Oscar by Mauricio Segura, translated by Donald Winkler

Going into this book I knew who Oscar Peterson was, where he came from, and what kind of music he played. I’m not a big jazz fan, but it’s hard not to admire the way he plays the piano. However, I didn’t know anything else about his life, so I am glad to have had the opportunity to read this – it sent me on a google hunt to learn more about Oscar’s life.

The parts of the book I most enjoyed involved Oscar and his family; before he moves away and starts touring the world. The family in the book, of course, is fictional, but it’s interesting to read about how the author decided to interpret some of the characters and events the way he did. For example, there are magical elements in his storytelling, like how the weather stays fine when Oscar’s brother Brad plays the piano and goes cloudy and rainy when he stops. And Oscar’s mother Davina has the ability to read into the future, giving her character a larger role in the story than she might have had otherwise. Oscar tries to make what he can of all this, but in the end, he has to follow his own instincts.

His playing was a masterly succession of furious descents and chortling returns, culminating, against all expectations, in a sense of renewal and a rejuvenating optimism.

If for no other reason, read this book for the descriptions of music and the jazz scenes of the 1920s through to the 50s and 60s. Many other greats are mentioned in the book, such as Art Tatum, Ray Brown, and Herb Ellis. There is a strong rivalry in the book between Oscar and Art, as they were known to be the greatest jazz pianists. When I “investigated” this rivalry, I only found mention of them as “friends”. And the notorious Norman G – in the book, the great manipulator of the musicians – gets nothing but praise for all the work he did to bring jazz musicians to the forefront. (As I was googling, I found this video of Ray Charles talking about his greatest influencers; Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Nat King Cole. If you have a few minutes, I recommend watching it.)

I was interested in learning about the neighbourhood Oscar grew up in – Little Burgundy in Montreal – a neighbourhood populated by other families that had come to Canada from the West Indies. I would love to have learned more about his parents and their story. I would also like to have read more about Oscar’s personal relationships – he had four wives and several children – but these stories would have made for a very different book. Maybe someone else will take them on!

One piece of advice going into this book… to get the most out of it, it’s important to remember that it’s fiction. I felt compelled to look everything up to find out what was true and what wasn’t. Was he really tangled up with a man who had far more power than Oscar ever knew – enough to manipulate all of the players in the book? I recommend saving the googling for later, and just enjoy the story.

Whatever piece he attacked, a breeze always rose up, he said to anyone who asked, becoming a stiff wind that strengthened bit by bit, transforming itself into a fearsome tempest, which rapidly turned into a cyclone that swept back over all the periods of his life…

I can’t help but admire writers who can demonstrate the power of music.

Music did much more than sooth the soul, it enabled mortals, for the time of a performance, to cherish their life in all its twilight decline.


Canadian Writers Abroad:Born in Temuco, Chile in 1969, Mauricio Segura arrived in Montréal at the age of five, immigrating to Québec with his parents. His doctorate in French Language and Literature from McGill University (2002) was preceded by the study of economics at the Université de Montréal. His first book was also published in translation by Biblioasis press: Black Alley in 2010 (Côte-des-Nègres, Montréal, Boréal, 1998). According to the Biblioasis author biography, Segura is well known in Québec “as a journalist and commentator on immigrant issues.”

Oscar Peterson is best known for his Canadiana Suite – “Composed in 1963, it is a collection of eight compositions that moves its listeners across the Canadian landscape on a conceptual railway journey…” – which you can listen to a part of here.

CBC Digital Archives: An Interview with Oscar Peterson from 1979.

Thank you to Biblioasis for sending me a copy of this book!




22 thoughts on “Oscar by Mauricio Segura, translated by Donald Winkler

  1. James says:

    While I am definitely a jazz aficionado, jazz piano is not my preference. However Oscar is in a league all his own. A nice review, and while I am not keen on the idea of fictionalizing the man, it does sound interesting.

  2. FictionFan says:

    I can’t help wondering why writers use a real person and then not use his real story. Why not just create fictional characters? I think I’d rather read either an entirely fictional story set in that era or read a proper biography. But I know I’m in a minority… as usual! 😉

    • Grab the Lapels says:

      I was just going to write a similar comment. I think if you want to use a real person but not his/her real history, then you need to take that person and stick him/her in an alternate setting or universe! I think it could be fun to imagine if Malcolm X had never been assassinated, or if Dolly Parton had created Dollyworld to steal the souls of children, or if LaVar Burton was nominated president and made everyone read if they broke laws.

    • Naomi says:

      I know what you mean, but I did find reading this book a good way to get me curious about the “real” Oscar Peterson, and enjoyed reading more about him on the internet and listening to some of his music. I might never have thought to do it, otherwise!

  3. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel says:

    I don’t think this is something I would enjoy reading. But I love that you added the note that if you pick it up , you don’t have to look up everything. So true! Sometimes I end up googling more than reading and this is frustrating especially if some events are fictional in a book

    • Naomi says:

      I was so curious to know what was true and what wasn’t that I googled as I read. But in hindsight it would have been more pleasant to have waited until the end. That’s what I recommend, but I don’t know if I’d be able to follow my own advice. 😉

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I enjoy reading fictionalized biography most when either I know nothing about the person (so the little bits I do know don’t get in the way of the story being told about them) or when I know a lot about the person (so that I can nod along or internally argue with the choices made by the author). So I really loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife (because I knew nothing about Laura Bush) for instance. Which means I might love this too!

    • Naomi says:

      Good point! I hadn’t really thought about it before – I’m just always drawn to novels about real people. I’ll have to pay more attention to what I like about them and what I don’t!

  5. annelogan17 says:

    I totally second your advice of ‘leaving the googling to later’. When I read fictionalized accounts of true-life stories, I resist the urge to discover what the actual truth is until I’m done, because it interrupts the story and leads you to focus on the wrong things. I had heard of Oscar Peterson, but this book sounds like a good read for all Canadians!

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, exactly! For example, while googling I learned more about his personal life than what was in the book, which made me wish there was more of it in the book. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have been wishing for more!

    • Naomi says:

      I was really curious as to what brought the author to write about Oscar Peterson, but I couldn’t find a lot of information about it.

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