A literary thriller about the improbable discovery of a manuscript lost at the end of World War II.
Susanna Kessler is mourning the death of her uncle when she discovers, in his home, an old manuscript that appears to be signed by Johann Sebastian Bach. Susanna’s uncle, an American soldier who fought in the second world war, found the document in an old mansion in Weimar and took it with him when he left. Now the manuscript is Susanna’s; enlisting the help of two scholars, Daniel Erhardt and Scott Schiffman, she begins a search to discover the manuscript’s origins and to confirm its authenticity. But this is no simple task. The manuscript consists of an anti-Jewish cantata written by J.S. Bach, a work brimful of hatred, prejudice, and violence. Susanna, Dan, and Scott can’t help wondering if they’d be better off destroying the cantata instead of introducing it to the world. Belfer (A Fierce Radiance, 2010, etc.) skillfully weaves this story together with a much older one: in 1783, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, eldest son of Johann Sebastian, gives the hateful cantata to his beloved music student Sara Itzig, who also happens to be Jewish. Belfer then traces Sara’s ownership of the cantata through the first half of the 19th century and through the various vicissitudes of Sara’s family history. Gradually, these two stories merge to reveal how the manuscript ended up in Susanna’s hands. It’s a remarkably suspenseful story, a literary thriller in the tradition of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Unfortunately, Belfer doesn’t have Byatt’s subtlety or wit. Her characters are flat and two-dimensional despite the personal crises that more than a few of them endure. Dan, for example, can’t reconcile his religious faith with the death of his wife. “How could an all-powerful, all-loving God let Julie die?” he wonders. “He hoped that someday he would come to understand God’s mysterious ways.” Here and elsewhere, Belfer’s prose can be blunt and lifeless. Still, the force of her engrossing story wins out in the end.
A story about art, prejudice, faith, and trauma engrosses but doesn’t fully convince.