Madness in crescendo

Patrícia Melo’s Black Waltz takes the reader on a gripping journey into the discordant world of a
troubled Brazilian composer


Black Waltz
Patrícia Melo,
translated by Clifford E. Landers
2004, Bloomsbury
209 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

DIVERTING from her well-known narrative style, the author of The Killer and Inferno has constructed a gripping and dark tale of jealousy and betrayal which, this time, goes beyond the gritty streets of Rio to explore São Paulo’s high life.

The world of a renowned Brazilian orchestra conductor – who trades his boring marital life for the uncertainty and anguish of being with Marie, a violinist thirty years his junior – is about to spiral out of control.

As the character puts it, the age difference can only be a disadvantage for him, but a bigger worry in the maestro’s life is his wife’s past, away from Brazil and from him. Marie’s millionaire parents give them a flat, so he can “store his pianos”, but the “smell of death” within overpowers him.

The maestro comes from a traditional, middle-class Brazilian family with no record of conquests, failures or anything to feel proud about; his life has been filled with boredom in an insipid city; and his looks are dark (what he describes as “Brazilian-Brazilian”) – he is, as his new wife puts it playfully, “a true sub-equatorial type”.

For him, Marie had two irritating habits: one is her addiction to pot; the other is that, as a member of the “new Jewish generation”, she has made it her mission to explore her ethnic roots and obsessively clutters their love nest with underlined books and newspaper cuttings about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. To make things worse, the new in-laws speak Hebrew in front of him, but “what is left unsaid is what is real” – and this is the story’s point of departure.

The maestro finds that, apart from good sex, he is unable to make a true connection with his young wife. He begins to smell a rat and to mistrust her, and goes to great lengths to prove that she is having an affair.

Complex character

Melo – a member of the Brazilian writers’ Generation of the 90s whose books have inspired major films such as Man of the Year – has created a very complex character in this novel through direct and dry language. Loyal to her distinctive preoccupation for urban violence, the main character in the novel is a neurotic snob and cynic, profoundly disenchanted with the rest of society. As a famous conductor, the maestro moves in a world of adulation (and servility) and he is conscious that the only reason for the way he is treated by everyone else is that he has been able to make it outside Brazil.

His dissatisfaction becomes pathological to the point that all the members of the orchestra he directs, all the women in his life – and even his daughter’s dog – end up being treated with the same tyrannical and passionate fury that he will employ to conduct Mahler.

In his ramblings, the maestro makes it clear that it is all about searching for your personal Identity. He despises the rich, but the poor even more so. When his Swiss agent comments “I’d love to see the shanty towns of Brazil”, he complaints about her wanting to see poverty with the same morbid enthusiasm that she watches Iraqi films in Geneva.

Black Waltz is full of “clever conversations” about music and political debates between elites, and the author manages to portray the detachment of her maestro’s mind from reality with great lucidly. Melo’s main character interprets his relationship and its decline through the music of Schumann, Brahms, Bülow, Liszt, Cosima and Wagner.

The narrative’s psychological intensity rises in crescendo, and its climax is directly connected to the Valsa da Dor (“Waltz of Sorrow”) by the celebrated Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. As a result, Melo has orchestrated a captivating exploration of psychological violence and its disintegrating power.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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