Friday, September 4, 2015

"Requiem for a Holy Island", pianist Zecharia Plavin's novel about music and society

“Requiem for a Holy Island” is the first English language novel of Zecharia Plavin. Originally written in Russian, but somewhat changed and translated into English by the author, the book was published in 2015 by Dekel Publishing House, Tel Aviv, Israel and Samuel Wachtman’s Sons, Inc., CA, USA. It is basically the story of a community of a small island living under the tyrannical leadership of people of warped minds and tells of the committed people who strive to change it. The story is woven of several layers, each with its own agenda and characters, but all connect. It spans whole lifetimes in pre-war France, French Saigon, the island – Pinto Island - and Paris in the late 20th century.

We enter the story frame via a woman’s search for her lost love, Illirio Mariafels. A courageous and energetic idealist, Illirio has the gift of singing in two voices simultaneously and teaching the island children the technique, its unique sound bringing tranquility, albeit temporary, to those who hear it.  Illirio’s mother is the French concert pianist Adélaïde Fourangier, who spends many years on the island, mostly teaching piano. Illirio’s father is Costas Tegularius, a doctor most determined to rid the island of its emotionally and physically toxic leadership. Then there is the endearing old traveler and director of the meteorological station Jean-Luc Lefevbre, a person steeped in wisdom: “…truth be told, I no longer know the difference between laughter and weeping. In old age I think they become the same”. (p.278) These people are the novel’s major characters. They represent culture, human warmth, idealism and social conscience in an environment so negative, so physically disgusting and degrading that their goodwill shines brightly in the environment of a warped regime, whose main victims are the islanders themselves.

For the music-lover and educationalist there is much written on the subject of music practice, the learning process, concert criticism, on the choice of piano repertoire and on children’s music education; there are references to the great Franco-Swiss pianist and teacher, known especially for his interpretation of the works of Chopin and Schumann, Alfred Cortot (Adélaïde’s teacher). Among the most poignant descriptions of the book are accounts of the young islanders’ piano and vocal studies and the naïve beauty of these in a contaminated world in which so many islanders perish. Plavin also draws our attention to the harm caused by hard-headed directors of conservatories and music inspectors and how limiting their narrow-mindedness is on those teaching and those learning. As to the meeting of different musical cultures, the writer brings together the musical worlds of the French Romantic piano school and the folk culture of Pinto Island in Illirio’s ventriloquial singing.

Most of the book consists of diary entries, recordings, reports or newspaper articles. A very few photos give the story a sense of reality. Kathleen Roman’s language editing is consistent; I personally would rather the use of “children” than “kids” (slang).  “Requiem for a Holy Island” is definitely a page-turner; it is enormously rich in content, joyful and tragic; but, most importantly for both writer and reader, Zecharia Plavin is making a statement on the horrors of stringent regimes of so-called “justified” ideologies, such as those of the Nazis, Stalin, Al-Qaeda, etc., of narcissistic regimes devoid of all human conscience. Making his point, he does not soft-pedal when it comes to countless (at times, excessive) descriptions of the disgusting physical filth promoted as a way of life by the ideology of the island’s secretaries. In her diary entry of March 28th 1977, Adélaïde writes: “The island is now the embodiment of Danté’s Inferno, with naked secretaries dancing around their own excrement like wild apes. They have lost all resemblance to humans…” (p.278)

Softening some of the horror of the island situation described are two tender and rich relationships – Adélaïde and Costas and Illirio and the musically gifted Nissa. Those readers with a sharp eye may just pick up on many symbols: dates of certain events that parallel to those of Stalin’s death, Kennedy’s death, demolition of the Berlin Wall, etc.; Jean-Luc’s name comes from that of Jean-Luc Picard, a character from “Star Trek”; and, with Plavin being an admirer of Hermann Hesse, the name (Costas) Tegularius comes from Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”, in which Fritz Tegularius represents a prophecy of what Castalians might become if they remain insular; the name (Illirio) Mariafels is taken from  the Benedictine monastery from the same novel. And, as Illirio’s two-voiced singing represents two cultures - the fabric of any peace-making process and a weapon against fanaticism, Zecharia Plavin’s message is that peace is created from the joining of two voices, of two cultures. In Plavin’s own words: “Illirio’s chant is the hope for all future liberal idealists who look for identities to lean upon in their struggles for liberty, dignity and fairness for their fellow people”.
Author, scholar, composer, concert pianist and educator Zecharia Plavin was born in Lithuania in 1956, immigrating to Israel in his youth. Professor Plavin teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and at the Ono Academic College.

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