Forget’s debut hits all the right notes
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Meet Alexander Otkazov, surely one of the most captivating characters to wander into the current Canadian literary landscape. An accomplished and passionate musician, he’s given all he’s got to his career as a performer, and has just realized it’s not enough.
Alex has spent his creative youth in Montreal, but suspects Toronto is where the grownups are — which is why, as his story begins, we find him on a train speeding in that direction, listening to Brahms.
Alexander, poor Gulliver, has no idea what awaits him among the gleaming towers of Hogtown, so nicknamed for its former fame as a slaughterhouse. But he will find out on his solitary walks through Toronto’s rough, frozen streets, as he slinks into hidden, decaying theatres to observe avant-garde concerts and as he discovers the rewards of comforting the lonely wife of a rich and powerful civic benefactor.
Alex may not have “made it” as a pianist in classical music but has other talents. Like many a musician, he’s an efficient waiter on tables, which allows him to live until he stumbles on to another job. He also pays attention to details, with an exceptional ability to connect them into patterns missed by even the smartest people in his peculiar but charming circle of friends.
When the chance to write for a respectable Toronto magazine about music appears, he snaps it up. In his new job, his passion for music and his innocent disregard for money will combine to trip him, sending him sprawling into a chasm of corruption he does not wish to see but cannot avoid.
In the City of Pigs is the debut novel of Ontario writer André Forget, former editor of online literary journal The Puritan. While described as a “musicological thriller,” this book offers much more: debates about the comparative merits of classical composers, the demanding art of tuning instruments, eccentricities of avant-garde musical groups whose performances proudly resemble visits to Hell.
Forget’s elegant writing style may send most readers to their dictionaries more than once, and his untrammeled imagination will take them to entirely unpredictable places — the bottom of Halifax Harbour, for example, where a magnificent underwater organ is being installed as an ambitious tourist attraction.
Some critics have complained that Forget’s intimacy with the finest details of music is a distraction from the storyline and the characters they are meant to follow. This same intimacy may remind fans of writer Daniel Silva, bestselling espionage novelist, whose work examines the ever-present minutiae of art restoration. Both authors deliver a first-class read; a little enlightenment is a bonus.
At the close of In the City of Pigs, we leave Alex a more savvy and grounded intellectual than we found him. His hard-won economic sophistication is a hollow victory, however. He has understood how artists are cleverly co-opted to give way to urban development but is himself homeless, having been crowded out of his humble digs by the very forces he has exposed. In his new home, the relentlessly glittering Toronto, there is no safe space for him.
When Daniel Silva first introduced Gabriel Allon, Israeli master spy and art restorer, he created a character who has told stories in several compelling novels (The Cellist and The Black Widow come to mind). Newly published Canadian writer André Forget may have handed us a similar, though less violent, traveler in musician/journalist Alexander Otkazov. Watch for him.
Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer.