Spoiler alert in the second part of my blog
Powers is never one to write easy books. I must admit that Orfeo is one of the tougher ones. This has nothing to do with the structure or the intricate, well-wrought sentences, the difficulty lies in the novel’s subject. While the unsuspecting reader might think that he or she is to read a novel about a man running away from the police, in reality the main subject of this novel is music. Difficult, modern classical music. The man running away from the police, Peter Els, is a composer. Though he started out writing main stream music he soon switches to avantgarde music. Music that is not meant to please but to question, to educate, to be frowned upon. Powers writes about the music Els writes and listens to. As a a reader you are given pages and pages in which Powers describes quartets or symphonies from beginning to start. I found this difficult because I lack the knowledge to understand let alone hear the music Powers is talking about. I kept on reading because all the other parts of the novel are beautiful and I was dying to know whether Els was the terrorist the FBI claims him to be (a lab in which DNA has been modified has been found in Els’ home, which has been linked to the death of eight people in a nearby hospital) or an innocent victim. It becomes quite clear that the descriptions of music serve a purpose: they identify Els, they determine his life. Els has chosen music in favour of a safe career, a marriage and raising his daughter, music remains the one important factor in his life.
Els has started dabbling in DNA because he wants to add music to DNA; he is not building a secret weapon, he is composing – try explaining that to the FBI though. He is trying to write the ultimate composition that no-one can hear let alone like or understand. He remains true to his music to the end. Even when he is about to end his journey and he hears the Pablo Neruda love songs by a fellow composer his doubt is brief: his was not the music to be liked. I suspect that Powers has taken a calculated risk. He must have guessed that his elaborate descriptions of music (difficult music, I cannot say Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is easy listening) will ask too much from a large group of readers. Powers has also made a choice for music and he has stuck to it. And by the way, he got me to listen to Messiaen, Shostakovich and Lieberman. Not an easy read, quite satisfying though.