The Black Violin, written by critically acclaimed author Maxine Fermine, whose Colours trilogy also include Snow and Beekeeper has been translated from French to English by Chris Mulhern. The book opens with the lines “Johannes Karelsky was a violinist. But in truth, he was far more than that. For, Johannes Karelsky was a genius. And his secret wish was to write the most beautiful opera ever written.” From the beginning itself, the lyrical approach to the book captures the reader’s attention.
The book deals with the universally relevant themes of music, love and war – all of which are timeless and ageless. The initial portion of the book focuses on a young Johannes Karelsky, a musical prodigy who gives his first stage performance at the age of seven. At the age of thirty-one, he hopes to fulfill his lifelong ambition of composing the most beautiful opera ever written. Unfortunately for him, Napoleon’s army is unsympathetic to individual desires and Karesky is forced to bury his dreams in the hatchet and join the army when warbreaks out in Italy in 1797. Karelsky is severely injured but is saved by a mysterious woman with an enchanting voice who takes care of him and nurses him back to health. After the war ends, Karelsky settles in Venice where he comes across a violin-maker named Erasmus. Like Karelsky, Erasmus also speaks impeccable French and the two bond over chess, a bottle of grappa and a black violin.
The black violin is an enigma to Karelsky until the day he decides to question Erasmus because he cannot control his curiosity any longer. Slowly, both Erasmus and Johannes realise that it is the same black violin, which inextricably linked both their lives. The black violin reminds the reader of the Keatsian theme of love and languishment and leaves him with a sense of melancholy.
Although the book is only 133 pages long, it cannot be called incomplete. It is the book’s brevity that is so incredible. On a more personal level, I do not know French and have only read the book as a translation, but the book is so beautifully crafted that I would even go through the pains of learning a new language in order to read the original. The sense of magic and mystery created in the book transports the reader into the world of dreams but brings him back to reality by exploring the dark themes of war and the loss of love.