Thursday, June 12, 2008

On "The Spanish Bow" by Andromeda Romano-Lax ****

I don't particularly like for people to give me a book when I haven't asked for it or expressed an interest in it, because then I feel obligated to read it, even though I may not have any interest in it. That was certainly the case with this book. But I noticed that it come up on the BookSense list, and I figured that if it's that good, I will have to hang on to it and read it eventually. What I guess seemed off-putting is that it is historical fiction, and I don't read too much of that. The reason is that I'd really generally rather read something written within its time.

But I'm glad that I put off my usual prejudices and dug in, because this book is a treasure in many ways. There's no doubt that it's well written, but it's also philosophical, which is something I haven't seen a lot of in fiction of late--a book that wrestles directly with big questions. The big questions in this book revolve around the relation of art to politics. The book is about a viola player in the early 1900s in Spain. Early on, the musician simply wants to play music, but he finds that difficult to do without being brought into political skirmishes and having to take sides. Later on, he plays politics more than his musician friends do, so his views shift. He even stops playing music because he sees it as an opiate for the masses, much as Marx saw religion. By contrast, a friend of his seemingly lives only for himself and politically seems to take whatever role is needed to forward his career. His answer seems to be to focus on the music alone throughout life--and that in the music itself is whatever political statement you want to make, rather than your actions alongside music.

Although one doesn't necessarily have to play politics very often on a national level, in this country, when doing art or our work, we all--I think--have moments when we're dragged into political skirmishes that we really don't want to be a part of. That is, we just want to do our jobs, work, or whatever. Or go to church. Or learn how to draw. But someone somewhere decides to push a few buttons, make these things into more than they are, and as a result, we can't just do what we want to do. Rather, doing what we want means we have to choose a side, take a stand. No longer is it just a job, but it's a job where we stand for one department against another or for the customer against the boss or for the boss against the customer. The book made me think quite a bit--well, okay, a little bit, since I'm not much on thought these days--about this subject.

The other thing I found interesting in the book was the whole discussion of this early-twentieth-century Spain. I haven't read that much about this period in one European country like this, so it's neat to find out so many things that were going on. The novel is partially based on a couple of real musicians, although they each lived about fifty years earlier, and it's written in the form of an autobiography. Early on I kept wishing that this actually was the autobiography. But I guess it's something that a novel can make me curious enough to actually want to read something nonfiction on the same subject. I've got to give it credit there.

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