There is distinct Gothic and Mitteleuropean feel to this short readable novel by Austrian Paolo Maurensig. He manages to set a scenario where you think you know what is going on so that when he drops in a dramatic twist you are left floundering and wondering how you didn’t see it coming all along.
There is some clever story telling going on here – a seemingly independent narrator telling a story told to him by a second narrator who recounts a story told to him by a street musician in Vienna.
However, as the novel unfurls it emerges that those who seem to have a major role are side players while those who appear to be mere observers are a key part of the story.
At the centre is a valuable violin bought at an auction in London in modern times.
The story flashes back to post-First World War Austria/Hungary, following the fragmentation of the old order in Europe.
A talented boy, Jeno, inherits the violin from his father, who he never knew and earns a scholarship at a prestigious music school.
Maurensig has a great understanding of the technicalities of music but also an appreciation of how it can have a profound impact on people’s lives and raise them to a higher state of consciousness.
Jeno meets an equally talented musician at the school, Kuno, who despite an aristocratic background reminds Jeno of himself. The two are the most talented musicians at the school but somehow remain friends without succumbing to rivalry.
Jeno is so obsessed with his music that events in the wider world fail to make much impact on him, even as all the pupils and teachers with Jewish names are suddenly removed from the school.
When his studies are complete he accepts and invitation to stay with Kuno at his father’s country estate but the change of territory and the relationship of former musical equals in a harsh academic environment to poor country boy staying with his privileged friend changes the dynamic of the relationship.
Jeno feels that Kuno is constantly trying to assert his seniority and dominate him to the point that he ultimately wants Jeno’s precious violin.
Kuno’s aristocratic family have secrets. His father’s brother is believed to taken his own life but rumours persist that he is living in South America.
There are also philosophical discourses on immortality, the nature of talent
and genetics. Maurensig also manages to depict a sense of being caught up in an intense drama against the backdrop of vast world-changing events going all around the central action.
Canone Inverso is a richly layered novel that deserves a second reading, purely to enjoy the false and genuine trails laid by the author and to admire how he so subtly planted information along the way that the surprise twist at the end seemed frustratingly obvious all along.