The Music of Migration

After reviewing my second Arnold Zable book recently, I was very keen to read his latest work, Violin Lessons, and I was lucky enough to receive a review copy from Text Publishing.  Unlike Scraps of Heaven (but similar to Café Scheherazade), Violin Lessons is less of a novel and more of a reworking of fact, a blending of real life events and fiction.

Over close to two-hundred pages, Zable travels around the world, exploring the themes of music, migration, suffering and hope, uncovering incredible stories in unlikely places.  In each section, the writer takes elements from stories he has been told and weaves them into a brief, poignant tale, one part of the tapestry of words culminating with the tragic, yet exultant, finale of the fate of Amal Basry and the SIEVX, a boat carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia.  From Carlton to Baghdad, Saigon to Berlin, Ithaca to Warsaw, we learn of the repeated fate of the displaced and the strength they show in moving on.

Violin Lessons, while consisting of stories, is also about stories, and the importance of telling them and keeping them alive.  Zable has a unique style of writing, episodic and circular, darting off on tangents and giving the reader time to digest what is being said before moving on.  He also has a habit of slipping out of the role of narrator, leaving the story to its owner through the liberal use of direct speech.  Each character has their own recognisable style of telling their story, from Amal Basry’s repeated claims that she has been spared to tell the tale, or Phillip Maisel’s constant remarks to the listener, telling them that the next part is interesting or important.  In effect, Zable is letting the affected speak, giving them a voice – and an opportunity to have their story heard.

A theme running through most of the tales is war and the effect it has on ordinary people.  The author’s background seems to compel him to seek out people who have been affected by the past, not only in his ancestral homelands in Eastern Poland and Lithuania, but also in South-East Asia and the Middle East.  While the details may vary, there are several chilling similarities: the repeated ghettoisation of minorities, whether it be in Venice or Woomera; the inability of many sufferers to exorcise the ghosts of the past; and the difficulty of forgetting about a place you once called home.  As Andrei, a Pole in exile on a visit home says:

“Words conceal more than they reveal… They cannot convey how I longed to get away, yet how, within days of leaving I long to return – the curse of nostalgia.” p.74, (Text Publishing, 2011)

However, the further you get into the book, the more you realise that it is just as much about the writer as it is about the people he interviews.  Zable paints himself as a restless wanderer, never satisfied, always needing to penetrate to the source of a story in an attempt to find out one thing: why?  His travels to various conflict-ridden countries are both an attempt to understand the past and to return to his roots, to uncover more about his family and himself.  In a book like this one, it is apt that one of the chapters centres on the Greek island of Ithaca, home of another famous wanderer…

The other major issue the reader must confront when reading Violin Lessons is to understand just what it is they are reading.  The collection reads, at times, like a work of fiction, a series of loosely-connected stories, yet they are all based on true stories and interviews Zable has had with the protagonists.  Just when you have adapted to the idea of a work of non-fiction though, you see the author’s notes at the end of the book, where he explains how he has, in some cases, combined several characters and events into one composite story.

So which is it, fiction or non-fiction?  And does it actually matter?  Perhaps the binary split is a misleading one anyway.  Stories have their own weight, their own momentum, and it is the essence, the core of the story that is vital.  The important question is whether we can trust the writer to keep the essential information while adapting certain elements of the tales to enable readers to get to the core truth more easily.  It’s a matter of trust, and a decision each reader must make for themself – having read several of Zable’s books now (and read up a little on his literary and journalistic background), I am willing to suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be drawn into the stories without any feelings of suspicion.

Violin Lessons is a wonderful book, a series of vignettes, each of which is fascinating and thought-provoking in its own right.  Together though, they build up to a fitting climax, The Ancient Mariner, the story of Amal Basry and the sinking of the SIEVX.  It is clear that this is the story closest to Zable’s heart, and one he is determined to get right.  He promises Amal that he will tell her story:

“Yet each time I sit down to write, anxiety rises for fear I will not do the story justice, will not find the words that convey the terror and beauty of Amal’s telling, the fire in her eyes, the look of incredulity and wonder she retained…” p.146-7  

Now more than ever, in a time when the Prime Minister is attempting to make deals to avoid having to handle the messy problem of boats arriving on Australia’s shores, it is important to hear stories like these, stories which help us to remember the past and avoid repeating our mistakes in the future.  As for the writer’s fears above… I, for one, am sure that Amal would be very happy indeed with the way Zable brought her story – and the way she told it – to life.


10 thoughts on “The Music of Migration

  1. As I commented last time, I went and saw him at MWF and he talked at length about this book and about Amal!

    I totally agree with your summation. It is important that people realise where not only the immigrants are coming from but where they came from in the first place. It is all too easy to forget after a couple of generations.


  2. ThIs is an author I was unaware of before your posts & this sounds like one of those books described by Capote as faction, the blending of Fact & Fiction & as such resonates as a kind of witness testimony especially as you say It's as if the writer steps back & allows the character to speak. This has me intrigued, thanks.

    Names Vanished From The Map – Ling Yu

    Mount Peng

    It is still a long way to Mount Peng
    Dreams walk on the ground, beneath clusters of windows
    they flee

    Huge volumes of refugees surge onto Mount Peng. In late autumn
    blue-colored birds are hunted
    mounted on sheet iron
    on a section of trunk taken from a sapling
    a – its two young footprint
    have left imprints on his chest – and
    a length of flame as swift as a foal

    Blue-colored bird, its feathers are the first to die
    and then its two eyes and then its speech
    From a chilly ferry, Mount Peng
    is not far
    People intent on their journeys take over every
    winter nest. So goes
    the dream. Dreaming that the blue-colored bird
    spreads its wings and flies away from the woods and even looks back
    and speaks to the dream

    (Translation: Andrea Lingenfelter)


  3. Marg – I wish I'd been there 😦 I think it's the Amal story which lifts this collection. He's discussed the Jewish experience many times before, but this time he has expanded this to take a more universal approach, one which works wonders.

    Gary – I'm one of the few who have never read 'In Cold Blood', but after reading this, I'm more willing to give it a go 🙂

    As for the poem… I'll have to give that one a lot more thought 😉

    Violet – Yes, defintitely one for you (although there may be some things which make you angry…).


  4. Oh, I thought I commented here when you wrote the review. Oh well, I'm commenting now. As I think you know, I also like Zable so have this one in my sights. Love his values and the immigrant stories he tells.


  5. Gary – No worries 🙂

    Caroline – I'm not sure this is available outside Oz, but you never know 😉

    whisperingums – I chose this as my suggestion as it was one I thought more people should know about 🙂

    And I'm still from Oz, not the US 😉


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