Monday, 26 September 2011

The Music of Migration

After reviewing my second Arnold Zable book recently, I was very keen to read his latest work, Violin Lessons, and I was lucky enough to receive a review copy from Text Publishing.  Unlike Scraps of Heaven (but similar to Café Scheherazade), Violin Lessons is less of a novel and more of a reworking of fact, a blending of real life events and fiction.

Over close to two-hundred pages, Zable travels around the world, exploring the themes of music, migration, suffering and hope, uncovering incredible stories in unlikely places.  In each section, the writer takes elements from stories he has been told and weaves them into a brief, poignant tale, one part of the tapestry of words culminating with the tragic, yet exultant, finale of the fate of Amal Basry and the SIEVX, a boat carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia.  From Carlton to Baghdad, Saigon to Berlin, Ithaca to Warsaw, we learn of the repeated fate of the displaced and the strength they show in moving on.

Violin Lessons, while consisting of stories, is also about stories, and the importance of telling them and keeping them alive.  Zable has a unique style of writing, episodic and circular, darting off on tangents and giving the reader time to digest what is being said before moving on.  He also has a habit of slipping out of the role of narrator, leaving the story to its owner through the liberal use of direct speech.  Each character has their own recognisable style of telling their story, from Amal Basry's repeated claims that she has been spared to tell the tale, or Phillip Maisel's constant remarks to the listener, telling them that the next part is interesting or important.  In effect, Zable is letting the affected speak, giving them a voice - and an opportunity to have their story heard.

A theme running through most of the tales is war and the effect it has on ordinary people.  The author's background seems to compel him to seek out people who have been affected by the past, not only in his ancestral homelands in Eastern Poland and Lithuania, but also in South-East Asia and the Middle East.  While the details may vary, there are several chilling similarities: the repeated ghettoisation of minorities, whether it be in Venice or Woomera; the inability of many sufferers to exorcise the ghosts of the past; and the difficulty of forgetting about a place you once called home.  As Andrei, a Pole in exile on a visit home says:
"Words conceal more than they reveal... They cannot convey how I longed to get away, yet how, within days of leaving I long to return - the curse of nostalgia." p.74, (Text Publishing, 2011)
However, the further you get into the book, the more you realise that it is just as much about the writer as it is about the people he interviews.  Zable paints himself as a restless wanderer, never satisfied, always needing to penetrate to the source of a story in an attempt to find out one thing: why?  His travels to various conflict-ridden countries are both an attempt to understand the past and to return to his roots, to uncover more about his family and himself.  In a book like this one, it is apt that one of the chapters centres on the Greek island of Ithaca, home of another famous wanderer...

The other major issue the reader must confront when reading Violin Lessons is to understand just what it is they are reading.  The collection reads, at times, like a work of fiction, a series of loosely-connected stories, yet they are all based on true stories and interviews Zable has had with the protagonists.  Just when you have adapted to the idea of a work of non-fiction though, you see the author's notes at the end of the book, where he explains how he has, in some cases, combined several characters and events into one composite story.

So which is it, fiction or non-fiction?  And does it actually matter?  Perhaps the binary split is a misleading one anyway.  Stories have their own weight, their own momentum, and it is the essence, the core of the story that is vital.  The important question is whether we can trust the writer to keep the essential information while adapting certain elements of the tales to enable readers to get to the core truth more easily.  It's a matter of trust, and a decision each reader must make for themself - having read several of Zable's books now (and read up a little on his literary and journalistic background), I am willing to suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be drawn into the stories without any feelings of suspicion.

Violin Lessons is a wonderful book, a series of vignettes, each of which is fascinating and thought-provoking in its own right.  Together though, they build up to a fitting climax, The Ancient Mariner, the story of Amal Basry and the sinking of the SIEVX.  It is clear that this is the story closest to Zable's heart, and one he is determined to get right.  He promises Amal that he will tell her story:
"Yet each time I sit down to write, anxiety rises for fear I will not do the story justice, will not find the words that convey the terror and beauty of Amal's telling, the fire in her eyes, the look of incredulity and wonder she retained..." p.146-7  
Now more than ever, in a time when the Prime Minister is attempting to make deals to avoid having to handle the messy problem of boats arriving on Australia's shores, it is important to hear stories like these, stories which help us to remember the past and avoid repeating our mistakes in the future.  As for the writer's fears above... I, for one, am sure that Amal would be very happy indeed with the way Zable brought her story - and the way she told it - to life.