A Note Of Discord Amid the Harmony
Derek Hand, The Irish Times
Judith Mok is btter known as a successful soprano but she has also published books of poetry and prose in her native Netherlands. Gael is her first fiction in the English language and there is much to admire, not least the lyrical writing, which at times creates a dream-like atmosphere. Throughout, different narrative perspectives are employed: first and third person voices, and different characters, too, tell their story from their own vantage point. Each voice and perspective intensifies this consciously impressionistic prose. And, as one might expect from an author immersed in music, this is a work intentionally layered with references to musicians and composers, as well as painters and writers.
The Gael of the title is the object of desire for Maria, a young Dutch violinist. He is an Irish artist and attractive to her because of his animal earthiness, so utterly a contrast to the cold and austere world she is used to inhabiting. The blurb on the back of the book suggests that this is a novel about "a particulate type of Irish male psyche", but in truth, what is of interest here is the obsessive, selfish nature of the creative imagination that feeds on the pain and hurt revolving around it. Maria's Jewishness is a factor because of the casual anti-Semitism she encounters - in Ireland, but also in the aristocratic Parisian circles she moves in with her first husband, and also in America. It is a factor, too, owing to the fascinating background stories of her parents and their brush with death in the Europe of the Holocaust. These are some of the more successful parts of the novel, with hidden hurt alluded to and the sense of these long dead men and women haunting the lives of those who escaped the gas chambers.
Some of the least successful episodes are those centered on Ireland. The subtlety of the engagement with European locales and culture is absent when it comes to describing the Irish scene. The country comes across as a wet, unwelcoming place, obsessed with the Catholic religion and where the only thing anyone seems to eat is a fry. It seems to be an Ireland of the past - of 20 or 30 years ago maybe - as opposed to the frothy cappuccino reality of the present moment. But Ireland is not the main focus of the novel, despite the efforts of the blurb to make it so. Ireland is just one-location in a narrative where the action glides easily from place to place, from character to character, episode to episode. Tension is generated through the juxtaposition of this story centered round a highly destructive and dysfunctional relationship with the often delicate prose employed to tell it. It is a strain that runs through the entire work. To be sure, Gael is quite an awful character, but just one such awful character in a book of many such characters. Nobody - not even Maria - emerges as truly sympathetic by the end. Yet both these main characters are capable of producing objects of beauty, of timeless art.
And that is the Lawrentian mystery at the heart of a novel such as this: striking balance between pain and beauty, between lyrical prose and ugly reality. In a modern world where feeling and emotion are frequently contained and packaged for safe consumption, the kind of raw passion and danger on offer here is certainly worth engaging with.
WHOEVER MAKES MUSIC CAN NEVER BE REALLY UNHAPPY
Judith Mok, De Beul/The Executioner
Meulenhoff, 160 pages, F 29.50
Margot Dijkgraaf, NRC Handelsblad
Ambitious - that is the least you can say about the second novel by writer, poet and classical singer Judith Mok. Music, painting, the Second World War, the themes of happiness, birth, death and loss, Mok compresses them all into the hundred and sixty pages of The Executioner. As in an historical epic, a range of characters wander through past and present; through prewar Vienna, German-occupied Amsterdam, Fascist Italy, Cordoba in the Franco era and wartime Chicago. Paintings come to life, a decade passes in the blink of an eye, people meet and lose each other again - they are the proverbial pawns of history. It will be clear by now that Mok doesn't give a fig for unity or unambiguousness in any shape or form. Her time structure is vague, the past of her characters is impenetrable. With a rucksack full of sorrow they wander the globe, like powerless objects in the grip of fate. Nevertheless, the book does not sink under the weight of these ingredients, which could easily have made it top-heavy. That is due to Mok's passionate, baroque tone and her ability to evoke a paralyzing surrealistic atmosphere which the reader cannot easily escape from.
The beginning is laborious. The first chapter, consisting of twenty pages, seems designed to put off the reader. You have to be very tolerant in order to put up with a large amount of characters introduced at breakneck speed. They all have complicated names and their relation to each other is not explained. The international company which gathers on Friday 31 December 1999, under the strange pleading eyes of an African 'Kaftan Man' in Salzburg, 'in the centuries-old Konditorei Tosi, where Josef Haydn used drink his morning coffee', seems to hardly cohere. When these already vague characters take on other identities by means of a masque designed to bring to life a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, in which apart from the painter and his model an old Italian aristocrat also plays a role, as reader you are about to give up. Luckily, after this the writer starts again, it becomes interesting and often and moving and absorbing. On the eve of the Second World War the young Jewish-American student Marc Wolfram meets the Jewish-Spanish Gypsy Ermelina Ruiz, in Cordoba. They decide to leave together for America, but Ermelina doesn't manage to get a ticket and is stranded in Amsterdam, pregnant with their daughter. The tone, at the beginning so cheerful, turns somber. 'When they arrived in Amsterdam there was a street organ on the bridge. With Spanish statues as decoration. She felt just like those statues, rigid with excess emotion…Now the organ was silent, put away due to wartime regulations.' Ermelina is arrested, sent to a concentration camp, but escapes death because the camp executioner employs her as a servant in his house. Her daughter stays behind with friends, a musical Amsterdam family. Marc goes to work for the FBI in order to get revenge for his wife and child who have been given up for dead. He becomes an executioner.
What follows is a passionate, fragmentary and yet convincing account of a struggle to survive. Symbols of death and decay, of menace and night, of fear and secrecy, illustrate the infernal journey of Ermelina and Marc; a black executioner's cap, shadows on the rear window, closed envelopes with photos of the condemned, a mini-guillotine. The sometimes heavy symbolism contributes to a certain 'Gothic' atmosphere, as in the late eighteenth century novels of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, but The Executioner is certainly not a horror novel of the vampire genre.
What keep's Mok characters going is their love for music and painting. As a boy, Marc was struck by Leonardo's painting 'Woman with Ermine', which shows a girl called Ermelina. Marc becomes a Da Vinci expert and after the war, professor in art history. What painting is for one, music is for the other. Ermelina becomes a singer. As servant in the house of the German camp executioner, she meets a German diva, who has been opportunistically singing her way through the war: Pergolesi, Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Der Tod und das Madchen, with as ambiguous highpoint her perfumed Schubert recital in Austwich, accompanied by an Amsterdam camp quartet - 'In hell it smelt of Guerlain'.
A comparable scene, just as beautiful and gripping, is to be found in Ingrid Coven, the Goncourt-Prizewinning novel by Jean-Jacques Schuhl. Mok's image also evokes associations with Anna Enquist's arrested Jewish music teacher from her novel 'The Secret'. 'Whoever makes music is never really unhappy', writes Mok. 'Music leads us by the nose and seduces us', writes Schuhl. 'When you play Bach then you tidy up your inner life', writes Enquist. By evoking a subtle play of forces between the horrors of history on the one hand, and painting and music on the other, Mok succeeds in arousing real emotions in the reader. And in doing so, the book succeeds despite its ambitious construction.
Hanna de Heus, BAROQUE ORCHESTRATED FAMILY CHRONICLE
The beginning of Judith Mok's second novel, The Executioner, causes us to fear the worst: a big family gathers on New Year's Eve 1999, to inspect the family history. Names are showered upon us while none of the characters is explained, except in the roles of grandfather, grandmother, aunt, grandchild, son, daughter, brother-in-law, and so on. In addition, the characters come from the four corners of the earth: USA, France, Spain, the Netherlands, which makes it even more confusing. But Mok soon abandons the family reunion, and starts to really tell us the history of this family, starting at the beginning. Then it becomes interesting. We read how the family members lose touch with each other, to begin with because of the war, but later by coincidences, then rediscover each other and then manage to find a new balance with each other.
The story is cleverly constructed; loose ends are gradually tidied up in a logical fashion and the way in which all the events are related is revealed. Everything actually is related to the role of the 'executioner', on the one hand in the form of the camp commandant of Austwich, on the other hand in the form of the man who condemns war criminals after the war. But although Mok's story is partly based on real events, her language is baroque and theatrical. This does not make the grim, cynical story just below the surface, any less horrific, but makes it less oppressive. More than death is mourned, in this story life is celebrated.