Forced by the SS to give concerts at the camps, a violinist agonizes: Can music really tame the savage beast? Or, more to the point, revive the living dead?
Gottfried Keller is wracked with doubts. Will playing for walking skeletons ease or mock their suffering? Is he helping them or only saving his skin? Co-founder of the Emerson String Quartet, Drucker debuts with a novel loosely based on his father’s life. Here’s moral dilemma writ large. Sprung from a hospital where he’d distracted Werhmacht casualties, Keller confronts a Kommandant who, looking up from his Goethe, shanghais the fiddler into a scientific experiment. The Reich’s Social Darwinists want to see how music affects their victims. And not any music, but Bach, Beethoven and especially those composers deemed by the Fuhrer degenerate—Bartok, Hindemith, Berg. Already guilty of cowardice for abandoning his Jewish lover when she’d fled to Palestine, Keller is gripped in his prison bunk by nightmares and feels guilty, too, for befriending Rudi, a guard cultured enough to tell a fugue from a partita, but still a monster. At first, Keller’s audience of the doomed seems deaf to his virtuosic bow-work; they’re slapped, then, into applause by the Kommandant. In time, they begin to respond—one prisoner damning Keller for coming, with memory and magic, into their hell-hole, another begging him to stay. Mainly, however, horrifically they moan, a chorus of longing, rage, despair. And, as the funeral march drags on, Keller must contend with the Kommandant’s taunting accusation: Isn’t the violinist complicit in torture, isn’t he a demon Orpheus secretly enthralled by his own power?
Bitter, beautiful, profound—like Mahler in its intensity.