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Esperanto For the Despairing: Elin-Maria Evangelista, Hot Desk Fellowships 2014


The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships, supported by the Readings Foundation, help writers to find time and space to work on their writing, by providing a desk for two months and a $1000 stipend. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of extracts from the work created by our last intake of Hot Desk Fellows during their time here.

Elin-Maria Evangelista’s novel Esperanto for the Despairing tells the story of a handful of Australians travelling to Stockholm for the 1934 world congress in Esperanto, a journey that will change their lives. Among other things, it looks at how learning an additional language impacts a diverse group of characters.

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Image by Andrew Magill, Flickr

Benjamin Bells Melbourne, 29 April, 1934

It was long since established that Mr Bells did not care much for altos.

In his considered view, the alto section bore no comparison to the exhilarating force of his well-drilled tenors. And the bass — now there was a male voice in all its richness for you! Whereas the purity of a soaring soprano captured, in his mind, all the loveliness of the weaker sex, a fulfilling complement to the warmth and power bursting forward from the rows of male singers, altos — how could he put it? They simply seemed to yield so little in return. And yet here they were, imposing themselves, not only on stage but on all the committees, taking charge of tea breaks and fundraising, exhibiting views and opinions in a manner Mr Bells found very trying. Of course, they were not allowed on the main committee, which made all the major decisions and balanced the books; heavens above! But he felt the new Ladies Committee — which had been established as a compromise and was the outcome of an altercation between a certain alto and the main committee’s timid treasurer, Mr Bolan — had somehow ruined a sense of order and calm in the meetings he used to take great pleasure in attending. Ever since the committee of ladies had been instigated, he had noticed a niggling feeling, a sense that the board was being observed, that every decision it made was scrutinised by a section of the choir which would, in Mr Bell’s opinion, be better served by paying attention to their singing instead.

Many altos were of course former sopranos: big and stocky now with giant bosoms, their costumes straining at the seams; retired voices of former glory, staring back at him sheepishly behind their spectacles. But the worst thing, Mr Bells thought rather glumly, was how little sound they were able to produce. A dull buzzing tone that rose now and then from the right-hand corner of the stage. The mezzo ranges of the female voice simply did not offer enough sound to justify their large (and increasingly, for Mr Bells, irritating) existence.

Sighing, he turned his attention back to his score, his fingers a nervous knot above his diaphragm. As if to comfort himself, he moved his hands to the sides of his head and attempted to flatten his hair, which was of indeterminable colour; a kind of murky brown much like the water he passed on his solitary walks by the Yarra River. His lank, greying hair was that of a man in desperate need of a barber, the better part of whose youth was behind him; a matter hard to accept for a protégée, like Mr Bells, who still believed his time of glory was yet to come.

‘Ladies, if you please.’ He tapped with his baton on the musical stand. ‘My dear voices from our alto section, may I point to the letter f as in forte above bar fifteen, not mf, and certainly not p as you seem to suggest from the last squeak I just heard. May I be so bold as to suggest that Maestro Handel did not place this letter there by mistake, and henceforth, if you do not mind, I would like to just now and then hear the mature ladies of our alto section make a matching effort to the rest of our distinguished choir!’

He looked pleadingly at the defiant matrons staring back at him, who (it had once been put to him by the formidable Miss Ada Hooper of the Ladies Committee) were of the firm opinion (and here she had laughed a little) that Mr Bells had some kind of ailment, a lack of hearing on his right-hand side. Miss Hooper had even had the nerve to suggest that if Mr Bells would occasionally hold back the tenors, especially reigning in the booming voice of Mr Richards in the front row, he might be better able to hear the quite considerable sound of the thus far drowned-out altos. As if the blame for their diminished voices was to be laid down by his feet! Any attempt to reason with Miss Hooper was however, from previous experience, in vain, and therefore he had, with the greatest delicacy and effort of will, swallowed his pride and gasped, ‘Oh well, I never … I am sure you do your best, my dear lady!’ thinking to himself that with the number of altos in the choir, they should be able to out-trumpet a horde of elephants.

And now this! His carefully considered travelling plans all but destroyed! In what was to be his greatest moment of musical triumph, raising his baton where men upholding Western civilisation in every bar and in the smallest of crotchets had lived and breathed for centuries! Where there was an understanding—a respect—for the highest of art forms compared to the miserable outpost of civilisation where he was presently attempting to leave the world a more musical place, educating the good people of Melbourne in some greater values than presently found at Flemington and other such places. His reward for this, his second sojourn to Europe — the thrilling highlight of his musical career — was now in danger of being ruined, by (and here he almost felt like tearing out what was left of his hair in despair) … by the requests of an alto!

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