Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Bach as bigot

Had Johann Sebastian Bach been born 250 years later, might he have become a Nazi?

That seems more than possible in Lauren Belfer's novel And After the Fire in which Susanna Kessler, following the death of her uncle, finds in his Buffalo home what appears to be an unknown Bach cantata, the words of which call for the violent persecution of Jews. The words are those of Martin Luther. The uncle, a veteran, had brought  it home from Germany after World War II and kept it hidden ever since.

Susanna, herself a non-believing Jew who had lost members of her family in the Holocaust, turns to two young Bach experts to determine if this is indeed a Bach cantata. It is. Meanwhile both men, a Jew and a Lutheran, fall in love with her. A third Bach expert learns about the cantata and decides he knows best about what to do with it, if only he can bend Susanna to his will.

While moving this story along, Belfer traces the history of the cantata from the time one of Bach's sons, near the end of his life, gives it to his best music student, a young Jewish woman from an aristocratic family. It passes through other hands, including the family of composer Felix Mendelssohn, until the time Susanna's uncle finds it, more accurately steals it, in 1945. So skilled a writer is Belfer that both threads of the narrative prove equally interesting.

She never fully develops the love triangle aspect of her novel, nor the greedy ambitions of that third Bach expert. Her interest, for better or worse, seems to lie more with the cantata than with the characters.

I couldn't love this book as much as I did Belfer's first novel, City of Light. This has much to do with the way the thrust of her story seems to blame Christians for the Holocaust in much the same way some Christians, including the Bach of this novel, have blamed Jews for the Crucifixion. Throughout the novel her most favored characters, both Christians and Jews, are those who no longer believe anything, as if this were the best way to achieve peace and understanding. Tell that to the millions of people persecuted by atheist regimes in places like China, North Korea, Cambodia and the former Soviet Union.

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