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“The Pianist from Hamburg”, a melody of the memory

The most recent novel from Colombian writer Jorge Eliécer Pardo, proposes a dialogue between Colombian history and the story of Hendrik, a romantic poet exiled in a foreign land.


Jorge Eliécer Pardo

Sergio Perozzo

It’s a novel which tells two stories simultaneously; on one side, the story of Hendrik, a young German-Jewish musician who arrives in Colombia at the beginning of the forties, trying to escape the Nazi holocaust. As the tale unravels, we enter into his memories, and we discover a tangled world which tells as much of his own family history, as it does that of Germany.

In a tangled world of dreams, the protagonist assumes the role of those who pursue him. His unresting desire for the symphony that he yearns to compose is revealed, as is his desire for Matilde, the woman preceded by the yellow flower. On the other side we find a detailed account of the Colombian past from the moment that Hendrik first set foot there.

This account, which takes place first and foremost in Bogotá, represents the tragic events of El Bogotazo and the creation of the guerillas of Guadelupe Salcedo, the dictatorship of Rojas Pinilla and the National Front, the worsening of the civil war and the process of modernisation which transforms the Colombian capital into an enormous metropolis without memory.

If we agree with Germán Espinosa that “by ‘historical novel’ one should understand something which returns to a past time – more or less distant – and whose action unfolds in front of the curtain of a political and social background that took place at some point in a real past”  we can affirm that “The Pianist from Hamburg” (Cangrejo Editores, Bogotá, 2012), is a historical novel due to the use that it makes of Bogotá as a setting.

However, we still do not understand why the novel proposes a dialogue between the history of Colombia, and that of a Jewish pianist from Germany.

To understand this link, it is necessary to get closer to the story of Hendrik.

Hendrik, as the title of the work suggests, is a musician, a pianist. Over the course of all his journeys, just as much in the city spaces as on the plains and in the jungle, his relationship with the world is through the romantic filter of music.

This means that in spite of the fact that the pianist is present during numerous key events in Colombian history, he is capable of existing in a parallel universe interwoven with his own dreams and desires, just as we can observe in the following fragment:

“He also told him that by now Laureano Gómez was travelling towards Spain and that the agricultural reform was a done thing, that he could get hold of a few hectares, that he was a part of the revolution.

Hendrik felt scared when he heard these words hammered home with another toast.

[…] he shut himself in, whilst the dictatorship went on, to write his inconclusive symphony.”

(2012: 83)

In spite of the fact that Hendrik constructs his life on the foundation of his inner self, the weight of history impresses upon his social setting and transforms it.

However, this transformation comes about in such a lingering manner, that the pianist always has the opportunity to hand himself over to his dreams; either through one of Chopin’s preludes, or by way of Brahms’ ‘Concerto Number 1’; ever waiting for his ideal woman, the same that will take him down the winding paths of music and eroticism, a refuge where the musician can give himself up completely to his romantic, gothic nature, even transforming himself into the nocturnal creature par excellence: Nosferatu:

“The noise of the air that came in through the cracks, and the insistent tapping of the window against the frame, transported him to the moderato of Brahms’ Concerto Number 1.

He had inside his battered briefcase the old scores which he knew by heart, which he opened out across the lectern to give himself some company. He went through the pages in his memory, searching for the best movements and listening, deep in their labyrinth, to all of the concerto […] The women, all of them, seemed beautiful to him; but he knew that one, with a yellow flower in her hand, walked from the future, towards him […] Each and every chord of the opera “The Vampire” by Heinrich Marschner because I know that my Matilde loves them so much, that she will come from her bed, where she is now with her husband, dreaming with me, with her vampire professor.

The forbidden love for Matilde submerges Hendrik in the deepest dream, but on the other side reality awaits him: the death of his beloved.

From this moment on, Hendrik begins a new pilgrimage, like some kind of Dante searching for his Beatriz. The pianist hides himself away in the jungle for several years, and when he returns, finds the city transformed and the country in upheaval after so many years of history.

In a last attempt to regain what he has lost, Hendrik loses touch with reality, and moulds himself to his desires.

He finds a new Matilde who he can love and follow into the abyss of alienation, through the sordid streets of the city that once upon a time was his.

Nevertheless, all this is fruitless, and his tragic destiny in the end drags him towards death before he can ever finish the supreme melody that he dreamed about so often.

“Now, in El Cartucho, they got together not just those who came from the absolute misery of the city, but also those who were driven out by war and by mere helplessness.

There converged different regions of the country, first with their families and later divided by the sewer, which destroys everything.”

It may appear that the death of Hendrik represents the final chord in his inconclusive symphony, but this is illusory; when the reader reaches the end of the novel, he realises that he has been listening to a symphony composed of the interweaving of the story of the pianist, and of history itself.

This intertwining does not only constitute the past brought up to date; that is to say, a renewal of history, but it also presents a challenge to the discourse of official history.

It sometimes occurs that, through the act of literary creativity, the historical vision tends, because art works this way, to become more profound, even more true than that of the official historian.

“These found their work upon the meticulous examination of documents, always cold, and nearly always false. The novelist allows his imagination to take flight, and perhaps his lies are in fact truer than the partial truth of the historian.”

‘The Pianist From Hamburg’ forms a historical account more authentically than that of the historian in so far as it is capable of reuniting what is, in appearance, diffuse.

For this reason the novel proposes a dialogue between the past of our nation, and the story of Hendrik, pianist and romantic poet, foreigner, exile, eternal hunter of paradises, who exists so that the Colombian past may become present through him.

Agustín de Hipona considered time to be the most mysterious dimension of our existence, as he perceived it as the dimension most alien, and yet most proper to the human being.

Even today, time retains equally mysterious, hardly quantifiable by clocks and calendars.

However, when the story comes into being, when narration configures times, it is possible to perceive a link between the present and the past; a melody hardly perceptible which speaks of recollection and neglect, a symphony which weaves the history of an amnesiac country in upheaval, and the story of a young pianist who arrived from Hamburg, trying to escape the war which awaited him on this side of history.”

(Translated by Thomas Andrew Wright)

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