Any undergraduate that ever tucked a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphosis under his or her arm will be familiar with the tragic story of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice. Orpheus, the inventor of the lyre, apparently played and sang so beautifully that he could reduce any number of sundry gods, small creatures—even inanimate objects—to limp, putty-like acquiescence. When Eurydice dies from a snake bite, the gods allow him to travel to the underworld and bring her back, on the condition (there always being conditions with gods) that he walk in front of her and never turn around. Orpheus does exactly that, of course, and loses his love; the rest is for endless generations of freshmen to mull over their lattes.
Janette Turner Hospital’s central character in Orpheus Lost, Mishka Bartok, is a modern-day incarnation of the Greek hero—the prime difference being that he tosses out the lyre in exchange for a violin and an ancient Persian stringed instrument known as the oud. In case we fail to make this connection, Turner spends much of the novel whispering it as loudly as she can. When his soon-to-be lover Leela first encounters Mishka playing violin in the Boston subway, we are told of “the slightly dank odor of the steps as she descended into the underworld of the Red Line.” His playing renders her “. . . powerless. Mishka’s music drugged her.”
And Leela is not the only one. She sees others in the subway “cavern” with their eyes shut, “rapt” or weeping. It just so happens that the captivating song Mishka is playing is Gluck’s version of the lament of Orpheus: Che faro senza Euridice. And if you still weren’t convinced, Leela tells us “he has the eyes of Orpheus at the moment when Eurydice is bitten by the snake, or perhaps when he has lost her for the second time, when she is pulled back into the underworld, forever beyond reach” (nudge nudge, wink wink!). Hospital could have saved on the adjectives by setting the novel in London, where the subway is of course already conveniently referred to as the Underground.
What music is to Mishka mathematics is to the spirited and brilliant Leela. A southerner attending MIT, Leela has rejected the messianic zeal of her bible-thumping father while embracing his obsession with numbers. She finds in Mishka’s music an expression of the kind of otherworldly perfection she seeks in her studies.
The reclusive, fey Mishka is the novel’s central enigma. A Jew of Eastern European background, he was raised by his mother and grandparents in the isolation of the Australian rainforest surrounded by music and the ghost of his Uncle Otto, an accomplished violinist who died at Auschwitz. Mishka’s father’s identity has never been revealed to him.
Everything changes when Leela is abducted and taken to an unidentified holding centre in the wake of a series of murderous bombings — this time in the Boston subway. Her interrogator turns out to be a friend from childhood, Cobb, whose obsession with Leela rivals all the obsessions of the other characters mentioned so far (ie. music, math). Relishing the power he wields over her, Cobb tells Leela that Mishka is really Mikael Abukir, the son of a notorious Lebanese terrorist. Nights he supposedly spent practicing at a music lab were in fact passed at a local mosque. Hoping to shock and humiliate her, Cobb provides Leela with compelling evidence that Mishka is linked to the subway bomber.
The novel’s slavish adherence to its mythical prototype means that all the characters’ lives are ruled by a strong sense of fate and a heavy-handed symbolism. The connections between people are heartbreakingly profound; the line between past and present gossamer-thin; there is swooning; knees go weak from sudden realizations. Everything is just so oppressively meaningful.
By book’s end, the tone becomes increasingly shrill. When Mishka goes missing in the literal underground of Baghdad, out comes the sledgehammer again. Says Leela: “I’m in a strange underground loop with Orpheus. . . I mean Mishka. He’s a musician. He’s gone into the underworld and hasn’t come back. It’s not supposed to happen that way.”
Orpheus Lost is less allegory than iteration, and it is this very literalness that robs it of the sense of poignant intensity that served Turner so well in 2003’s similarly topical Due Preparations for the Plague. Granted, there are times when the narrative moves along swimmingly, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that the Coles notes are embedded in the text itself. This is a shame, because under all the awkward hyperbole and metaphorical bling there is a decent thriller trying to claw its way out of endless subway tunnels and underground interrogation rooms and into the light of day.