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 that...kids... 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.