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As the United States enters a frightening period of terrorism and war, a powerful novel depicts the effects of war on the children and grandchildren of those who experience it first hand. Music for the Third Ear (Picador, 255 pp., $22.00), Susan Schwartz Senstad's first novel, contains brutal descriptions of how lives are destroyed and painful realizations of how judgmental and cruel even well-meaning people can be. These assertions are also present in the novel's undercurrents of suspense, excitement and humor.
The book probes the interaction between Mette, a Norwegian woman who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors who had been housed as refugees in a Norwegian home following World War II, and Zheljka, a Croatian Catholic woman who, with her Muslim husband Mesud, are taken in by Mette and her husband Hans Olav, after fleeing the war in Bosnia. Filled with good intentions and fantasies about helping Zheljka as her own parents were helped, Mette is frustrated by her inability to understand her temporary house guests and the pain they faced. As the novel unfolds, Senstad reveals the depth of Zheljka's suffering. During the war, she was the victim of gang rapes by her captors and became pregnant . Once reunited with Mesud, she gave away her son, whom she named Zero, to a childless Italian couple because her husband could not accept this child of his enemies.
Mette's struggle to reach Zheljka reflects her own unresolved feelings of victimization stemming from her parents' Holocaust experiences. It is through this dynamic that anti-war themes are explored. As Senstad explained in a recent interview, "the book is an anti-war scream. War goes into the bodies of our children and our children's children, and the damage is immeasurable." Parents who have suffered in war pass that suffering on to their children and, as with Mette, that suffering informs their personality forever.
Senstad drew on her experience as a family therapist to create the internal conflicts the characters face. "I moved to Europe in 1977 and was a therapist in Rome," she said. "For the first time I had patients who had been children during [World War II] and I was shocked to see how the war was still active in their bodies. It affected even the second generation of people who had no direct experience in the war. The parents had no consciousness about how it had transformed them. In the book, the characters lack insight into the damaging impact of their war experience or, in the case of Mette, the experience of her parents. I force the reader to become conscious of that lack of consciousness."
Mette tries to approach Zheljka and convince her that their mutual suffering makes them kindred spirits, a notion Zheljka rejects completely, accusing Mette of trying to adopt her parents' agony as her own. Here, Senstad's Jewish background coupled with her therapy training offered particular insight. "I was born in 1945 and have many early memories of my parents starting a Reform synagogue on Long Island and constantly raising money for Israel. I feel my Jewish identity travels with me without interruption. Before I read about the rapes in Bosnia in the paper, I still naively believed that 'never again' meant never again. That is not to say that I consider the Holocaust and what happened in Bosnia to be equivalent."
"I think it was my Jewishness which made me take the leap to take the Bosnian war personally," says Senstad. That, in turn, raises a paradox. Sometimes people use Jewishness to claim the 'high ground of suffering,' believing that centuries of persecution, especially the Holocaust, makes their pain worse than anybody else's. Is there a hierarchy of pain and suffering? Any person's worst pain is that person's worst pain and deserves our compassion."
Once Mette, herself childless, intercepts a letter and learns about Zero's unhappy life with his well-meaning but ineffectual adoptive parents, she embarks on a misguided adventure to try to save him, and unwittingly sets off a bureaucratic conflict that only exacerbates Zheljka's troubles. Senstad asserts that Zero's presence in the book reflects the strong message that it carries about the effects of war on children. "I once saw a poster in Bosnia which said, 'If there does not come justice, there will soon be a new generation crying for revenge.' I believe it could go either way for Zero. His toy gun could become real in a few years . . . or not. He has so much stacked against him."
Senstad notes that, "we greatly underestimate the cost to children of having traumatized parents, whether Holocaust victims or not. What Mette went through, Zero will go through. The book revolves around trauma. We tend to idealize victims, but the truth is that victims can be really bad parents. It's not their fault, but that doesn't help the kids."
For all its grimness, the book does not pity its victims, nor does it judge the characters, who must make difficult choices. Instead, Senstad urges tolerance and challenges the reader to recognize, as Mette does not, that all of our perceptions and opinions are filtered through our own experiences. Senstad uses the construct of the novel itself to demonstrate this theme artfully. Throughout the first chapter, all that is revealed about Zheljka and Mesud comes through Mette and Hans Olav's conclusions, which are drawn from conversations in a language they cannot understand. The "third ear" metaphor is developed to encourage the reader to listen for what is not said, to hear the screams that echo even in the silence.
Music for the Third Ear bridges two brutal modern historical events and forces a wrenching evaluation of their terrible legacy. Though graphic descriptions of the rapes and violence are harrowing, Senstad maintains that she "was careful not to make it into pornography." The characters are richly developed and the story, while thankfully far from our own experience, is accessible and riveting. It may be difficult to accept that an anti-war novel can be entertaining, but Music for the Third Ear is both an exciting story and a charge to view all victims with compassion and understanding.