Monday, November 21, 2011

Two kinds of grief: Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni

Nikolai Grozni's book Wunderkind was a terrifying reading experience. It was also disturbing, sad, embarrassing. A few times I had to put it down and walk away. It was quite literally making me sick.

It is also absolutely spectacular.

Wunderkind is an autobiographical novel about a piano student at the Sofia Music School for the Gifted in the last couple of years of communism. Konstantin and his friends are bright, passionate, talented and that makes them everything that the regime does not need them to be. Young hearts and minds are treated as criminals for wanting to be free and inspired. Ideas are crushed. Brains are washed. Hopes and dreams are laughed upon. 

The park in front of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, late 1980s. Photo c/o Lost Bulgaria
Grozni does a tremendous job describing the inner world of children whose talent, discipline and training make them not only more perceptive to the absurdity of their situation but also painfully aware of the futility in hoping for a meaningful way out. 
We were at war with the state, and cigarettes, booze, and diazepam were our weapons of choice. The Communist pigs owned our lives; they owned our hands and fingers, our talent; they owned our childhoods and our minds, which they never ceased cramming full of occult incantations and slogans foreshadowing the dawn of the Supreme Social Order. "In a solid body, a solid spirit!" "Love is the responsibility of single working entities to form healthy proletarian cells." "Exercise is the principal duty of every son and daughter of the working class." "Youth is the fertile soil of the Communist Ideal" They wanted healthy, work-loving entities who would march, salute, and procreate with the sole purpose of filling the Bright Future with yet more healthy, work-loving entities. Well, we weren't going to give them any of it it. We were going to destroy their most cherished property: in a rotten body, an eternally dead spirit. 
Konstantin and a couple of his friends-- the spirited violinist Irina and the laid-back pianist Vadim-- refuse to play by the rules. They stubbornly defy mindless school policy and social expectation, suffering the scorn and anger of their aparatchik-teachers and more obedient classmates. They are only supported by a couple of sympathetic adults: a precocious piano teacher they call Ladybug who lives with her mother and terribly reminded me of Erika Kohut in Elfride Jelinek's magnificent novel The Piano Teacher; an old concentration camp survivor; a school security guard. Konstantin's numerous shows of disrespect to system, party and authority force him to live under constant threat of being expelled from the Music School and, presumably, have his entire life taken from him. 
Ladybug had warned me: first to fall out of the race are the talented; second to leave are the ambitious. Only the robots stay till the very end-- which is why most piano recordings are so insufferably bad. You can't be both talented and ambitious, Ladybug had told me.
Ah... the perils of being born with a talent.

Which is where things get really terrifying for me. Having experienced the last few years of the communist regime, I always thought I had a pretty clear idea of how communism was... well... you know... bad. I remember the food shortages, the uniforms, the meaningless group displays of party loyalty, 3rd grade marching competitions and bad fashion. I was also intellectually aware of the actual atrocities of the regime: the concentration camps for political dissidents, the lack of freedom (academic, of speech, to form political groups and opposition), the literal encouragement of uniformity and complacency. I knew about it. I KNEW about. 

But this is really the first time that I am reading about the horror of everyday mind-numbing oppression and unchecked psychological abuse that passed as "education" and literally drove people crazy. The scenes involving interaction between teachers and students are simply painful to read. With almost no exception, the teachers at the school seem to despise their students. They expect them to become the greatest musicians in the world and at the same time seem to be entirely dedicated to crushing the individuality and temperament that would require them to achieve that. When you remind yourself that despite the fact that these kids seem to be super-mature for their age, they are just well... your heart breaks for them. 

Really? Really?!! REALLY?!!!

At some point, Grozni says that there are two kinds of grief: the grief of knowing, and the grief of forgetting. And I guess, because this is getting too long, I will just end by saying that his book, for me, has really been about both. I didn't know it at the time but while I was reading, I was grieving for what I sensed was coming. Now that I am done, I am grieving that I knew about this all but I forgot. 


  1. The parallel with The Piano Teacher is great! Especially because, for me, it also poses the question of how and whether the talented kids' experience in Wunderkind really originated from the very nature of the communist regime. According to Wunderkind, it does and is part and parcel of what communist society is. But The Piano Teacher suggests it is just as typical of other societies. Gosh, I wonder if the author has read Tiger Mom's memoir.

    I now remember that music education was mentioned in Street without a Name as well and the strictness of the teachers was blamed on the communist system too. It's become the too easy catchall explanation of everything restrictive and we are the poorer for it.

  2. The comparison with Kassabova's novel made me want to scream NOOOOOO hahaha

    The issue you have is with my review not with the book. I probably need to do a Part 2. What sets this book apart from other novels about the same period is that it is not merely a selective documentary of a regime that we all know was atrocious.

    The book is very much about music and art and artistic genius. I think that Grozni is VERY successful in articulating the idea that artistic expression is not merely representational/illustrational but that it enables moods and ideas that are impossible to communicate otherwise.

    Here's a paragraph about Chopin, who happens to be one of my favorite composers:

    "This was the special thing about Chopin: he could create tension in even the simplest setting by weaving in two or three voices, each striving for its own unique conclusion. Then came the aside, the explanation. There was always a moment in his pieces where Chopin put his fountain pen down, walked over the window, and handkerchief in hand, explained everything as it was, without ambivalence, embellishment, or exception. A moment of unexpected honesty that in an instant laid bare the human condition."

    Amazing, no?

    Also, one of my favorite moments in the book is a conversation about the meaning of creative genius between the main character and his more conventional friend Bianka:

    "There is no such thing as genius, Konstantin. I don't even know what that word means. You keep saying it as if it explains anything."

    To that, Konstantin responds:

    "A genius is someone who's born with a knowledge of certain things. Look- Vadim doesn't need to practice. He remembers things he's never ever heard or played before."

    And so it goes...

    I think that Grozni could have written a story about music education that could have been pretty powerful but I think that choosing to write about communism AND art simultaneously, he has successfully created a very nuanced story about both.

  3. Writing about communism and music simultaneously is not enough to produce a nuanced novel, imo. I can't imagine a novel about, say, students learning Latin in an Italian public school in the 80s (Latin is mandatory there starting in middle school) who suffer through mindless noun declensions drills and complain in their minds: "Those Catholic pigs!" It would be too facile to even use as an explanation, or too simplistic, too silly even. I can accept it only if the novel shows - novelistically - that this kind of mind oppression comes organically from a social system and from the communist system specifically. In a sophisticated way, if possible. I wanna see the convincing connection between the genius discussion of those friends, Chopin and communist society in order to believe him as a reader and to enjoy the novel as a novel. And teachers were apparatchiks?? Just curious about the protagonist's and his friends' parents and if they were apparatchiks. I definitely want to read this book. :)It is very unfair of me to expound an opinion on a novel I haven't read.

  4. Interesting review and comments. Reminded me of Milos Forman's Amadeus (sorry for the bad taste - to speak about a movie in a book club) and that seemingly classical idea of the clash between the genious and the mediocrity in the social order - in his case the royal court composer Salieri. Certainly we can't blame the communism for every misfortune of the branded for genious. But just because (maybe) it is not the main cause doesn't mean it's not the greatest amplifier ever known. At least Mozzart was not forced to build a healthy body, clapping hands in joy early in the morning. Also, not everyone is Mozzart - flawless, incredible, sublime and quite boring at times. The purpose of art is not solely the crafting of ideals.

    I remember the music textbooks of the time. I've read a lot of books about great composers and music at home, but nothing like it was in school. All I was feeling there was utter despair and not because some of our school masters were beating my classmates (physical contact was important in communism). Sometimes a rebel teacher was teaching me rock songs which then I played on the piano and entertained my class... by that time it was still considered scandalous. Now as i think, there was some charm in these actions. Conclusion: none.

  5. Anonymous:
    THANK YOU for your note! Curious, though, do you think you would have found your music teacher's actions charming if you had wanted to actually become a rock musician?

    I think that this is one of the ways in which communism was particularly cruel: dangling opportunities in front of you to only shut them off when you actually wanted to pursue them.

    I think that Grozni did a really good job of telling this particular line of the story... What do you think?

  6. I thank you for this topic. Somehow I feel you imply that the answer to your first question is no and if I must answer now I'll agree with you. Communism was especially cruel in showing opportunities and shutting them off, as though only to remind you, the very next moment, that the chosen ones of the working class can pursue every little dream on their minds freely. You know, some of us were more equal than others. Otherwise it could have been kind of romantic - all of us bound by chains, but spiritually together in the misery. Unfortunately, what was meant to sound like the Hebrew Slaves Chorus turn out to be more like March of the Pigs in chalga arrangement. Not only we were not free, but the worst of our tribe became our overseers.

    But as a kid I would have probably enjoyed anything different from the status quo, even crumbs of light... I can't comment on the Grozni's book because I haven't read it, but the excerpts just sound so familiar that maybe I've seen it.