- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

A man known only as Gyorgy, the narrator of Michael Kruger’s odd, compelling tale of romance, music and the bleak horizons of Eastern Europe during the Cold War, is bedeviled late in life by two women he loved and lost. Maria, the first, is a Hungarian singer the German composer met during a music festival in 1960s Budapest where she performed songs he had composed. The second, Judit, her daughter, appeared on the doorstep of his Munich apartment some 20 years later.

Gyorgy begins his story as a way of coming to terms with the fraught circumstances brought on by Judit’s sudden arrival. From that moment, the successful man who had made a name for himself writing popular music for a TV detective series becomes troubled by the young woman’s tantrums and demands even as they quickly become lovers. He is also plagued by some profoundly troubling questions: Why was Judit sent to him by Maria? And, more vexing still, is she his daughter? As Gyorgy notes, “to unlock the secret, I had to recall the whole story again, day by day. There had to be a key.”

However, in “The Cello Player,” Gyorgy never seems to find the so-called key and neither question is ever fully answered, but the charm of this book may reside in its ambiguities. More than a story of domestic intrigue and disappointment, Mr. Kruger has crafted an allegory of the ravages of Eastern Europe after WWII. The poems of Osip Mandelstam, for which the commercially successful Gyorgy wishes to write an opera, reveal postwar suffering even as they reveal the narrator’s inner turmoil.

Gyorgy takes comfort from the Mandelstam poems and to some extent identifies with the beleaguered poet who was one of Stalin’s victims. Gyorgy makes headway on his opera but he remains a brooding man “overcome by the demon of failure.” He is grouchy and feisty and more than capable of seeing the limits of just about everything and everyone around him. In the petty post-war world in which he has come of age, the arts have become ideological battlegrounds with Marxist intellectuals facing off against aestheticians from other quarters, all using arid theories. But Gyorgy is determined not to falter:

“What would actually happen if my generation were to stop composing? The world would certainly be the poorer for it. A lament would strike up a demanding cry: Do not give up, keep going, we need new music like the air we breathe. Even if you think that every last conceivable variation has been run through, at least virtually, there is still a lot to do! There is progress of sorts, even in music that emerges from the material as an imperative. After constructive composing, there is deconstructive composing, so you can still be productive by following the path back to the beginning.”

The book, however, is less a polemic than a quirky, cynical, often humorous puzzle. Radiating the playfulness of Vladimir Nabokov and the skepticism of Milan Kundera, the book builds on words that dart and twist with irony and sly meaning. Ruminating on the books with which he has surrounded himself he notes: “How often I had resolved to give them some semblance of order. Music books in the music room, German literature in the bedroom, Latin classics in the bay window, history in the hallway, poetry in the walk-in pantry …”

This is a learned book that overflows with trenchant observations. Mr. Kruger, a writer and critic best known in his native Germany as a successsful publisher, handles his subject deftly. The book has it share of surprises, but the overall tone is understated and wry.

When Judit arrives, Gyorgy is at the top of his game, holding out for the opera that will make it possible for him to be taken seriously. Always determined to make a place for himself in serious modern music (thus, his tireless attendance at musical festivals across the Eastern bloc), everything is put on hold when Judit appears. And after a few days, despite her mother’s claim to the contrary, “it was clear that she hadn’t been sent to improve her cello playing.” Then again, why was she there?

Gyorgy has little time to work this out because before very long Judit has filled the apartment they now share with relatives invited to celebrate her 20th birthday. There is eccentric Uncle Sandor (“he was a giant, a monster with a gnome’s long beard”), Maria, now old and no longer attractive to Gyorgy, two children whose parents have mysteriously made themselves scarce and various friends. Gyorgy is severely put upon. Instead of being able to write the opera that will redeem and secure his reputation, he finds himself “providing accommodations for three generations of Hungarians in my apartment, where I was still tolerated, albeit with a limited residence permit.”

Even more damaging is the revelation that Maria had been a member of the party, “something she always denied, and she had been a member when we met. Hence the police had known about her love affair with me from the start.”

Before very long, Judit and Gyorgy head out for the composer’s house in southern France where he hopes for some solitude and reconciliation, but Judit has other things in store for him.

Politics plays an important part in the novel as do secrecy and clashes of national pride. Germans do not fare so well, but Hungarians do. Always it is the music that prevails even when the blending of avant-garde music and socialist ideology threatens it or when the ever vigilant GDR seems to be stealthily listening. For Gyorgy, only in the Hungary he visited as a young man did things seem unencumbered:

“The conspirators were missing, as were the commissars, so the shrillness of argument vanished and our meetings often seemed more like rehearsals. We were rehearsing our lives. In these performances, the French played the educated scoundrels and the Germans the revolutionary fools, while the rest had to make do with roles as extras. The Hungarians made music.”

There is a lot of narrative back and forthing here, which can make for difficult reading, and the unresolved issues can be a maddening challenge but Mr. Kruger leavens his tale with enough witty and amusing observations to keep the reader engaged. His selections from Mandelstam’s poetry heighten Gyorgy’s dilemma while anchoring it:

I go out from space

into the overgrown garden of multitudes,

and pluck false constancy

and self-consciousness of causality.

In solitude,

I read your texts, infinity:

a wild leafless book of healing,

a book of problems with huge roots.

THE CELLO PLAYER

By Michael Kruger

Translated from the German by Andrew Shields

Harcourt, $23, 200 pages

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