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The Tristan Chord

by Bettina von Kampen

In The Tristan Chord, Bettina von Kampen brings opera’s heightened aesthetic and drama to the quieter, more realistic realm of the novel. The title comes from the first chord of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, noted for its unusual length and dissonance – a dramatic, mournful, and slightly ominous tone.

The narrative takes place in Germany during the last year of the Second World War, and in present-day Toronto. Joanna was a girl during the war, and her brother Heinz was an SS soldier. In Toronto, she is the mother of Robert, a conductor and avid Wagner fan. The plot hinges on an opera that Heinz wrote and Joanna subsequently hid, out of intense shame about her brother’s role in Dachau.

Von Kampen blends the artificially heightened emotions, themes, and characterization of opera with more modern and realistic tones. Heinz and Joanna act, think, and feel in a major key, while Robert and various secondary characters operate on a more mundane level. This separates the drama of the Holocaust, and the resonance of its ongoing influence, from the considerably less sensational milieu of modern Toronto. The musical theme unites the characters across time and geography.

The characters are mostly well drawn, although the melodramatic thoughts and dialogue of Joanna and Heinz often become histrionic, or lyrical to the point of silliness. It’s surprising to find clever phrasing alongside triteness such as “the music replenished his soul … [and] would keep him alive as surely as it would mark his end.”

For the most part, the combination of the operatic and the mundane works. However, when reaching for the limits of human emotion, the language falters; it doesn’t have the subconscious evocative power of the music it seeks to imitate.