In the tradition of Elena Ferrante—a breathtaking European novel of love, loss, and the mysterious connection between four people, a valuable violin, and their passion for music.
Moving between Barcelona and Berlin in the 1980s, this is a profoundly moving story of loneliness and connection, music and desire, from an award-winning Spanish novelist, translated into English for the first time.
A three-hundred-year-old Stainer violin lost and found connects a charismatic conductor who emigrated to Barcelona from behind the Iron Curtain, his two star violinists, and his Spanish maid. Love triangles, the pursuit of the precious violin, and the need for beautiful music shoot through The House of Silence.
The love of music the characters share is tempered by ambition, envy, and greed, which crescendo on the evening of a memorial concert in Berlin, when the presence of an elderly lady in the audience makes some members of the orchestra very nervous. Who is the rightful owner of this exquisite violin? And, as secrets come to light, how far will people go to seek revenge?
Praise for House of Silence:
“An exceptional work by Blanca Busquets, one of our country’s most prominent writers.” —La Casa de los Libros
“A signora of Catalan literature, a heiress of the great Mercè Rodoreda.” —Glamour Magazine Italia
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About the Author
Mara Faye Lethem has translated novels by Jaume Cabré, David Trueba, Albert Sánchez Piñol, Javier Calvo, Patricio Pron, Marc Pastor and Toni Sala, among others. These books have been featured as New York Times and Booklist Editors' Picks, and among the Best Books of the Year in The Times and Readers' Favourite Books in the Financial Times. Her translation of The Whispering City, by Sara Moliner, recently received an English PEN Award.
Read an Excerpt
The House of Silence
By Blanca Busquets, Mara Faye Lethem
Regan ArtsCopyright © 2016 Blanca Busquets Oliu
All rights reserved.
I found the first violin in a garbage dump. And it was an excellent violin, even though I obviously didn't know that yet. What I did know was that it was a magical violin. I saw that right off, just by looking at it because, even though it was almost dark, it was shining, and things that shine are usually magic. I'm not making that up. Mother and I would often rummage through the dump to see if we could find something that we could sell. If I told that to some of the people here with me now, they would be shocked.
In fact, until now I was alone here, in the theater I mean. And then, all of a sudden, soft footsteps were heard approaching the stage entrance. Now the first musician appears, a drab trumpeter, with a face that suggests the only thing in the world he has of any value is his trumpet. He greets me with a wave and says something I don't catch. I think he's Romanian; I vaguely remember someone telling me that.
I had been looking out at the empty seats for some time, sitting with the violin in my hand, because I was tired of warming up and missed the silence. The silence of the empty theater and the silence outside in this city, in the squares, on the streets. A silence of dead leaves. From the hotel window, before coming here, I saw leaves fall, leaves that carpet the colorful ground in autumn. Where I live — Catalonia — Id have to go to the mountains to see colors like these. Mountains I didn't visit until I was a teenager, because as a girl I could never afford to leave Barcelona.
Everything changed after I found the violin. Look what I found, I said, triumphantly lifting the instrument in one hand and the bow in the other. And as I lifted it, I brushed my hand over the strings without meaning to, and they made a rending, high-pitched sound that tore at my soul. I didn't know whether I liked it or not; it was a strange sound. Then I took a good look at it and I stared into one F-hole, which of course I didn't know was called that, because all I saw was a long opening — but at the bottom of it there were some handwritten letters. I was able to read them, but I couldn't understand them. I made out a date: 1672. What are you looking at, complained my mother, let's take it; that we can sell. Mother never paid attention to the shape of things we pulled from the dump; she only focused on what they were made of, to see if someone would pay any money for them. It wasn't that we lived on the street or in absolute poverty, or maybe we did; it depends on how you look at it. Yes, definitely, if you look at it with today's eyes — because now everyone's expected to have a balanced diet, with fruit, vegetables, carbohydrates and I don't even know what else. Then, our balanced diet was whatever we had, and one day there might have only been bread and a bit of cheese, or some chickpeas or lentils. My father (according to my mother — I never met him) was a foreigner who came to Barcelona, made love to her a few nights in a row and then left again. And mother, who could more or less get by, found herself with a baby to feed. And then getting by wasn't so simple.
That's why you're blonde and have blue eyes. Like him, she would say, stroking my cheek softly with the back of her fingers. She told me that from a very young age and I saw how, sometimes, she would look at me and cry, perhaps because she still felt bound to that man who came with the north wind and left with the south, after depositing a magical seed that would grow and end up being me. When Mother told me that I was like him, that I had his eyes and his hair, I didn't know whether I should love him or miss him, or whether I should hate him for what he'd done. It was a tentative feeling, nothing seemed clear, I had no idea what was true and what was a lie. I had the same feeling when I found Karl many years later.
I remember that day at the dump, when we'd gone later than usual because I remember that it got dark on us, and I thought, what's this: it looks like a wooden box. It was hidden among the garbage and hard to see. And then I rescued it from underneath all that and when I realized that it was a violin, I instinctively searched for the bow beside it, eagerly. It wasn't that I had seen many violins in my life, but I'd seen one in a book my teacher had read to us at school. In it a girl played the violin with her eyes closed and, without having ever heard the sound, I could imagine it playing inside my head, and the strangest thing is that it really sounded like a violin. By that I mean that when I actually heard one for the first time, I realized that it was the same sound I had imagined. And the first time I played it, I closed my eyes, like the girl in the book. Later I would open them ridiculously wide as I struggled to follow along with those Baroque composers who put even the most virtuoso players to the test, trying to draw out those dizzying melodies that were like a roller coaster.
But that would be much later. That day, at seven years old, having a violin of my own changed my life. Bring it over, come on, it's really late, my mother had insisted, and I had to put the violin in the little cart we used to transport what we gathered each afternoon. She would put down her sewing and pick me up at school, and then we'd go for a stroll through the dump. Afterwards, we would bring what we found to the rag-and-bone man, and he kept what he thought he could resell. He gave us a coin or two, and that coin would ensure that we'd be able to eat the next day. Because sometimes mother got paid on delivery for the clothes she sewed and, other times, she only saw the money after much insisting. I never went hungry, because she somehow always managed to give me something to eat. But she did go hungry, before she thought up selling stuff to the rag-and-bone man.
Barcelona in those days was the flip side of today's Berlin, with its colorful leaves. Barcelona was a dark city, still too close to a war that had stripped its inhabitants of their will to live. It was still far from the student uprisings that would change the city's atmosphere. There wasn't even television yet.
But I had a magic violin. We reached the ragman's shop, and I planted myself in front of the cart before we went in. Please, please, don't sell the violin, I said, bringing my hands together to plead my case. Mother looked at me with surprise: But Teresa, we could make a tidy sum selling it. Yes, but I've always wanted to be a violinist, I made up on the spot. Mother softened her expression: Oh, really, I didn't know. You never told me that. Please, I insisted.
We took the violin home. I had never thought about being a violinist, obviously — but at school there was the book about the girl who played the violin with her eyes closed, and I had found that instrument that seemed magical. I felt music taking shape within me, music which would be a part of me from then on. It came up from deep inside, as if filling my mouth with melodies — and then I thought yes, I had to be a violinist.CHAPTER 2
"Maria, don't fall back to sleep!
"No, I'm not sleeping, I'm coming ..."
Now they want me to rush because they want to start the rehearsal, and I'm lagging behind. My stomach's been hurting for days, and I'm too old to rush around. I'm old, Mr. Karl, I'm old.
Now I'll have to hear that music again, that music I've heard so many times that I know it by heart; music that tears me up inside and makes me want to cry — and I haven't cried in some time. But they promised me that I'll hear it from a red theater seat, like a real lady — and it turns out that I, who never wanted to be a lady, will be one whether I like it or not. It was Mr. Mark who promised me that, obviously, since Miss Anna won't even look at me and wants nothing to do with me.
Yesterday I took a plane. I'd never done that before, and it was terrible. I didn't like not having my feet on the floor, not at all. You don't know where you are; you don't know what's going on. And I still have to take another one to get home; ay, Holy Virgin of the Macarena.
I don't know this city and I find it strange, but on the other hand it seems that everything here gives off the scent of Mr. Karl — a smell that makes me keenly aware of everything that is happening around me, a smell that bewilders me. I told Mr. Mark that I don't want to leave the hotel alone, because I'm sure I'll get lost. Then stay here, Maria, he had replied, or go back to your sister's; weren't you with her yesterday? Oh, yes, but she has to work, I said, stalling, I'll stay here; I stay here until it's time for the rehearsal. And that is what I did. But tomorrow I'll have to go out again and I'll have to dress up for the concert, like some opera singer, like that one who used to come to the house to sing. And tomorrow I will have to do what I planned.
When Mr. Karl asked me if I wanted to learn to play the violin or the piano, I was shocked. What are you saying, sir. And I remembered the priest in my town in Andalusia, who made you sing at your First Communion whether you wanted to or not. Otherwise, he wouldn't let you take communion. A little bit, just a little, he would say. And then you'd sing, that song that goes Qué alegría cuando me dijeron: vamos a la casa del Señor ... Well, now that nobody can hear me, I can admit that I was very, very good at it. And then I really got into it, and I started singing in the shower, and then on the street. Later, when I came to Barcelona, I always sang as I cleaned the houses of those two gussied-up ladies, the homes I worked in before Mr. Karl's. And then, when I ended up at his house and it turned out that he could pay me well and it was a good house, I started to sing then too. And he played the piano at the other end of the house; he never stopped. I sang louder, more and more, because I couldn't hear myself singing those love songs that touched my soul and made me feel so good. There was one that went Lindapaloma miiiia, ven hacia míiii. .. And that was the one I liked best and sang most often, and I would even cry with emotion when I did. And I sang it louder and louder until finally I could no longer hear the piano, because I'd managed to lose myself in the song. Well, that was what I thought, but really it was that Mr. Karl had stopped playing. On that very first day he stuck his head through the door and put a finger to his lips and said ssssh. And since I thought that he was coming to praise my voice, it was a real disappointment. I closed my mouth at once and I didn't open it again while Mr. Karl was around the house, because I didn't want to lose my job, but also because I was offended. And he was always there, with the violin or with the piano, always one thing or the other. I always sang when he was out, until one day he caught me singing and asked whether I wanted to learn to play the piano or the violin, I could choose. I felt my cheeks turn so, so red and so hot that I couldn't stand it. When I told him, very timidly, no thank you, he seemed disappointed.
Mr. Karl was the kind of man who turned heads. I found him immediately attractive when we met and he told me that he'd just moved to Barcelona and needed a maid. He said if I wanted a job, I should go see him. I went and he opened the door and he said hello, and that was all because he didn't know how to say anything more in any language I could understand. But I've always been very clever and I quickly understood what he wanted when he explained it in gestures. Then he showed me a room with a bed and a bathroom, right near the kitchen. Ay, Virgin of the Macarena, I had never worked in a house like that one, and I had never spent the night. And that man wanted me to live there. I started to have doubts, but they only lasted a few minutes, until he put some numbers in front of my nose on a piece of paper, astronomical numbers I'd never seen before either, plus one full day off each week. That was more than I could ever have anywhere else. Agreed, I said without any further discussion. In my head, I was already thinking about what I could do with all that money. I could buy all the chocolate I wanted, and clothes and jewelry, I could even buy myself some jewelry, a good ring or maybe even some earrings — and, what's more, I wouldn't have expenses because I'd be living in someone else's house. Mr. Karl held out a hand for me to shake and I was surprised, but I placed mine in his. That was new for me, too. He was so strong. I almost screamed from the pain of his grip. But I didn't scream, no. I tolerated it and I stayed.
That was the house of silence. Music played, but it played at a distance, Mr. Karl would close himself up in a room and do his thing, I mean he played the violin or the piano, or both, or he'd sing too, and he sang very loudly. One day I saw that afterward he would write down notes on a piece of paper. I didn't understand what that was, but I didn't dare ask. He looked into my eyes and said, I'm composing, Maria. But that was when we started speaking to each other. Because at first we didn't speak at all, no. At first it seemed that Mr. Karl didn't want to tell me anything about what I should or shouldn't do. I would ask him, sir, what can I do for you, and he didn't hear me or pretended not to. Finally he said, I hired you to do what you think needs to be done; I don't have time to think. Okay, sir, I said, and I left and I thought, Maria, make a list of what needs to be done in this house, because from now on it's as if it were yours. The same thing happened when I went to get my wages for the first time. I saw how the days passed and Mr. Karl didn't pay me, and, finally, when I had been there for two months and hadn't seen a dime, I got the nerve up to say something. And he had me follow him to a desk and a he took a small key out of a jar and opened up a drawer. And I saw that there was money there, a lot of money. I didn't say a word, but my eyes were like saucers. Here, he said, take your pay every month; I never remember these things. And, if some month there isn't enough, let me know. Okay, sir, I said again. Then he left and there I was alone, grabbing my month's pay myself, and thinking, I could take it all right now and never come back. But after thinking the temptation over a little bit, I decided that I was no thief, and I forgot about it. I closed the drawer, turned the key, and put back it in the jar. I looked at my money and realized I still didn't have enough to buy any jewelry, but I could buy some chocolate just for me.CHAPTER 3
After the trumpet player they all started to show up. Everyone except Anna and Mark. They were late. Instinctively, I imitate the violinists in the orchestra, putting my violin on my shoulder to tune it. Now there is no longer silence. Later, if I have time, I'll go over the difficult passages, when the violin plays that wonderful game of tag with Bach's notes. And I already know that, once I get started, the concert will bring tears to my eyes and fill my heart with sadness. It will remind me of the last time we played it, here, and also of the day Karl invited me to his house to play with him for the first time. He told me, I've heard you play, and you perform Bach the way I believe he should be played.
He's been dead for ten years, but sometimes it doesn't seem that long ago; it seems that he'll come back today, to tell me not to put so much of my soul into it. Well, if you don't want me to put my soul into it, why did you ask me to play, I said one day in exasperation. He looked into my eyes and replied, because it's easier to take out a bit of soul than to try to add it in. And there are very few people who put soul into their music.
If there was one thing I've always put in, it's soul. Music made me cry. Of course today I'll have trouble staying calm, but for many years the moment I started to play I was wiping away tears. I cried at seven years old, the day I brought the violin home with my mother's permission, even though I didn't even know how to properly hold the instrument, nor how it should sound. I looked again at the letters inside it and I still didn't understand them, I only understood the 1672, and I tried to remember the drawing of the girl who played the violin in the book. I tried to remember how she held it, and I lifted it to my shoulder before running the bow over the strings. The result was an electrifying sound, slightly flat but deep, a sound that enthralled me and left me breathless. I never understood how someone, in times of hardship, could throw away such a valuable violin. It was even more or less in tune, and the bow's strings were taut when I found it.
Excerpted from The House of Silence by Blanca Busquets, Mara Faye Lethem. Copyright © 2016 Blanca Busquets Oliu. Excerpted by permission of Regan Arts.
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