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Harmonics by Marcus Malte

July 15, 2017 12 comments

Harmonics by Marcus Malte (2011) Original French title: Les harmoniques. Not available in English.

Last year, I read The Boy by Marcus Malte and I was blown away by the virtuosity and musicality of his prose. The Boy was Malte’s first attempt at literary fiction after writing a few crime fiction novels. I wanted to try his earlier work and decided to read Harmonics.

Harmonics is set in Paris where the young Vera Nad was murdered or more precisely, she was burnt alive. Mister is a jazz pianist in a night club in Paris. Vera used to come and listen to him play. They bonded over music. Mister was falling for her when she died and their budding relationship was crushed too. Mister is not satisfied with the police’s version of Vera’s murder. He’s restless and wants to dig further and understand what happened to her. He embarks his friend Bob on his journey. They’re a weird pair, the Parisian pianist and the Chti philosopher/taxi driver.

Vera was from ex-Yugoslavia and soon the two friends realize that her death has something to do with her community here in France. Mister doesn’t know much about Vera’s past and he wonders why he’s so infatuated with her that he can’t let go. The investigation progresses. Mister and Bob discover that Vera was in the besieged Vukovar in 1991 during the civil war that destroyed Yugoslavia. She was ten at the time and she lived through the traumatic three-month siege of this multicultural town by the Serb army.

Harmonics is the exploration of Mister’s love for Vera, of Vera’s past and a vivid recollection of the Vukovar siege. The novel opens with a play list of jazz pieces. Each song becomes an interlude, a moment when we hear Vera’s voice. It’s in italic in the book, a pause in the novel, like rests on a partition. Music and war are interlaced in the novel, because music is rooted in Mister’s being, because war left an indelible mark on Vera’s soul, because jazz is the musical bridge between these two beings.

The title of the book is explained in this dialogue between Mister, Bob and Milosav, a young man who brought decisive help in the investigation:

Mister dressa un index.

– Les harmoniques…dit-il

Milosav leva les yeux au plafond, s’attendant peut-être à en voir surgir des créatures extraterrestres.

– Harmeûniques? C’est quoi, harmeûniques?

– Les notes dernières les notes, dit Mister. Les notes secrètes. Les ondes fantômes qui se multiplient et se propagent à l’infini, ou presque. Comme des ronds dans l’eau. Comme un écho qui ne meurt jamais.

Sa voix shuntait elle aussi à mesure qu’il parlait. Bob plissa les paupières. Il observait son ami avec attention. Il ne voyait pas encore où celui-ci voulait en venir.

– Ce qui reste quand il ne reste rien, dit Mister. C’est ça, les harmoniques. Pratiquement imperceptibles à l’oreille humaine, et pourtant elles sont là, quelque part, elles existent.

(…)

– Il n’y a pas que la musique, dit Mister, qui produit des harmoniques. Le bruit des canons aussi. Qui sait au bout de combien de temps elles cessent de résonner?

Mister lifted a finger.

“Harmonics”, he said

Milosav looked at the ceiling, as if he were expecting aliens coming down from there.

“Harmoonics? What is harmoonics?”

“The notes behind notes.”, Mister said. “Secret notes. Ghost waves that multiply and propagate infinitely or almost infinitely. Like ripples on a pond. Like a never-ending echo.”  

His voice shunted too when he talked. Bob squinted. He observed his friend attentively. He hadn’t understood yet where he wanted to go with this.

“What remains when there’s nothing left, Mister said. That’s what harmonics are. Almost imperceptible to the human ear, and yet, they are somewhere, they exist.”

 (…)

“Music is not the only thing that produces harmonics”, Mister said. “The sound of cannons does too. Who knows when they stop resonating?”

And that’s the crux of Malte’s argumentation, the one that goes beyond the crime investigation. What are the invisible damages done by war? How long do they affect the people who lived through it.

I had the opportunity to talk to Marcus Malte at Quais du Polar. I gushed about The Boy and he told me, “This is different”, in a way that meant, “I hope you won’t be disappointed”. Well, I disagree with him. Several themes that are key in The Boy are already in Harmonics. Music and war. The way music brightens our lives. The absurdity and sheer cruelty of war and its psychological damages.

I loved Harmonics too, even if I think the ending is a bit sketchy. It is one of those crime fiction books that makes you question the value of the boxes literary fiction and crime fiction and wonder why they should be mutually exclusive.

I picked Harmonics among Malte’s other books because he was giving a literary concert based on it at Quais du Polar. What’s a literary concert? It’s a performance where the writer reads chapters of his books and between chapters, jazz musicians performed the songs from the playlist. I urge you to check it out here even if you don’t speak French. It is a magical experience, especially with a book like this one. It stayed with me and I could hear him read when I reached the chapters that were included in the concert.

Malte obviously has a wide musical, literary and crime fiction cultural background. They all mesh and create a unique opus. In an interview, Marcus Malte said that this book is constructed around music, as a noir ballad. The book has 32 chapters like the 32 tempos in jazz standards, 12 parts in italic like the 12 tempos of blues standards.

I read Harmonics a few months ago and it stayed with me, like a lingering melody. For example, there’s a tragi-comic scene in the métro in Paris where Mister meets Milosav, who will later help him with the investigation. It starts in a really comical way with Milosav attempting to earn money in the métro with his blind father by playing music. The father plays the accordion while Milosav belts out lyrics, out of key. I immediately thought of this scene the other day in Paris when I saw musicians like them in Paris.

My billet cannot do justice to the depth and quality of Malte’s prose. It’s poetic, funny, elegant and chic. It all falls into place in an impeccable manner. Du grand art.

I am sorry to report that Harmonics is not available in English. In the Translation Tragedy box it goes. Malte won the prestigious Prix Femina for The Boy. Hopefully he’ll catch the attention of an English-speaking publisher. For another review, here’s Marina-Sofia’s.

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