THE PRAGUE SONATA by Bradford Morrow

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(Prague, Czech Republic)

At the end of World War I Jaromir Laska is killed on the battlefield leaving an orphaned daughter with his most prized possession, an old music manuscript.  The daughter, Otylie was packed off to live with an aunt in Prague where she remained until 1939 when the Nazis seized control of her country.  So begins Bradford Morrow’s brilliant new novel, THE PRAGUE SONATA where the music manuscript became the centerpiece of Otylie’s memory of her father.  Its origin and composer would become an obsession for Otylie and her husband Jakub who owned a small shop that was a mishmash of Jewish and Czech culture.  Otylie feared that the manuscript/sonata would be lost to the Nazis, and to save it she would disperse it in three parts; one to herself, one to her husband Jakub, and the final piece to their friend Irena Dorfman. The story line will begin at what appears to be an academic search, but it evolves into a mystery that will grip anyone with a sense of hope.

Morrow presents a remarkable story within a larger narrative.  The key character is Meta Taverner, a musicologist who lives in New York who years later comes into contact with Irena Dorfman.  Meta was quickly taken by Dorfman who was ninety years old when they met.  Dorfman tells Meta the story of the missing sonata pieces and gains a promise from Meta that she will try to track down the pieces and reunite them.  Meta’s search and life form the core of the novel, but the characters past and present are also of extreme importance.  For Meta the sonata is an authentic 18th century work, hauntingly beautiful, and the work of a master composer, but the question is which composer.

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(The north-western, Old Town side of Na Příkopě Street)

Morrow exposes the reader to a panorama of Czech history; from the end of World War I, the Nazi occupation, the Allied liberation, the arrival of the Soviet Union and its repression, to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and finally freedom.  Each character is placed in the proper course of events and their reactions become part of the accurate historical flow of the novel.  Morrow has an excellent grasp of history and the scenes he creates conform nicely to the historical record, except for one minor error in dealing with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

The most important characters include Jakub Batos, Otylie’s husband who joins the Czech resistance against the Nazis; Daniel Hajek who would make Otylie’s life whole again, Paul Mandelbaum, Meta’s mentor at Columbia University; a pair of Czech musicologists, Professors Petr Wittmann and Karel Kohut who appear to have their own agendas that are ego driven; Tomas Lang whose sister Johana had part of the sonata in her possession; Johana herself who seemed to despise everyone; Gerrit Mills, a newspaper stringer who develops a personal interest into Meta’s work and person; and a number of others.  All characters are well developed and have their own specific identities and needs, particularly Meta who appears to be going through a severe identity crisis at the time that Irena Dorfman provides the story of the manuscript.  For Meta, who was training to be a concert pianist before an accident severely injured her right hand, Irena’s request provides her with an opportunity to provide meaning to her new career as a musicologist, as well as solving a very important question that deals with music, and the legacy of a family that was broken apart by war.

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(End of Charles Bridge leading to Old Town Prague)

Morrow follows Meta’s quest in detail and integrates a great deal of Czech, and in general European music history and their composers, throughout the novel.  Further, Morrow takes the reader on a wonderful tour of Prague featuring local flavor, neighborhoods, and succeeds very nicely in examining human memory, music, and need.   If you are familiar with Lauren Belfer’s AND AFTER THE FIRE: A NOVEL Morrow’s work will be just as satisfying, but on another level it is more of a humanely epic tale.

Image result for historic photos of prague

(Prague, Czech Republic)

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