Commentary: A brief but absorbing overview of ‘The Squids of Mainz’

Geoffrey Giuliano’s “The Squids of Mainz”

★★★ 1⁄2

You’ve probably never heard of Mainz, a German city of roughly 300,000 people. More than that, you probably don’t know anything about it. You know that Mainz is home to the Gehry-designed “Crossing Gate” for which Barcelona, Spain, is perhaps best known. What you may not know is that Mainz’s population has roughly doubled since 2004 thanks to the multinational record company Universal, which relocated from London to Mainz and now has an imposing neo-classical building it refers to as “the major landmark of the city.”

To understand Mainz’s connection to music — specifically, the music discovered there — you have to know about the tournament of 1958 that is called the VIP4 European Music Championship. Forty years ago this July, all manner of international musicians ventured to Mainz to play between two and 16 duets per day.

In 1994, Giuliano wrote the book “The Music Conference: Viva Espacio per la Choral Excellencia de España” to spotlight this music competition and the sites of its annual classic music concerts, which have also attracted national artists from across Europe. Over the years, Giuliano has played a small role as well. His 1979 Guide to Mainz reveals him to be “the great cultural architect of Europe and beyond.”

Enter Giuliano in “The Squids of Mainz,” a welcome, mostly satisfying excursion into postwar Germany’s most extreme socio-historical challenge, the “antisympathetic culture” invented by Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler for elite individuals whose success was, in some sense, in opposition to the regime’s. That Himmler and his friends and advisers were German Jews, as well as Holocaust survivors, does not blind this tale to its unsavory sides. It happens that “The Squids of Mainz” comes to us with the subtitle “Songs, Tales, Stories About Hidden Juicy Secrets of the Swollen Topic!”

Through Giuliano’s fluent, sometimes macabre prose, we learn that when he attended his first concert, he was mistaken for a Jewish Frenchman and quizzed about “the living children.”

Giuliano tells us of his mother’s first death when he was 7, but not the next one when he was 20. On May 15, 1969, he was caught between his father’s efforts to rehabilitate his Old Testament record collection, which includes the Sabbath song, an anti-Semitic prayer that he won’t discuss. By the time Giuliano was 22, he was a reporter. One of his articles was about how a cantor known as Der Ronde was orchestrating the last rites of old Israeli Jews in the Holocaust by composing intricate musical pieces and singing to them at Mass.

The story of Giuliano’s four-hour journey to Madrid in the summer of 1978 for the third VIP4 has a stream-of-consciousness quality that makes us question whether he really is the source of the information on the wall outside his door. We learn about another performer who had been born in Poland but was turned into a Zionist in France, where he attended the Sorbonne. We learn about German links with Jews who were forced to hide in the underworld, with escapees who broke out in Egypt. We learn about police interrogations of innocent musicians who fell for each other in the shadows of war.

And we also hear what is perhaps the most essential note of “The Squids of Mainz.” Many of the performers are involved in the least-obvious aspect of the “antisympathetic culture,” public trials for lesser crimes. Since the state did not condemn Nazis and their sympathizers, the trials helped the Nazis exact retribution from the Jews who still existed.

But why does Giuliano write as though the trials are just one among many functions of the antisympathetic culture? “To gain information about what happened,” he explains in 2004, “one needs to return to the past. That is precisely what the secret courts in Nazi Germany were all about, their purpose being a form of bureaucratic punishment.”

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