The Descent of the Lyre
NEWSFLASH: 17 March 2013 — Shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award!
NEWSFLASH: 21 March 2013 — Now available on KINDLE for £5.99 / $9.99.
“This is a book that is memorable for all the right reasons. The story is gripping and highly original, and it is beautifully written” — Louis de Bernières.
It is the early nineteenth century, and the Bulgarian village of Gela, the legendary home of Orpheus, is suffering under the heavy taxation and arbitrary justice of Ottoman rule. When his bride-to-be is abducted the night before his wedding, Ivan Gelski takes to the hills and turns to banditry to seek revenge. But a chance encounter with a travelling guitarist, and the bloodshed that follows, set him on a musical journey through fame, martyrdom and legend. This reinvention of the tale of Orpheus, plunges the reader into the music and folklore of Bulgaria, in a parable about storytelling, sainthood and myth-making.
The Descent of the Lyre was listed as a Bookseller’s Choice for August 2012 in The Bookseller magazine.
The Descent of the Lyre is published by Roman Books, and will be available from late August 2012. It is already available for pre-order on Amazon in the UK; and in the USA you can sign up to be notified when it is published.
The Descent of the Lyre: Extract
The pilgrim path from the village of Trigrad is unmarked, so narrow that it is impossible to walk two abreast. You spend an hour asking around before you are pointed to the track that begins behind the small hotel, and that climbs up the hill to plunge into the dark pine forest where the air is still and windless. You emerge above the trees a half mile further up, where the path winds upwards in broad, snakelike curves.
As you climb, the track becomes rockier and steeper. Lizards scuttle away at the sound of approaching footsteps. In the trees, birds call warning cries to each other. The grass hums with the electricity of insect life.
There are tortoises to be found here, if you are lucky or patient enough. They lumber through the undergrowth on the lower slopes, going about their prehistoric business. Once, in another age, the infant Hermes took one and hollowed it, stretching cowgut over the echoing shell: kithara, guitarra, guitar. But where you are going is further up, past the brow of the hill and across the broad meadow filled with flowers. Here, if you look up, you can see hawks circling, watching you from above with an unimaginable clarity. As you cross the meadow, you pick a single flower: it is yellow, with five petals. You climb the fence at the far end of the meadow, and take another track that curves through a copse of oak trees. Beyond the copse is a walled compound. The whitewash is faded grey, the painting on the roundel above the entrance arch so weathered that it is impossible to make it out whether it is an angel, a guardian or a saint.
Inside the compound, a spring burbles to itself, the fresh water flowing into a basin green with moss, then draining away along a little channel, out of the compound and down the hill.
Behind the spring is a half-ruined chapel, the walls covered with ivy. You bend to drink the water. It is fresh and cool.
The chapel door is unlocked. Inside, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the light. The walls and ceiling are daubed with clumsy frescoes: high overhead, Christ Pantocrator looks down with his fingers held up in a Boy Scout’s salute of blessing. The four Evangelists clutch their books as if their lives depended on it. But it is the image on the far wall, at the eastern end, that takes your attention. He is a saint, his body massive and his expression solemn. His beard is dark, and the corners of his mouth are turned down. He wears a brown robe. Over his shoulder is slung a red cape, joined with a clasp at the neck. His eyes are turned a little towards the heavens, but they seem nevertheless to draw your gaze. Around the saint’s head is a halo of flaking gold. His hands are raised to either side of his body in an ancient gesture of prayer. Wrapped around the palms and wrists are bandages, so that only the tops of the long, fine fingers protrude. In his lap is the figure-of-eight body of a guitar, the neck slanting upwards over his left shoulder. The inscription above the figure’s head can barely be made out; but if you trace the Cyrillic letters, you can see three words: Ivan Gelski, Svetets. Ivan Gelski, saint.
Yet the lives of the saints, the hagiographies and concordances, the encyclopaedias and church documents, say nothing of Ivan Gelski. Were it not for this chapel wall, here in the hills of the Rhodope mountains, were it not for the stories and the rumours that persist even now—the tales of a bandit called Ivan who became skilled in the art of music, who met his martyrdom at the age of thirty-three in Paris, who returned home a living saint—then it might seem as if he had never existed at all.
Today, it seems, you are the only pilgrim. You feel the sweat from the climb cooling on your body. You lean forwards and,unbeliever that you are, take the flower you have picked in the meadow to lay gently on the ledge before the image. Then— because it seems the right thing to do, because there is nobody here to witness your act, because the saint is gazing at you now with undiminished gravity—you go down on your knees, you close your eyes, and you listen.
“Blends history and myth… lyrical and well-written.”
“A powerful literary novel.”
The Sunday Telegraph
“This is a book that is memorable for all the right reasons. The story is gripping and highly original, and it is beautifully written”
Louis de Bernières.
“It’s just a good novel, a very good read, and a highly memorable tale told simply. Buckingham also writes compellingly as a guitarist, the descriptions of the music also sounding like music, in how the words sit on the page and how the phrases are paced, as well as their effect on the characters… I enjoyed this novel very much for its feeling of being a fable, a handed-down tale, constructed from bits and pieces of fact and fiction, blended back into myth.”
“You find yourself admiring this book very much: the fluid, flowing prose and fierce, colourful historical detail… This stark, sad story somehow makes you feel a bit better about life, but not in any way that’s false or facile. It’s different from anything you’ve read in ages, and a fine, humane, intelligent work.”
Jean Morris on the Tasting Rhubarb blog.
The author has a deft touch with imagery and color, helping to evoke the times and places. The chapters are quite short, so it’s easy to read just one more, and then maybe another, and …There are very few novels whose protagonists are classical guitarists (Like a River of Lions by Tana de Gámez is perhaps the best-known example), and it’s a pleasure to report that this one is a most enjoyable read (especially if you’re a guitarist).
David Grimes in Soundboard Magazine Vol 39, Issue 1.
“Seasoned with knowledge of philosophy and storytelling as well as a deft touch and lyrical beauty… it feels totally original.”
“And as well as having a really fascinating story, throwing off all sorts of questions and ideas, is also extremely well written. You feel the cold, you taste the raw spirit, you fear the guns and knives and you believe in the love, the lost-love, that haunts Ivan Gelski. I read it in a weekend because each of its short chapters just asked to be read immediately. The learning – of which I suspect there is much – is lightly worn, but you come away with a sense of an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time. It is a really lovely, glorious piece of fiction.”
Jonathan Davidson, Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands and author of Early Train.
“Beautiful… a wonderfully conceived piece of work.”
Maria Taylor, author of Melanchrini.
“Really thrilling reading material… Make the unorthodox choice of buying this novel about an orthodox saint that nobody has ever heard of”
The Descent of the Lyre — extract
Listen to the opening section of The Descent of the Lyre, telling of an encounter with a strange saint in a hillside chapel in Bulgaria.
The music for this podcast is Gavin Bryars’s Marconi Madrigal, courtesy of MusOpen.org.
All other content © Will Buckingham 2012
I researched The Descent of the Lyre in Bulgaria between 2005 and 2007, making three trips in all. On my final journey to Bulgaria, I was funded by the UK arts council to undertake the research. I took my guitar with me and headed overland to Bulgaria, by train and by bus, to explore the sites associated with the ancient myths of Orpheus.
The Descent of the Lyre draws on my life-long love of the classical guitar, an instrument that I have played from an early age.