“We have to become the people we always should have been” – The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

A wonderful, intimate and unsentimental novel about friendship, conscience and love.

The year is 1947, and in the small town of Matzlingen, in Switzerland, Gustav Perle, a five-year-old boy, meets Anton Zwiebel, a little Jewish boy of his own age, and a talented pianist tortured by extreme performance anxiety.  It is the beginning of a beautiful and turbulent friendship that lasts a lifetime.

The nature of responsibly – national and individual – lies at the heart of the novel. Just before World War II, Switzerland let the Jewish refugees, who were attempting to escape from Nazism, in the country. Soon this changed. A directive by the Swiss Justice Minister stated that all Jewish refugees, attempting to get to the safety of Switzerland, would be sent back. It is estimated that Swiss legalism turned away some twenty thousand Jews.

One of the main principles of Switzerland’s foreign policy is neutrality, which dictates that a country is not to be involved in armed conflicts between other states. During the World War II, Switzerland remained intact, despite the few airspace violations and sporadic bombing events.

Rose Tremain shows what the quest of neutrality and shelf-mastery do to a person and a country.  Conscience becomes an uninvited guest; it is this tortured conscience that leads Gustav’s father, a character in the background of the story, but also present all throughout the book, to help as many Jews as possible. He is no longer the man he thought he was, a man who reveres the laws of his country, and for that, he pays heavily. It is an act that will cause Gustav’s mother a lifelong hatred of Jews, and will determine her relationship with her son.

There is also some confusion about Switzerland’s banks handling of gold, paintings and other items that belonged to Holocaust victims. The Swiss banks failed to give a clear accounting of their transactions with Nazi Germany, fuelling, after World War II, a long and angry exchange between Jewish groups and the Swiss authorities. After the war, Switzerland emerged as a darker place, unsure whether there was a guilt to admit, a country that suffered from a moral illness.