“Book Review: The King of Violins”
Reviewed by Liam Anthony
A haunting true story of one man’s passion for music, his family, and his country
The King of Violins by M.G Crisci and Cheng Ken Chi tells the story of Ma Sicong, one of China’s most esteemed violinists. It is a book that unites the personal story of Ma and his career trajectory while diligently observing the sociopolitical landscape of China’s turbulent past.
From the beginning, I couldn’t help but be engaged in Ma’s story. Co-written by his son-in-law, it offers a first-person account which offers an immediate feeling of intimacy. With how close we’re able to get to Ma, our connection with him (and with co-author Cheng Ken Chi) resonates long after we finish reading the book. The King of Violins starts like most autobiographies do—by looking at the subject’s childhood. The reader is then taken on an almost cinematic journey of how Ma Sicong’s life unfolds.
I read this book with an insatiable desire. The authors manage to present a successful balance of bringing in both Ma’s story and adding myriad social observations, often providing rich details that are unequivocally well-researched.
One of many highlights in the book is when Ma is living in Paris and studying at a well-respected music conservatory. We are introduced to his many teachers and mentors, who not only guide him musically, but also creatively. The author presents this contrast in the two cultures, a Chinese man living in Paris who is cultivating this bohemian existence: “And, I had the good fortune to be exposed firsthand to great artists like Picasso, Dali, Hemingway and Joyce. I was intoxicated by their search for artistic truth, vigorous attention to detail, and quest for innovation, while deeply concerned with their self-destructive appetite for the good life.”
Ma’s life is music, but his story is punctuated with references to literature and the visual arts, in particular Chinese art. His time in Paris reads like a novel as if Ma had a James Joyce costume on. We see an elegant, sophisticated, and intellectual creature before our eyes.
As the story develops, the Paris years are eclipsed, and political turmoil is what takes center stage. The writers present this dichotomy of being a creative, famous, and pioneering musician during the zenith of China’s Cultural Revolution. Ma’s fate is in the hands of a communist regime led by leader Mao Zedong. The King of Violins becomes a document that transforms the role of the reader. We become witnesses to the punishment Ma has to endure, but for me, I was learning about a moment in twentieth century history that I hadn’t explored in so much detail. Even though the book is heavy in history, it is never tedious. It is written with an intention to be loyal to Ma’s remarkable story.
A reel of his life that shows him paradoxically as both China’s National Treasure and as a public enemy. But perhaps what moved me the most as a reader was Ma’s tenacity: “At my age, I have two choices: stop working and take life easy or keep working and risk death. I prefer the latter.”
The King of Violins is a book that will encourage you to learn more, a story that will resonate with its readers (especially creatives) for a long time. I left feeling as though I had met Ma Sicong—and I’m better off for it.
Hardcover: 302 pages
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