Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tales of a Spanish cellist

Once in a while, I find novels that interact with music in some non-trivial way. My most recent example is The Spanish Bow, a debut novel by Andromeda Romano-Lax. This exotically named author was born in Chicago and currently resides in Alaska. She has been a journalist, and she plays the cello, as does the primary character of her novel. Her Flash-based web site deals exclusively with the novel, and provides maps and other additional background information.

The novel follows the protagonist, Feliu Delargo, from his birth in 1892 through the start of World War II. Drawn to the cello at an early age, he becomes one of Spain's most famous musicians, and his life intertwines with the various rulers, from royalty to Franco. At times, the novel felt like the episodes in Zelig or Forrest Gump where the fictional characters are inserted into historical events, such as the sole meeting between Hitler and Franco, which took place in 1940. But Romano-Lax's choice to put Delargo in the early 20th century lets her use her cellist to examine a time and place of great historical changes, from the failing monarchy and restoration, to the republic, the civil war, and fascism.

A major theme of the novel is the role of art in relation to politics. Feliu is exposed to the dilemma early on, when he is a court musician for Queen Ena. His patron, a count with surprising anti-monarchial sentiments, raises the question of the artist in relation to his world. Feliu's musical partner, the pianist Justo Al-Cerraz, generally takes the position that music and politics are completely distinct. Although Feliu also has this perspective in his youth, his experiences and his memories of his childhood in a small village end up making it hard to separate the two. These were turbulent times, and events catch up with Feliu and Al-Cerraz as they reach maturity. Needless to say, their views become muddied by circumstances, and a retrospective look back at the end of the book doesn't provide any clear answers either.

Of course, there's a love story in the plot as well, with both Al-Cerraz and Feliu courting a young Jewish violinist as they all travel across Europe playing in a trio. If the plot sometimes displays a few clichés, the settings are vivid, and the story moves right along. The historical personages provide an interesting spice, and several times I found recordings of the various musical pieces featured in the book. All in all, The Spanish Bow is an entertaining read.

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