Book Review: Arnold Zable’s ‘Violin Lessons’, Text Publishing Melbourne

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Arnold Zable is commonly described as ‘deeply compassionate’ and a ‘master storyteller’ with a ‘remarkable gift’. Despite this, I was reluctant to pick up Violin Lessons for the simple reason that it is a book of true stories. I read fiction. True stories bore me with their focus on truth and reality and bearing witness. To me the need to relay events as they happened is a noose that suffocates the soaring of story. But after hearing Zable speak twice – first at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in 2011 and then at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2013 – I could no longer resist. Who was this man with the courage to spend his life in pursuit of the global human story with such determination? I had to find out for myself.

What got me there in the end, and what made me choose Violin Lessons over Zable’s other works, was that the stories all had music as a kernel. Somewhere in each tale is the influence of song. This is something I try to do myself, so I’m always intrigued to know how other writers do this. It’s not a simple thing. Someone once said to me ‘but you don’t play an instrument, how can you write about musicians?’ That old chestnut. How do you write about anything then, outside your own experience? The answer is that you are a writer. An observer. A quiet scholar of the world. But still, something niggles inside me. Am I being authentic when I write about the lives of musicians with only the vantage point of watching that world from its edges? Zable himself has some training as a musician, but I don’t think would claim it as his major skill. Yet he enters this world with humility and observance, and that’s what makes it OK.

The stories themselves are not dry, journalistic rumblings. Neither are they proselytising soap box rants. Zable’s remarkable gift, to my mind, is his ability to see pure story everywhere he goes. The stories span between 1970 and 2011 and reach tiny pockets of the world from Melbourne to Phnom Pen, Saigon, Venice, remote Polish villages, sleepy Greek islands and beyond. These are traveller’s tales, but only in the sense that they are set in places that are not our own. This is not a Lonely Planet guide: it is a map of the human story in all its brutal poignancy, all its pain and suffering, all its strength and courage. But it won’t tell you where to find a cheap cocktail or a two-star bed without bugs.

Zable’s prose is so delicate and intricate that, as a reader, you are forced to pay attention. You lean into the words and therefore the worlds. You feel compelled by the need to make sure you fathom them to their fullest. Reading Zable is like fashioning lace: you approach it with the willingness to be absorbed and you are rewarded more than you could have hoped to be, and I suspect, just like lace, the effect will last a lifetime.

Violin Lessons is not a meditation on the complexity of life – that word implies peace and restfulness and this collection has neither of those qualities. It’s far too honest and far to real – in the best possible way – for that. Thank you Mr Zable.

Who among my friends will like this book? The travellers, the musicians, the literary types, the humanitarians, the biography fans, and anyone who believes in the power of story.

Read more about Violin Lessons, or buy it here.

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