Review of THE SAVIOR, by Eugene Drucker

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The Savior
By Eugene Drucker
Simon and Schuster
July 2007
208 pages
$23.00

Reviewed by Terez Rose

Eugene Drucker, violinist and founding member of the acclaimed Emerson Quartet, takes a heavy subject—the Holocaust—and uses his musician’s sensibilities to produce a searing, unforgettable pitch-perfect story. Gottfried Keller is a German violinist, languishing in the troubled, waning days of World War II. Unable to fight for Germany due to a weak heart, he has been conscripted into performing for convalescing soldiers in hospitals. One morning, however, he is picked up by the SS and delivered to a labor camp outside town. There, the cultured yet depraved Kommandant instructs him to present four concerts as part of an experiment: can classical music revive the spirits of a select group of nearly-dead concentration camp victims?

Keller has seen the smokestacks of the compound’s windowless brick buildings, belching out acrid smoke. “Rubber-making factory,” he and his neighbors have been told. He now sees the camp’s grey-faced, skeletal workers shuffling in the distance. Reluctantly he agrees to the Kommandant’s plan, well aware that he has few alternatives.

Drucker’s passages of describing music are nothing short of exquisite—he offers the detail and insight of a musicologist with the appealing brevity and clarity of an artist mindful of his audience. Keller first performs Paganini’s Caprice Number Nine in E Major, a virtuoso masterpiece.

“The lighthearted opening theme of the Ninth alternates with more dramatic sections in minor keys. There are fistfuls of chords, rapid scales in the high register and a passage of ricochet, a special technique in which the bow is thrown onto the string to produce a series of rebounding notes.”

Keller’s performance, however, is met with an unexpected response. There is only a grim, absolute silence until the Kommandant shouts at the inmates to clap. As the guards press closer with their guns, they begin to clap mechanically, and then won’t stop.

“He got ready to play [again], but their hands still came together with grim regularity as they stared straight ahead. He brought down his violin and looked around, not knowing what to do. Finally a guard stamped his foot, just once, and there was silence.”

Images like these—eerie and psychologically complex—are what keep this novel from being “just another Holocaust story.” The subtlety of it, the simplicity and freshness of the images are much like the music of Bach and Mozart—deceptively simple to the untrained ear, but revealing layer upon layer of complexity to those who choose to dig further.

The story is peppered with flashbacks to Keller’s days as a music student at Cologne’s prestigious Hochschule, and his relationship with fellow students Ernst (based on his own father who emigrated to the U.S. in 1938) and Marietta, both of whom are Jewish and must soon flee the country in the wake of growing persecution.

Keller’s final student days in 1935, including his developing closeness and romantic interest in Marietta, are lyrical and bittersweet. There is no easy solution for the two lovers—she begs him to audition for a newfound orchestra bound for Palestine, but his Aryan status works against him here. One solution, proposed by Marietta, is to find him forged papers that would state he was a Jew. A dangerous plan in 1935 Nazi Germany for a musician who wants to avoid trouble and simply play his music in his homeland. The reader doesn’t know whether to cheer the spirited Marietta on or to hastily push her out the door and lock it.

The novel, like life, has irony, not least of which is its title. Keller plays his music in an attempt to save both himself and his dispirited audience, which include Grete, a woman he briefly befriends. Not all his listeners, however want to be saved. Some deeply resent this attempted return of beauty and culture to their lives; they recognize the trick being played on them.

Irony appears again in Rudi, an SS camp guard, who, surprisingly, reveres classical music and Bach as deeply as Keller. The two engage in a spirited discussion over Bach’s “Saint Matthew’s Passion,” specifically the violin solo that depicts Judas trying to reject his earned thirty silver pieces. Rudi’s ambivalence over his own role is clear, particularly when he declares Judas “was just the pawn of larger forces.”

Keller cannot remain blind to what is happening, particularly after he discovers a warehouse holding thousands of pairs of shoes. “Men’s, women’s children’s. Mostly simple walking shoes, but also a sprinkling of sandals, heavy boots and house slippers. Some were in good condition, but most of them were dried out, dusty, weather-beaten, shapeless, a mute chorus of gaping mouths.” But Keller’s only choice is to continue performing, concluding with a searing rendition of Bach’s masterpiece, the Chaconne from his Partita in D Minor, with unexpected and devastating consequences for both him and his audience.

Drucker has not written a sentimental, moralistic tale. Gottfried Keller is neither perpetrator, victim, hero or dissident. He is an average German citizen, slow—or perhaps unwilling—to comprehend the full extent of the atrocities being committed, and the story’s pacing reflects this. What starts as a gently melancholy read culminates in a violent, disturbing climax (perhaps a bit too heavy-handed for such an otherwise subtly-rendered novel). Here, then, is a thought-provoking exploration of conscience, a bittersweet take on a culture that gave us both Hitler and Bach. A powerful story, a must-read for classical music and arts enthusiasts.

–Terez Rose’s stories and essays have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Literary Mama, Espresso Fiction, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and various anthologies. She has reviewed book for Mid-American Review, Peace Corps Writers, Midwest Book Review and MostlyFiction.com. An adult beginner on the violin, she maintains a violin-related blog at http://www.violinist.com/blog/terez. Visit her at www.terezrose.com.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by jewwishes on March 15, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    Good review of The Savior. I recently finished reading it, myself, and found it profound on many levels.

    Reply

  2. Posted by chrisitna on November 29, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    this is one amazing book

    Reply

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