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'Deep Purple': Sex and Violins


June 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

By Mayra Montero
Translated by Edith Grossman.

182 pp. New York: Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $22.95.

The classical music critic Agustín Cabán has no intention of seducing ordinary women. If he could be satisfied with an ordinary woman, he could save himself a lot of work and sleep with his wife. But Cabán cares so deeply about music that he has embarked on a lifelong campaign to bed every great virtuosa. He does this not for his own personal satisfaction but as a gift to art: ''There is no more noble service to fine music, no more imperishable support one can offer a soloist, than to throw her facedown on a bed.''

Cabán may be recent literature's most comical Casanova. And the voice of the hero of this smart, tart novel by the Cuban exile Mayra Montero (who now lives in Puerto Rico) has not been lost in Edith Grossman's translation from the Spanish. That's good, because the novel's success depends almost completely on its enticing tone. Sometimes ''Deep Purple'' is deceptively sweet, like, say, Satie's ''Gymnopedies.'' Sometimes it's parodic and sneakily menacing, like Stravinsky's ''Eight Miniatures.'' Although quite short, the novel shape-shifts through many mood changes as Cabán makes his case for the sinuous connection between music and sexuality.

As the novel opens, our mustachioed groupie feels bereft and bored on the day of his forced retirement from the Puerto Rican newspaper for which he has served as music critic and which, in time-honored fashion, has given him access to his prey. The paper's entertainment editor, his friend Sebastian, encourages him to write his sexual memoirs and even offers to serve as first reader. Inspired, Cabán commandeers a desk at his office to complete the task. With Sebastian panting for each new installment, he begins to recount his many conquests.

Alejandrina Sanromá, the celesta player, gets her neck licked from behind while she plays ''The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.'' She's one of Cabán's minor dalliances, as is Rebecca Cheng, the clarinetist. Despite being jailbait, Rebecca is ''a refined seducer who had already slept with half a dozen conductors -- one of them very well known.'' Cabán falls harder, though -- and completely against his will, since he insists he is not now and has never been gay -- for the Australian pianist Clint Verret, with his amazing hands like freckled octopuses. Although Verret isn't gay either, their mutual desire is so intense that they contrive to meet in Denver, where they invite a woman to join the menage -- if for no other reason than to prove that they aren't gay.

The Antigua-born violinist Virginia Tuten is the only woman who makes Cabán consider leaving his marriage, but he fails to woo the soloist away from her possessive lesbian manager. In the sultry German-Portuguese violinist Manuela Suggia, Cabán finds his most puzzling lover. Sometimes their sex is so unremarkable that Cabán exclaims, ''I don't remember another encounter more insipid and graceless, not even with my own wife.'' But at other times, Manuela approaches him with ''the fury of a desire that rebounded inside my skull like a string rebounding against the neck of the violin, a torrent of savage pizzicati (in the style of Bartok): isn't that the dream of having music in your own flesh?''

Cabán prides himself on sexual bravery and openness. But Manuela forces him into rituals of sadomasochism so repugnant that even Cabán's wife (who not only tolerates but, he insists, depends on his infidelity) is concerned for his well-being. Better to dabble more lightly, as with Clarissa Berdsley, a French-horn player from Wisconsin who is perfectly normal -- if you can tolerate her pet bat. (Never a fan of rodenty critters as pets, the always quotable Cabán recalls: ''Ever since my early youth it had been clear to me that I would do anything to go to bed with a virtuosa. But in the general idea of 'anything' -- rows with deceived husbands, denunciations from histrionic mothers, tormented journeys by plane or by ship, treacherous stabs in the back, possible divorces -- I never had thought of the possibility of caressing a mouse.'')

Some of the seduction techniques that Cabán shares with his readers would work for any woman, even the nonmusical: ''Breakfasts, and almost nobody knows this, have more amatory possibilities than any other similar encounter, including intimate candlelit suppers.'' But on the subtle differences between kinds of musicians, and their discrete sexual styles, this narrator is at his most amusingly astute. ''A soloist,'' we learn, ''would never get into a car driven by a music critic she didn't know; it's a tacit rule that is rarely broken, and then only by cellists.'' Cellists, he confides, also ''howl more than the others''; he finds them ''rabid and gentle at the same time.''

Like Montero's ''Last Night I Spent With You,'' ''Deep Purple'' aims for dreamlike intensity rather than narrative suspense. Cabán's reports don't proceed chronologically but dart from lover to lover, with interruptions for Sebastian's pointed sexual questions, usually delivered in the employee cafeteria. The result of the sexual pastiche is surprisingly funny -- it's ''Don Juan'' slowed down by senior moments.

For all Cabán's mastery of feathery touches and fluttering kisses, his sexual sessions often resemble the bloody mating rituals from Animal Planet. The ''deep purple'' of the title is a pun, referring not only to the color of his prose but to ''the most unreachable purple place'' in a woman, ''the essential conquest for a man.'' For Cabán insists that the whole point of bedding a talented performer is to tear out ''the musical soul.'' Penetration, he hopes, will make him penetrating.

Ultimately, however, he realizes that he's entered a contest he can't win. Those who can, do; those who can't, write reviews. Although ostensibly about music, the novel also offers a sly Barthes-like gloss on fiction, its critics and the pleasure of texts. Some art may be immortal, but Cabán dolefully concludes that he most decidedly won't be. When he confronts the inevitable end of his sexual adventures, he also confronts his own mortality.

One of the most winning qualities of ''Deep Purple'' is the genial ease with which Montero handles the male point of view -- as opposed to some male novelists, who are so proud of their imaginative reach when they create a female protagonist that you'd think they'd decoded the secret language of dolphins. Men and women, Montero suggests, aren't finally all that different. The great divide is between artists and nonartists, between those who can find expression for the deepest emotions and those who are fated to do nothing more than fleetingly experience them. During sex, however, even the most dull and unimaginative of us can be transformed into performance artists.

Lisa Zeidner is the author of four novels, most recently ''Layover.'' She is a professor of English at Rutgers University, Camden.

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