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It was the combination of mountains, guitars and a language that I don’t know that drew me to this book, and I enjoyed it very much. The Descent of the Lyre is set in 19th-century Bulgaria, and begins when Ivan loses his affianced bride to the fat and sweating son of the Pasha. Ivan is the nephew of a musician who killed himself in a cherry tree. His wedding morning is similarly tragic, ripped apart by the raid from the Pasha’s men, and then Stoyanka gives herself up, refusing to marry her kidnapper, but going with him to stop a massacre. Ivan is shot, and takes the whole winter to recover. He emerges back to life filled with black rage, and heads for the mountains. He joins a group of mountain bandits, led by their Voyvod, and learns how to kill. We expect a vendetta against the Pasha, but by this time Stoyanka has been taken to Constantinople, and Ivan’s rage has been left to fester and infect everything he touches. He and the other haidati prey on travellers in the warm weather, but scatter for cover in winter. Ivan and Bogdan the leader spend the winter months as monks in a monastery in Skopje, where Ivan stays coldly angry and Bogdan feeds his pet fox. The memory of Stoyanka is blurring a little by now, Ivan is no longer sure why he’s angry, but anger is something to hang onto. He doesn’t become psychotic, but he’s not a cheerful companion around the camp fire. Bogdan gives up the leadership of the haidati, and Ivan is elected the new Voyvod. He becomes a legend for his swift killing and brilliant leadership.
In the civilised surroundings of Vienna, we hear the beautiful guitar-playing of Solomon Kuretic. He’s been summoned to Constantinople to play for the Sultan Mahmud II. Once he reaches Bulgaria to follow the Danube south, he doesn’t speak any of the local languages, but his Yiddish exasperation gets him help from a fellow Jew. He is put into a convoy of merchants to travel through the mountains, and is captured alive by Ivan, because he sees Solomon’s guitar. Every night Solomon has to play for Ivan and the haidati, and if he pleases Ivan, he will live until the next day. And each night he plays miracles, and Ivan begins to weep. Solomon’s playing lances the wound in Ivan’s psyche, but the music also drugs Ivan, makes him forget about the proper work of the haidati in his relief at feeling no more pain. His men grow restless and worried. No more loot is being brought in, they are running out of food, and need to go raiding before the winter arrives, but Ivan will not command this, he only sits and listens to Solomon’s guitar. So clearly something has to be done about this.
When Ivan finds the body, he takes the guitar and heads for Vienna. He’s found that he can play the guitar himself, something innate in his fingers brings out the right kind of music to relieve his sufferings. He found a letter from Solomon for someone in Vienna, so he’s going there to learn how to play. He walks to Vienna to find a teacher, spends several years there learning music and German (which must have been a test for a village boy and mountain bandit), and when his teacher cannot give him anything more, he walks to Paris. There he nearly dies in the snow after being rejected by Ferdinand Sor, the greatest classical guitarist in Europe. But Paris has room for more than one great guitarist, and Ivan is taken up by Michot, a theatrical entrepreneur, and performs nightly at his theatre as a thrilling barbarian variety act. He becomes the sensation of the city, women flock to him (which he hardly notices), and Ferdinand is enraged into the sulks, refusing to play at any of his engagements until the barbarian who has sullied the guitar’s reputation, and also, incidentally, attracted the attention of Félicité, who has been tiring of Ferdinand for some time, has been driven from Paris. So clearly something has to be done about this.
When Michot finds the body, Ivan has to be cut down from the theatre gantry from which he has been suspended by his guitar strings. This is a new kind of suffering for Ivan, that gives him some kind of saintly relief and apotheosis. He escapes from his hospital bed to go back to the Bulgarian mountains, where he becomes a vision seen by the suffering, and a saint painted in dim church corners clutching his guitar as an offering.
This story is packed with legends seen only as they whisk away from our attention. Orpheus is the most often invoked, but I thought I caught a glimpse of Ariadne and her thread as well. Eurydice never appears again, but there are some kindnesses. Orpheus’s parents hear that he survived. The ghosts of recently murdered men are allowed to enjoy the heat of a final fire and to hear some music before dissipating, and the guitar is broken up for firewood to let an old couple survive the last few nights of the winter before the thaw. Will Buckingham plunges us into peasant society and the rituals of village life with carefully positioned Bulgarian vocabulary. Nouns do most of the work: there’s not much a Bulgarian pronoun or verb would tell us, whereas a Bulgarian noun – haidati, kitara, tupan, kopanitsa – adds unfamiliar sounds to the prose. On other occasions, he wisely doesn’t obscure the meaning when we need to know it: he just tells us what happens – ‘When he took his first steps, his mother made a loaf drenched in honey and passed out chunks of warm sweet bread to her neighbours so that he might grow to be strong and quick.’
Buckingham is a philosopher and a lecturer in creative writing. The academia didn’t show in this novel, which was a relief, nor did I detect signs of lessons on how to write. It’s just a good novel, a very good read, and a highly memorable tale told simply. Buckingham also writes compellingly as a guitarist, the descriptions of the music also sounding like music, in how the words sit on the page and how the phrases are paced, as well as their effect on the characters. I was fascinated by the effect of the very, very short chapters: hardly any are longer than a couple of pages, so the story reads like a saint’s tale. I enjoyed this novel very much for its feeling of being a fable, a handed-down tale, constructed from bits and pieces of fact and fiction, blended back into myth.
Will Buckingham, The Descent of the Lyre (London: Roman Books, 2012), ISBN: 978-93-80905-07-5, £16.99, and to be published soon in the USA.
Kate podcasts about books that she really, really likes on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.