‘A Musical Offering’ by Luis Sagasti (Review)

There were several surprising omissions (as well as a few eyebrow-raising inclusions…) from this year’s International Booker Prize longlist, but when possible contenders were being bandied around online prior to the announcement, one book cropped up repeatedly, one I (unfortunately) hadn’t read.  In many ways, it was perhaps the biggest oversight, especially given its hybrid nature and the judges’ obvious liking for books that push the boundaries of what fiction should be, so I thought it might be a good idea to give it a go, and see whether the judges or the online community had it right.  The result?  Well, I think you probably know the answer to that already, but please read along, and I’ll deliver the final verdict at the end of the review 😉

Argentinian writer Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering (translated by Fionn Petch, review copy courtesy of Charco Press) certainly wouldn’t have looked out of place on this year’s idiosyncratic IBP longlist.  Like his earlier book Fireflies, it’s less a novel than a collection of essays focused rather loosely on a general topic, but where Fireflies had us looking up at the stars and pondering our place in the universe, this latest, well, ‘offering’, pursues a slightly different approach, taking us on a journey around the world to consider the realm of music, and how it affects our lives.

The book consists of six main sections, plus a coda, and most of these are constructed in a similar manner.  After an introduction meant to draw the reader in, they then dart around to many different stories, short anecdotes, often extending to just a paragraph or two.  These passages are rarely the last we hear of any particular theme, though, and as themes and topics reappear time after time, Sagasti stitches his small fragments together to produce a greater whole.

A good example of this approach is the opening section, ‘Lullaby’.  We begin with the story of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with Sagasti painting a picture of the sleepless count, the composer and the harpsichordist who lends his name to the pieces.  Next, we hear about Glenn Gould, and his interpretations of the work, before the writer moves on to The Beatles and the Sgt. Pepper’s… album, finding connections between these two projects.  The idea of the insomniac count links nicely to that of Scheherazade and her nightly stories, and if we’re discussing ways to get to sleep, Brahms’ lullabies seem an obvious addition to the mix – and then Sagasti dips in and out of all the topics, carefully sewing them together to produce thirty pages or so of stories.

Of course, the musical influence isn’t restricted to the content, with Sagasti using repetition and rhythm in his writing.  There’s a discussion of the importance of pauses, even if the count wants Goldberg to avoid them in the transition between the variations, and also an interesting development of the idea of how music’s effect changes over time:

This time Goldberg plays twenty of the variations before the Count drifts off.  He must have been worried about something, he murmurs to the valet.  Vasya shrugs, surprised.  Could it be that music, like all medicines, requires ever-stronger doses to produce the same effect?
‘Lullaby’, p.21 (Charco Press, 2020)

Another prominent theme is the circular nature of both stories and music.  Both are shown as circles enclosing the listener, or reader, in the soothing embrace of art, and this is particularly evident in Scheherazade’s story, when we hear about her meta-fictional piece of the woman condemned to spin tales each night.

These themes are picked up elsewhere in the book.  In ‘Silences’, for example, the focus is very much on the absence of sound in music.  Sagasti introduces John Cage and 4’33”, of course, but there are also anecdotes about other types of silence, such as the quiet at the start of an orchestral performance (best exemplified by an evening where the misunderstanding between a pianist and conductor extends this silence greatly…).  Meanwhile, ‘Sky Ants’ picks up on the idea of circularity with a close look at didgeridoos and circular breathing:

When does a concert performed with this instrument end?
Music is continuous, it is only attention that falters, wrote Thoreau.
‘Sky Ants’, p.86

Another mention of time and music comes with a look at a piece composed for a slow organ recital – scheduled to last six-hundred-and-ninety-three years…

Later in the book, ‘Wars’ sends us off in a slightly different direction, beginning with two concerts blended together, one in besieged Leningrad, the other in end-of-days Berlin, with cyanide capsules handed out at the end.  There’s a suggestion of music as a drug to help us through hard times, and this is further shown in the story of Olivier Messiaen and his unique view of the art:

The synaesthesia was absolute: the music caused him to see colours, and the colours, music.  Those colours spilling out over one frozen night sky mapped out, perhaps in its entirety, one of the greatest compositions of the twentieth century: the Quartet for the End of Time:

‘Wars’, p.73

And where was this masterpiece first performed?  In a POW camp.

However, at this point it’s only fair to offer a word (or two) of warning: caveat lector.  You see, all is most definitely *not* as it seems.  One of the notable features of A Musical Offering is the way the writer enjoys blending the real with the imaginary.  Take ‘The Great Organ of Himmelheim’, a short piece chronicling a crazy baron’s dream of building the world’s largest musical instrument, and the catastrophe that unfolds when his project comes to fruition.  It’s a lovely story, but it’s all made up, never happened, and this makes reading A Musical Offering a fraught exercise in places.  There are shades of Enrique Vila-Matas here (c.f. Bartleby & Co. ), and some readers might scratch their heads while deciding what’s true and what’s invented.

If we look back at the IBP longlist, Sagasti’s work is probably closest in style to Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (which also mentions the Berlin cyanide story) with its mix of fact and fiction, and a veiled approach to its topic.  That being the case, I wonder if this similarity cost Sagasti a chance of being chosen.  It might be the case that Labatut’s more linear approach appealed more to the judges – A Musical Offering is slightly more oblique, its secrets less readily obvious.

My preference, though, would definitely be for this one.  A Musical Offering is a beautiful book that would certainly have graced this year’s longlist, and a work that may well stand up to multiple reads better than many of the books that did make the cut.  The nature of the novel, if that’s what it is, is perhaps best summed up in that final piece, ‘Da Capo’, which does exactly what the name (‘From the Top’) suggests.  These last few pages show us Glenn Gould on tour in Russia, playing the Goldberg Variations, which takes us back to almost where we started.  It’s a fitting end to a circular lullaby for the literary-minded, one I’m sure I’ll take another loop around very soon 🙂

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