An Ungrateful Instrument by Michael Meehan

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Michael Meehan has set his tale in the early 1700s in France during the long reign of King Louis XIV. The lad Antoine Forqueray and later his son Jean-Baptiste had the unenviable reputations of being the only musicians in France capable of performing at a highly sophisticated level on the viola da gamba. While the father remains committed to a high level of performance, the same cannot be said of the son who responds negatively to the drunken, bullying teaching methods of his father.

The story is centred on the son’s opposition to becoming more than his famous  father. Unfortunately for him, both generations were child prodigies, and the father has become deeply competitive. Antoine Forqueray came to the notice of the king at age ten. He is determined that his child will do as well as he did and he resorts to severe beatings  to enforce his will. As a result of these beatings, Forqueray’s daughter Charlotte-Elizabeth has been caught up in a vicious act of violence and rendered mute. She is seven years of age.

Charlotte-Elizabeth, an astute observer of human life, describes the beatings but also the unhappy situation of her parents’ marriage. Her mother slinks around their apartment in thread-bare clothes, her figure a picture of grief, while her father’s moods dominate their lives. Sodden with drink, all he can see is how marvellous it would be, how talented and incredible he would appear if he could shape his son’s life in the image of his own.

Forqueray has only one method of teaching, and that is for his son to observe him. He keeps no notes, expounds at length while berating his son’s weaknesses, and manipulates Jean-Baptiste’s life by making promises and removing them if the lad does not perform.

Michael Meehan’s writing is of such a character that it is perfectly acceptable to the reader that a mute character may be an astute observer, a sophisticated narrator and capable of joining together two siblings in the most intimate of bonds. They find solace in the other’s company as they avoid their father’s wrath. The instruments that she crafts and the compositions she creates with them illustrate the power of a great mind.

While Meehan’s writing reveals so many of the weaknesses of the Sun King’s court, the greatest interest is in the surreptitious taking of power by the children. Readers will be familiar with large attempts at power retrieval, such as the French Revolution of later date, but lesser attempts have been largely forgotten.

I wondered why the old man in the woods gave so much detail about the construction of the musical instrument until I recognised the progression. Out of the anonymity of the forest develops the tree which in turn becomes the instrument which, with human agency becomes the music. Where does one locate the music? According to the brutal father, it lives in my eyes. Study it if you wish to find it.

No matter how cruel the father, no matter how much he lusts after his daughter-in-law, no matter how he reveals a murky stream of dull metaphor or imprisons and exiles his son, it is the elegance and harmony of his daughter’s story that captures us . Her innocence is what we choose to remember.

This is a story of immense potential.

An Ungrateful Instrument


By Michael Meehan

Transit Lounge

ISBN: 978-064556-530-0

$32.99; 228 pp

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