Just when you think you've seen all possible personae to act the part of a hero in a Cold War thriller, along comes "The Music Wars," with its unlikely protagonist. David Solomon is doubly unlikely: He's especially naive and unwilling to play the part of hero. He's also Jewish, however, and is fated to become a Cold Warrior, unwillingness be damned.
Solomon is first-generation American. His grandparents fled the Ukraine with their young son shortly after the Soviets took charge; his grandmother died of pneumonia within a year of making the flight. Although the grandfather, whose love of music was responsible for David's becoming a violinist, nurtures a hatred of the forces that turned him out of his homeland, and the father, who works for a Yiddish newspaper in New York, sees his son's talent as a weapon to be used against the Soviets, David has been shielded from the real world by his family, for the sake of his art. This is apparent in the first chapter when David, leaving a concert he has just performed at Juilliard, is embarrassed as he becomes a part of a Jews for Freedom Movement demonstration. He would be more than embarrassed if he knew the incident was being recorded by a KGB agent.
For David is about to embark for the Soviet Union, a favorite to win the gold medal in violin at the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Music Competition.
David's troubles begin at the Moscow airport when he, alone among the American delegation, is roughly strip-searched, and continue when he is unwittingly involved in an act of smuggling perpetrated by his manager, a Jew with an uncle in Moscow. He becomes increasingly caught in the web of problems confronting Jewish dissidents, especially fellow violinist Josef Litansky.
Two Americans also play an important role in the education of David Solomon. One is Laura Robertson, a singer also competing in the Tchaikovsky, with whom David falls in love. The other is Wayland Stone, a journalist who is surreptitiously writing a book that exposes the Soviets' rigging of the Tchaikovsky competition over the years.
Litansky knows his arrest for anti-Soviet activities is only a matter of time. His plight draws the sympathy of Solomon, less so the sympathy of other members of the Jewish community, who are unappreciative of Litansky's life style. The violinist, who otherwise would have to depend on the fees of a handful of students to support himself and his aged grandfather, has an American sugar mamma to keep him in style.
A visit with Stone to the wife of jailed dissident Lev Beskin is the final episode necessary for Solomon's conversion to the cause. So when Litansky's American friend Claire Dunbarton is told by a reliable KGB source that Litansky is about to be arrested, Solomon decides he can't let it happen. Suffice it to say that he involves Dunbarton, Stone and Robertson in a complicated plot that brings about a conclusion worthy of Graham Greene.
Alas, if only Gordon Pape and Tony Aspler, a pair of Canadian journalists who have collaborated on two previous books, could write as well as Greene. As could be expected for a collaboration in fiction, the writing is very uneven -- as is the pace -- and much of the dialogue is trite, especially between David and Laura.
The authors fare much better when they are dealing with the Russians. Volodin, the KGB operative, is suitably devious, and perhaps the most charming character is Anatoly Borogoz, Litansky's grandfather, a veteran of the gulag who helps David hide from the police in the public baths.
"The Music Wars" also is about music. And the competition provides some of the novel's best drama. As David competed in the first round, "With a curt nod of his head he brought the bow in contact with the strings and closed his eyes, his forehead puckered in concentration. As the first singing notes of the Adagio rose on the still, heavy air, he was lost in the music of Bach, transported from the stifling auditorium and the glare of television lights into a private world of sound where he felt nothing but the pure, soaring line of the music. He was oblivious to the reaction of his audience, who sat entranced, willing captives of the spell he wove around them. Before the final cadence had died away, the hall erupted in an explosion of applause. But David only heard a roaring in his ears, as if the music had drawn all the oxygen from his body into his brain."
I'm not certain that's how a musician reacts to his own genius, but coauthor Aspler might know; he covered the 1978 Tchaikovsky competition for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.