Orpheus is bound to the earthly realm, but as able to charm the underworld; he knows how close life’s shadow is to life, and how utterly separate; his reason to look back is greater than the cost of looking back. In Hans-Jürgen Greif’s recent novel Orfeo, the eponymous character, like his mythological namesake, looks back, but he is out of his element and unable to return.
Mutilated from the waist down by a childhood accident, the boy who will become Orfeo is taken in by the ancient, eminent La Signora. She abandons her piano students to devote herself to shaping this preternatural voice into the voluptuous, wide-ranging instrument of the all-but-extinct unmanned singers euphemistically referred to as musici. Upon the Signora’s death, Orfeo’s professional debut is overseen by Weber, a failed pianist turned music critic; Weber acts as chorus, guide and witness to the sublime archaism of a castrato in contemporary Europe. But this Orfeo, too, is otherworldly, irresistible and beguiling, and he upends Weber’s careful equilibrium.
Thus Greif begins puppeteering his players—all his world’s a stage. The smitten Weber, his cold wife Kirsten, her brassy wooer Vera, the assorted egomaniacs and cholerics of the professional opera world—all desire, fate and movement pivot around the creature that has possessed them. Orfeo’s birth name is Teufel—the devil—and he is regarded as monstrous; a voice that reaches as far as his, Greif suggests, has no place in a world whose precarious balance rests on petty jealousy, vulgar seductions, and material comfort. He must endure a fall, a foray to the dark side (the descent ends at a rave), and an archetypal punishment.
The novel is foremost about the music, and Greif’s attention to the technical minutiae is painstaking. From the Signora’s antiquated training of her primo uomo, to the repertoire, to the methodical writing-out of the music itself, Greif’s work as a coach at the Quebec Conservatoire and his extensive, annotated research for this book stand him in accurate stead. Yet — pas évident, rendering music in prose without making it prosaic; after all, if it could be explained, it wouldn’t have to be sung.
Descriptions of music can be forgiven for falling short of music itself; Orfeo, however, is consistent in its monotone, and so expository as to compromise the compelling central idea. The story is original, and the overlay of opera’s fated trajectories could have heightened the characters’ tumbled destinies. But despite Greif’s trademark crisp dialogue, the novel is afflicted by over-description, utilitarian catalogues of emotions that merely report, rather than ravage. Even the climactic evisceration of Orfeo prompts nothing visceral in the reader.
Fred Reed’s translation is inordinately faithful to Greif’s surtitular style, and the English version is hobbled by baffling tonal disjunction: the Signora’s odd reference to her protégé as a “lad,” a contrived allusion to spoonfeeding the boy pastries, Weber woodenly “wishing to enjoy the concert,” the reiteration of Kirsten’s cliché “keen nose” for business…
Ultimately, the potency of art lies in the reactions elicited in the beholder; being informed that another, sublime world exists is not the same as being so charmed that it is impossible not to look back.
Writer, editor and translator Katia Grubisic lives unoperatically in Montréal.