Published:  12:00 AM, 26 February 2017

A sonata-structured novel of muted desire

Michael Pye explores the passionate love of childhood  friendship as it is lost, transformed, and regained  over a lifetime, as depicted in the novel

Two boys meet cute in kindergarten: Gustav, the son of a ruined police chief, is told to look after Anton, the son of a Jewish banker who has been sent to the sticks after a breakdown.

 The teacher just wants to cope with a tearful newcomer, but her order will hand Gustav the plan for the rest of his life. At the age of 5, he finds a durable kind of friendship. He can love someone who won't love him back, someone just like his mother. He can be swept off his feet by the most disruptive of human passions, even less manageable than love: the need to look after another person.

The place is small-town Switzerland in the years after World War II, when there was hunger even in the land of chocolate and rösti. Nothing can be mentioned, but everything has consequences. Survival is an issue. Gustav's dead father, for example, is a man who lost his job for doing the right thing: trying to save Jewish refugees from the Nazis even after the Swiss had closed their borders. He is not an official kind of hero.

Go forward some 50 years and Anton will compose a piano piece called "The Gustav Sonata"; so it says on the last page of Rose Tremain's remarkably interesting novel. But the true "Gustav Sonata" is something different: It is the book itself.

Tremain's answer to the complexity, the variations, the unknowable elements in her story is to build the narrative like music: a sonata in three parts, set in different times. She lays out themes, she develops them, she repeats them until they sing a rather different song.

A sonata is usually allegro, so for all the density of detail there's a cracking sense of pace, and the themes themselves are as haunting and sharply contrasted as they should be - love and lovelessness, heroism and banality, vision and narrowness.

This isn't a bookish game. Anyone who's ever tried to make fiction around facts as terrible as the Shoah or characters as morally muddled as the wartime Swiss will understand it very well. You need a strategy to maneuver between absolute duty to historical fact and the way the mind needs to interpret and invent. You need a way to tell a story and also interpret it.

This kind of story comes with ghosts, some of them literary, and they have to be acknowledged. You can't have a chapter called "Magic Mountain" and set a scene in a Davos sanitarium without raising the ghost of Thomas Mann. In Mann's time, Davos was still an alpine sick bay for the tubercular, an isolated world where people had all too much time to think. Tremain's is very different; it's the one fantasy she lets the two boys share, and remember.

Above the forest they find a huge ruin, glass broken and roof off, but with one room full of light and 20 or 30 iron beds. They imagine patients for this sanitarium, and they decide which ones will live and which will die. If they choose death, they have to do something with the imaginary bodies; they resolve to burn them in "an enormous oven, still choked with ash." They even cut up bamboo chairs so they will have convincing bones.

The image is horribly alive, and the thinking comes later; it's a reminder of all those fine and alarming things Tremain can do in her short stories. The boys are allowed this once to find the power that lovers fancy we have by being together - even the power of life and death. They manage to kiss, and on the lips.

But the sense of sharing and the passion soon die down, as though Tremain was interrupting her own argument with a dead writer. She shows the wreckage of Mann's humanist mountaintop, starts echoes of the death camps that helped ruin it, the ovens and the bones. Then she returns to her music, which is inevitably more abstract.

Gustav fancies himself as a minor-key Aschenbach, the genius whose orderly intellectual being is shattered by a lovely boy in Mann's "Death in Venice"; he thinks he has the same kind of stifled passion for Anton and it will inevitably end in death.

Yet he "refused to see himself as Aschenbach," we're told soon afterward, and how could he?
He isn't a lover so much as a carer, the one who brings soup to the sick, who is required to stop bad things from happening. He does get to share a room with "the person I love most in the world" and even receives a bit of "rough urgency," but only after a half-century of waiting.

 In the meantime, he hardly has an emotional or a sensual life. Tremain is so good on passion - Gustav's mother insists that he learn to "master" himself, but she is deliriously lost when she first meets his wrestler father - that this is puzzling. Men who love men, it seems, are meant to wait.

Tremain is one of those few writers you trust completely when she goes to any unfamiliar territory, historical or emotional. She can make you feel how much Gustav doesn't want his mother to die before she has learned to love him and how much he tries to understand her. Tremain knows how to show all the terrible bleak things that can happen between mothers and sons. But her sense of Gustav's passion for Anton is curiously muffled, as though she is evading the very theme of her sonata.

This muffling affects the way she uses historical facts, although reality does sometimes need to be toned down before anyone can believe it. Gustav's policeman father is invented, but he has a real-life analogue: Paul Grueninger, police commander of the Swiss border canton of St.

Gallen in 1938, the time of Kristallnacht and the Nazi Anschluss into Austria. When the Swiss closed their borders, the Jewish refugees kept coming. Grueninger chose to help 3,600 of them by falsifying papers to make them seem like legal arrivals. He ruined his own career - and his life - on principle.

Gustav's father is a reduced version of Grueninger. He helps only a few and only for a short while, and mostly out of compassion for one desperate father; nothing systematic. He is caught, and we're asked to wonder who betrayed him. In the real world, dutiful German bureaucrats told dutiful Swiss bureaucrats about problems in the paperwork, and that was enough: The machine ruined Grueninger.

Even his sufferings are toned down. Gustav's father dies of a heart attack on his way to a reunion with his lover, cleared away early so he won't take over the book. Grueninger waited two years for a trial, survived long years in poverty, and died only in 1972. It was 1995 before the Swiss could bring themselves to undo his conviction.

 Tremain must know all this, so it's no accident she raises such haunting doubts. How can you take away a whole political context from a personal story when the weight of that story depends on the political context? This most unconventional book offers no easy answer, which makes it as disturbing and electric as any high-wire act.

The reviewer is an author and contributor at
www.nytimes.com

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