Strolling once more through the once familiar streets of Vienna, after twenty years in the U.S.A., Paul Spielmann, a sixty-three year old literature professor and writer, suddenly stops. Could the old grand piano which he sees in the window of an antique shop be the one which once belonged to his grandmother, and which he remembers so vividly from his childhood? It certainly looks like it, and all at once he remembers how, as a boy, he used to sit underneath the instrument while his short-statured grandmother played, her feet dangling in the air. It was she, this grandmother, who introduced him to classical music, but she also who took him on long walks through the still bomb-damaged city of the late 1940s, telling him stories the subjects of which ranged from Moses to Beethoven, from Vienna under the Turks to fairy tales, and – most important of all, perhaps – the plots of novels and plays she had read, from Hamlet to Faust and Gone With the Wind to Grand Hotel. And now, over half a century later and with his grandmother long since dead, Paul decides to write a story she never really told him, the story of Marta Prinz, the beloved grandmother, herself.
Starting from the 1890s, the decade of Marta’s birth, tracing the anti-semitic outbreaks of the early twentieth-century during which Marta’s Jewish family converted to Roman Catholicism, charting the course of her two marriages, the first to a Czech hairdresser, the second to a Nazi street-brawler, then, finally, recreating in graphic terms the Anschluss, the Second World War itself, and the strange twist of fate by which she managed to survive so much, this is a book about memories and stories, the stories we tell and the ones we keep quiet about, the fictitious ones and the real, the ones we lived before and the ones we inherit, all evoked by the cleverest of juxtapositions between Vienna then and now. This is a beautiful and brilliantly evocative book, a true spellbinder.