Q&A with Jennifer Steil, author of ‘Exile Music’

Author Jennifer Steil discusses Jewish history in Bolivia, creating imaginary worlds, and musical expression. 

Courtesy of Penguin Random House and Beowulf Sheehan
Jennifer Steil appears with her book “Exile Music.”

Thousands of Jewish refugees fled to Bolivia from Europe in the 1930s. In her novel “Exile Music,” Jennifer Steil imagines a family of Austrian Jews arriving in La Paz. In an interview with Monitor contributor Randy Dotinga, Ms. Steil explains how she brought this unexpected setting to life. 

Q: What sparked the idea for the novel?

In 2012, my family moved from London to La Paz so my husband could take a post as head of delegation for the European Union. He came home from a meeting and said, “Did you know there were more than 20,000 Jewish refugees living here during World War II? And that many of them were artists and musicians?”

Soon after this, I met John Gelernter, who was born in La Paz after his parents fled Poland, where the rest of their family had been murdered. He told me his family’s story and introduced me to the few survivors who were still in La Paz.

Q: How did refugees end up in Bolivia?

Mauricio Hochschild, a German Jewish mining magnate who controlled most of Bolivia’s tin mines, is largely responsible for getting Jews into the country. He encouraged Bolivian President Germán Busch to grant visas to Jewish refugees, insisting they could help build the Bolivian economy. At the time, Bolivians saw him as an exploitative mining baron. Many now refer to him as the Bolivian Schindler [of “Schindler’s List”].

Q: How did the world of the novel unfold?

I obsessively imagined what life must have been like for these refugees as my 4-year-old daughter was busy inventing a vivid imaginary world. It occurred to me that a Jewish child in Austria in the 1930s might have felt the necessity for a similar imaginary world as the menace of the real world became too much. Those two seeds – my husband’s meeting and my daughter’s world – eventually grew into “Exile Music.”

Q: How do fugitive Nazis enter the picture?

Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, makes an appearance. He fled to Bolivia to escape trial for war crimes. He worked for Bolivian Gen. Hugo Banzer – helping with the interrogation and torture of [reform-minded Bolivians], by some accounts – and was involved in arms trading. He lived quite freely in Bolivia until he was arrested by the new government in 1983 and extradited to France. 

John Gelernter said that when he was young, he ran into Barbie in the streets of La Paz. When Barbie and his bodyguard overheard John talking about him, the guard came over and kicked and threatened John. I imagined how horrifying it must have been to think that you’ve finally found safety, finally escaped the Nazis, only to run into them in your place of refuge. 

In the book, I wanted to explore the ethical dilemmas – and trauma – that Jewish refugees might have faced when confronted with these men. 

Q: What is the role of music in your book?

The father plays viola with the Vienna Philharmonic, and the mother is an opera singer. Music is how they communicate. The father finds other musicians to play with and is excited to discover Bolivian music. Orly [the young daughter and focus of the book] takes up a Bolivian instrument. But her mother is too devastated to sing. Her silence profoundly affects Orly. 

Also, the structure of the novel underscores the way music scaffolds my characters’ lives. When I was fretting over how to best organize the story, I happened to be listening to Mahler’s Third Symphony, which has six movements. And suddenly I had a structure that made sense to me and made sense in the world of the novel.

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