Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Muffled Drum by Erastes

Bohemia, 1866

They met in a port-side tavern, their lust-filled moments stolen from days of marching and madness. After eighteen months, Captain Rudolph von Ratzlaff and First Lieutenant Mathias Hofmann have decided to run away from everything they hold dear. Resigning their commissions is social suicide, but there's no other choice. Someone will eventually see Rudolph's partiality toward Mathias.

Now their plans have gone horribly awry... When Mathias goes to Rudolph's tent after their last battle, his lover looks at him without a hint of recognition. Mathias can hardly believe the man he knew is gone. He wants to fill in so many of Rudolph's missing memories, but the doctor says a shock could result in permanent damage. The pain of seeing Rudolph on a daily basis, when Rudolph doesn't remember their love, is excruciating. Now Mathias must decide whether he wants to fight for the man he loves or forget him completely...

Oh wow. What an utterly exquisite book. I knew, having read Mere Mortals, that when I picked up Muffled Drum I would get a tale steeped in history and deep, heart-wrenching writing that would keep me spellbound. I wasn’t disappointed.

First, I’d like to address the writing. It pulls you in, a voice so rich in perfect word choices that I couldn’t fail to fall in love with it. Erastes has a way of it, where one hundred authors may use the same one word, she chooses another, and it’s beautifully done. I can’t fully express how her wording affects me, just that it does in a very good way and on so many levels.

For the plot, I imagined the author sitting down one day and thinking: What could happen if two men decided to give up everything—one giving up more than the other—to be together, despite a time when being gay was seen as abhorrent, and one lost their memory just before the time came to flee? A thousand authors, all with different angles, could have written this book, this plot, and made a fine job of it, but none, in my opinion, as eloquently as Erastes. I ached while reading—my heart literally hurt in a throbbing, dull kind of way—and that, to me, speaks of an amazing author to be able to touch me in this way.

The scene-setting is very vivid. This is definitely one book that reads like watching a film. I saw the camp, the tents, the soldiers, the horses, the battle, the wounds, the journey, their arrival, the people, every single thing, all laid out in front of me without any effort to try and see them on my part. The author did the job and did it exceptionally well.

Rudolf is one of our heroes. He’s the one to lose his memory, and the one who would be losing the most by leaving the regiment to be with his lover. He’s well-known in rich circles, has a wife and two children, and before his memory loss, and after the most recent battle, he’d planned to walk away from everything he’d always known. For love.

Mathias, our other hero, doesn’t care about Rudolf’s riches, just the man he is, the man he fell in love with. They hadn’t spoken much about Rudolf’s wife, and I suppose the guilt would have been too much for Mathias if he’d given them too much thought.

**plot spoilers ahead**

After the battle, Mathias is buoyant, so happy that the time has come for them to set up life together and, as planned, he goes to resign. Only, Rudolf hasn’t yet resigned. Perhaps he’s late getting back from the field, perhaps he got killed, perhaps perhaps perhaps. This scene had me saying, “Oh, God, no…” and wondering what had happened. Although a relief to know Rudolf hadn’t been killed, to find that he had lost his memory from a fall from his horse, and to have no recollection of who Mathias is… Ah, that’s the kicker, the point where you wish you didn’t have to read on but can’t help but continue. You know this book is going to hurt, know it’s going to drag your heart around and squeeze it tight, and despite this, there was no way I could put the book down. I’d invested too much in Rudolf and Mathias already by this point.

And so, with Mathias having resigned, he must leave the field, and thank God Rudolf is sent home due to his predicament. Mathias joins him on the journey, and it is as pain-filled as it is uplifting. We see how Rudolf struggles to remember, and how Mathias watches this and wills him to remember. This is where your heart will ache, your throat will tighten, and you wish, possibly a little too hard, that Rudolf’s memory will come back now because you can’t stand the loss of it yourself for much longer. Mathias, unable to touch Rudolf in the ways he had before, unable to even speak to him the same way…it really does make you wonder how you’d manage in the same situation—and that is where I think Erastes tapped into the very human side of this tale and chose the one thing that we could all relate to: we may well have our love in our life, but we’re a stranger to them.

Painful yet beautifully handled.

We have Goertz, who means well but annoyed me because he did something he shouldn’t have and if he hadn’t, Rudolf’s memory may well have returned sooner. How could it not? If he had what Goertz had taken away, because he loved Mathias so much, his mind and heart would have remembered, I’m sure of it. I wanted that, wanted things to be different, and that they weren’t was a delicious, if somewhat warped pleasure for me. I confess I enjoyed the pain of reading.

Ernst. He’s a man no other should ever have to be involved with. He’s the epitome of the nastier, more selfish side of human beings that disgusted me. I’m aware people like this exist, of course I am, but because I’d grown very attached to Rudolf, I abhorred Ernst and what he did more than I would have if Rudolf hadn’t crawled under my skin and stayed there—where, I might add, he will remain for the rest of my life, along with Mathias.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to read a book where it changes your life in a dramatic way. Muffled Drum is one of those books for me. It changed my perspective, made me think of how it would affect me if someone I loved lost their memory and had no clue who I was. It scared me, and I admit I prayed this would never happen to anyone in my life. I don’t know if I could bear knowing everything about that person, everything we’d done together, when that person has no idea.

The title is perfect. Absolutely perfect. And it made me cry when I realised the significance. For me, Mathias is that muffled drum (crying now while writing this) and I heard the drum as a drum, beating dully, there but not loud enough, just not there, but also heard it as Mathias and everything about him that lingered in Rudolf’s mind. He heard it, but damned if he could hear it loud enough. You’ll understand when you read the book.

I knew there would be a happy ever after, but not the way it happened. Another heart-wrenching twist that spoke to me of the love Rudolf’s wife had for him. She knew, and that is all I’ll say. A lovely woman. And then that final love scene…I cried through it all, words blurred. It hurt, but in a very good way.

I must say something about my favourite scene. I loved it because of the reality of it, the way the words rolled along and the scene played out in my mind. It’s the one where Rudolf questions Goertz about the picture. The dialogue is amazing—real—and I read it three times before I continued with the tale, and then when I finished the book I flicked back to read that scene again. A superb few paragraphs of writing.

…wiping at the flesh under his shirt. (I felt that.)

“You’re the best batman I’ve had, Becher,” he said, feeling sorry for the deception. “I just wanted you to know that.” (Cried.)

…for surely, if Mathias told him, he would remember—surely? (Such a heart-rending moment. Cried again.)

Whatever monster he had lurking there, Mathias really didn’t want to know.

…baring her brown, peg-like teeth at him. (This gave me the creeps, it really did.)

…he loved to hang around the bar and watch a world he knew he’d never join. (I knew immediately with this line what was meant, even though it is explained further on. It cut deep, took me back to feeling melancholy, hurting with loneliness and want, and knowing that Mathias went to the bar so he could be close to Rudolf even though his lover wasn’t there. I can’t explain how I felt here without crying, so I won’t even begin to try. Just know that if you’ve ever suffered loss, you’ll feel it all again here, understanding why he’s doing what he does.)

One of the very best books I’ve ever read in my life. Staggeringly brilliant on so many levels, it suited me more than perfectly. I adored it. I can’t really say much more than that without the knot of emotions I thought I’d buried when I finished the book slamming back. I don’t think I can handle their return at the moment. Buy it and love it—but be prepared to be dragged through a gamut of emotions. Tissues nearby would be good.

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