'The Savior' offers cadences of heaven in the belly of hell

The chords of culture and cruelty unnervingly mingle in this book.

By John Fleming, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published August 12, 2007

The Savior
By Eugene Drucker
Simon & Schuster, 209 pages, $23 

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Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms and on and on - so many of the musical titans of the 18th and 19th centuries were German. How could a culture that created such great art also be responsible for the Holocaust?

That is a question suggested by The Savior, a first novel by Eugene Drucker, a violinist in the Emerson String Quartet. It's about a German violinist named Gottfried Keller, who is enlisted to give recitals at a concentration camp, supposedly as part of a macabre experiment by the Kommandant to see if the Jewish inmates can "be brought back to life from this living death" through the sonatas and partitas of Bach and other masterpieces.

"You're surprised to find a cultivated man in charge of such a place," the SS officer says to Keller. "But then you have no idea how closely these camps are related to the core of our culture."

The Savior joins a long list of art works that explore the connection between classical music and the Third Reich, including the Roman Polanski movie The Pianist and Ronald Harwood's play Taking Sides also made into a movie about Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time was composed and premiered in a German prisoner-of-war camp.

Drucker's novel is characterized by closely observed landscapes and city scenes, described in polished prose that can feel a bit claustrophobic. He writes superbly about the pieces Keller plays, and the narrative develops an engrossing momentum as the unspeakable function of the windowless "rubber factory" at the camp gradually dawns on the violinist, whose hapless, pawnlike complicity is skillfully rendered,

In a way, The Savior is about the death of classical music. As a Bach-loving camp guard tells Keller, the music "can never be the same again. Not after the ovens. Not after the burial pit."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.