Sunday, June 06, 2010

Canone Inverso

I learned about Canone Inverso, a novel by Paolo Maurensig, from Maria Grazia at Fly High when she reviewed the movie version that is loosely based on the novel. I read about the book on Amazon and promptly added it to my TBR list for this summer. A business trip last week that involved three lengthy flights provided the reading time for me to dive into this marvelous book. It's a quick read, with beautiful prose translated from Italian to English by Jenny McPhee, and a puzzling, compelling story.

The story is told in layers, by multiple first person narrators, and it loops back on itself, so that even after you read the last sentence you have to recreate the voices to determine whose story you are ultimately hearing. I loved it!

Here's the premise, the narrator tells of purchasing a unique violin at auction and then being accosted by a man who wants to buy it from him because he had heard of it from an itinerant musician, Jeno Varga, who told him his life story, which included a detailed description of the violin and how it was the key to his patrimony. That's the premise, and while Canone Inverso is about self knowledge and what goes into determining who one is, it is also about love and empathy and courage in the face of bureaucracy and a stifling society.

The story of Canone Inverso reads like a modern fable, with Jeno Varga telling the story of his boyhood during the 1930s in eastern Europe. The oppression that Jeno feels in his life as he works to live the life of a gifted artist parallels the rise of fascism that ultimately swallows him whole.

It was interesting reading this story during the time when I was finishing listening to Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, which is also the story of an essentially fatherless boy who only wants to live the life of a artist but who is crushed, spindled, and mutilated by the twentieth century.

I mentioned the beautiful prose of Canone Inverso, and my paperback copy has plenty of earmarked pages. Here are some of the passages that struck me:

A violinist who plays in an orchestra is marked by the instrument that has lorded over him for a lifetime. And with age, the traces of this servitude become increasingly evident...

In describing his first violin instructor, Jeno Varga says,
His sole concern was to raise me in service of the instrument. He treated me like one of those plants that have to be tied to a stake so that as they grow their form becomes beautiful but unnatural. The violin was being grafted onto me in order for it to take root. I too had to merge with it and feel my veins and my nerves infuse its hard wood.

In describing Sophie Hirschbaum, the violinist that Jeno encounters first as an adolescent and whom he searches for throughout his life, he says,
...I was particularly fascinated by her mouth, which suggested something rather painful, like a queen's suspicion that she is actually of plebeian birth.

In describing his relationship to a fellow student at the Collegium Musicum, the militaristic music school he attends and who is a sometime kindred spirit but mostly a rival, Jeno says,
"...our friendship, which had risen to its supreme fulfillment in an original burst of mutual genius, had already...begun its descent, its countdown, or, to use a musical term, its canone inverso.

This might be my favorite line from the book, again from Jeno,
It is ridiculous to talk about what could have been, when we know that life has only a single path--that which we have chosen.

The last two quotes encapsulate the mood and theme of the novel beautifully for me--they are sobering, they are fatalistic, they are elegiac. Thanks, Maria, for writing about the movie and inspiring me to read the novel--it was wonderful!


  1. You are welcome, Jane! So glad you liked this marvelous story. And thanks to you for this great review full of precious quotes.

  2. This book sounds lovely. I hadn't heard of it before. Thanks for the great review.