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'The Gustav Sonata' - a review

Posted by Simon Parke, 04 November 2019, 10.14am

The hero, if that is the word, is Gustav. And the story greets us with his childhood years in the small Swiss town of Matzlingen, still recovering from WW2.

Switzerland had been terrified of its Nazi neighbours. The Germans had taken Poland, they had taken France – would they come also for the Swiss?

Deals needed to be made…and one of the deals brought an end to Jewish access to the safety of Switzerland, which so many of them sought.

But while the government directive was clear – ‘No more Jews; Jews to be sent back’ - it was not easy for Swiss citizens in a position to help. They knew the fate of Jews sent back to their homeland.

So which law to obey – national or moral? The dilemma facing the Swiss police chiefs impacts significantly on Gustav’s young life.

It is a perplexing childhood, trapped and controlled by a bitter and self-centred mother. He learns to love – this is required of him, always to care – but not to be loved, a theme of this sonata.

Though away from his mother, moments of kindness and delight along the way, children do find it – and a childhood friendship with Anton, an anxious Jewish boy, which he can never let go of.

His mother does not encourage the friendship. Instead, Gustav is told by his mother to ‘master himself’.

‘You have to be like Switzerland,’ she says. ‘Do you understand me, Gustav? You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then you will have the right kind of life.’

The story is a sparse sweep through sixty years of altering family dynamics, with revelations, past and present, scattered along the mountainous way. Gustav becomes a hotelier in Matzlingen, providing good food, warmth and care for his guests – things little Gustav would have liked.

While still waiting - as the snow falls and guests come and go - for his mother to love him…

Here is withheld passion and repressed desire, all sadness and hope; and a beautiful noting of motive and consequence as family unravels, tectonic plates shift and ever-new familial formations appear, surprising alliances.

The Gustav Sonata is a short and wonderful novel by Rose Tremain, in minute detail and broad sweep, full of memorable scenes crisply told – as aspiration and reality travel together towards this hotelier’s twilight years; while we, from the enthralled sidelines, so wish the best for him.

Will he break free?

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