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Ma Ville

How a chef discovered Beethoven and a novel found its soul.

By Jaspreet Singh

You don’t want to move to Calgary,” he said. “That city lacks a soul.”

He was a very old man I met in Banff almost three years ago. He was polishing the sink in my studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts, carefully removing the green layers of patina that had formed on the faucet.

“The only place I use in Calgary is the airport,” he said. “Thirty years ago I moved from Quebec to Banff. I tried living in Calgary for a year.

“Don’t get me wrong. I have lived in cities all over the world, including Brazil. I worked as a construction worker pretty much all over the world. I know what I am talking about. So pick up the Banff Crag & Canyon, look for apartments in the classifieds section. A basement suite in Canmore is far better. You don’t want to move to that soulless city.”

I didn’t follow his advice.

I moved to Calgary two and a half years ago.

And I tried to write.

But it was impossible to work in my new apartment.

The neighbour downstairs played loud country music.

During my C-Train rides from Sunnyside to the university, I would think about my novel in progress, which resembled more and more a waste: a brittle fractured frozen piece of fruit, no better than a peach dropped in liquid nitrogen. I would look out the train window at the distant Rockies and think about the snow-clad Himalayas in Kashmir my character was heading toward, and at times I would feel inspired to compose new chapters. But it was not possible to write in my apartment.

“Milena,” I would complain to the building manager. “My neighbour plays the guitar. Loud. Very loud.”

“Sorry,” she would say politely. “There is nothing I can do.”

“Please,” I would say. “Please help!”

Milena would stare at me quizzically.

“Please… The man is very loud.”

“Tell us if he plays after eleven at night,” she would say and shut her door.

I urged him not to play the instrument in his apartment. He stared right through me.

It was inevitable. One afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, I encountered the musician in the laundry room, his clothes and socks tossing and turning in the dryer, the guitar silent on the washing machine. Taller than me, he was wearing charcoal black jeans, an oversized T-shirt, muddy cowboy boots, and if I remember rightly—a very large hat. I urged him, I urged him not to play the instrument in his apartment, but he stared right through me and rocked his heels back and forth and smiled an ironic smile. A chill went through me. I heard voices coming out of his twenty-gallon hat.

So, dude, you had the cheek to complain…

Watch out, dude…

You better…

I giggled nervously.

He slapped me on the back and said: “Goodbye, bud.”

That evening I dared to peek inside. Through a street-level window the guitarist’s living room was visible, twelve or thirteen guitars hanging on the pink walls as if Stampede trophies. A collector (similar to the kind immortalized by the literary critic Walter Benjamin)—yet I had no idea how to deal with him.

Milena refused to act on my complaints. She would make me listen to her own stories about the “good old days” when she worked as a bartender in “that heritage hotel” downtown.

“Do something,” I begged her.

“No one ever complained about him before you,” she said.

“He is loud,” I said.

“He is nice,” she said.

“He is noise,” I said.

“He is very nice.”

“Listen Milena… I must finish my novel. That man is hurting my story.”

“But he is nice,” she said.

It was almost December. Outside the window large flakes of snow were falling faintly and faintly falling on roofs of houses and the streets looked absolutely white. On the stove, coffee was ready. I was trying to compose a new chapter… but he started strumming downstairs. For a minute I didn’t know how to respond. Words froze in my mouth. I considered romping and stomping in my living room, barging into his apartment, destroying his guitar with tomes by Kafka and Joyce. Instead I hurried toward my CD player and without hesitation cranked up the volume. Wagner’s Parsifal managed to mask the noise wafting upstairs. But I was unable to work in the presence of Wagner. An hour later I tried Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor (conducted by Furtwängler in 1942).

Music became a ritual after that day. Whenever the guitarist started, I would crank up the Ninth. The Ninth gave a strange rhythm to my writing. I started playing the symphony even when the man fell silent downstairs.

One day the slow movement gently persuaded me to make it a part of the manuscript I was writing. But there was a problem. The narrative was from the point of view of a chef in the Indian army, and it is very rare to find a chef in the Indian army who knows about Beethoven and his music. I must make my character listen to this music, I said to myself, and I must make the details believable. Every night I would go to bed posing similar questions, and one morning woke up with the answer.

Because of the country music downstairs, Beethoven became a part of my book.

In this city my novel acquired a new life. A little shard, a pinprick, or a vibration. I don’t know whether sick or healthy. But in Calgary my story acquired a soul. #

Jaspreet Singh’s novel Chef won the 2009 Georges Bugnet Award, given annually to the best new fiction from an Alberta author.

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