The only imaginative work that tackled the WW2 death camps satisfactorily was the nine-hour documentary, Shoah, famous for excluding historical footage. Otherwise it has to be music. Not voice because singing emphasises the human source. Not the simulation of recognisable emotions like sympathy because these risk grievous failure. It must be abstract music, on a remote yet parallel course, and it must imply: this is our other side.
As I struggle with the novel unproductive impulses delay me. Gosh it’s ages since I heard Bach’s Chaconne. A piece for unaccompanied violin; the most inaccessible he ever wrote. Two (perhaps) bars of one voice then two bars of the other, over and over. After thirteen minutes of jagged alternating fragments the two lines are remembered as continuous and interweaving. Calling it a masterpiece trivialises it.
The clip starts with snow falling on modern-day Auschwitz. In a corridor in one of the huts Maxim Vengerov launches into the opening, his violin shouting hoarsely. He emerges from the hut, concentrating, still playing, walking beside the wire fence with those overhanging lights resembling metal snowdrops. Somewhere, off-camera, he assumes an overcoat and a carelessly tied scarf; there’s snow on the ground and Auschwitz is cold and wind-swept.
The violent music continues, its seriousness inarguable. Vengerov now wears fingerless mittens so that the chaconne’s intentions are not traduced. Hunched, implacable, he walks along the railway line, then back, out through the archway, crosses over the line, his shoes black and shiny. By now the Bach is everywhere, perhaps saying “This! This!” Then it ends, because everything ends. The early seventeen-hundreds crying out universally to the nineteen-forties.