cover image Canone Inverso

Canone Inverso

Paolo Maurensig. Henry Holt & Company, $21 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-5538-2

As he did so effectively in The Luneburg Variations, Maurensig uses the device of a narrator who opens the novel and immediately gives way to another narrator, who spins a convoluted story within a story, leading to a surprising denouement. Again the time frame is the 1930s and '40s in Hungary and Germany; and though the words Nazi and Holocaust are never mentioned, the cataclysm to come is the subtext in a mesmerizing narrative. A mysterious stranger in contemporary London tells a man who has bought a rare 17th-century violin about the instrument's former owner, Jeno Varga, a brilliant Hungarian musician. In 1932, with his unknown father's violin his only legacy, Varga surmounts his illegitimate birth to win acceptance to the Collegium Musicum, a highly competitive music school outside Vienna. The Collegium is a Kafka-esque institution: the students are treated as prisoners subject to military discipline; they are systematically humiliated and subjected to mental torment. At the top of his class, Jeno finally feels fulfilled when the equally talented and charismatic Kuno Blau becomes his best friend and, in many ways, his doppelganger. When Kuno invites Jeno to stay at the family castle near Innsbruck, however, Jeno is subjected to a nightmare of intimidation and derision. His friendship with Kuno diminishes into a frightening reversal of itself, a canone inverso. It is obvious to the reader, though not to Jeno, that the outside world is descending into its own spiritual death. The complex fugal themes of Maurensig's plot touch on such questions as the essence of musical genius (""The true musician is a descendant of Cain""), the search for immortality in artistic creation and the growth of evil beneath the carapace of respectability. Some of the narrative is heavy going, as Maurensig's ponderous symbolism and metaphysical exploration threaten to overwhelm the plot. The shocking ending brings everything into focus, however, and renders this novel a tour de force. Editor, Signe Rossback; agent, Arnoldo Mondadori. (Nov.) FYI: Owl Books will simultaneously reissue The Luneburg Variations in paperback .