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Quartet for the End of Time: A strange and beautiful work

Though her focus is on the past, Johanna Skibsrud’s concerns are timeless.

Dan Davis

Quartet for the End of Time
Johanna Skibsrud
Hamish Hamilton Canada
470 pages

In 1940-41, the French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote a quartet for cello, violin, clarinet, and piano while imprisoned in the Stalag VIII – a German POW camp. He had met three fellow musicians there who would eventually perform the work with him before a rapt audience of prisoners and German guards. Created by a devout Catholic contemplating the Apocalypse, this masterpiece is characterized by extreme contrasts of mood and sound, and the abandonment of strict rhythmic meter. Readers of Quartet for the End of Time, Johanna Skibsrud's remarkable second novel, (following her Giller Prize-winning debut The Sentimentalists and This Will Be Hard to Explain and Other Stories), would do well to listen to Messiaen's quartet before opening its pages.

Structured like its namesake, Skibsrud's novel has eight "movements" and an interlude, the latter including photos of persons tarred or ignored by history: a Confederate widow, an American Indian veteran, and the ostracized French girlfriend of a German soldier. The book follows the lives of three young individuals – two children of a Washington judge and the child of a veteran – bound by incidents that take place during the Bonus Army riots in 1932. (The Bonus Army, which saw a widespread breakdown of racial and class barriers, was made up of First World War veterans seeking promised funds from an indifferent government.) The photos reflect the diversity of characters who interact with these three during an epoch of domestic and foreign conflict.

Alden and Sutton are the children of Judge Kelly, whose voice booms out at the start of the book, articulating a belief in easily discerned and implemented earthly laws: "Things don't just happenYou make them happen." As a lesson, he has his young children witness the conviction for premeditated murder, on flimsy evidence, of a black man, gloating that "Justice is justice!" The judge's views are given the lie throughout the book, whose players, though steeped in historical or personal guilt, are often obliged by forces beyond their control to pay for other people's crimes. His teenaged son Alden becomes involved with activists in the Bonus Army, including a charismatic American Indian and others who may or may not be "Reds." In order to save Alden from arrest after a bomb is discovered, the judge conceives the original sin that drives the entire narrative, implicating his 12-year-old daughter, Sutton: the wrongful arrest of impoverished veteran Arthur Sinclair, who has joined the Bonus Army, bringing along his 12-year-old son Douglas. For the next 13 years, Alden flees from the memory of this betrayal into an increasingly disengaged life, while Sutton attempts to redeem herself by looking for Arthur and Douglas, and bears witness as a reporter during the Second World War.

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The theme of moral and existential doubleness pervades the novel: Arthur is arrested because he is wearing another man's hat; Alden believes he is stepping into Arthur's life. Double agents, spies, and false identities abound. Many are not who they might seem to be: a Vichy prefect defies death to avoid criminalizing Senegalese troops, and a German prison guard enables enemy soldiers to create and perform a quartet. Two colossal fathers reign over the book, the judge and the judge's victim, Douglas's father, who, prior to his arrest, declaims a parable-like story about having been buried alive under a dead man during the Great War; this story is retold to Alden by John, the shadowy yet "solid" American Indian, as an example of one man "borrowing" the body of another. Though Judge Kelly and Arthur do not figure largely in the narrative, the twin threads of a retributive justice, and a justice that expiates through personal sacrifice, weave through all of the action, culminating in a finale that suggests the impossibility of finding real truth or justice in this world.

Quartet is a strange, deeply compassionate, and beautiful work. Skibsrud's prose, full of parenthetical asides and subordinate clauses, suitably slows us into contemplation of an eternally recurring moment.Douglas's father notes that after his escape from live burial he "became aware of time in quite a different way… Of the way that it existed, deeply, within the earth – distinct and yet inseparable from the predictable comings and goings of the sun …That I regained, that is, or more particularly, a sense of continuum…" The text's suspension of "meter," its conveyance of a fundamental stillness beneath the upheavals of human history, allow for suggestions of our own era: Skibsrud's description of the Bonus Army camps evokes the Occupy movement, and that of a hurricane whose victims are neglected reminds us of Katrina. Like The Sentimentalists, Quartet explores the limits of moral freedom and the mutability of human perceptions. But its characters are less important in themselves than as notes in an all-encompassing, eternal music, and its great breadth of vision signifies an artistic leap.

Aparna Sanyal is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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