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Michael Mejia's Forgetfulness draws connections between the rise of fascism in Vienna and the orchestral compositions of Anton Webern, a fellow-traveler of Arnold Schonburg. In some way, it's de rigeur that we see Webern's challenging modernist compositions as a tonic against the rise of fascism (the opposite is unthinkable, isn't it?), though the book isn't exactly clear about how this might work. A cursory listen to Webern's music makes it sound to this reader/ listener like it fits the period, the soundtrack to a particularly cerebral and futuristic horror movie, all jumped-up strings and abrupt tonal disruptions. This same cut-up technique recurs in Mejia's curiously passionless prose—the first section is made up of alternating scenes of life in Vienna (and later, Berlin), and the second represents typographically three simultaneous monologues as three horizontal columns.
Near as I can tell, the near perfect silence of Mejia's sentences is meant to mirror what he hears in Webern's music, and to demonstrate his sympathy, intellectual and aesthetic, with Webern. Fascists, it seems, are always boiling over with animal passion and a love for Wagner, and I guess if we are dividing political paradigms playground style, anti-fascist intellect and cool reason are stroked by Modernist classical music and sentences like this: "Some of the saints had been defaced or stolen, some scarred by flames, but a few remained, their identities still ascertainable by the objects in their hands or the wounds of their martyrdom" (61). The first section of the novel especially is rife with sentences of this type, always competently coordinated, but without the spark of human experience. The aridity of the sentences, and Mejia's implied argument about the proper way to avoid fascism, made me hunger for the Three Penny Opera, which treated roughly similar times and themes, but did it in a way that feels more fleshy, and more engaging even if it makes the listener yearn just a little for order.
The argument of the book's second half I find even more puzzling. Mejia implies that if we took Webern and his music seriously, we could never elect Kurt Waldheim to the West German Presidency because of his ties to the National Socialist party as a young man. But Mejia can't mean to say something as simple as "those who forget (musical) history are doomed to repeat (political) it," can he? And anyhow, it's a strange way to talk about Webern, as if he were some buried historical touchstone, given that he meant to make the music of the future. And Mejia's approach to music is unashamedly humanist; if we let the music quicken our souls, Mejia says, we would see that we are moving in the wrong direction. But this novel and the music that so fascinates Mejia leave the soul behind to embrace something much more insubstantial.
Whatever its politics, Mejia's second section is better at finding the rhythms of people's daily lives, and there are many revealing moments here as the three voices contemplate their lives. The stories never really come together or satisfy as narrative arcs, but it's fitting that they end abruptly, like Webern's music; when the theme has been established, there is no need for elaboration, and we all, it is assumed, know how the election turns out.