and she and Mishka become lovers.

As Leela works on a post-doc research proposal, Boston is hit with a series of terrorist attacks and Mishka grows increasingly anxious and begins staying away from the apartment. Then Leela is picked up for questioning by a government-contracted security firm and interrogated for hours in a locked room—by an emotionally brutal and calculating Cobb. Mishka may be linked to a subway bombing—his father may be alive in Beirut and is also suspected of being a terrorist mastermind. Mishka disappears and Leela, unmoored in this landscape of alien information, descends into hell to find him—and the truth.

Orpheus Lost is a brilliant and beautifully written thriller. The emotional entanglements of the characters are, at first, very disturbing but quickly draw you into a murky realm where music is both a death sentence and the only hope. The story is strongly anti-war, anti-violence and anti-fairytale. Mishka’s innocence leads him into depths he can’t manage. If Leela gives into doubt, she will lose him forever.

Hell is made in the hearts of people damaged by an unforgiving world. The myth of Orpheus is an ancient and powerful story, reworked in this novel with contemporary events that simply underscore what has always been true—our heroes, heroines, lovers and lost souls are flawed and fragile. But they are valiant and resilient, too. The music is an audible expression of love and longing. The courage that will prevail is an unblinking gaze upon painful truths–and a stubborn refusal to look back.

Orpheus Lost: A Novel   Janette Turner Hospital | W. W. Norton & Company  2007

The Violin of Auschwitz – Maria Angels Anglada

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Maria Angels Anglada was an important 20th century Catalan novelist. The Violin of Auschwitz was published to great acclaim in Europe in 1994 but Martha Tennent’s translation is only recently available in this country. The slim book recounts a fictional incident in the Nazi prison camp—wholly imagined. Each chapter opens with excerpts from actual SS documentation of the horrors in the camp. The writing is lovely, simple and graceful; the setting and the incidents are raw and terrible.

A half century after the war, a violinist plays a remarkable instrument at a Krakow chamber concert. When a musician from the West asks her about the violin she hesitates to tell him its provenance, her eyes filled with sorrow. But eventually she shares a written document with him that reveals the story of the beautiful handcrafted instrument.

In Auschwitz, a Jewish luthier is barely surviving the forced labor, cruel beatings and punishments, deliberate degradation and an almost total lack of food. One night, in the camp commander’s house, a violin played for a party by a prisoner cracks and the luthier, Daniel, rushes to defend the man and says he can fix the instrument. His ill-considered move saves the violinist and earns Daniel a workshop with luthier’s tools and fine wood, probably looted from a ghetto. He repairs the violin successfully and is then commanded to make a Stradivarius-style violin for the brutal commander, who plays decently.

Daniel finds out that a bet has been placed on his head—if he finishes an acceptable instrument in a certain time period, the torturous camp doctor owes the commander a case of fine burgundy. If he fails on either score, the commander hands Daniel over to the doctor. The daily labor over his workbench, wood and tools transports Daniel out of the camp to a remembered-imagined place where he can be himself and survive. The imminent threat of torture and death haunts him. The conditions he lives under continue to imperil his life and make him almost too weak to work.

The Violin of Auschwitz blends atrocity with ecstasy. Daily life in a death camp was designed to extinguish the will to live and cruelty is the quotidian. Shaping a violin from wood, glue and painstaking labor is skilled work that restores Daniel’s damaged sense of his own worth and humanity. The cold lists describing numbers of bullets used to kill a woman for stealing a turnip, regulations for different degrees of punishment and incarceration, and tonnage and types of clothing salvaged from men, women and child prisoners is disgusting and macabre.

Anglada uses words like pure musical notes to tell the story of a world imploded by evil and redeemed by mercy and virtuosity. It fades slowly when you’ve closed the book, like the final notes of a solo that hang in the air briefly before the applause.

The Violin of Auschwitz: A Novel   Maria Angels Anglada | Bantam Books   2010