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Margo Glantz: El rastro (The Wake)

This is one of the two novels by Margo Glantz to be translated into English and a very fine novel it is. Nora Garcia is a professional cellist. She had been married to Juan, a famous pianist, composer and conductor. They had divorced some time ago after he was unfaithful to her. He has now died after a long heart disease and Nora is returning to the Mexican village where they lived together and Juan has remained, for the first time in a long while. When she arrives at the wake, there are plenty of people there, most of whom she does not recognise. Her first impressions are not positive. She looks at the various people and, in her head is quite critical of them, their appearance and their behaviour: (the words wafted to me or swept away on the wind, the tyrant jealousy, the vile yet foolish suspicion that comes over me, the evil thoughts (the resentment and suspicion), the hypocritical sentences). Many of them seem to be musicians or, at least, associated with the music business.

She goes over to the casket – it is an open casket – and looks at her ex-husband. She is struck by the fact that he seems to have a moustache, something he never had when she was with him. Then she is approached by Maria, a woman she did know, who proceeds to give her account of his illness. Once again, she drifts away, her thoughts about their past together, about music, about people she knew. Gradually, we realise that this account is being written somewhat like a piece of music, with various themes drifting in and out, changing slightly, merging with other themes.

She remembers an incident with a bossy female friend who spent her end of the year bonus on buying them all tequilas. She thinks about the Goldberg Variations and, in particular, Glenn Gould’s interpretation of it. (There is a doctoral thesis to be written about the the role of the Goldberg Variations and, in particular, Glenn Gould‘s interpretation of it in the contemporary novel, as it appears in quite a few novels, including the last novel I read.) Juan died of heart disease and she gives a lot of thought to the heart, primarily medical (she thinks of the first heart operation, heart transplants, open heart surgery) but also romantic. She thinks, of course, of her life with Juan, above all their playing music together, he on the piano, she on the cello. She thinks of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a book she has enjoyed reading and, though she does not make the direct comparison, she clearly identifies with Nastasya Filippovna and identifies Juan with Rogozhin.

Above all, inevitably, she thinks about music. I have already mentioned the Goldberg Variations and she thinks a lot about them. She compares Gould’s two recordings of it, one when he was only twenty-five, made in 1955 before a live audience, a performance and recording which made his name, and one in 1981, one of the last recoding he made (and one of the last recordings made at the Columbia studios he liked so much). Gould himself had compared the two in an interview she quotes, saying the earlier one, which was over fourteen minutes shorter than the later one, was a far less mature work, in which he has essentially played thirty-two separate variations, while the later one he had performed as a coherent whole. Juan had adored Gould but she had always preferred Sviatoslav Richter, as he had a far larger repertoire, continued touring till quite late in his life and was far more humble than Gould.

As a cellist she also thinks of other cellist, particularly Jacqueline du Pré and her sad end, which also leads her onto thoughts of love and the death of love. But she also thinks of various composers and performers, so much so that, while reading the book, I was sitting there with my tablet, digging out performances on YouTube of singers such as Daniel Davies and composers such as Marin Marais, whose work I was not familiar with. Juan himself had spent a lot of time researching favourite composers and their lives.

The book ends with the actual burial ceremony and again she hears the displeasing medley of voices (I pretend I’ve heard nothing, I pretend I know know no-one. The truth is, many of the faces don’t speak to me any more, I’ve forgotten them). It is time to move on.

If you are interested in classical music, you cannot help but enjoy this book and you will certainly learn a lot. Even if classical music is not your thing, this is a first-class novel, as a woman meditates on her life with a famous composer/pianist and thinks about their life, their music, her music, and about the heart.

Publishing history

First published by Anagrama in 2002
First English translation by Curbstone Press in 2005