- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

UNCLE RUDOLF

By Paul Bailey

St. Martin’s, $21.95, 183 pages

REVIEWED BY MERLE RUBIN

On a snowy February night in 1937, a seven-year-old boy and his father leave the small town in Romania where they live. The child has been told he will be going to England to spend some time with his father’s brother, Uncle Rudolf. He does not yet realize, as he later will, that this part of his life has already ended or that he will never see his parents again.

Safe in his uncle’s care, Andrei Petrescu becomes Andrew Peterson, learning a new language and a new way of life, and quite a luxurious one at that. Rudolf Peterson is an internationally famed lyric tenor who stars in light operettas. He has a beautiful home and a small but devoted staff composed of a housekeeper, an accountant, and a chauffeur.

His handsome face, excellent physique, and extraordinary singing voice have made him quite a heartthrob with the ladies in his audiences, some of whom are given to sending him mash notes accompanied by their undergarments, much to his dismayed amusement.

To his nephew, he is an inexhaustible wellspring of attention, kindness, sympathy, and security. Young Andrew leads what is in many ways a charmed life with his charmingly urbane uncle, who manages to fulfill the roles of father, mother, teacher, and companion.

But sometimes at night, in dreams, Andrew becomes Andrei again: not the happy Andrei enjoying cabbage soup with his parents, but a lost, frightened Andrei searching for them in vain.

Only when Andrew turns 18 does Uncle Rudolf feel he is old enough to be told what happened to the quiet, thoughtful man who was his father and the beautiful, devoutly Christian woman, half-Jewish by birth, who was his mother — two people who, like millions more, were the victims of deep-seated anti-Semitism, rabid nationalism, and a pathological obsession with racial purity.

There is a sadness too, an underlying melancholy, in Uncle Rudolf, which has something to do with his feeling that he has squandered his exceptional musical gifts on the kitschy operettas that he despises, when he should have pursued a career in opera.

As a young man, he studied with the great Polish tenor Jean de Reszke, who had high hopes for him. Rudolf understands full well the difference between the truly great, exalted music of Handel, Gluck, Mozart, Schubert, Verdi, Puccini, and the frothy, trivial stuff which has proved so lucrative for him to perform:

“The music he sang deals only fleetingly with sorrow, but sorrow was my uncle’s essence, and it encompassed more than his own fierce melancholy, as I came to understand. To begin with, I noticed that sorrow only in glimpses. I would enter a room … and he would be unaware of my silent presence. He was often staring ahead of him, contemplating something painful, I guessed, to judge by the look of blankness on his normally lively features.

“Then, seeing me, he would lose the discontented expression in an instant and start chatting to his beloved nephew of everyday concerns, such as the surprise dish he had asked Annie to prepare for supper. With Andrew to entertain and interest, it seemed, there was no call for sadness.

“The voice you can hear today on the Golden Age label gives just a hint of what he was about. It is bright and confident, as befits a reckless vagabond; a prince who believes he is a simple gypsy fiddler; a champagne-guzzling gambler who plays roulette with no thought of a ruinous tomorrow. These were the kind of improbable men Uncle Rudolf impersonated, giving them — for as long as he could bear to — angelic expression.

“But the angel wanted to sing of other matters; of other, more serious, concerns, and he had already left it too late to do so by the time I arrived in his life.”

Sadder still, Uncle Rudolf comes to see these silly, crowd-pleasing operettas as part of the culture that gave rise to the Holocaust: a culture in which ugly feelings of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia are sugarcoated in a cloying sentimentality that is lethally simplistic, dishonest, and evasive of reality.

Andrew is not sure whether or not Rudolf is right in seeing this link, but he certainly understands his uncle’s dismay at the vacuity of songs like this one:

“I was a pirate, but now I’m a king,

My ship has come to port —

It’s of freedom and peace and love I sing

As I go to greet my court

Melina will be my dearest wife

And I her carefree spouse —

The Balkanian throne will be ours for life

In that happiest royal house.

Hurrah for Melina, hurrah for me

The one-time King of the Sea!”

One of Rudolf’s many legacies to his beloved nephew is an appreciation for the great music that deepens our perception of reality. And, although he may have lost the opportunity to serve this ideal in his professional career, in his personal life he more than fulfills the role of parent, friend, and protector to Andrew.

Indeed, the relationship between uncle and nephew is so symbiotic that Andrew feels very little wish to strike out on his own when he comes of age, even though Rudolf encourages him to do so.

It becomes clear to Andrew, even after he has married and fathered a child of his own, that his relationship with his uncle has been the central one in his life.

Andrew Peterson is 70 years old when we first hear his voice in the opening pages of this novel, and the story he tells weaves back and forth in time, enhanced and subtly modulated by the chiaroscuro of retrospection. The clarity of exposition and the ease with which the narrative flows are no accidents, but results of consummate craftsmanship and artistic tact.

“Uncle Rudolf” is the ninth novel by a British writer who has distinguished himself for his ability to handle difficult subjects with sensitivity and restraint.

It is a lovely book: delicate, yet powerful, somber and cheerful by turns, beautifully written, and deeply affecting. Andrew and his uncle are characters with the breath of life in them who will linger on in the reader’s imagination long after he or she has closed the book.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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