The fact that Moses Froben survived his childhood at all is miraculous enough, but then Moses’ whole life is nothing short of a miracle. From the most humble of beginnings, he transmogrifies into a highly celebrated and world-renowned opera singer. Without that ignoble and completely extraordinary infancy, though, Moses’ transformation could never have been possible.
For a first novel, The Bells is an amazing accomplishment. The story unfolds beautifully and is vibrantly rich in its details. It is one of the best books I’ve read. Loosely connected to historical events in Europe in the 18th century, we witness Moses’ slow journey towards greatness. His very being is buoyed by an exquisite, superlative sense of hearing and a subliminal connection to the minute nuances of the sounds around him: the chiaroscuro of the living and breathing world.
Moses’ mother was the lowliest of the low: a small, deaf peasant girl, rejected by the village for her perceived deformity. When the villagers decided to put their mark on the world by building the loudest bells ever, they got more than they bargained for: for the three great bells of the Uri Valley were so loud, “even the fattest men lost the urge to eat, from the quivering in their bowels”. Moses’ mother was the only one who could strike them and they became the core of her world. For her, the sonorous clanging was the warmest embrace: her sole bond with all the sounds of the world and their beauty.
You would think that living with his mother in the belfry of the church, with daily subjection to the ear-piercing peal of the bells, would have rendered young Moses as deaf as his mother. Somehow, wondrously, the opposite occurred. Moses’ hearing became abnormally highly tuned: the song of the bells intertwined with his very essence and gave him the gift of a perfect singing voice.
Moses’ gift was not discovered until sometime after his father tossed him from a bridge, abandoning him to the river and death. Death was not his destiny, though, and two monks rescue him on their journey back to the Abbey of St. Gall. Hearing the choir at the Abbey, Moses is filled with an uncontrollable need to join them in song, and, thus, his talent is revealed. Ulrich, the music master takes him under his wing, and as the wonder and true magnificence of Moses’ voice becomes increasingly apparent, Ulrich’s obsession with the boy ruptures into a maddened possessiveness, and he has him forcibly castrated. This way, Moses’ voice will never endure the devastating changes associated with manhood. For the rest of his life, his voice will be frozen in time, becoming only more beautiful: he will be a musico, an “angel”.
The Bells is both a disturbing story and a celebration of music and sound. It is a story of loss and love: a story to get totally lost in.