By Daniel Moyano.
Translated from the Spanish: EL TRINO DEL DIABLO by Giovanni Pontiero

London: Serpent’s Tail, 1988, from the 1974 Spanish edition.
ISBN # 9-781852-421229.
119 pages.

By Bob Corbett
May 2005

A WORD OF PREFACE: This is not a review. I write these comments primarily for myself. Several years ago I noticed my memory was failing me and I might recall having read a book, but be unable to recall details or even what I thought in reading it. In a few extreme cases I couldn’t even recall anything at all, including reading or even knowing of the book, and wouldn’t realize I’d already read it until I began it and recognized some of the details or story.

Thus I started my “comments” as I think of them, and not “reviews.”

I note this fact at the outset of these comments since what I wrote would be a totally inadequate attempt at a “review” of this novel. I don’t think I understood it very well.

This novel is a metaphor. I am not good at or with metaphors. I was a professional philosopher for some 36 years and I think many philosophers are, like me, painfully literal in our understanding of things. We try, as best we can, to describe the world as we see it and reveal our version as clearly as we can in discursive language. Philosophers further tend to detail reasons for their beliefs as clearly as they can. Accuracy, rigor and transparency seem to be the aims, not subtly. Certainly our discipline carries a reputation of people who are often obscure, but most philosophers would, I think, believe seeming obscurity is because the subject at hand is not clear or not expressible in ordinary language.

No matter. The fact here is that Daniel Moyano presents a short tale over-viewing the political history and current (1970s) political reality in Argentina and he does so via a central metaphor: the violinist as social leader.

However much I delighted in the novel and writing, and it was a great deal, I could never quite figure out the violinists themselves. Who are they or what are they? My literalist mindset could never quite be satisfied.

Thus with this “caute” to any reader, I do offer my comments.

Triclinio becomes a violinist. But this is not a violinist as one who plays in a symphony orchestra, folk band or as a soloist in concert halls or even on street corners. A violinist is in this novel a …… well, that’s the question for me – what is it? I’m not quite sure.

We are clearly told it isn’t a paying profession or job as nearly every ordinary man or woman seeks. One sort of becomes this profession because:

(The first two reminded me greatly of how and why I became a philosopher.)

We do learn that the young Triclinio is deeply attracted to Mozart’s music, especially the main theme of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. He doesn’t even really “hear” other music. This suggests some attraction to classical notions.

This character trait is expanded some to tell us he is some sort of utopian, courageous fighter for his vision of reality, and a resister to things he opposes. Further we learn that he is most highly esteemed in his remote town of Todos los Santos, some 1000 kilometers from Buenos Aires, since the local priest, a man highly esteemed himself, gives Triclinio the 17th century violin of San Francisco Solano, a saint and early evangelist of this area.

But the metaphor gets complex when, because there is not hope for a violinist to play in Todos, he moves to Buenos Aires. We read:

“In Buenos Aires everyone plays the violin not to earn a living as you seem to think. Forgive me for meddling. Here people earn their living in the meat trade and only play the violin to combat what you might call a sort of spleen we’ve inherited from the English.”

Thus it sounds like this inherited spleen is in favor of British liberalism?

Again, I am reminded of my own “profession” of philosophy. In everyday English there is a great ambiguity around this term “philosophy,” People often talk loosely of a philosophy of this or that – from a philosophy of hitting curve balls to a philosophy of education or life itself. And yet many of these same people who use such language often like to tease or mock me for being a “philosopher” since on their view it is some self-selected special group of weirdoes who just obscure obvious things to try to make them seem other than they are, or at least to obscure their obviousness.

In the same sense it is that while “every one in Buenos Aires may be a violinist” they are not one in the sense that Triclinio is, nor do they have an instrument to rival his priceless and ancient national treasure.

Triclinio has migrated to Buenos Aires to practice his violin, but he seems very unsure what this means. The city is rigorously controlled by the army and one’s papers are essential to one’s freedom.

He lives in a world somewhat befogged by the sounds in his head, but we read:

One day as he was floating along one of the streets that run southwards, Triclinio, having shown his papers to various police patrols, became aware that the only thing permitted was hope. But he could not take this thought any further because the sounds, which had momentarily stopped, began to fill his head once more.

During these truces he did not know whether to regret that he could not use his understanding in the normal way or to rejoice that the sounds enabled him to ignore the fact that he no longer had a city to return to, that he was unwelcome in that country he had heard about at school but which now seemed to belong more to history than to reality.

Sometimes he took advantage of these lulls to nourish his hopes but without success, for he was not sure exactly what those hopes were or could possibly contain. Sometimes, on the other hand, he tried to rid himself of the sounds in order to find a way of understanding. For some time now, he had wanted to know about the world and himself, without the terrifying abstraction of rhythms and notes, but on the rare occasion when he succeeded, he could not clarify his thoughts for instead of sounds, words throbbed through his head, phrases which he had heard or which had occurred to him or which were inspired by statues and monuments; resounding words that embellished history and served no real purpose. So he recalled the sounds: somehow they would seem kinder than events.

From the earliest pages on I was speculating on exactly what is it to be a violinist. Many things seem possible, but obvious objections come forward for each, or counter evidence is easily seen by me.

Some are:

I simply store these and read on.

Things become much more obscure to my literalist mind when he discovers a huge slum with former violinists, many permanently crippled by political poisoned gases used on them by the military which made it impossible for them to play the violin. But they’ve learned to make music with all manner of things we’ve never dreamed could be tools of music making. One of them being plain and simple leaves of the trees. (Nature and natural objects in the service of political radicalism?)

I may not be understanding all of this, but I am delighting in it as an amazing read:

He also made the acquaintance of a famous violinist who had been crippled by a tear-gas grenade which had shattered his kneecap as he was leaving the Colon. He too had no violin, but having been reared among the orange groves of Tucuman at a time when Tucuman still produced oranges, he knew how to draw sounds from the leaf of an orange tree. Folded with care, the leaf could be used to produce a sound which closely resembled the violin. And although he had been expelled from the inner city for trying to form a trade union for crippled violinists, he had disguised himself as a tramp (which in fact he was), and every afternoon he stopped on a corner of Corrientes to play his leaf, collecting the money which the foreign tourists gave him in order one day to buy a real violin. He had been saving up for fifteen years, eating just enough to survive, and he had collected enough money to buy the violin many times over. But every time he contemplated a purchase, the price of violins soared due to inflation, the nations dwindling assets and the Ministry of Economic Affairs. He had to hop along on one leg when he wanted to get about, but he stayed cheerful and did not lose his sense of humour and capacity for work. Close to his hut grew an orange tree which as yet yielded no fruit despite the city’s climate, but did manage to sprout the leaves necessary to produce the ever more harmonious sounds.

These crippled violinists with no violins had even composed a “concerto for two inner tubes and tear-gas.” I especially loved that!

This slum of the injured-in-state-sponsored political violence is called Violinville and we got another interesting clue (I guess) when Triclinio meets the country’s president’s daughter. Her father also plays the violin, and knows of the music coming from Violinville, but:

Daddy is also very found of the people of Violinville but he has been trained in the classical repertoire and he says he will never be able to understand their music.

Those musicians, believe me, are not quite as naïve as they seem. Sometimes they get their scores to Buenos Aires using all sorts of cunning strategies, which in all innocence the orchestras then play, disconcerting the critics, the intelligence services, and the secret police, because no one employed by these agencies knows anything about experimental music. Daddy does, though he even corresponds with John Cage and he would have banned such music at once. Thanks to my friendship with the people of Violinville, I always know in advance when this subversive music is going to be played and I can persuade daddy that he is suffering from migraine and must stay home. Time and time again, I have warned your six friends responsible for this music to stop sending their subversive works to the Colon. But all they do is put on angelic looks, tell me they are innocent, and then bombard me with hemidemisemiquavers made of wire because they all want to marry me.

At this point I began to consider that perhaps a violinist is a radical journalist, the voice of political opposition, or at lest propagandists of the opposition to the state tyranny. There seems perhaps closer to all the metaphorical clues, yet it seems the element of direct resistance is still lacking.

When Triclinio finally meets the president himself, who is – to complexify the metaphor to me – himself an excellent violinist, the president complains of Violinville:

This country, as I’ve always tried to say, is being invaded by sounds to prevent us from understanding reality. What this government fears most is not that people should be unable to understand reality but that they should choose not to understand.

Triclinio then says the president holds his bow wrongly. He tells him:

“The way you hold your bow shows that you have followed two different schools: the Franco-Belgian and the Russian…”

Again my literalist mind frustrates me some when Triclinio criticizes the president’s playing since it was hard for me not to read the criticism of the clash of the two-schools as saying the president was trying to walk the tight-rope between Western and Soviet interests.

Perhaps the most fascinating claims were that:

“sound is the inner voice of thought.”

And that government torturers: .…have cut out the stone of madness, by removing his brain.

I now come very close to thinking a violinist may well be a philosopher or at least a political philosopher, or perhaps even the “performer” who can popularize radical political thought – a leader of revolution.

I come to the end not knowing what has really gone on. Maybe that’s just the weakness of my literalist mind. Perhaps it is the author’s intent.

Argentine politics and political history are complex, there are many players, voices and melodies of the left, right and center. There are clashes of styles and values exhibiting political differences as great as those in music in the different qualities form the magnificent harmonies of Mozart to the harsher cacophony of John Cage. This brilliant if puzzling novel lays this all bare.

No matter what I understand in this novel I am made to feel the pain, fear and dislocation of the masses and particularly the thinking folks. I am confronted by the raw power of the government torturers and the aloofness of upper bourgeois society from the masses and the sense of entitlement which the rich and powerful have to the status quo. I feel the love which author Daniel Moyano has for Argentina and his suffering in the disenfranchisement of so many of his fellow citizens.

Perhaps I am not so bad off. I came away with some clarity in the over-arching picture and am intrigued by the micro details I don’t understand. Perhaps I’ve gotten more out of Moyano than I’d thought.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett