By Eva Hoffman
Other Press, $25, 272 pages
Reviewed by Claire Hopley
In the Westernized world, many people lead nice lives, and most of those who don’t labor in the faith that they can get a nice life if they try. Immersed in the acquisition and enjoyment of the pleasures of homes, families, work, art and entertainment, most people, therefore, ignore the killings, torture, terrorism and gangster politics shown every day on television.
Perhaps “ignore” is the wrong word. Typically, what we do is corral the terrible into some patch of the consciousness where it grazes quietly, and we can peek at it just now and then to check that it’s not getting out of hand. This is not entirely a bad thing. It would be incapacitating not to sideline some things in order to concentrate on others - especially on getting or enjoying that nice life. Yet corrals deteriorate, and their inhabitants slink out. Moreover, terrors from afar launch themselves into our world. Nice lives are regularly undermined, poisoned, bombed to smithereens, as Isabel Merton discovers in Eva Hoffman’s latest novel “Appassionata.”
Isabel has a very nice life indeed. As a concert pianist, her mind and her fingers are ever engaged in music and its ineffable beauties. At the beginning of “Appassionata,” she is on her way to Europe, where she will stay in elegant hotels, give recitals in famous concert halls, receive plaudits for her playing and meet with fans and friends - and through them meet Anzor Izlikhanov, a representative of the Chechen government.
As Anzor listens to her play, he is thinking: “Sublime, yes, the fire, the passion/ the head thrown back/ why does she speak as if to me, it enters, the music, the melancholy/who is she, beautiful woman, no, not for you/ she would disdain me, they all do. I see it, their condescension, their tight-lipped smiles/ let me not forget/ mad Chechen, mad country … my country,/ it pierces she pierces / my country destroyed, the bastards, the thugs/ I hate them it grows in me, it will burn me, let it burn!”
Actually, he is wrong. Isabel, who has just left her partner Peter, is attracted to him. Their affair develops in the European capitals where she plays and he confers with fellow Chechens. As he explains the history of Chechnya and the traumas suffered by his compatriots through years of Russian domination, she sees more and more that her art - and her nice life - have insulated her from the realities of much of the world - from deportation, war, torture and domination.
Shortly after Anzor responds to orders to return to Chechnya, the lobby of the concert hall where she is playing is bombed, and she knows she is being warned to back off. Anzor’s bosses want no personal relationships to deter him from the front lines, where his hatred for the enemy can be unleashed without restraints.
Isabel is traumatized by the bombing. She can’t play. She can’t talk to her friends. She can’t settle anywhere. All she can do is think about the people who are blown up or immiserated as men like Anzor act out a rage that they validate by political or religious beliefs that bestride the world “like ancient beasts, like clumsy mastodons.” She begins to see the world as uncomplicated: “Killing the enemy: it’s a very old business, the oldest profession. We’re in the business of life and death, she thinks; we’ve always been in it, and it is such a finite proposition. You live once, you die once. Amid collective carnage, that at least is a consolation.”
In the grasp of such new insights, Isabel is immobilized. She heals only gradually, aided in part by her reading of the journals of her old music teacher, who had struggled with the task of composing music for the modern world. One of the skills Ms. Hoffman brings to this novel is the ability to describe music and its effect.
Writing about music and musicians is difficult because both language and music are based on logical structures of sound but create their meanings very differently. Isabel, in effect, has to accommodate the meanings of music to the meanings of language - those very meanings that lead to the mastodon beliefs that fuel so much of the mayhem in the world.
For this to be clear to readers, Ms. Hoffman has to take readers into Isabel’s head as she plays the piano, listens to music on the radio, thinks about her earliest lessons, and reads the commentary of her old teacher. She is never less than convincing. The conclusion to “Appassionata” is especially rewarding because Ms. Hoffman has looked seriously at the idea that music - or any art - is an indulgence.
Equally, she has taken on those who claim that war and terror can be justified by revenge or even by fairness. Her book is, thus, a long and fruitful meditation on the conflict between peace and war, hatred and life. As she suggests in the early pages, we must make compacts.
Isabel’s law professor partner tells a student, “The idea of contracts enters human relations as soon as we differentiate ourselves from the primal horde. As soon as we notice that others don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. That they can grab something away from us. Unless we make a compact.”
Most appealing in a novel that traces its characters’ thoughts, Ms. Hoffman does so without bleeding them of personality, of life. Readers come away from “Appassionata” with a real sense of both Isabel as a concert pianist and Anzor as a rebel - indeed, as a terrorist. Secondary characters such as Peter or the enigmatic functionaries McElvoy and Katrina are equally convincing. “Appassionata” is a serious pleasure, a meditation on character, society, the world and beauty.
Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.