Thursday, March 13, 2014

An Antique Violin

Canone InversoCanone Inverso 
by Paolo Maurensig

". . . my mind had become accustomed to severity, to discipline, to the pursuit of perfection. I suddenly felt as if I were a stranger among all those noisy people who had nothing to do with music, talked about everything but, and were concerned with things I didn't understand."(p 91)

An antique violin is the heart of Paolo Maurensig's exploration of art and the artist. The question is: who is the greater artist? The one who owns his art or the one who is owned by it? Structured almost like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner the buyer of the violin is accosted by a stranger who relays the history of the instrument, the rivalry between budding artists Kuno and Jeno at a horrific music academy, and the playing out of their lives against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Deeply layered, full of symbols and themes, this is almost a perfect novella. In fact that is one of the themes of the book:

"Perfection, you see, is related to infinity, but infinity is not the only infinitely big. It is also the infinitely small. Perfection can suggest the idea of forward movement, but also the idea of coming to a halt. The search for perfection proceeds with a pace that becomes infinitely slower. It is a continuous progression that nevertheless gradually reduces itself as it approaches its goal."(p 37)

The main character, a Hungarian peasant boy named Jeno, is haunted both by his obsession to achieve perfection in playing the violin and his obsession for Sophie, a violinist and music teacher. While still a young boy he is sent to study at a serious music academy where he meets and becomes friends with another young boy, and Aristocratic Austrian boy named Kuno. He at first seems to be Jeno's doppelganger, but we soon find that he is filled with contrasts to Jeno that complement him. They are linked by the violin.

The beauty of the prose is like music and its structure mimics that of a work of music. Reminiscent of the short fiction of Sandor Marai or Isak Dinesen this novella is exceptionally poignant and affecting on many levels. Most importantly, it questions the reality of the very lives that we live - are they merely a dream? Reading books like this makes the question one that could lead to obsession.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Sounds great.

I may have my math and physics wrong, wrong, but that quote about the pace of movement getting slower and slower as one gets closer to their goal reminds me of calculus, or the expansion of energy as an object gets closer and closer to the speed of light.

James said...

Brian, Thanks for your observation. The literary manifestation of movement is an interesting issue with which to grapple -- perfection being an ideal which may never be achieved.