The late Czech novelist, both banned and renowned in his homeland, offers a uniquely compelling blend of parable, fantasy, social realism and testament to the power of storytelling.
Originally issued in 1981 and belatedly translated into English, this novel (by the author of I Served the King of England, 1971, etc.) offers stream-of-consciousness narration by an unnamed woman in her mid-60s who lives with her husband and uncle in a castle that has been converted into an old-age home. Much of what she writes is memory, some is description of her daily activities, much of it might be illusion. Wafting through the air is the romantic, string-laden musical composition that gives the book its title, a timeless reverie that is omnipresent though some may not acknowledge or even hear it. She shares the stories of others, witnesses to a distant past, and she sees what they do: “I saw there what could no longer be seen, but what my friends and I did see, those old witnesses to old times, of which I myself was now one.” Though each chapter is a single paragraph, with some very long sentences, the voice of the narrator is spellbinding, even as the reader becomes less sure of her credibility. Beyond that voice, there isn’t much of a plot except the decline toward death that is everyone’s plot. She tells of her life in “the little town where time stood still,” where her husband ran the brewery and she was the envy of the other women. “Yes, it was a good thing I’d been so proud, that I’d stayed so young and pretty for so long,” she says, leaving the reader to wonder whether it really was a good thing or if she really was as pretty as she remembered. Time really hadn’t stood still: Communism cost her husband the brewery and the two of them their home, amid “huge parades that raise their fist at everything old.” As she reflects, “[w]hat is life? Everything that once was, everything an old person thinks back on and tells you stories about, everything that no longer matters and is gone for good.”
An enchanting novel, full of life, about the end of life.