Cory Oldweiler of Leland, Michigan, has written and self-published a magnificent debut novel. (He also designed the striking book cover.) Beautifully and powerfully written, this tragic story of a young man’s search for truth and for a place in the world is compelling and transporting.
The novel begins with the first-person narrator near the end of his story, looking back over the path that led him to the cafe in Croatia where he is searching both paper maps and his own memory. As he recalls images from the past, he tells us that his entire life’s structure was prefigured years before his birth in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E Minor, and so the symphony provides the novel’s structure, beginning with the Adagio of earliest memories and proceeding to the Rondo-Finale at an allegro tempo accelerating mercilessly in the book’s last pages.
Emilio is an only child who grew up in a neighborhood of Italian immigrants in Corona, Queens, New York. Told from earliest childhood that his father was killed by a hit-and-run driver five months before his own birth, Emilo -- later to become Milo and eventually Miles -- made no close friends during his years in school. He and his mother had an apartment, but it was more dormitory than home, while his paternal grandparents’ bakery and their apartment upstairs formed the early emotional limits of the boy’s fatherless world.
For the first six and a half years of my life, Mamma and I were never physically far apart. Most mornings began before dawn when she would gently shake awake Caro Emilio, mio carino and moments later carry him (me), still benighted, somewhere between swaddled and smothered in nightshirt and sweatpants, feet stuck hastily into socks and boots, down the stairs and out onto the still slumbering streets. Once outside she would set me down and, in a somnolent haze huddled beneath the folds of her heavy woolen cloak, one arm wrapped tightly around her leg, I would blindly make the four-block walk to Due G’s, the bakery....
While helping out in the bakery, Milo makes the acquaintance of Jerzi, an older man, a symphony violinist with a passion for opera. For a time Jerzi becomes for the boy a strong and important father figure and dispenser of wisdom. It is Jerzi who introduces Milo to the language of music, where notes can name feelings too deep for words. But eventually Milo discovers Jerzi in a series of falsehoods he cannot forgive.
Following what he perceives as a terrible betrayal by his mentor, on his seventeenth birthday Milo learns that his father is alive. He was not killed: that was all a lie, too. With the shock of discovering he has been deceived by everyone he trusted, Milo erupts in rage. His rage propels him out into the world, first as an aimless and desperate runaway and later on a somewhat random, haphazard but very emotionally focused search for the runaway father who abandoned him before he was born.
The author’s knowledge and deep love of music permeates Testimony of the Senses. Another kind of structure is provided by classic literature, specifically Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when the narrator discovers a two-volume bilingual Loeb Classics edition that had accompanied his father to the battlefields of Europe. The father, Carlo, was seventeen when a member of the U.S. 163rd Signal Photographic Corps during the Second World War, and he tucked into the pages of Ovid a series of photographs bearing written descriptions testifying to the horrors of war.
Most of the notes are inscribed on the backs of photos, mainly black-and-white four-by-fives taken with his Speed Graphic, although several smaller prints made with another camera or taken by another photographer are included as well. The pictures are filed throughout the compact hardcovers, whose pages are not much larger than the photos themselves, usually at specific spots that Carlo felt were relevant to what he wanted to say, either in his shot or in his words or in the combination of the two. The volumes are robust and, despite the added thickness, only bulge slightly, as if they have adapted to the task of telling Carlo’s tale.
There is also a neatly pressed dead lizard midway through Book V, where various words are covered with what, to my untrained eye, appears to be blood....
By coming to know the photographer’s point of view through the photographs and notations and passages from Ovid, Milo learns to recognize his father’s continuing journalistic work in contemporary newspaper stories that provide clues to where in the world his father might be found.
No synopsis or selection of excerpts can ever do complete justice to a book, but I feel the inadequacy more than ever in the case of this stunning novel. It is original and erudite and at the same time lyrical and passionate. Strong background in music history or opera or Latin classics will add layers of appreciation, but readers with none of that background will still be spellbound by the characters and their stories.
All I really want to say is – Buy it! Read it! Then tell me if you think I have praised it too highly. I’ll be amazed if anyone does.