Two lonely men meet by chance in a café in Provence. Both brilliant high achievers, now cut off from their professions, they are soon drawn together, one in the role of supportive listener, the other with a compulsive need to tell his tale.
Both are fathers, responsible for daughters at times, but finding great difficulty in getting close to them or understanding them. But it is Martijn van Vliet who is filled with such grief and despair he is driven to tell his tale. Once he begins to tell the story of his daughter Lea’s passion for the violin it comes pouring out of him, as if he needs to release the memories that torment him.
Adrian Herzog, is his patient listener, a widower and former surgeon who handed his scalpel to his colleague as he was about to make the cut. He has lost his nerve and is also beset by feelings of having failed his daughter. Along the way we learn a little about Adrian’s regrets for choices he has not made, but the focus of the narrative is on van Vliet and the story of Lea, his daughter.
Mercier’s writing is as impeccable as ever. Here we experience the moment in a railway station when Lea, eight years old and grieving for her newly-dead mother, hears Bach for the first time. A masked woman in a tricorne hat and padded jacket is playing from a dais raised above the crowd:
…the sounds seemed to come almost from another world and to use her sightless body like a medium. Particularly in slow, lyrical passages, when the instrument barely moved and the arm with the bow slipped only slowly through space. It was a little as if God’s wordless voice were speaking to the breathlessly listening travellers who had set their suitcases, backpacks and bags on the floor beside them, and were absorbing the overwhelming music as a revelation.
From that moment, as her father tells it, Lea is seized by an overwhelming passion and ambition to become a soloist of the highest standing. At first he is relieved her leaden grief has shifted, but he soon becomes perturbed by the obsessive nature of her ambition.
Adrian is deeply sympathetic to the anguish he sees in van Vliet. It is obvious the girl’s life has built to a tragic climax, and like many parents, her father feels he should have been able to prevent this.
The story of Lea and the lengths her father is prepared to go to in her support winds to an unbearable tension, but somehow the narrative structure, where her story is told by a third party, means that we never feel we know Lea, or really sympathise with her. She is always at a distance, and while we feel for her father, she remains a puppet-like figure. Her father describes her hair, her dresses, her post-performance bow, but we never know what makes her tick. And I suppose that is because he never really knows either.
Pascal Mercier is the pen name of the Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri. He has written four novels, three of which have been translated into English. The Night Train to Lisbon, his first book in English was well received and made into a film starring Jeremy Irons. Our favourite, Perlmann’s Silence, which we have reviewed on this blog, came next. It’s a tale about academic plagiarism, among other things (it also describes a wonderful piano performance). Lea, translated by Shaun Whiteside, came out this year.
The book he wrote in 1998 is the one we are really waiting for in English. According to Random House, The Piano Tuner is a mystery where a male opera singer is shot on stage during a performance of Puccini’s Tosca. The children of the murderer, twins Patricia and Patrice, travel to their family home in Berlin to try to understand what could have made their father, a legendary piano tuner and unsuccessful opera composer, resort to this act of violence.
Could be the best yet!