The Black Violin

Written by Maxence Fermine tr. from the French by Chris Mulhern
Review by James Hawking

At age five, Johannes Karelsky hears a gypsy violinist and quickly becomes a musical prodigy as a result. Being drafted into Napoleon’s army takes him to Venice where he recuperates from a battle wound in the home of a chess-playing, grappa-drinking violin maker. Except for the wound itself, the wars are in the distant background. The plot mainly concerns his determination to compose an imaginary opera in his head, a project probably more interesting to do than to read about.

The story of the violin takes us back to Cremona and then forward to the 18th century Venice of masked balls and artistic riches sinking into the sea. The central love story consists of a romance that is conducted, like the opera, exclusively in the imagination of the protagonist.

Mulhern’s translation is very loose. A phrase which literally translates “I had never even thought that living could be useful” becomes “To be honest, I’d never really thought there was much point to everyday life.” Not recommended.