A musical fugue is a composition where two or more melodic voices answer, imitate, and extend a pattern established by an originating voice. The theory shares some of the concepts of fiction including exposition, development, and a resolution, which is often a return to the origin — an end of the battle. While the structure sounds orderly, there is an element of chaos. Latin roots of the term include the concepts of chasing and fleeing. The sounds are going to answer and mimic, but they are going to do it their own, possibly hysteric, way before they are reined in.
The Fugue, by Gint Aras, is a large novel primarily about two Eastern European families who have been displaced to Cicero, Illinois, after World War II. The prologue tells a short story set in Ukraine in 1940, about a young man tagged with a legacy of suffering when he witnesses the worst for his family.
He saw the last thing that would happen in his life: men knocking the trap door open to flood his eyes with terrible light. Faceless shadows moved toward him as a prayer poured from his body — he could see the land outside, the gray and brown winter plains, and the sun shimmering off the river, underwater grasses swaying in the gentle current. He saw the cherry trees that grew in his grandfather’s yard and the log table where his mother sat spitting pits into a cup, her fingers purple from cherry juice.
On only the second page of 500, there is so much in this section that sets the tone and immediately hooked me on unraveling the central questions of this novel: What has happened to these characters? What secrets do they have? What burdens do they carry, and how will those burdens stop them from destroying their lives?
He saw the last thing that would happen in his life and yet he sees so much more and none of it is the last thing. When faceless shadows move toward him, he turns to prayer, but is it answered? Is it a genuine prayer or one like O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, where the grandmother would have been a good woman if there were someone there to shoot her every minute of her life? Stuck in the core of ugliness, he sees only simply stated beauty. Being torn from his family, he sees safety and comfort in home. This is the originating voice that is echoed and extended in waves to form a beautiful fugue.
The first and main character of the literary fugue is Yuri, a man just released from prison who returns to live in Cicero. It still has hometown familiarity; he knows some of the people, but Cicero also has changed. Favorite businesses have closed. New people have moved in. These people exchange rumors and opinions about Yuri’s guilt or innocence for the murder of his parents via a house fire several years ago.
As the novel takes intentional jumps through time, Yuri’s past and future is revealed. His story branches off into the story of his parents, Bronza and Gaja, their friends, Lars and Victoria, and two female friends of Yuri’s in different times of his life, Alina and Lita. It’s a complete cast and covers an extensive span of their lives. Each character gets a larger role than a supporting one. There is more to the story than the question of whether Yuri killed his parents.
The navigation of all of their secrets is a major element of the fugue and drives the satisfactory ending when it all comes together and the reader fully understands the path each character has taken. Like the chaos of a classic fugue, there can be parts that are frustrating by design. Part of that was knowing that an omnipotent narrator was intentionally keeping information about the characters in the background until the jumps through time were completed. These original moments did make the reveals more satisfying, made them more of an “aha” moment — but, for a while, I had to trust they would be so.
This is the way of the fugue, something a monsignor realized as he listened to Lar’s church organ composition.
He came to the first moment when The Fugue let safety and clarity go. The music receded into painful confusion, mixed up and illogical time, a structure that seemed to move both forwards and backwards at once. The chaos felt improvised but drove forward with such authority that it seemed chaos might last forever, with no way out.
That disorientation is also central to the symbolism. In addition to the musical meaning of the term, a psychological fugue is a dissociative state that includes disorientation and memory loss. This is in the character’s traumas and major interests of the book. How trauma can extend across generations. What motivates people to keep it secret (even from themselves) and what motivates them eventually to reveal it.
Again, the Monsignor helps build this image:
He climbed the stairs to the choir and sat in one of the pews, completely absorbed by the demented sound. Soon it began to change. The Monsignor realized the music wasn’t demented at all — it was now returning to a simple and clean shape.
These qualities that made the read challenging are also why it was ambitious, realistic, and ultimately, a success. There are no easy answers. There is no easy way to tell the story. How Yuri got there is complicated. To understand it you have to understand Gaja. To understand Gaja, you have to know Uncle Benny; you have to know Lars. None of them is perfectly good or bad — just real and spun together, a perfect fugue.