By Janet Turner Hospital
Published by W.W. Norton
October 2007; 0393065529; 368 pages
Afterwards, Leela realized, everything could have been predicted from the beginning. Every clue was there, the ending inevitable and curled up inside the first encounter like a tree inside a seed. The trouble was that the interpretation was obvious only in retrospect.
Fact one: Mishka Bartok was an insoluble equation.
Fact two: Leela could never leave insoluble equations alone. Before Mishka, she believed that every code could be broken and codes which had yet to be deciphered were an irresistible provocation. They kept her awake at night.
She did sense from the start that Mishka was a question without an answer, but she could not accept this. Neither could she prove it. Not then. The riddle of Mishka was like Fermat's last theorem for which no solution exists. In 1630, Fermat himself could prove that all the way to infinity no solution would ever exist, but he kept his proof to himself and it hovered like marsh fire in algebraic and numerical dreams. It lured mathematicians for three centuries, almost for four. It drove them mad. Computations were exchanged between Oxford and Rome, between Berlin, Bologna, the Sorbonne, until finally, late in the twentieth century, someone at Princeton caught the proof of nonprovability in his net. 'I was ten years old,' the Princeton genius said-Andrew Wiles was his name- 'when I first read about Fermat. It looked so simple, his theorem, yet all the mathematicians in history couldn't solve it. From that moment, I knew I'd never let it go.'
Obsession, wrote a seventeenth-century don who gave his life to the quest, is its own heaven and its own hell.
The words struck Leela like a blow. She copied them onto an index card which she thumb-tacked to the wall above her desk.
Sometimes, in dreams, when the beginning began again, Mishka would warn her: 'Don't follow me, Leela.' He would lift the violin to his chin and begin to play. He would turn his back and walk away from her, walk down into the subway tunnels, deeper and deeper, the bow rising above his left shoulder and falling again, the notes drifting back, plaintive and irresistible. 'Leave me alone,' he would say. 'Don't follow me.'
'Where are you going?' Leela would call, but he never answered.
Leela would push against the fog of underground air, her eyes fixed on the pale flash of bowstrings until the dark swallowed them. 'Mishka! Wait!' she would call. 'Wait for me!'
That always made him pause. 'Don't call me Mishka.' His sadness would speak in a minor key, two sweeps of the bow. 'That's not my name anymore.' He would wheel back then, briefly, to face her and she would see with dread-in dream after recurring dream-that indeed he was no longer Mishka, but a skeletal idea of himself thinly draped in a shroud. Some ghastly internal aura shone from the sockets that were his eyes. Humerus, radius and ulna, the bones of the arm, kept moving his bow across the strings. 'Don't follow me, Leela,' his skeleton warned.
The tunnel smelled of monstrous decay, but even so, even knowing within the dream that she should turn and flee back up into sunlight, Leela would be powerless. Mishka's music drugged her. Waking or sleeping, she could close her eyes and see him as she saw him that first time: not just the visual memory lurking entire, but the sounds, the sensations, the hurly-burly of Harvard Square, the slightly dank odor of the steps as she descended into the underworld of the Red Line, the click of tokens and turnstiles, the gust of fragrance from the flower sellers, the funky sweat of the homeless, the subdued roar of the trains, and then those haunting notes...
She stood riveted, her token poised above the slot in the turnstile. She had heard two bars, perhaps three, in the brief lull between trains.
'Would you mind?' said someone behind her.
'What? Oh... sorry.' She let the token fall through the slot. She pushed against the steel bar and into the space of the music. There was another pause between trains, a few bars, a stringed instrument, clearly, but also a tenor voice. Was it a cello that the singer was playing? Surely not. No street musician would cart such a large and unwieldy instrument down into the bowels of the city, onto the trains, among the crowds; but the sound seemed too soft for a violin, too husky, too throaty. She could feel the music graphing itself against her skin, her body calculating the frequencies and intervals of the whole subway symphony: base throb of trains, tenor voice, soft lament of the strings, a pleasing ratio of vibrations. Mathematical perfection made her weak at the knees.
She was letting the music reel her in, following the thread of it, leaning into the perfect fifths. Crowds intruded, echoes teased her, tunnels bounced the sound off their walls-now the music seemed to be just ahead, now to the right-and two minutes in every five, the low thunder of the trains muffled all. The notes were faint, they were clear, they were gone, they were clear again: unbearably mournful and sweet. Leela was not the only one affected. People paused in the act of buying tokens. They looked up from newspapers. They turned their heads and scanned the walls and ceiling of the subway cavern for speakers. With one foot on the outbound train, a man was arrested by a phrase and stepped back out of the sliding doors.
'Where is that gorgeous sound coming from?' he asked Leela. 'Is it a recording?'
'A street musician,' she said. 'Someone playing an early instrument, I think, a Renaissance violin, or something like that.'
'Over there,' the man pointed.
'Must be. Yes.'
'Extraordinary,' the man said. He began to run.
Leela followed him the length of the inbound platform to where a dense knot of commuters huddled. For a while the music was clearer as they approached, and then it was not, and then it seemed to be behind them again. Leela turned, disoriented. Her hands were shaking. The man who had stepped back from the outbound train leaned against a pillar with his eyes closed, rapt. Leela saw a woman surreptitiously wiping her sleeve across her eyes.
The violin itself was weeping music. Sometimes it wept alone; sometimes the tenor voice sorrowed along with it in a tongue not quite known but intuitively understood. The singer was singing of loss, that much was certain, and the sorrow was passing from body to body like a low electrical charge.
Leela recognized the melody, but although she could analyze the mathematical structure of any composition, she had trouble remembering titles of works and linking them to the right composers. It was an aria from some early opera, that much she knew. Gluck, probably. She had to hear all of it.
Ahead of her was an impenetrable cordon of backs.
Leela closed her eyes and pressed her hands to her face. She had a sense of floating underwater and the water was warm and moving fast and she was willing to be carried away by it. It was this way back in childhood in summer ponds in South Carolina, or on the jasmine-clotted Hamilton house veranda, or in deep grass, or lying under the pines with local boys; it was this way in later carnal adventures: body as fluid as soul. Everything was part of the euphoric storm surge which swept Leela up and rushed her toward something radiant that was just out of reach.
A fist of air punched her in the small of her back and a tidal wave of announcements drowned the music. Her hair streamed straight out in front of her face like a pennant. Words rumbled like thunder. Stopping all stations to shshshshs clang clang for Green Line change at Park clang shshshshsh.... Bucking and pushing ahead of the in-rush of train, a hard balloon of air plowed through the knot of listeners and scattered them.
That was when Leela caught her first glimpse of Mishka Bartok.
His head was bent over his instrument, his eyes focused on his fingered chords and his bow. He was oblivious to the arrival of the train. His body merged with the music and swayed. He was slender and pale, his dark hair unruly. A small shock of curls fell down over his left eye. When he leaned into the dominant notes, the curls fell across the sounding board of the instrument and he tossed them back with a flick of his head. Leela thought of a racehorse. She thought of a faun. Incongruously, she also thought of a boy she had known in childhood, a boy named Cobb, a curious boy with a curious name, a boy who had been possessed of the same skittish intensity which somehow let you know that, if cornered, this was a creature who would not yield. The violin player had Cobb's fierce and haunted eyes.
There was no hat on the platform in front of him, no box, no can, no open violin case for donations, and the absence of any such receptacle seemed to bother the listeners. Someone tucked a folded bill into the side pocket of the violin player's jeans but he appeared not to notice. A student in torn denim shorts took off his cloth hat and placed it beside the closed violin case as tribute and people threw coins and placed dollar bills-ones, fives, tens even-in the hat but the musician seemed indifferent and unaware. Some listeners boarded the inbound train, some seemed incapable of moving. Leela let five trains come and go, bracing herself each time against the buffeting of air. She had now worked her way forward to the innermost circle. She was four feet from the man with the violin. She could feel the intensity of his body like a series of small seismic waves against her own.
Trains arrived and departed, some people left but more gathered, the crowd around the man with the violin kept getting larger. His instrumental repertoire seemed inexhaustible-he barely paused between pieces-but when he sang, it was always and only when he cycled back to the same aria that had first reached Leela's ears. When he sang, she could not take her eyes off his lips. She touched her own with the pads of her fingers. She had a sensation of falling forward, of freefalling into a well of melody without end. The cautionary words above her desk hovered at the edge of her mind: Obsession is its own heaven and its own hell, but she did not care if she stayed on the inbound platform all day. She wondered fleetingly if hours might have already passed. She gave herself to the wave of music. She wondered if she might have grown gills.
Perhaps because she was now so close to him, perhaps because of the heat that her body gave off, the musician glanced up as he began to sing the aria again. Their eyes met. Something fizzed and smoldered like a lit fuse along the line of sight. Leela let less than one second pass as the last note faded, and then, recklessly, interposed herself between the player and his next chord.
'What is that song?' she asked, or tried to ask, even as his bow hovered above a new beginning. There was a constriction in her chest.
'Che farò senza Euridice.' He lowered the violin from his left shoulder and stroked it with the fingers of his bowing hand. 'Gluck.'
'Ah.' Leela's voice came back to her. 'I thought it was Gluck.' They stood inches apart. She could see two miniature projections of herself in his eyes.
'It's the lament of Orpheus,' he said.
'When he descends into the underworld, right? To bring Eurydice back.' Leela was babbling. To stop herself, she put one hand over her mouth and the gesture created a small obstruction in the flow of fixations. He dropped his eyes. He let the tip of his bow rest lightly against the top of one shoe. She studied the lace in his shoe and his hand on the bow. The half moons on his fingernails were white against the pale pink of the nails.
'Seems the right thing to play in the subway,' he said. 'For violin, anyway. If I were playing my oud, it would be different.'
'What is an ood?'
'Persian instrument originally. Like a Renaissance lute.'
'Ahh... Do you do this often? Play in the subway? I mean, there are always musicians, but I've never heard you here before.'
'I normally never play here. Only on the Blue Line, where no one I know is going to see me.'
Coins were showering into the donated hat. People moved into the space between Leela and the violin player, leaning forward, making appreciative comments, placing folded bills in the hat. This startled the musician, or even, perhaps, alarmed him. He seemed for the first time to become aware of the throngs of people.
'Don't,' he said, distressed. 'Thank you, but please don't. It isn't necessary. I don't do this for money. Thank you, thank you, please don't.' In a nervous rush, agitated, he replaced his violin in its case. He removed the fistful of bills from the hat, stared at them, then stuffed them back again. He did not know what to do with the hat. He regarded it in puzzlement and then left it there, moving in urgent strides toward the exit.
Leela grabbed up the hat and ran after him, but he moved so swiftly that he was already through the turnstile and halfway up the steps into Harvard Square before she caught up. She reached for him and seized him by the sleeve. 'You have to take this,' she said, tugging. She was breathing heavily. 'It's rightfully yours.' She took a few gasping and shallow breaths. 'It's a love gift from all those people.'
His face creased in something like pain. 'It's a misunderstanding,' he said. 'I do it for the reverberation. I do it for myself. For the sound.'
He has the eyes of Orpheus, Leela thought. He has the eyes of Orpheus at the moment when Eurydice is bitten by the snake, or perhaps when he has lost her for the second time, when she is pulled back into the underworld, forever beyond reach. Leela thought she had never met anyone with such sad eyes, or someone so indifferent to his own sadness. She had an impulse to stand on tiptoe and kiss him. Instead she said: 'You could donate the money if you wanted. To the Salvation Army, or a homeless center, or something.'
'Yes,' he said. 'That's a good idea.' But he made no move to take the hat.
'You have a funny accent,' she said.
He raised one eyebrow, and for the first time Leela saw the shadow of a smile. 'No I don't,' he said. 'You do.'
'Ah well. Mine's Southern. I guess that's foreign in Harvard Square. What's yours?'
'Australian. You must be a student.'
'Me too. Are you in Music?'
He looked around as though searching for escape. Leela noticed that the hand which pushed hair from his eyes was shaking. 'Uh...' he said. 'Today's an anniversary. A sort of... a private one. I didn't quite realize I was playing in public. That's why I'm-' he gestured at the noisy chaos of Harvard Square-'I didn't mean to be here. I usually play on the Blue Line.'
'Want to go for a latte?'
'Oh,' he said awkwardly. 'Uh...' He looked at his watch. 'It's a difficult day for me.'
Alarmed, he met her eyes briefly, then looked away. 'Yes.'
'So you said. A sad one, I gather.'
His hands were cupped over the thin end of the violin case. The fat curved end rested on the pavement between his feet. He pivoted the case, very precisely, in a half circle, as though navigating a passage through a reef.
'I can tell it's a sad one,' Leela persisted. 'That's why I'd like to offer a latte.'
The violin case made two complete revolutions, then another half circle.
'I know it's inept,' Leela said, 'but it's the sort of thing we Americans do, we insist on doing.'
He studied his shoe. He met her eyes momentarily and again a flicker of a smile touched his lips. 'Enforced goodwill?'
'Exactly. You have to let us be generous and compassionate.'
'Actually, I've got a rehearsal. I'm part of a Westmeets- East quintet: violin, oud, cello, bass and tabla.'
'Where? In Paine Hall?'
He raised his eyebrows.
'It figures, doesn't it?' she said. 'I'm in math, not music, and I'm at MIT, but I did my undergrad work here and my particular thing is the math of music. I used to hang out at Paine Hall sometimes, pestering people. I'll come and listen.'
He was drumming his fingers on his violin case. 'That's never-No really, it wouldn't work. I don't think the others would accept it.' He looked at her again, curious. 'The math of music?'
'Specifically, changes in the employment of nonaligned wave frequencies from Monteverdi to Bach.'
'That's my area,' he said, his interest quickening. 'Early to high Baroque. My area in Western music, at least.'
'So I figured. From your instrument.'
'Custom-made. Authentic reconstruction.' He stroked the case as a proud father might stroke a child's hair. His eyes glittered. His nervousness fell away like a coat discarded. He hummed a few bars of Monteverdi. 'I prefer Monteverdi's Orfeo to Gluck's, actually, except for that one aria.'
'I thought you couldn't do performance at Harvard.'
'You can't. My doctorate's in composition. But we all perform too.'
'So can I?' she asked.
He broke off humming and frowned. 'Can you what?'
'Be a fly on the wall in your practice room?'
'Oh... no, really. It would interfere. For me it would, anyway.' He sighed, as though defaulting in advance on the ability to explain. 'Look, the truth is, I'm a recluse. I live inside my music, really. I tend to shut out everything else.'
'We're two of a kind, I suspect.'
He smiled politely at this, patently disbelieving.
'Except I live inside pure mathematics,' she said, 'which makes less sense than living inside music, though in my own opinion, my private cave is just as beautiful.'
'You don't understand.' He hefted the violin case under his right arm and raked the fingers of his left hand, agitatedly, through his hair. 'I listen to music, I play music, I compose it. I don't do anything else. I mean, I don't know how. I'm just no good at anything normal. I don't know how to have coffee with someone.'
Leela did lean toward him then. 'I could teach you,' she said.
'Why?' He seemed genuinely curious to know the answer.
Why? Leela asked herself. A question of harmonics, perhaps, of vibrating at the same frequency. Or then again, because she could not bear to walk away from him. 'I don't know,' she said, though this was less than the absolute truth. Incongruously, she was awash in childhood sensations: the sense of an interlocking part.
'I don't know,' she said again. 'You remind me of someone I grew up with. That's not a good reason, is it? I don't know if this one's any better, but I just want to. I want you to want to.'
Impulsively, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the lips.
He took a step back, affronted, but his eyes met hers again and they stood there, for seconds or minutes, and then he reached for her with his right hand and almost crushed her, the violin case pressed awkwardly between. He kissed her like a man starved for contact, and they stood there in the middle of Harvard Square, oblivious, devouring each other, crowds parting around them.
'Sweet Jesus,' Leela gasped, coming up for air.
'Where can we go?' he asked.
She raised her eyebrows and gulped a little with laughter. 'What about the rehearsal?'
'I don't need practice.'
'I mean your East-West quintet.'
'It's actually not until tomorrow,' he confessed.
'In that case,' she decided, 'we could go to my place. It's close, if you don't mind a short walk. I'm just north of the Yard.'
Hours afterwards, she said drowsily: 'I don't know your name.'
'I don't know yours.'
He moved the bow of his mouth, as though feathering an instrument, lightly from her lips to her breasts, but said nothing.
'I could call you Orpheus,' she said.
'But what's your real name?'
'I don't know,' he sighed. 'Not really. The one I have isn't part of me.'
'The one I'm stuck with isn't part of me either,' she said. She wrote her name in cursive script across his chest with the tip of her index finger. He reached for her finger and sucked it. 'I was baptized Leela-May Magnolia Moore in Promised Land, South Carolina, and you can't get worse than that.'
'It's the kind of town you can't wait to leave. To this day, in Promised Land, I'm known as Leela-May. My daddy calls me LeelaMayMagnolia like it's one single word, but he's the only living soul who can say it and not get shot.'
'The name on my passport is Michael Bartok.'
'No relation to the composer. Or if we are, it's so distant, it doesn't count. Bartok was my mother's family name.'
'Is she Hungarian?'
'My grandparents were. Hungarian Jews. My mother was born in Australia.'
'Then there could be a link with Béla Bartók.'
'My grandfather and my great uncle played the violin, so there's music in my genes, but as far as we know they're not Béla Bartók's genes. I get music from both sides. I get the Persian classical influence and the oud from my father.'
'Yet you choose to go by your mother's family name. It can't hurt your career.'
He recoiled and swung his feet to the floor and crossed the room. He pressed his forehead against her window and drummed his fingers on the glass. His agitation was violent. 'I didn't choose-I was born out of wedlock, as they say. That's the name on my birth certificate. I'm legally stuck with it.'
Leela went to him and put her hands lightly on his shoulders. She pressed her cheek against his back. 'I'm sorry,' she said.
'I don't care about the history of your name. I just love the sound of it,' she said. 'Michael Bartok.'
'No one has ever called me Michael. I was Mishka to the family and at school.'
'Mishka Bartok,' she murmured with her lips against his back. 'That's even more beautiful. A chromatic melody. It's you.'
'It isn't me. It doesn't feel like me. I don't know who it is. My visa says non-resident alien. That's me.'
'Names are always a problem,' Leela said. 'They're never you. They're baggage from your parents.'
'Mine is lost baggage,' Mishka said.
'Wish I could lose mine. I thought about changing it. Changing the Leela, I mean. Obviously anyone who calls me Leela-May is dead on the spot.'
'Today is my birthday,' Mishka said. 'My father died before I was born. The only thing I know about him is that he played the oud. I didn't even know his name until I was eighteen. Each birthday, I ask myself: how will I live without knowing who I am?'
'What I tell people here is that Leela is Sanskrit. Someone told me lila is Sanskrit for the Hindu gods at play. I like that. Sport of the gods. I thought of changing the spelling, but why bother?'
'Sport of the gods,' Mishka Bartok said. 'That's what we are.'Copyright © 2007 Janette Turner Hospital
Reprinted with permission.
Leela is a gifted mathematician who has escaped her small Southern town to study in Boston. From the first moment she hears Mishka, a young Australian musician, playing his violin in a subway, his music grips her, and they quickly become lovers.
Their souls, bodies, lives are fused, and love offers protection of sorts from the violence and anxiety around them, until Leela is taken off the street to an interrogation centre somewhere outside the city. There has been an 'incident', an explosion on the underground; terrorists are suspected, security is high. And her old childhood friend Cobb is conducting a very questionable investigation.
Now he reveals to her that Mishka may not be all he seems. That there may be more to his past than his story of growing up in the Daintree with an eccentric musical family. Leela has already discovered that Mishka is spending some evenings not at the Music Lab but at a cafe. A cafe, Cobb tells her, known to be a terrorist contact point.
Who can she believe?
In this compelling re–imagining of the Orpheus story, Leela travels to an underworld of kidnapping, torture and despair in search of the truth –– and the man she loves.(back to top)
Janette Turner Hospital was born in Melbourne in 1942. She grew up in Brisbane and attended Queensland University and Kelvin Grove Teacher College earning a BA in 1965. She later taught in country Queensland and Brisbane, married Clifford Hospital in 1965 and moved with him to Boston, USA, and then on to Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Her short stories and novels have won international awards, and she is published in 10 languages. In 1995, Griffith University awarded her an honorary doctorate for service to Australian literature. Though her life is globally nomadic, she continues to spend part of every year in Queensland, and still considers Brisbane home.
Janette has just been appointed Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina - a rare honour for which there are only ever 26 positions. She was awarded the 2003 Russell Research Award for Humanities and Social Sciences for most distinguished publications by a faculty member.
Janette has held Writer-in-Residence positions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, the University of Sydney and La Trobe University in Melbourne. She divides her time between Canada, the USA and Queensland.