Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Mozart Question

Michael Morpurgo has been one of the favourite authors in these parts for a while. He has written more than a hundred books and is the winner of many awards. His journey to becoming a writer is also interesting and one gets a glimpse of it in his collection of essays and short stories called Singing for Mrs Pettigrew. This review though is about The Mozart Question. Illustrated brilliantly by Michael Foreman (the two Michaels pair up fairly often), the backdrop of the story is, like many of Morpurgo's books, the Second World War. Though technically it is for a child between ages 8-12, even older folks will enjoy it.

The story starts with a fresh-from-the-oven reporter who unexpectedly lands with a plum assignment - that of interviewing Paolo Levi, the brilliant but temperamental musician. She is briefed by her boss to be careful about what she asks him as he is known to be very reticent and it has taken a great deal of time and effort to persuade him to do this interview. She is particularly warned to not ask 'the Mozart question'.

Our young lady lands up in Venice and meets Levi who pretty much fits the image she has been given. She blurts out that she has been told not to ask him the Mozart question - which she says she cannot, because she does not even know what it is. She then proceeds to ask him a question which incidentally is the question in question!

Levi spends a few minutes thinking and then tells her that 'the time had come' to tell the secret. He starts his story and takes the reader back to the time when he was a nine-year old living happily with his parents in Venice. Like any child of that age, he pokes around and discovers a hidden violin in his parents room. To his surprise they are vehemently unwilling to tell him anything about it. Around the same time, Paolo meets Benjamin, a violinist who plays at the corner of his street and is mesmerized by his music. The two become friends and Paolo convinces the older man to take him as his student. He smuggles out his parents' violin, gets it repaired and thus begin his secret lessons. Paolo takes to the violin 'as if it was a missing limb' and soon his talent blossoms.

Benjamin insists that one should not keep secrets from one's parents and eventually a reluctant Paolo takes him home expecting to have to face his parents' wrath. Instead he is astonished to find that Benjamin is actually a long-lost friend of his parents and is intrigued by how emotional they all seem upon the unexpected reunion. After some hesitation they decide to tell Paolo their painful secret. The reader is taken back in time once again to the days of Nazi atrocities against Jews, concentration camps and Holocaust horrors. It was their music that saved Paolo's parents and Benjamin, and somewhere in the narrative is the answer to the Mozart question.

So what IS the question and what is the answer? Read it yourself to find out.

Morpurgo is a master story-teller and manages to keep the reader hanging on to his words right up to the last pages. An excellent read and a highly recommended author.

ETA: Picked it up from the Strand Book Fair in Bangalore, have also seen it in major bookshops.


sathish said...

reminds a little bit of the movie 'The Pianist'.

Praba Ram said...

From cricket to music, time travel to historical fiction. And one Michael to another...:-) What a treat!

Chox, you've captured the crux beautifully. Sounds like a movie as Sathish pointed. Reminds me of The Red Violin.

Ok, quick question - older folks who? ;-)

Choxbox said...

Sathish: Absolutely what I thought.
This book by the way has been performed as a play - here's the link:

Praba: LOL and thanks!
Off to google and check The Red Violin.

ranjani.sathish said...

Very interesting pick chox ! Makes me want to pick it up and read for myself !!

Poppy said...

Sounds really nice - will try to pick it up for my nieces

Choxbox said...

Ranjani, Poppy: Do check it out.
Got it from the Strand Book Fair. Have seen a bunch of other Morpurgos in quite a few bookshops.

Sheela said...

Sounds interesting, Chox - have to read it for myself - but, curious how is the text laid out - easy flow? Suggested age is 8-12, so, I am thinking my 9-yr old niece might like it.

Choxbox said...

This one is in fact quite unlike usual Morpurgo books, in the sense it is much shorter at 80 odd pages, and that also includes several full page illustrations.

Definitely would recommend for your niece and for you as well :)

Meera Sriram said...

Checked out Morpurgo's website, very interesting author, of more than 100 books, on very unique subjects as well. This book delfy sounds intense and intriguing. Thanks Chox.

sathish said...

Chox, I am currently reading 'Singing of Mrs. Pettigrew' book - it is very moving. probably one of the best books I have read this year.

sandhya said...

Check this out, Satish-

Choxbox said...

TOTALLy Sathish.
Morpurgo is one of the best children’s authors I have come across. And that book is fab. The child here read it when we were in London - a friend had reco’ed it. Loved it so much we got our own copy.

@Sandhya: You got it at the Strand book fair last year right?! That trip was such fun, what gems we got!

ranjani.sathish said...

Chox, thank you so much for bringing Morpurgo to us. I have been keepigng my eyes open ever since you mentioned here. Now I am reading the collection of essays and stories "Singing with Mrs.Pettigrew". It is so moving and touching to read the stories, and his own personal life essays before the stories are so thought provoking, that I take a break after every para to ruminate on what he has said. His writing is fabulous.

Choxbox said...

@R: The libe has other Morpurgos too, do check them out.

sandhya said...

The kid picked this one up over the weekend. Since she knows a bit about the holocaust now, she 'got' it. Also the violin bits. THere were many questions as usual. Thanks for introducing this wonderful writer to us, Choxie!

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