Orpheus Lost

Orpheus Lost

by Janette Turner Hospital

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Overview

A Library Journal Best Book and Booklist Editor's Choice: "This astonishingly rich novel...will entrance readers."—Library Journal, starred review


In this compelling reimagining of the Orpheus myth, Leela, a young mathematician, encounters gifted Australian musician Mishka performing in the subway. The connection is immediate; a steamy love affair ensues. Insulated by their love, the pair ignores the anxious urban landscape. But when Leela is picked up off the street and taken to an interrogation center and an explosion rocks the subway, the fabric of their bond—and their very identities—begins to unravel. Reading group guide included.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393334142
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/17/2008
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Janette Turner Hospital received Australia's Patrick White Award for lifetime literary achievement, and is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

Read an Excerpt

Afterwards, Leela realized, everything could have been predicted from the beginning. Every clue was there, the ending inevitable and curled up inside the first encounter like a tree inside a seed. The trouble was that the interpretation was obvious only in retrospect.

Fact one: Mishka Bartok was an insoluble equation.

Fact two: Leela could never leave insoluble equations alone. Before Mishka, she believed that every code could be broken and codes which had yet to be deciphered were an irresistible provocation. They kept her awake at night.

She did sense from the start that Mishka was a question without an answer, but she could not accept this. Neither could she prove it. Not then. The riddle of Mishka was like Fermat’s last theorem for which no solution exists. In 1630, Fermat himself could prove that all the way to infinity no solution would ever exist, but he kept his proof to himself and it hovered like marsh fire in algebraic and numerical dreams. It lured mathematicians for three centuries, almost for four. It drove them mad. Computations were exchanged between Oxford and Rome, between Berlin, Bologna, the Sorbonne, until finally, late in the twentieth century, someone at Princeton caught the proof of non-provability in his net. “I was ten years old,” the Princeton genius said–Andrew Wiles was his name–“when I first read about Fermat. It looked so simple, his theorem, yet all the mathematicians in history couldn’t solve it. From that moment, I knew I’d never let it go.”

Obsession, wrote a seventeenth-century don who gave his life to the quest, is its own heaven and its own hell.

The words struck Leela like a blow. She copied them onto an index card which she thumb-tacked to the wall above her desk.

Sometimes, in dreams, when the beginning began again, Mishka would warn her: “Don’t follow me, Leela.” He would lift the violin to his chin and begin to play. He would turn his back and walk away from her, walk down into the subway tunnels, deeper and deeper, the bow rising above his left shoulder and falling again, the notes drifting back, plaintive and irresistible. “Leave me alone,” he would say. “Don’t follow me.”

“Where are you going?” Leela would call, but he never answered.

Leela would push against the fog of underground air, her eyes fixed on the pale flash of bowstrings until the dark swallowed them. “Mishka! Wait!” she would call. “Wait for me!”

That always made him pause. “Don’t call me Mishka.” His sadness would speak in a minor key, two sweeps of the bow. “That’s not my name anymore.” He would wheel back then, briefly, to face her and she would see with dread–in dream after recurring dream–that indeed he was no longer Mishka, but a skeletal idea of himself thinly draped in a shroud. Some ghastly internal aura shone from the sockets that were his eyes. Humerus, radius and ulna, the bones of the arm, kept moving his bow across the strings. “Don’t follow me, Leela,” his skeleton warned.

The tunnel smelled of monstrous decay, but even so, even knowing within the dream that she should turn and flee back up into sunlight, Leela would be powerless. Mishka’s music drugged her. Waking or sleeping, she could close her eyes and see him as she saw him that first time: not just the visual memory lurking entire, but the sounds, the sensations, the hurly-burly of Harvard Square, the slightly dank odor of the steps as she descended into the underworld of the Red Line, the click of tokens and turnstiles, the gust of fragrance from the flower sellers, the funky sweat of the homeless, the subdued roar of the trains, and then those haunting notes….

She stood riveted, her token poised above the slot in the turnstile. She had heard two bars, perhaps three, in the brief lull between trains.

“Would you mind?” said someone behind her.

“What? Oh… sorry.” She let the token fall through the slot. She pushed against the steel bar and into the space of the music. There was another pause between trains, a few bars, a stringed instrument, clearly, but also a tenor voice. Was it a cello that the singer was playing? Surely not. No street musician would cart such a large and unwieldy instrument down into the bowels of the city, onto the trains, among the crowds; but the sound seemed too soft for a violin, too husky, too throaty. She could feel the music graphing itself against her skin, her body calculating the frequencies and intervals of the whole subway symphony: base throb of trains, tenor voice, soft lament of the strings, a pleasing ratio of vibrations. Mathematical perfection made her weak at the knees.

She was letting the music reel her in, following the thread of it, leaning into the perfect fifths. Crowds intruded, echoes teased her, tunnels bounced the sound off their walls–now the music seemed to be just ahead, now to the right–and two minutes in every five, the low thunder of the trains muffled all. The notes were faint, they were clear, they were gone, they were clear again: unbearably mournful and sweet. Leela was not the only one affected. People paused in the act of buying tokens. They looked up from newspapers. They turned their heads and scanned the walls and ceiling of the subway cavern for speakers. With one foot on the outbound train, a man was arrested by a phrase and stepped back out of the sliding doors.

“Where is that gorgeous sound coming from?” he asked Leela. “Is it a recording?”

“A street musician,” she said. “Someone playing an early instrument, I think, a Renaissance violin, or something like that.”

“Over there,” the man pointed.

“Must be. Yes.”

“Extraordinary,” the man said. He began to run.

Leela followed him the length of the inbound platform to where a dense knot of commuters huddled. For a while the music was clearer as they approached, and then it was not, and then it seemed to be behind them again. Leela turned, disoriented. Her hands were shaking. The man who had stepped back from the outbound train leaned against a pillar with his eyes closed, rapt. Leela saw a woman surreptitiously wiping her sleeve across her eyes.

The violin itself was weeping music. Sometimes it wept alone; sometimes the tenor voice sorrowed along with it in a tongue not quite known but intuitively understood. The singer was singing of loss, that much was certain, and the sorrow was passing from body to body like a low electrical charge.

Leela recognized the melody, but although she could analyze the mathematical structure of any composition, she had trouble remembering titles of works and linking them to the right composers. It was an aria from some early opera, that much she knew. Gluck, probably. She had to hear all of it.

Ahead of her was an impenetrable cordon of backs.

Leela closed her eyes and pressed her hands to her face. She had a sense of floating underwater and the water was warm and moving fast and she was willing to be carried away by it. It was this way back in childhood in summer ponds in South Carolina, or on the jasmine-clotted Hamilton house veranda, or in deep grass, or lying under the pines with local boys; it was this way in later carnal adventures: body as fluid as soul. Everything was part of the euphoric storm surge which swept Leela up and rushed her toward something radiant that was just out of reach.

A fist of air punched her in the small of her back and a tidal wave of announcements drowned the music. Her hair streamed straight out in front of her face like a pennant. Words rumbled like thunder. Stopping all stations to shshshshs clang clang for Green Line change at Park clang shshshshsh…. Bucking and pushing ahead of the in-rush of train, a hard balloon of air plowed through the knot of listeners and scattered them.

That was when Leela caught her first glimpse of Mishka Bartok.

His head was bent over his instrument, his eyes focused on his fingered chords and his bow. He was oblivious to the arrival of the train. His body merged with the music and swayed. He was slender and pale, his dark hair unruly. A small shock of curls fell down over his left eye. When he leaned into the dominant notes, the curls fell across the sounding board of the instrument and he tossed them back with a flick of his head. Leela thought of a racehorse. She thought of a faun. Incongruously, she also thought of a boy she had known in childhood, a boy named Cobb, a curious boy with a curious name, a boy who had been possessed of the same skittish intensity which somehow let you know that, if cornered, this was a creature who would not yield. The violin player had Cobb’s fierce and haunted eyes.

There was no hat on the platform in front of him, no box, no can, no open violin case for donations, and the absence of any such receptacle seemed to bother the listeners. Someone tucked a folded bill into the side pocket of the violin player’s jeans but he appeared not to notice. A student in torn denim shorts took off his cloth hat and placed it beside the closed violin case as tribute and people threw coins and placed dollar bills–ones, fives, tens even–in the hat but the musician seemed indifferent and unaware. Some listeners boarded the inbound train, some seemed incapable of moving. Leela let five trains come and go, bracing herself each time against the buffeting of air. She had now worked her way forward to the innermost circle. She was four feet from the man with the violin. She could feel the intensity of his body like a series of small seismic waves against her own.

Trains arrived and departed, some people left but more gathered, the crowd around the man with the violin kept getting larger. His instrumental repertoire seemed inexhaustible–he barely paused between pieces–but when he sang, it was always and only when he cycled back to the same aria that had first reached Leela’s ears. When he sang, she could not take her eyes off his lips. She touched her own with the pads of her fingers. She had a sensation of falling forward, of free-falling into a well of melody without end. The cautionary words above her desk hovered at the edge of her mind: Obsession is its own heaven and its own hell, but she did not care if she stayed on the inbound platform all day. She wondered fleetingly if hours might have already passed. She gave herself to the wave of music. She wondered if she might have grown gills.

Perhaps because she was now so close to him, perhaps because of the heat that her body gave off, the musician glanced up as he began to sing the aria again. Their eyes met. Something fizzed and smoldered like a lit fuse along the line of sight. Leela let less than one second pass as the last note faded, and then, recklessly, interposed herself between the player and his next chord.

“What is that song?” she asked, or tried to ask, even as his bow hovered above a new beginning. There was a constriction in her chest.

Che farò senza Euridice.” He lowered the violin from his left shoulder and stroked it with the fingers of his bowing hand. “Gluck.”

“Ah.” Leela’s voice came back to her. “I thought it was Gluck.” They stood inches apart. She could see two miniature projections of herself in his eyes.

“It’s the lament of Orpheus,” he said.

“When he descends into the underworld, right? To bring Eurydice back.” Leela was babbling. To stop herself, she put one hand over her mouth and the gesture created a small obstruction in the flow of fixations. He dropped his eyes. He let the tip of his bow rest lightly against the top of one shoe. She studied the lace in his shoe and his hand on the bow. The half moons on his fingernails were white against the pale pink of the nails.

“Seems the right thing to play in the subway,” he said. “For violin, anyway. If I were playing my oud, it would be different.”

“Playing your–?”

“Oud.”

“What is an ood?”

“Persian instrument originally. Like a Renaissance lute.”

“Ahh…. Do you do this often? Play in the subway? I mean, there are always musicians, but I’ve never heard you here before.”

“I normally never play here. Only on the Blue Line, where no one I know is going to see me.”

Coins were showering into the donated hat. People moved into the space between Leela and the violin player, leaning forward, making appreciative comments, placing folded bills in the hat. This startled the musician, or even, perhaps, alarmed him. He seemed for the first time to become aware of the throngs of people.

“Don’t,” he said, distressed. “Thank you, but please don’t. It isn’t necessary. I don’t do this for money. Thank you, thank you, please don’t.” In a nervous rush, agitated, he replaced his violin in its case. He removed the fistful of bills from the hat, stared at them, then stuffed them back again. He did not know what to do with the hat. He regarded it in puzzlement and then left it there, moving in urgent strides toward the exit.

Leela grabbed up the hat and ran after him, but he moved so swiftly that he was already through the turnstile and halfway up the steps into Harvard Square before she caught up. She reached for him and seized him by the sleeve. “You have to take this,” she said, tugging. She was breathing heavily. “It’s rightfully yours.” She took a few gasping and shallow breaths. “It’s a love gift from all those people.”
His face creased in something like pain. “It’s a misunderstanding,” he said. “I do it for the reverberation. I do it for myself. For the sound.”

He has the eyes of Orpheus, Leela thought. He has the eyes of Orpheus at the moment when Eurydice is bitten by the snake, or perhaps when he has lost her for the second time, when she is pulled back into the underworld, forever beyond reach. Leela thought she had never met anyone with such sad eyes, or someone so indifferent to his own sadness. She had an impulse to stand on tiptoe and kiss him. Instead she said: “You could donate the money if you wanted. To the Salvation Army, or a homeless center, or something.”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s a good idea.” But he made no move to take the hat.

“You have a funny accent,” she said.

He raised one eyebrow, and for the first time Leela saw the shadow of a smile. “No I don’t,” he said. “You do.”

“Ah well. Mine’s Southern. I guess that’s foreign in Harvard Square. What’s yours?”

“Australian.”

“Australian. You must be a student.”

“Graduate student.”

“Me too. Are you in Music?”

“Yes.”

He looked around as though searching for escape. Leela noticed that the hand which pushed hair from his eyes was shaking. “Uh…” he said. “Today’s an anniversary. A sort of… a private one. I didn’t quite realize I was playing in public. That’s why I’m–” he gestured at the noisy chaos of Harvard Square–“I didn’t mean to be here. I usually play on the Blue Line.”

“Want to go for a latte?”

“Oh,” he said awkwardly. “Uh….” He looked at his watch. “It’s a difficult day for me.”

“An anniversary.”

Alarmed, he met her eyes briefly, then looked away. “Yes.”

“So you said. A sad one, I gather.”

His hands were cupped over the thin end of the violin case. The fat curved end rested on the pavement between his feet. He pivoted the case, very precisely, in a half circle, as though navigating a passage through a reef.

“I can tell it’s a sad one,” Leela persisted. “That’s why I’d like to offer a latte.”

The violin case made two complete revolutions, then another half circle.

“I know it’s inept,” Leela said, “but it’s the sort of thing we Americans do, we insist on doing.”

He studied his shoe. He met her eyes momentarily and again a flicker of a smile touched his lips. “Enforced goodwill?”

“Exactly. You have to let us be generous and compassionate.”

“Actually, I’ve got a rehearsal. I’m part of a West-meets-East quintet: violin, oud, cello, bass and tabla.”

Reading Group Guide

1. At the start of the novel, Leela realizes that everything could have been predicted from the beginning, because Mishka “was an insoluble equation” and Leela “could never leave insoluble equations alone.” What does that mean to you, by the end of the novel? Do you agree with Leela?

2. What happens to Cobb over the course of the book?

3. Orpheus is one of the only figures in Greek myth to visit the Underworld and return unscathed, due to the immense power of his songs and the music of his lyre. Talk about how the Orpheus and Eurydice story is re-imagined here.

4. Mishka, Cobb, Leela — all of the main characters in this novel were raised by one parent, whose sorrow and regret they grew up with and took on themselves. Discuss the role of losing one’s mother or never knowing one’s father here. How has loss shaped each of these characters?

5. Discuss how Orpheus Lost deals with the effects of terrorism on the lives of ordinary citizens, and especially those of Arab descent. Does the author have a message here about what it’s like to live in post-9/11 America?

6. Why does Mishka get so upset when he sees or hears about a violent event in the media?

7. “Obsession is its own heaven and its own hell.” Leela writes this quote onto a note card and pins it to her bulletin board. Talk about how obsession drives Leela, Mishka and Cobb in this novel, and the dangers they each face by giving in to its power.

8. Discuss the structure of Orpheus Lost. Why does Turner Hospital divide the novel into so many separate “books”? How do the various shifts in perspective help create suspense and keep it high?

9. “This is where we escaped to, Mishka: the promised land” That’s how Mishka’s grandmother sees Australia, and their lush and isolated home. Compare this promised land to Promised Land, Leela’s hometown. What are the religious and/or spiritual realities of both of their homes?

10. As one reviewer has commented, Janette Turner Hospital’s works are “richly imbued with a highly lyrical and luminous quality.” How does her writing style inform the novel’s theme of the immeasurable power of music?

11. What role does Benedict Boykin have in this novel? How about the rest of his family back in Promised Land? Why is he so important to Leela and to Cobb?

12. In the interrogation room, Cobb tells Leela that torture is a necessary preventative measure, by which traitors can be induced to confess before they undermine the public good. While being tortured in Baghdad, Mishka admits to all of the crimes his captors accuse him of, and even “gives up” the names of Dr. Siddiqi and Mr. Hajj. Discuss the effects of such approaches to guilt and innocence in the world today.

Foreword

1. At the start of the novel, Leela realizes that everything could have been predicted from the beginning, because Mishka “was an insoluble equation” and Leela “could never leave insoluble equations alone.” What does that mean to you, by the end of the novel? Do you agree with Leela?

2. What happens to Cobb over the course of the book?

3. Orpheus is one of the only figures in Greek myth to visit the Underworld and return unscathed, due to the immense power of his songs and the music of his lyre. Talk about how the Orpheus and Eurydice story is re-imagined here.

4. Mishka, Cobb, Leela — all of the main characters in this novel were raised by one parent, whose sorrow and regret they grew up with and took on themselves. Discuss the role of losing one’s mother or never knowing one’s father here. How has loss shaped each of these characters?

5. Discuss how Orpheus Lost deals with the effects of terrorism on the lives of ordinary citizens, and especially those of Arab descent. Does the author have a message here about what it’s like to live in post-9/11 America?

6. Why does Mishka get so upset when he sees or hears about a violent event in the media?

7. “Obsession is its own heaven and its own hell.” Leela writes this quote onto a note card and pins it to her bulletin board. Talk about how obsession drives Leela, Mishka and Cobb in this novel, and the dangers they each face by giving in to its power.

8. Discuss the structure of Orpheus Lost. Why does Turner Hospital divide the novel into so many separate “books”? How do the various shifts in perspective helpcreate suspense and keep it high?

9. “This is where we escaped to, Mishka: the promised land” That’s how Mishka’s grandmother sees Australia, and their lush and isolated home. Compare this promised land to Promised Land, Leela’s hometown. What are the religious and/or spiritual realities of both of their homes?

10. As one reviewer has commented, Janette Turner Hospital’s works are “richly imbued with a highly lyrical and luminous quality.” How does her writing style inform the novel’s theme of the immeasurable power of music?

11. What role does Benedict Boykin have in this novel? How about the rest of his family back in Promised Land? Why is he so important to Leela and to Cobb?

12. In the interrogation room, Cobb tells Leela that torture is a necessary preventative measure, by which traitors can be induced to confess before they undermine the public good. While being tortured in Baghdad, Mishka admits to all of the crimes his captors accuse him of, and even “gives up” the names of Dr. Siddiqi and Mr. Hajj. Discuss the effects of such approaches to guilt and innocence in the world today.

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Orpheus Lost 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Scrabblenut on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down from the first page. Her writing is magical. The book involves music and math, terrorism and love. The story is heartbreaking yet uplifting. Highly recommended.
bhowell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a literate thriller which truly will keep you reading until the wee hours of the night. Leela meets and falls in love with Mishka, both students in Boston. Mishka has a mysterious past but Leela's own past in a small southern town arrives to haunt her. Admidst a terrorist attack and post 9/11 paranoia the story is a whirlwind of passion and betrayal which matches the brilliance of her previous novel, 'Due Preparations for the Plague'.
mojomomma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a story about how people deal with desperation. Leela and Mishka fall in love during a time when Boston is undergoing some suicide bombing incidents. Mishka finds out the father he thought had died before he was born is in fact alive in Lebanon and is an admired figure among right-wing Islamic extremists. During a trip to Beirut he and his father are "picked up" for interrogation by a private out-sourced military contractor, who just happens to have grown up with Leela back in South Carolina. It's hard to describe and parts of this book are hard to read, but its really a compelling story.
heathereb on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really loved this book. I know the storyline seemed a bit far-fetched at times, but I loved the quirkiness of the characters, from the mysterious uncle playing in the upstairs room in the Daintree, to the father with all of his hangups. I introduced it to my book club and it really divided the members, some enjoying the read and others not coping with the gaps in the storyline and the fracturing of the story as you move from one character to another. I found it rich and rewarding.
ros.peters on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very cleverly constructed novel. Weaves the lives of 3 characters and 3 locations into a suspense novel that somehow makes sense without being too contrived. I found it a page turner would now like to read other novels by this author.