Orfeo is one outstanding orchestra of a book, fusing genetics and music to give birth to a script that’s way too abstract and equally phenomenal. Our main protagonist is Peter Els, a 70-year old composer residing in Pennsylvania, who finds his passion in patterns, which he hopes will break the time barrier and let him hear the future. After reading about an equipment, using which people toyed around with DNA, he orders one of himself to work the DNA of a certain bacteria. His aim – to mesh musical patterns in living cells.
One day his dog starts haemorrhaging, and in a state of panic Els calls 911, and the officers come home to find the caller, his dead dog, and an open study fully equipped with laboratory equipments. Now the last thing piques the officers’ interest, and Els doesn’t try much to make them understand of what he does there because he knows they won’t, or rather can’t. A day later he’s labelled a ‘Bioterrorist Bach’, and panicked by the raid, Els turns fugitive, and in his run he attempts to meet people who have shaped his musical journey. Together they chalk out a plan that shall “reawaken a nationwide audience to the glorious sounds and symphonies that lie hidden all around them.”
The structure of the book is slightly difficult to grasp at first, but once we get the hang of it it’s really enjoyable. There are no defined chapters as such, but scenes separated by a quote or a phrase. Why it is so is thankfully explained at the end. The narrative keeps ticking between the past and present, and as a reader one has to embrace a great dinosaur of imagination to keep pace with the narrative which hops, skips and sings breathlessly.
Peter’s character has been beautifully detailed. We see Peter grow up from a child to what he is now through his own eyes, perceive through his mind. The thought process he takes us through is as satisfying as it is exhausting.
There are just too many musical references in this book, almost all of which I never understood. And I know I would have enjoyed this book many, many times more had I been a music enthusiast, or someone who had even the basic understanding of how music is composed or comprehended. Richard Powers has composed a book that’s impossible to describe and hard to chew, but given the size and scope of the story, it is one compelling read.