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Symphony in Blue

Declan O’Driscoll

Virtuoso, by Yelena Moskovich, Serpent’s Tale, 256 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1788160254

Meeting someone means there has to be a parting, be it temporary or permanent, expected or unexpected, distressing or welcome. Before the meeting, there must have been a connection. A connection eagerly sought or brought about by circumstances. Both types of connection are a major feature of Yelena Moskovich’s second novel, Virtuoso. The wish to be with someone else – to seek love or freedom through them – is central to her multi-stranded, chimerical novel.

But here, in the opening pages – in the opening sentence – a departure precedes any connection. “Face down on the hotel linen, the body.” We are as confused as those in the hotel room. There’s mention of “her wife”, so we establish that there are two women – one dying or dead – the other in shock. Paramedics. Hotel staff. Fear. A defibrillator. Blue foam. “There is extra weight within the room, like a movement finishing itself.” It will be some time before we find out about the first meeting that led, eventually, to that tragic scene but because she signs her name on an official form we do know that the newly bereaved woman’s name is Aimée de Saint-Pé. Before then, other personal connections must be established. Many other connections. And in a novel which regularly changes narrator, perspective and time, we too must establish connections.

We meet Jana recounting the turmoil of Czechoslovakia in 1968 – a little before she was born – when students were so appalled by the forced ending of the Prague Spring that they were willing to set themselves on fire. First, Jan Palach and then Jan Zajíc killed themselves by self-immolation. Zajíc left a heartbreaking letter for his parents which explained why he felt he had to take such action and ended with him asking that they: “Say hi to the boys, the river and the forest.” For Jana, the boy’s self-sacrifice is both alarming and fascinating. “I thought often about this act, so unusual, so special. I kept trying to decide if it’s something I would like to do or would like to reserve for a very special occasion.”

As a young girl, she wanted her life to change. There was too much anxiety evident in those around her. Conversations between mothers took the form of coded phrases. If only something would occur that might elicit a reaction, even a scream. “Once I was bored, I mean so bored I felt like the air inside of me was cracking.” Zorka, a new girl in the apartment block might be sufficiently anarchic to propel both girls into a transformation they both crave. Zorka’s mother seems unstable, her father is dying and so is communism. By the time both girls are eight the T-72 tanks are leaving the country and Zorka has run away from home for the first time. They are firm friends and their friendship develops in an intimate fashion. Circumstances have brought them together. But circumstances will push them apart too and Zorka, when alone once again, will develop her more studious side and acquire fluency in several languages.

By now, within the shifting time of the novel, we have also seen a more recent version of Jana, working as in interpreter for a Mr Doubek at a medical trade show in the Paris Expo which allows Moskovich to use the language of brochures and orthopaedic commerce (a specialist vocabulary indeed) to amusing effect (as well as alluding to the title of her novel): “The Virtuoso Mattress, the front page read, when care is critical, each fibre counts.” At the trade fair, a woman asks for directions and Jana, while talking to the woman, notices her name badge: Aimée de Saint-Pé. This woman’s father, a prosthetics specialist, is chairing a discussion on “Global Plastics”. Will either woman ever remember this meeting? Is this a connection? First, we need to attend that discussion with Aimée’s father. “These plastic sockets are based on vital primary anatomical principles,” he says from the stage. Her mind wanders. Who could blame her? She thinks of another stage. A much more interesting one. This stage has Fanny Ardant and another woman on it. Ardant is a famous actor, but it is the other woman who will assume great importance in Aimée’s life.

Much of the novel proceeds through dialogue or jump cuts and when we are confronted with the first of several chapters that reproduce the exchanges of a chatroom, the novel can seem too diffuse and lacking in the kind of utterly convincing strangeness that powered Moskovich’s first novel, The Natashas, and gave it such an easy flow through all of its transforming elements. That problem becomes more acute when the author adds in spectral phenomena. Within the context and content of this novel the shadowy presence of vagrant, body-inhabiting children or enigmatic blue clouds isn’t always as convincing as it might have been. Blue, indeed, recurs in various guises throughout the stories. In that first scene, we had a glimpse of blue foam leaving the dead woman’s mouth and when Mr Doubek gives Jana a card for a place in which they might talk some more, it is for a bar called “The Blue Angel”. He has met Zorka and is sure Jana will want to know more about her now-estranged friend. “The Blue Angel” develops through the novel as a space in which the bounds of reality lose their power.

But what seems, for the first fifty pages or so, to be overly disjointed and restive writing gains a lot by the way in which so much about the characters is implied and we, as readers, are called on to intuit aspects of the lives lived by these women (men feature only very peripherally) whose attitudes and desires are shown without the need for exposition. We are like Jana when, after another session of interpreting between a French client and a rep from a Czech company called Zentiva, she bids farewell to the rep, reassuring him that she thought the meeting had gone well, even though “It was, no doubt, one of the sloppiest pitches she had ever interpreted.” She then beautifully sketches a scene in which:

she imagined him on the plane tomorrow morning, back to Prague. She saw him fumbling with his seat belt and trying to close his tray. She saw his knees, awkward in the dry suit fabric, lean right, left, trying to find their place in the allotted plane seat space. She saw the backs of his ears, oddly clean, the habit he inherited from his grandmother of rubbing the corner of the towel there after he washed. She saw his head turned towards the window, watching the clouds squeeze from one form to another, like slow beating hearts, and sitting there, trying not to wrinkle his business suit, watching the sky, the smile on his face, so unprotected, extempore.

Whether through the persuasiveness of such gorgeous writing or the strengthening of the ever-growing connections, the novel develops both depth and passion as it progresses, while never losing a sense of humour or of the absurdity of our yearnings (those chatroom exchanges!) All of those early connections develop and entwine. No character is central to the novel, because it is multi-voiced and unconcerned about the insistence of plot. The past is always there somewhere in the present; the personal past and the historical past. That which they came from and that which they might become. Shavings from earlier passages reappear scattered through the text. There is no overarching narrative and Moskovich is happy to divert whenever possible. Mention of a “real” person – Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Anne Sexton – is always a cue for a discussion of some aspect of that person’s work or life. She loves to describe clothes in considered and exacting detail. This is especially effective when Aimée is alone after the death of her wife, Dominique – the woman she first saw on stage with Fanny Ardant – who had picked a dress for her several years before, but which Aimée had never liked.

It was too stiff or too tight, or too elastic, too close to her own flesh. groping through her skin towards her skeletal structure, disapproving of where her limbs extruded, arced, softened, receded or hinged, insisting its own form and order upon her figure, determined to be more her skin than her own skin, like pencil-lead being pressed into paper, commanding another silhouette ...

Virtuoso is well worth reading, twice. We meet these women, so we must part from them too. We’ve made a connection, but it doesn’t have to end, just as the novel doesn’t really end. It just opens another door in The Blue Angel.

1/3/2019

Declan O'Driscoll has written for The Irish Times, Music & Literature and several other publications.

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