A Profound Tale for All of Humanity
Dissonance, by Stephen Orr (Wakefield Press)
South Australian author Stephen Orr writes powerful prose with compelling themes. In this recent novel his main focus is on the psychodynamics of the mother-child relationship as expressed in the effort to make worldly success out of apparently innate talent. When you find that your child is “gifted” what should be your role in the channelling of the special ability? When does loving, diligent devotion to your child’s development become tyrannical, smothering abuse?
These questions arose as I read the story of Erwin Hergert and his mother Madge. At the outset they live in South Australia’s Barossa Valley in a community comprising mostly people descended from the early German colonists. Erwin’s father is one such. This part of the narrative is set in the 1930s when the old language and Lutheranism of their ancestors are still very much alive. Madge’s son is still a baby when she uses her whip to drive his father out of the house and into the shed where he lives until death years later. Erwin shows exceptional ability as a pianist at an early age and, dissatisfied with the available music teachers, Madge takes on the job herself. Her dedication is complete, her methodology severe: the cane hovers over the boy’s fingers as he plays, striking when he makes a mistake. His compulsory practice sessions are long and the schedule unrelenting. The whip emerges at intervals through the novel—both in Madge’s hands and, later, in her son’s.
Erwin becomes a highly awarded pianist as he grows up. At Madge’s insistence in 1937 he migrates with her to Germany at the age of fifteen to find the teaching and opportunities that she deems unavailable in Australia. They both have enough command of Barossa Deutsch to communicate and survive in Germany. Erwin continues to develop as a musician, forms a close relationship with a local girl, and is eventually swept into the vortex of the Second World War.
Stephen Orr makes a considerable effort to present the social settings of both pre-war South Australia and Nazi Germany; he does so strongly and credibly. Nevertheless, human relationships are his central concern. While that between Erwin and Madge dominates, several of their other relationships are explored in considerable depth.
I won’t spoil the story for readers by revealing more. But be prepared for an emotional ride as you follow Erwin; there are some gut-wrenching episodes, especially in Nazi Germany. And there are times when we feel elated with the sense of promise only to be cast into sadness as hope is snatched away again.