Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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Deep Purple

Mayra Montero

translated by Edith Grossman

Ecco Press ($22.95)

by Kristin Thiel

Although there is something troubling about giving audience to a pompous male as he recounts his past sexual exploits—which a reader must do for Deep Purple's narrator, classical music critic Agustín Cabán—author Mayra Montero's point is a melancholy one to which we can all relate: Every phase in life comes to an end, as does life itself.

Cabán, retiring after years on staff at a Puerto Rican newspaper, has reached such a threshold. As he ponders writing his memoirs, we learn that he didn't attend concerts simply for the music, but for the sex as well, and that the two were inextricably linked in his mind. Among his conquests are Virginia Tuten the violinist, who pretends to faint in her bathtub to make Cabán think she is overwhelmed by the bullying of her brother and her lesbian manager; Manuela Suggia the violinist, whose mother would make her freeze in the cold German winters until she played what her mother demanded, and whose learned cruelty surfaces during her intimacies with men; and Clint Verret the pianist, who is both angrily embarrassed and passionately aroused by his sexual feelings toward Cabán.

Cabán pursues these musicians for several reasons. He is moved by their passion for their work: noting the bruise a violin leaves on a violinist's neck, he says "Seeing it up close, on skin that for a moment was neither yellow nor white, neither a man's nor a woman's, I longed to smell and kiss the mark of the violin, the damage it had done." He is excited at the thought of having played a role in their passion: "I had often relished the sensation of watching the performance of a soloist whose body, hands, and mouth had been at the mercy of my hands, my unscrupulous lips." And he cannot understand how he could criticize music without becoming intimate with the musicians:

I know how to gauge musicians from the first moment I see them. With a woman, I look at how she raises her shoulders, or the manner in which she purses her mouth. With a man, I always notice his crotch, and in particular how he moves his thumbs...Besides listening to their music, I smelled them, I heard them speak, I listened to the rumble of their intestines. It may sound prosaic, but one's musical soul lies in their guts: I could confirm this on the spot by placing my ear there and listening carefully.

Amid the rampant sex in Deep Purple, there are occasionally quiet lines that let you catch your breath, as when Cabán pauses his coital frenzy to realize his feelings for a male pianist ("I went out to the street and inhaled as if I were coming out of the water. As if the hand of God had pulled me up to the surface"), or when he takes pleasure in the small joys of being married ("Toward daybreak my wife would begin to snore; the only snoring that has always filled me with tenderness has been hers"). Ultimately, the book is about an old man bidding a fond farewell to his life: aware of the ghosts bumping around the newspaper office, he realizes he must take charge of his stories before it is too late. As Cabán puts it, "It isn't worth pretending: one dies twice. Or rather, our first death has to be organized in our own way, with our memories and our odds and ends, setting aside a single moment that's the key to everything. And when we have that, the other death can't touch us."

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents