The Black Violin
The Black Violin was originally published in French three years ago. For reasons that completely escape me, someone decided it would be a great idea to translate it into English and sell it here as a little tiny hardcover book for $16.00. I guess it’s possible that in the original French this is a lyrical masterpiece wrought with meaning. If so, much was lost in translation.
Johannes Karelsky was a child violin prodigy, playing concerts and entertaining kings when he was only seven years old. Eventually he faded into obscurity, and as an adult he was drafted into Napoleon’s army. Eventually he is wounded. Then, he is part of an occupying force in Venice. Fate brings him to the home of the great violin maker Erasmus, who was trained by Stradivarius’s son.
Johannes dreams of writing an opera, and the only person he wants to sing it is a beautiful woman he heard singing when he was wounded on the battlefield. Erasmus has a mysterious black violin on his wall that he never plays. There is a secret involved with it that affects Johannes as well.
That’s it for the plot. I won’t spoil the secret, except to say it has all the charm and subtlety of ghost story told at summer camp. You know, like the one about the beautiful woman who always wears a ribbon around her neck, and when she is dying her husband takes it off and finds out that it was holding her head on. If you’d like to save yourself some money, you can go to the library and check out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark or Short and Shivery. Both of these volumes for young readers are chock-full of this kind of tale.
I honestly think the story would be just as lame and pointless in any language, but I do wonder whether the writing itself was better in the original French. In this translation the prose seems childlike, repetitive, and obvious. I kept thinking that there just had to be a more sophisticated way to express the concepts in the novel.
The book is short, and the chapters are short; often they are only a page or a paragraph long (a literary technique that my first-grader appreciates in Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books). Just as often, they repeat what we have just heard in the (short) preceding chapter. They also end with some of the most heavy-handed foreshadowing I have ever seen. I can’t think what the purpose of that could possibly be, unless the author wants to spell everything out for you ahead of time in case you don’t bother finishing all 133 tiny pages.
All About Romance frequently receives general fiction titles from publishers, and I confess that I picked this one up because the cover is lovely and the synopsis sounded sort of interesting. The book is not remotely interesting – it is lame, pointless, and a complete waste of time (and I only spent an hour reading it). The upside was that I read it for free. I honestly can’t imagine anyone at all wanting to spend actual money for The Black Violin, and I am baffled as to whom publishers were really marketing this to in the first place. I do have a theory about the real audience, which I intend to test this weekend. I told my nine-year-old that the book was a spooky story she might enjoy, and she sounded intrigued. I’ll let you know how that works out.