Music for Wartime: Stories, by Rebecca Makkai

Though Theodor Adorno once wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” art is one of the few ways to express the inexpressible. In Makkai’s collection, Music for Wartime, characters deal with their collections to the Iron Guard and the Arrow Cross and the Holocaust, betrayal, through music and art and writing. Adorno’s comment goes right to the heart of the struggle to make sense of events when words fail. We usually think of art—paintings or music—as the highest expression of beauty in our culture. But paintings like “Guernica,” by Pablo Picasso, represent horror and shock in a way that no essay or novel or interview can. Not all the stories in Music for Wartime are completely harrowing, but Makkai doesn’t give her readers much of a chance to catch their breaths.

“The Worst You Ever Feel” – This was my favorite story in the collection. In this story, a young boy named Aaron can see ghosts and sense where people have died. This bothers his parents more than it bothers the boy. When his father and one of his father’s old musician friends practice an piece they learned during the war, Aaron learns what happened when they were hiding from the Iron Guard. The music takes Aaron even deeper into the ghosts and the memories.

“Everything We Know about the Bomber” – This story is a perfect representation of how the perpetrators of violence become more bigger figures in the media than the victims of their crimes. The title says everything about this piece. We know about his experiences in third grade. We know what he did right before the bomb went off. Every detail is analyzed to see if we could see it coming, just to try and make ourselves feel a little safer.

“The Museum of the Dearly Departed” – While this story feels a overstuffed, I love what this story says about making art as a way to deal with sudden death and memory and ethics. Is it right for an art student to use the effects of the victims of a gas leak for a thesis project? Is it right for a woman to inherit the apartment of a women her fiance was cheating on her with? Even if we can square our consciences with out own acts, how to do we dare to judge other peoples’ accommodations with their ethics?

There are stories in Music for Wartime that feel barbaric or close to barbarity. They ask hard questions, but I liked thinking them over. Art and music are subjective, which makes them perfect to map tragedy and horror on to. There are no words in them to tell a viewer or a listener what they mean. (And it’s fun to argue with critics who think they know what a piece of art means.) Without words, art and music can help us process feelings by allowing us to just feel.

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