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The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

The themes of this book suggest that New Zealand author Sarah Quigley has been communing with the artistic and historical ghosts of Berlin, her home for the past decade.

The Conductor is extraordinarily ambitious, and for the most part it succeeds. Its conceit is the survival, and importance, of artistic pursuits under extreme duress – how the human urge to make and create can triumph over the dark desire to dominate and destroy.

Quigley has chosen as her setting not the German capital but Leningrad, in the grim months of 1941 and early 1942, as the Third Reich conducted the fateful Operation Barbarossa to conquer Russia.

Her people – who grow smaller both literally and figuratively, as the enemy approaches and the siege of the city and the starvation of its citizens begins – are a small, endearing coterie of artists, some historical figures and some inventions.

She presents the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich as a mid-30s workaholic who obsesses over his symphonies at the expense of his young family. At this time, Shostakovich was writing his renowned Seventh Symphony (nicknamed Leningrad), and combining periods of compulsive creativity with rest breaks in which, by Quigley’s description, he would down vodka with his close friend Ivan Sollertinsky, a professor at the Leningrad Conservatory and the competitive, egoistic artistic director of the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

A more fleeting appearance is made by Yevgeny Mravinsky, who by the time the novel begins has cemented the Philharmonic’s reputation as one of Europe’s greatest. Quigley glosses over the flight from the falling Leningrad of Mravinsky and his principal orchestra, choosing instead to devote much of the narrative to the superhuman efforts of Karl Eliasberg, who was left behind with the ailing members of the reserve orchestra and conducted the premiere of Shostakovich’s symphony.

Another plotline is more personal, following the travails of Eliasberg’s lead violinist, a widower who believes his young daughter, a talented cellist, to have died on her way to a safe haven outside the city.

At times, the intensity with which Quigley evokes her characters’ inner lives is reminiscent of the visceral, portentous prose of Edgar Allan Poe: unable to sleep for fretting over his professional responsibilities and the destabilization of Europe, Shostakovich, “his mind stretched as tightly as rope”, hallucinates the sensation of a rat running across his face – “rasping claws, a dragging leathery slither, a foul breath mixing with his.”

Later, she neither shies away from nor glorifies the horror of the siege, as food supplies run out and survival becomes a matter of cunning and a willingness to consume what others will not. Nikolai’s suspiciously healthy-looking neighbours are revealed to be capturing and cooking rats, while human bodies in the street, once disinterred from the ever-present snow, are found to be missing their fleshiest parts. These have been removed and eaten by others.

While the nature of the completed symphony is not Quigley’s concern – it was celebrated at the time as an impassioned, defiant response to Nazi militarism – her homage to the beauty and power of art, and to the value of courage, is her own, deserved triumph.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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