A review of Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Music for Wartime
by Rebecca Makkai
Penguin
2015, ISBN: 978-0-525-42699-1, hc

Music for Wartime is a collection of seventeen compelling short stories by Chicago’s Rebecca Makkai, author of the novels The Hundred Year House and The Borrower. Most of Makkai’s stories have ben previously published in well-known literary magazines, with four in this collection first published in the annual, The Best American Short Stories.

Makkai’s collection begins with “The Singing Woman,” a two page story which ends with the author saying, “I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I?” In this tale, a composer goes to an empty village in a foreign dictatorship to record folk songs by three old women who still live there. Back in the safety of his own country, he brings out an album of the songs, and is “fulfilled” because he has “preserved before its last breath, their culture.” The ruling dictator becomes aware of his album, is enraged because he thought the village had been wiped out, and “sent his men to finish the job.”

This cautionary tale about self-serving good intentions is followed by three “legends”, located about fifty pages apart. “Other Brands of Poison” is about soldiers in Hungary (either German oppressors or Russian liberators) bursting into the home of an eight year old boy and a woman author “too formidable to rape”, in search of alcohol. In years to come the woman boasts that she killed a soldier with a bottle of ink.

“Acolyte”, the second legend, shows an elderly Budapest actress using her make-up to disguise the youthful good looks of young women, both for their own protection and to aid in their resistance work. Yet the actress’s past is mingled with that of the oppressors. The third legend, “A Bird in the House”, a bad omen, shows the author’s great grandparents, living on separate continents, briefly visiting their infant great granddaughter in Chicago. The characters’ actions in the story show why they are separated.

The fable and legends seem to say that in war and in life, nothing is straightforward and unambiguous. In another “war” story, “The Worst You’ll Ever Feel”, twelve year old violinist, Aaron, has an uncanny aptitude for picking up vibes, sensing old tragedies and grasping others’ thoughts. He’s listening from the staircase of his parents’ home as an aged, renowned Romanian violinist, Radescu, plays for forty guests.

Our attention is captured immediately by the opening line, “When the nine-fingered violinist began playing…” Author Makkai cleverly builds tension and suspense by answering our questions, little by little, through snippets of Aaron’s thoughts as he listens. Gradually, she reveals the violinist’s heroism during a 1941 pogrom in Romania, just after Aaron’s father, who was Radescu’s student, left to study music in America. We learn of Radescu’s long years as a political prisoner, and realize, hand in hand with Aaron at the end, that his father is a complex and not entirely admirable character.

In some ways, Music for Wartime is like Ernest Hemingway’s 1925 classic, In Our Time. Both include war stories, and Hemingway’s very short “interchapters” between the stories (short-short glimpses of war, which contributed to the thematic unity) are akin to Makkai’s “fable” and “legends.”

Stories in a collection don’t necessarily need to share a common theme, but classic short story collections often do. One thinks of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, about loneliness amid small-town familiarity, or James Joyce’s Dubliners, showing the dispiritedness of a colonized people. The theme of Makkai’s collection seems to be the surprising, unusual, surrealistic, and supernatural. It is probably no accident that she starts the collection with a fable, since fables are by definition about the unusual and supernatural. The pogrom/war/ethnic cleansing stories involve startling occurrences, and so do the stories set in contemporary America.

“The November Story”, for instance, is about Beth and Christine, a couple whose relationship is deteriorating because of the dishonesty and manipulation involved in Christine’s job. Her job is to be the friendly “good cop” on a TV reality show, “Starving Artist”, in which contestants, filmed at an artists’ colony, compete for $100,000 and an agent. Pitting the aspiring artists against each other and sewing mischief among them makes for good TV. The filming takes place in summer, but since the last episode is supposed to be in November, the grass must be killed with herbicide and the leaves sprayed red and yellow, to make the setting look authentic. The “reality” show is surreal, and although love manages to survive this artificial setting, it isn’t Beth and Christine’s.

“The Miracle Year of Little Fork”, set in a dust-bowl Depression-era prairie town, shows the impact of the death of a circus elephant on the townsfolk. Lives are changed, not always for the better. Extreme weather events make people question their beliefs. Though the story is told in realistic mode, the supernatural is very much present.

In “Cross”, Celine, a cellist, returns home from tour to a small Vermont town to find a cross on her lawn; that is, a shrine with teddybears, artificial flowers and the like, to commemorate an accidental death. This encroachment escalates. Near the end, the author clearly signals fairytale and supernatural elements when she has Celine reflect: “If she still believed in signs, they would be clear today: the dying fire, the scene of death on the lawn, the ripped-up note under her wipers. And here was Prince Charming on her doorstep with his fiddle.”

“A Couple of Lovers on a Red Background” is a delightful fantasy about a recent divorcee in a highrise, who sells real estate but loves art and music. One day she opens her piano lid and out pops a “small troll” who expands into a famous eighteenth century composer. Their relationship blossoms; he is interested in musical forms unknown to him – jazz and the blues. Unfortunately, he is afraid of heights. Towards the end, the woman worries about his health, wondering if his “shrivelling in on himself is in fact a sign that part of me is coming back to life.” This line calls to mind a number of folk and fairytales.

My dictionary defines “fabulous” as “almost unbelievable, incredible” and “exceptionally good or unusual, marvellous, superb.” Rebecca Makkai’s stories are fabulous in both senses of the word.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s three short story collections are A Wild Streak, Save the Last Dance for Me, and Winter Moon. Visit her books blog at http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com

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