To read Andrew Ervin’s new book is to know why independent small-press publishing just may hold the ticket to our future in literary fiction. Ervin skillfully converges three lives in three stories by intertwining beautiful, minor details that bring separations into an exquisite whole. His impressive debut, published by Coffee House Press, is so masterfully composed, it moves the reader not with intrigue or romance, rather with gorgeous simplicity.
In the first story, “14 Bagatelles,” world-renowned Hungarian composer Harkályi Lajos returns to Budapest for the premiere of his opera, The Golden Lotus. His visit is emotionally charged, for Harkályi emigrated to America as a teen-ager after surviving Terezín. He entered the Nazi concentration camp in 1943 as a violin prodigy, a student of the famous Zoltan Kodály. The melody in the final string quartet of The Golden Lotus is a lullaby Harkályi’s mother sang to him and his brother on the morning they left for Terezín. It’s one of those beautiful, minor details that elevate this book into elegance.
The setting is Independence Day in contemporary Budapest. Harkályi explores the city crowded with revelers in his free time before the opera gala. At one point, he comes upon skinheads attacking an African-American U.S. soldier in the dim hallway of a train station. Harkályi’s presence and words stop the attack, but then the soldier refuses any further help. Back at the hotel, the composer meets his niece Magda, who will be accompanying him to the opera. She’s a translator, working for the U.S. military at a nearby base. Over coffee, she casually references her boyfriend, who’s the protagonist of the second story. He’s also the African-American soldier Harkályi tried to help in the train station.
In the second story, “Brooking the Devil,” Private First Class “Brutus” Gibson is on a gun-running mission that’s been forced on him by his commander at the near-by U.S. military base. Gibson, however, rebels. He hides the weapons, takes a room at a hotel — the same hotel where Magda and her uncle are staying — and antagonizes the gun dealers. In another one of those details that so elegantly tie these stories together, Gibson, who knows nothing about the opera or Magda’s presence in Budapest, smells her unique perfume in the hotel and wonders if she’s involved in his commander’s effort to frame him.
The third story, “The Empty Chairs,” is from the viewpoint of an American violinist in the Budapest Orchestra performing Harkályi’s opera. She, also, passes through the aforementioned hotel, to have her hair cut in the lobby salon. She drinks the same “surprisingly good” coffee sipped the same day by Magda. But this violinist’s greater connection to the composer is the final notes of the opera, the lullaby’s string quartet. She deviates from the score to the horror of her fellow musicians.
It would be unfair to reveal more of this powerful moment that transforms both the violinist and the composer. The three stories build to it and come together in a lasting message about courage and self-truth.