Author: Nikolai Grozni
Review: This book was pretty grim. It depicts a communist run music school for truly talented protégés a few years before the Berlin wall came down and subsequently communism. Our hero is an extremely talented pianist who is just tired. Tired of being repressed and forced to be what others expect of him instead of being free to explore the music as it speaks to him. Given I attended a boarding school (I actually lived at home as I was only a few miles from campus) I can say he got the atmosphere perfect in this book. All the smoking, drinking, and every opportunity for sexual relations is exactly what goes on when you separate a bunch of coming of age teenagers from any parental controls.
But if that was what this book was about I wouldn’t recommend it ( I would go with Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld – excellent book) because it is only passable at being entertaining on that topic. Accurate yet average.
What this book really does well, and why I am giving it a 4 star rating, is its breakdown exactly what it is like to live in an oppressive society. To want freedom, to want to just explode out of your bonds and just live. Wunderkind lays this out with perfection. In every failed society you can trace it back to one individual or one common thought/philosophy that must destroy all others who vie for the masses attention. If it didn’t then it would ultimately be swallowed up and forgotten. So it fights these encroachers anyway it can, usually by coercion and oppression. When maintaining status quo becomes more important than excellence, and that is the end of your society.
Unfortunately the lowest people of the society quickly figure out the system and use that knowledge to obtain power. That ever so small slice of power they are given is used to insure they never lose it, usually at all costs. They physically and mentally beat down all those around them. Wunderkind is a statement on all of communism and its failures brilliantly told through the microcosm of a music school in Bulgaria. Once you see it here you can then turn around and review your own life. You will be amazed at how many similarities you can find, especially those who only want to oppress to hold on to their own little perceived kingdoms.
It also does an excellent job of depicting what it means to be enmeshed in something, anything. To hear the hero talk about music is astonishing. For me it opened my eyes to how much could be found in this pursuit, and then consequently I asked myself how much of my life was reduced to quick dips in the shallow end of the pool. Anotherwords, I realized how much I don’t know about anything because I give up to soon.
Publisher: Free Press
Pages: 289 pages
Quick Review: 4 Stars out of 5.
Why I Read it: The publisher was looking for reviewers and this looked interesting.
Where I Obtained the Book: Sent by the publisher.Synopsis: Life in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1980s is bleak and controlled. The oppressive Communist regime bears down on all aspects of people’s lives much like the granite sky overhead. In the crumbling old building that hosts the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, inflexible and unsentimental apparatchiks drill the students like soldiers—as if the music they are teaching did not have the power to set these young souls on fire.
Fifteen-year-old Konstantin is a brash, brilliant pianist of exceptional sensitivity, struggling toward adulthood in a society where honest expression often comes at a terrible cost. Confined to the Music School for most of each day and a good part of the night, Konstantin exults in his small rebellions—smoking, drinking, and mocking Party pomp and cant at every opportunity. Intelligent and arrogant, funny and despairing, compassionate and cruel, he is driven simultaneously by a desire to be the best and an almost irresistible urge to fail. His isolation, buttressed by the grim conventions of a loveless society, prevents him from getting close to the mercurial violin virtuoso Irina, but also from understanding himself.
Through it all, Konstantin plays the piano with inflamed passion: he is transported by unparalleled explorations of Chopin, Debussy, and Bach, even as he is cursed by his teachers’ numbing efforts at mind control. Each challenging piano piece takes on a life of its own, engendering exquisite new revelations. A refuge from a reality Konstantin detests, the piano is also what tethers him to it. Yet if he can only truly master this grandest of instruments—as well as his own self-destructive urges—it might just secure his passage out of this broken country.
Nikolai Grozni—himself a native of Bulgaria and a world-class pianist in his youth—sets this electrifying portrait of adolescent longing and anxiety against a backdrop of tumultuous, historic world events. Hypnotic and headlong, Wunderkind gives us a stunningly urgent, acutely observed, and wonderfully tragicomic glimpse behind the Iron Curtain at the very end of the Cold War, reminding us of the sometimes life-saving grace of great music.
Author Biography: Grozni was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, at a time when the country was still under an oppressive communist rule. After being accepted to the National Music School “Lubomir Pipkov”, he trained to become a concert pianist, winning his first international piano award in Salerno, Italy, in 1983. Following the political changes after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1992 Grozni left Bulgaria to study Jazz and composition at Berklee College of Music, Boston. In 1995, shortly before graduating from Berklee, Grozni suddenly decided to give up music altogether and left for India to become a Buddhist monk and study Tibetan language. He spent four years in Dharamsala, studying at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, before joining Drepung Monastery in South India in 1999, where he stayed for six months. The five years he spent in India would become the inspiration for his three works in Bulgarian, as well as for his memoir in English: ‘Turtle Feet: The making and unmaking of a Buddhist monk." Grozni holds an MFA in creative writing from Brown University.
The author in the Chopin piano competition 1989