Archive for April, 2014

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

April 22, 2014

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

My reading of Us Conductors was very much influenced by the confluence of two streams of personal serendipity, so it seems only right that I acknowledge them before discussing the novel itself.

Strange as it may seem, stream one originates with the hugely entertaining UK television series, Midsomer Murders. Mrs. KfC and I are fans and have been entertaining ourselves in the last few months by revisiting our DVD collection. Along the way, we paused to watch the show’s tenth anniversary special and I was intrigued when the series music director talked about his decision to use the “theremin” in Midsomer Murders’ distinctive theme. While I enjoy many types of music (and almost always have something playing while I read), I’m no expert — and I’d never heard of the theremin. Some quick Internet research left me intrigued.

Stream two has a much stronger literary connection. Since 1996, Random House of Canada has been running its New Face of Fiction program. Every year the publisher features at least one (and often more) debut Canadian novel and they have an enviable record of success in spotting superb new writers. Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Timothy Taylor, Drew Hayden Taylor and Alexi Zentner are just a few of the exceptional authors who first appeared under the New Face of Fiction banner (you can see the full list here — I’ve read many and heartily recommend almost every title).

Us Conductors is this year’s only title. I was looking forward to it and (here comes the confluence) became even more intrigued when the book arrived — it’s based on the life story of Lev Termen, the Russian scientist and inventor who in the early decades of the twentieth century gave the world the theremin. Three weeks before I had never even heard of the instrument and here’s a whole novel about its inventor!

A theremin

A theremin

What’s a theremin? It’s an electronic box, much like the one by your tv set, with two antennas emerging from it — one sticking straight up, the other a loop. The world’s first electronic musical instrument (pre-Moog synthesizer, although Moog markets the modern version), the straight antenna controls pitch, the looped one volume. The musician “plays” the instrument with movements much like an orchestra conductor (the cover of the novel is a fair representation), the right hand controlling pitch, the left volume. The sound is very distinctive but talented players can produce quite recognizable versions of classic pieces (more on this later in the review).

That’s enough background on KfC’s going-in attitude — let’s get to the book itself. Part One of Us Conductors consists of a journal that Lev Termen is writing from a below-decks locked cabin on a ship, the Stary Bolshevik. He is on his way back to Russia (obviously as at least a semi-prisoner) after some decades in the United States. He is addressing his journal to Clara Rockmore: “My one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know”. Here’s the way the novel opens:

I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked “termenvox.” He likes its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox — the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.

I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to something. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termin, mouthpiece of the universe.

As Lev chronicles his story, we learn that his first invention, while still at Petrograd University, was “the radio watchman”:

I was still a student, scarcely out of adolescence, and I invented a magical box. The radio watchman emits an invisible electro-magnetic field and then waits for a disruption. If a human body passes inside this field, the circuit closes and an alarm goes off.

Imagine a vigilant wireless set, keeping guard.

The principles of the radio watchman eventually evolve into the idea of the theremin — Lev begins developing it while employed at the Physico-Technical Institute in 1921. He demonstrates his first model to the engineers and physicists there and they are impressed. Indeed, so impressed that he soon demonstrates it to Lenin himself. And the new Russian rulers, eager to show people that their regime equals exciting new science send him on a tour to give concerts around the country.

It is not long before global politics takes over. Lev’s discovery (and it is only one of many that spring from his brain) is viewed as a national asset that needs to be exploited. With Pash as his minder (Lev is hopeless at normal things like administration and business), he is sent to America — not as a normal type of “spy” but rather an early version of global corporate espionage. Lev’s inventions get the pair into companies like RCA Victor (which actually contracted to build the first commercial theremins — the Crash of 1929 coincided with their launch and sales were few); once inside the organizations, Pash goes to work on finding information that is of use to the mother country.

While things are going well in the initial pre-Crash years, Lev does all this from a posh suite at the Plaza Hotel. When those bills mount up, the wealthy husband of one of his theremin students offers him the use of a four-storey midtown brownstone that becomes rehearsal hall, laboratory and living quarters. It is the jazz age and Lev is living the good life — he meets Clara (who switches from the violin to theremin), falls in love with her despite her being much younger and enjoys considerable early success.

Throughout Part One of the novel, I found myself comparing it favorably to Jean Echenoz’s Lightning, an excellent novella based on the American adventures of Nikolai Tesla, another Russian scientific genius (also with no everyday life skills), who a century before Lev Termen had followed the same route. Both books not only make invention and science an interesting story, they offer insightful pictures of the New York of the day.

Clara Rockmore playing her theremin

Clara Rockmore playing her theremin

Part One of Us Conductors exceeded all my considerable expectations — I even spent $10 to buy Clara Rockmore’s “Lost Theremin” album from iTunes to play along as I read it. (If you are interested but not up to the investment, a You Tube of her playing Saint-Saens’ The Swan can be found here — she’s accompanied on the piano by her sister, who also features in the novel).

Alas, Us Conductors has a Part Two and that locked cabin on the Stary Bolshevik is ample foreboding. Part Two is also a journal directed to Clara — this one written in 1947, eight years after Lev’s return to Russia. Stalin was firmly in control when he arrived, his American experience was viewed as treason not a service to the state and he was soon off to the Gulag. He has “escaped” that fate by the time he is writing the journal — his inventing abilities are now being exploited in Moscow where he is resident in one of the state’s “scientific prisons”.

While Part One was an entertaining and illuminating fantasy, despite its basis in real life, Part Two fell flat with me — I have trouble reading fiction about Stalinist prison life when it is written by Russians who experienced it and balk completely at versions produced by Western writers. To Michaels’ credit, he does conclude with a plot twist that restored my interest.

I’d like to quote Michaels’ “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” as an indication of the spirit of the novel. While it is based on known facts about Termen’s life, “it is full of distortions, elisions, omission, and lies”. In the real life, the author saw the elements of a good story — and at least in the first half, he certainly delivered on it.

Perhaps, in the interests of being honest myself, I should follow Michaels’ approach. My Midsomer Murders and previous New Face of Fiction experience left me inclined to like this novel — and I very much did, until another stream of serendipity (aversion to Gulag fiction) provided a stronger, negative current. Other readers may well not experience the disappointment in the second part of the book that I did. And even with that caveat, I would call this another success for the New Face of Fiction project.

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Embers, by Sándor Márai

April 14, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

While it was hardly a deliberate decision on my part, Embers is the third “dinner-based” translated novel that I have read in the last year:

Herman Koch’s The Dinner involves two contemporary Dutch couples. The first third of this one is an hilarious put-down of those restaurants where the waiter spends more time explaining what is on the plate he just put in front of you than it takes you to eat it. Then the book takes a turn to the dark side and the four become increasingly selfish and dislikable as the novel proceeds — by the time you finish it, you can’t stand any one of them.

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast opens with a mother and two children preparing the meal of the title while they await the arrival of father. Again, about a third of the way through the book it turns noir as the child narrator begins revealing more and more about her father’s abusive nature. The feast is anything but joyous.

Embers, first published in Hungary in 1942, predates both those works by decades but a quick Google scan shows that it has been a reader favorite ever since. The dinner in this one involves neither a pretentious restaurant nor a waiting family — rather it is a meal involving two military men who have not seen each other for decades.

It does involve appropriate formality: in the opening pages, the host (“the General”) instructs his gamekeeper to harness the Landau, don full-dress livery and head to the White Eagle in the nearby town and tell them that the carriage awaits the Captain who is staying there. And author Marai wastes little time in letting the reader know that this dinner will involve a return to an ominous shared history:

There was a calendar hanging on the wall. Its fist-sized numbers showed August 14. The General looked up at the ceiling and counted: August 14. July 2. He was calculating how much time had elapsed between that long ago and today. “Forty-one years,” he said finally, half aloud. Recently he had been talking to himself even when he was alone in the room. “Forty years”, he then said, confused, and blushed like a schoolboy who’s stumbled in the middle of a lesson, tilted his head back and closed his watering eyes. His neck reddened and bulged over the maize-yellow collar of his jacket. “July 2, 1899, was the day of the hunt,” he murmured, then fell silent. Propping his elbows on the desk like a student at his studies, he want back to staring at the letter [which announced the Captain’s impending arrival] with its brief handwritten message. “Forty-one,” he said again, hoarsely. “And forty-three days. Yes, exactly.”

The General has been living in a single room of his castle since that day:

For decades now, since he had moved into this wing of the building, and torn down the dividing wall, this large, shadowy chamber had replaced the two rooms. Seventeen paces from the door to the bed. Eighteen paces from the wall on the garden side to the balcony. Both distances counted off exactly.

He lived here as an invalid lives within the space he has learned to inhabit. As if the room had been tailored to his body. Years passed without him setting foot in the other wing of the castle, in which salon after salon opened one into the next, first green, then blue, then red, all hung with gold chandeliers.

It is worth noting the details in those excerpts, because that approach will continue throughout the 213-page volume. As you can probably tell from the foreboding in those brief excerpts, the General has been nursing vengeance throughout those 41 years — when he instructs his “nurse” (he’s 75, she’s 91, but the clock has effectively been stopped for some time for the two of them) to open the dining room in the castle and set the table for two, we know that the dinner will serve as his excuse to exercise it.

Just a bit of back story, to help set the stage. The General and the Captain first met as pre-teenage youths at a military academy and became inseparable friends. While both came from military families, the General has both breeding and money — the Captain came from a military tradition but his Polish parents have fallen on tough economic times and are sacrificing everything to enable him to attend the academy. And to add a bit of spice to the story, he’s a distant relative of Chopin and is musical himself — even as a child, the General could not understand this “emotional”, non-rational interest/talent of his friend.

Once that back story is in place, the dinner can begin. While it is ostensibly a conversation between the two, Embers, like The Mussel Feast, is effectively a monologue — the General has been preparing for this occasion since that fateful hunt 41 years ago and he gives his guest precious few openings to take part in the conversation.

Part of what is so impressive about Embers is the careful, precise way that the General proceeds with his story over dinner and I don’t want to spoil that by revealing details. He is a deliberate, non-emotional, calculating soul — like any accomplished military man, he has prepared his “assault” with careful precision. For the reader, part of the strength of the book is the chilling way that he moves in on his target and what happened on that day of the hunt — and the lonely pain that has dominated his life ever since.

The result of all of this is an engrossing, compelling read. If anything, the General’s total lack of emotion makes the story even more fearsome as it unfolds. To Marai’s credit, it felt like I was sitting at the dinner table myself, between the two combatants, watching with horror as his attack gathered force. Embers is a quick read (I finished it in two sessions) and it is a good thing — I think the author would have been over-reaching if he tried to sustain it for another 100 pages. Having said that, I would be hard pressed to name a more powerful novel that I have read in the last couple of years.

One final observation: All three of the “dinner” books that I have cited invite an allegorical interpretation. Vanderbeke has said that The Mussel Feast is intended as an allegory of life in Soviet-dominated East Germany. Koch’s novel can certainly be read as an allegory for contemporary Europe. And Embers is set in 1940 Hungary during the Nazi era — Marai never references it directly but the Empire that the General and Captain were trained to defend has been replaced by an even more frightful one.

I don’t like to offer my interpretations of allegories in reviews here. It seems to me they are best developed between the author, his story and the individual reader — and putting my version forward here is worse than a bad spoiler. Suffice to say that you will probably find one if you choose to pick up the book — and it is probably every bit as valid today as it was in the war era when this fine novel was written.

Kicking The Sky, by Anthony De Sa

April 6, 2014

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Anthony De Sa is an author who arrived with some impact for me in 2008 with his debut story collection, Barnacle Love. Shortlisted for that year’s Giller Prize (I liked it every bit as much as the winner, Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce), the collection was actually two distinct sets of linked stories.

The first told the story of Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman, and his arrival as an immigrant in Newfoundland. The second set followed Manuel and his family to Toronto, changed the narrative perspective to his young son Antonio and ended up portraying ethnic life in inner-city Toronto (which happens to be one of the city’s distinctive charms). Both worked for me: Barnacle Love was like two novellas that captured very different aspects of the immigrant experience.

In a sense, De Sa returns to that same world with this debut novel — Antonio is again the central character and the key dramatic incident in this book was the subject of one of the stories in Barnacle Love. That event, based in real life, was the abduction and murder in 1977 of Emanuel Jaques, a shoeshine boy lured to his death by a group of pedophiles with the promise of easy money. The crime became one of those symbols that captures a moment in the development of a city — in this case, the fact that Toronto’s “main street”, Yonge, had descended into the squalor and vice that seems to be part of becoming a metropolis.

Like Antonio’s family, Emanuel was from the Azores and the Portuguese neighborhood where Antonio lives is both preoccupied and outraged by the crime:

It was the summer that no one slept. During the last sticky week in July, the air abandoned us, failing to stir and stream through our streets and between our crooked alleys. The grass in our lanes stood tall and still, barely rooted to an urban soil of gravel and discarded candy wrappers. The narrow brick row houses that lined Palmerston Avenue and Markham Street — painted electric blue or yellow or lime green — became buffers to the city noise. A persistent hum was all we heard.

I can pinpoint the very moment it all started to change, when the calm broke: when news that twelve-year-old Emanuel Jaques had disappeared spread through our neighborhood in the whispered prayers of women returning from Mass. They gathered along their fences and on their verandas speaking in hushed tones that went silent whenever children drew near. We ignored their anxious looks and their occasional shouts to get home and lock the doors.

Eleven-year-old Antonio and his friends, Manny and Ricky, hang out in the back alleys and garages of Toronto’s Little Portugal and they make a pact to go in search of Emanuel’s killer — a pact that goes nowhere when the shoeshine boy’s body is found four days after his disappearance. But just as the crime became a symbol for the larger city, it develops as an even bigger symbol for this young threesome and their lives.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

The early part of Kicking The Sky features many of the elements (indeed, repeating incidents) from Barnacle Love that attracted me to that collection. De Sa’s portrayal of the ethnic neighborhood is both realistic and evocative. Its isolation from the city around it is offset by a collection of preserved customs: Antonio’s front yard features a crèche where a carefully-painted statue of Christ is ensconced behind plexiglass in an old bathtub stood on end, the men and women of the neighborhood annually butcher a pig in one of the back lane garages (a coming-of-age event for Antonio when he is allowed to participate).

In this novel, however, De Sa soon moves to a much darker side. The threesome of youngsters is one example: Antonio’s family is dysfunctional, Manny steals and sells bikes to get along, Ricky (whose drunken father beats him regularly) earns his money by masturbating adult men who stick their penises through a hole in the wall at the local pool hall.

The story acquires an even more foreboding turn with the arrival of James, a stranger who takes up residence in one of the area garages and befriends the young threesome, turning the garage into a clubhouse. De Sa presages bad news around James — while the author takes some time before revealing he is a rent boy (which creates some disturbing elements given Emanuel’s death), when he does it hardly comes as a surprise.

In another development that tested my patience, Antonio finds an image of Christ in a limpet shell — and the owner of the local corner store decides that the boy has acquired divine powers and has “cured” her of a chronic affliction. Antonio’s father, whose basement excavating business is struggling, turns him into a Lourdes-like attraction. Crowds line up outside the family garage (where Manuel has constructed a stage for the boy) to spend a few seconds in front of him so he can perform healing miracles and they can leave their thanks in a handy tin.

By the halfway point of the novel, De Sa has abandoned his sympathetic portrayal of the neighborhood and its inhabitants and focuses instead on laying on one unlikely dark development after another. I’ve spoiled enough with a couple of examples — rest assured, there are many more.

The end result, for this reader at least, was a very disappointing book. There were enough reminders early on of De Sa’s ability to capture a neighborhood and develop ethnic characters that it brought back fond memories of Barnacle Love — alas, as the author moved into the book they became mere echoes of the previous experience and were replaced by far more disturbing (and less convincing) material.

In summation, if you come across a copy of Barnacle Love, pick it up; the two sets of interlinked stories are both substantial achievements and it is a very good collection. This novel, on the other hand, you can easily give a miss.


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