Wednesday 21 March 2018

A lifelong bond and an outsider's search for peace

Fiction: The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain, Random House, pbk, 256 pages, €20.55

Bond: Tremain's novel plots the course of a 65-year friendship.
Bond: Tremain's novel plots the course of a 65-year friendship.

Sophie Gorman

Gustav Perle is friendless, until Anton Zwiebel appears weeping at the door of his kindergarten class. It is 1948, in the small Swiss town of Matzlingen, somewhere "between the Jura and the Alps", somewhere that thinks of itself as neutral but where the ripples of the relatively recent WWII have left deep scars. Gustav has lived alone with his mother Mutti since the death of his father when he was just a baby. Anton is the son of a rich banker, Jewish, "the people your father died trying to save", says Mutti. She is wary of the Zwiebels, their otherness. And this otherness momentarily distances Anton, who finds a more suitable friend to go skating with.

Acclaimed author of The Road Home, Rose Tremain's tender new novel plots the course of 65 years of this friendship, questioning what friendship is, what sustains it, and what happens when it strays into desire. But Tremain has often been drawn to outsiders and The Gustav Sonata is really about betrayal and forgiveness and an outsider's search for happiness.

Divided into three sections, part one opens in 1947, with Gustav and his Mutti, all that he has in the world. When she later contracts pneumonia and must stay in hospital, he is alone but no one must know this, not even her. There is one can of tomato soup in the cupboards. He is too hungry to ration it, he drinks it all. He is now 10 years old. And, throughout his childhood, Gustav is often the parent, caring for rather than being cared for.

Tremain explores how children process tragedy, the practicality of it. Gustav is not unaware of his suffering, the inequality of it. He bears it for the main part impressively stoically, but there are moments of resentment, of envy for the lives of others. And moments, too, of pure happiness, when Anton's family take Gustav on holiday with them to the Alpine town of Davos and the two boys discover an abandoned sanatorium and devise their own wonderfully sinister game where they decide who will survive.

In part two, the clock goes back to 1937, to a time when Mutti was 20-year-old Emilie Albrecht, when she first sets eyes on the man who would become her husband, 34-year-old Assistant Police Chief Erich Perle. They meet when passion is running high at the town's annual Schwingfest. He wins the wrestling contest and the eye of Emilie and her friend Sofie. He initially returns the eye of Sofie, but Emilie is determined and boldly asks him to kiss her. Her single-mindedness is both her triumph and her downfall.

The third act opens in 1992, still in Matzlingen, with a now 50-year-old Gustav surveying all that he has achieved from the successful hotel he owns. He is glad that the neighbouring cheese cooperative where his mother once worked has gone, so he doesn't have to think about his mother coming home, "smelling of Emmental and using this smell as a reason for never hugging or kissing her son". And the one thing he has still never achieved is love from his mother.

This conclusion is overly-involved with resolution, but it does allow us more access to a crucial missing character, Gustav's father, Erich, how he acknowledged his passion and was led by it, how he was determined to master himself. He didn't settle for a life half-lived and his son is waking up to this now.

Tremain details the physical toll of heartbreak and this is laced with sadness as happiness eludes. But we feel for Gustav, we want him to break free, to attain it. Crucially, through Tremain's crafting, we have hope for him, all is not lost.

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