The Cello Player, by Michael Kruger, translated from the German by Andrew Shields. Harcourt. 200 pages. $23.
This is a devilishly clever novel about politics, art and varieties of failure. First it makes you think you're in an absurdist comedy, then in a satire of modern business and aesthetics. Just when you're thinking you've got the tone (disgust aiming for cynical detachment) and the theme (the difficulty of pursuing art in a climate of venal ambition and shallow ideals), it dives into a black regress to Stalinist Russia, takes a stylistic respite in sensitive evocations of landscape and ends where it began, in a Hungarian cemetery with an unstable tone of tragicomedy.
The narrator of The Cello Player is a middle-aged German composer of avant-garde music. He appears to be somewhat famous but consigned by critics to the fringes of importance. Their bloviations about "music and society" make him furious.
After a performance of his string quartet with texts by poet Anna Akhmatova, a radio panel decides he is "old-fashioned, if not reactionary." He feels himself vanishing into "a murk, which was only occasionally penetrated by such concepts as 'musical fascism' and 'stale musical rhetoric'; the rest was society."
Our composer just wants to be left alone to read in his apartment and begin work on an opera about Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet who died in one of Stalin's gulags.
One day, a young Hungarian cello player named Judit shows up on his doorstep and promptly moves in. She is the daughter of a Budapest singer named Maria, with whom the composer had a passionate affair 20 years earlier. She disturbs his misanthropic habits, but he seems unable to get rid of her. Is she his daughter? Has she been sent by Maria to -- what? -- remind him, torture him, punish him? He and Judit repair to his house in southern France and settle into a domestic routine that feels decidedly un-reassuring. She rearranges the house, he works in the garden, they adopt animals. But the atmosphere is tense, fraught with suspicions, tantrums, evasions. In a cold reckoning of his life, he writes his own obituary.
He does, however, manage to begin his opera. This juggling of two radically different levels of reality becomes rather awkward. Why does Judit become paranoid and have a nervous breakdown? Is it her funeral the composer attends in the first and last chapters? Perhaps he has been looking at a tragedy all along, a girl falling apart in front of him, without seeing anything but his own malaise as a man and a musician.
The most absorbing parts of The Cello Player, in which satire and pathos mingle without false notes, are the flashback chapters where the composer recalls his visits to Poland and Hungary, then still in the Eastern Bloc. There, amid spies, informers and pedantic Marxists, he finds some real music and the love of his life. He never admits it, but he might never have been happier.
Brigitte Frase is a reviewer and contributing editor to the journals Speakeasy and Ruminator Review. This review, in longer form, first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.