Fifteen-year-old Konstantin is a brash, brilliant pianist of exceptional sensitivity in the bleak and controlled environment of Sofia, Bulgaria, in the 1980s, struggling toward adulthood in a society where honest expression often comes at a terrible cost. Confined to the militaristic Music School for the Gifted 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. Through it all, Konstantin plays the piano with inflamed passion, transported by unparalleled explorations of Chopin, Debussy, and Bach, even as he is cursed by his teachers’ numbing efforts at mind control. Hypnotic and headlong, Wunderkind’s dazzling portrait of youthful turmoil gives us a stunningly urgent, exquisitely observed, and wonderfully tragicomic glimpse behind the Iron Curtain at the very end of the Cold War while reminding us of the sometimes life-saving grace of great music.
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Wunderkind “Vocalise,” op. 34, no. 14
November 3, 1987
Russian midgets are the tallest and Russian watches are the fastest, went the joke, and my watch—a Sputnik, which I had bought in Moscow after my recital at the National Conservatory—lived up to its reputation. On average it gained about two extra hours a week, which, considering my incurable habit of arriving late for every class or meeting, was quite helpful. I kept it in the front pocket of my brown leather shoulder bag, as I couldn’t bear having anything on my wrist.
“It’s somewhere between ten thirty and eleven,” I told Irina, who was rubbing the hair of her violin bow with a piece of dark-red rosin. She was leaning up against the window, her right foot pointing away, toward the door, looking at me with her turbid green eyes in a manner at once provocative and inviting. We’d locked ourselves up in room 59, on the fifth floor, skipping classes as we usually did every other Tuesday. Below and around us, the diligent hierodules in red, blue, or Komsomol ties were memorizing Mendeleyev’s periodic table, singing hymns to the gods of dialectical materialism, transcribing four-part inventions, reciting Mayakovsky. Occasionally, the voice of Negodnik, the history teacher, echoed up into the stairwell outside like a stray bassoon.
“I’m going to get you this time,” Irina said, and she tried pulling my shirt out of my blue uniform pants with her bow. “Before this is over, you’ll be running naked through the whole school.”
“That’s what you said last time,” I reminded her, and I emptied the contents of my bag on top of the piano: Chopin’s Préludes, Études, Ballades, and Scherzos; Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; Scriabin’s sonatas; Liszt’s transcendental études.
“You start first,” Irina said, and she opened to Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata no. 4 for solo violin. “Play the opening seven lines of the Allemande in real tempo, using only your right hand.”
“And if I make a mistake?”
“You’re going to run to the west-wing bathroom wearing nothing but your underwear!”
Irina laughed like a child, tossing her long black hair back and holding her stomach. I sat at the piano and scanned the chromatic zigzags of sixty-fourth notes, an army of angry ants taking the opening page by storm. Playing violin partitas a prima vista on the piano was quite tricky, since notes that seemed nearby on the violin fingerboard were often miles apart on the keyboard. But I wasn’t scared. I just wanted her.
“This is stupid, Irina,” I said, standing up and moving closer toward her. “You’re going to get me kicked out of school. Let’s just skip the duel, and the striptease, and move on to other things.”
She raised her leg and stopped me where I was, her boot digging into my ribs. “Play the Allemande!”
I sat back down at the piano and took another look at the score, noting the double sharp, the triplets, quintuplets, and septuplets, the high B, B flat, and A flat perched four and five lines above the staff, the hazardous string of sixths running up and down, the stretched-out chords. Then I played the entire page, fast and confident, like a well-rehearsed étude, even finding time to observe the accents.
“You’re such a dork!” Irina exploded, in irritation. “God, do you ever make a mistake?”
I could barely contain my joy. I was good, damn it. Really good. Plus, I had the perfect thing for Irina: “Juliet as a Young Girl,” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Well, honey, I think you better start undressing. You’re not going to get through this one.”
“Watch how you talk to adults!” Irina said, pointing her bow at me.
“You are just a year older.”
“Yeah, but that’s just in human years. I am talking about my soul, stupid!”
She set the score on her violin stand and studied the whimsical scales ridden with accidentals, biting her lips. “And if I screw it up?”
I closed my eyes, savoring all the things that I could have her do. “Then I want to see you walk, slowly, across the third floor, past Teachers’ Headquarters, barefoot, wearing your uniform dress unbuttoned, with nothing underneath.”
I tapped my foot, giving her the tempo at which “Juliet as a Young Girl” is played. Irina looked as if she was going to kill me. She was prettiest when she was angry, the passion and sorcerous impulses of her Gypsy ancestors turning her skin darker, her eyes quicker, her muscles tighter.
She began phenomenally, demonstrating the best bow work I’d ever seen, but then, in bar six, she suddenly let all the notes drop and collapsed in the chair by the piano.
“I have a better idea,” she said, resting the violin in her lap.
“Don’t try to get out of it.”
“No, listen! I’m raising the stakes—I’m going to play something that will make you cry.”
“If I don’t succeed, I’ll walk through the entire school completely naked. How about that? But if I do succeed, you’re going to—let me think . . . take your pants off and enter your classroom through the window, like some kind of lunatic.” She giggled with abandon, and I detected a few violet notes that reminded me of the fire with which she craved the secret pleasure.
“And how exactly am I going to enter my classroom through the window?”
“You’ll have to go out this window and walk around the ledge.”
“Walk! That ledge isn’t even wide enough for my toes! Not to mention that there’s nothing to hold on to.”
I knew the ledge in question, because not long ago I’d had to stand on it in order to retrieve my report card, which someone had tossed behind the drainpipe on the fifth floor.
“You’re crazy, Irina. Really. But that’s OK, because you will never make me cry.”
Smiling, Irina adjusted the pegs of her violin, drawing a long sol, re, la, and mi with her bow, tucked away her hair on both sides with bobby pins, unfastened the top three buttons of her navy blue uniform dress, and then, legs astride, began playing Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise.”
I couldn’t look at her, because she made me terribly horny. Instead, I looked out the window and thought about the frozen rain that had fallen overnight, leaving everything coated with a thin film of ice. The chestnut trees, still bearing a few yellow-brown leaves, glistened in the dull November sun like fragile glass sculptures. Across the street, the dog-rose bush by the pond in Doctors’ Garden resembled a crystal broach, its scarlet fruits shining like rubies. The gray stucco facades of the apartment buildings were wrapped in silver foil; silver tears ornamented the window sills. Irina was weaving funeral wreaths, honoring each descending note like a fallen hero. The grasping, then the sudden release—wasn’t that the fundamental trait of the Slavic soul? The downward spiral, the darkness, the melancholy, but then also the letting go of all of it, the opening of the great gates of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. I had been clutching to my miserable existence for too long; playing the piano like a machine, obsessing about things that only made me weaker, fighting with others to be number one. I knew that one day I would let go of everything that I cared about. I would rise above it, and I would be happier, for a moment. Si-do-mi-sol-la; going up, like a bird.
I thought about our first kiss, in seventh grade, when Irina and I had rented a small rowboat by the pond at Eagle Bridge; I thought about the cities I’d visited during my performances in Italy—Bologna, Venice, Naples, Rome. Perhaps the difference between me and the other kids in school was that I knew for a fact that we were all imprisoned in a counterfeit reality. I had peeked over the wall and seen what lay beyond. I had proof: a silver Parker pen given to me as a gift by a southern Italian family that had wanted to adopt me after one of my concerts.
Irina returned to the beginning, repeating the main theme. It hadn’t occurred to me before just how painful the F natural was, coming right after the firebird ascent from the underworld, as E minor moved into F major; how sobering it was, how disheartening. I suddenly remembered what Igor the Swan had said to me last time I’d met him on the street, in front of the school. “We’ve all been created idealists!” he had announced with his habitual bravado, shaking his finger at the sky.
Now my eyes were stinging, but this didn’t have much to do with Irina’s rendition of the “Vocalise.” At least not entirely. There was something devastating about my chamber music teacher’s pronouncement. Because if we were all created idealists, then life was bound to be one relentless disappointment. But then, there was also music. We unlearned the lies with one hand and repeated them with the other.
I turned to Irina. She had stopped playing and was looking at me with a mixture of amusement and pity. Would she really send me off to do something that stupid? She would, of course. A deal was a deal. One way or another, she’d made me cry.
I took my shoes off, then my ugly uniform pants and socks. Luckily, the ledge wasn’t icy. I tied the shoes together and hung them over one shoulder, my pants over the other. Then I stepped out the window and, facing the stucco wall, extended my right foot onto the ledge. Irina giggled behind me, a hand over her mouth. She found the whole thing amusing! Or maybe she thought I’d give up. Two sidesteps to the right, and there was no longer anything to hold on to. The distance to the corner of the building was about ten meters. Then another ten meters from the corner to my classroom window. And what if it was closed?
I looked over my shoulder and down at the tin roof extending over Chamber Hall No. 1, littered with textbooks, brooms, and sponges. What an absurd way to die! Yet not so much more absurd than my life in Tartarus, under the granite skies, during the reign of the red midgets. But I couldn’t afford to panic now, tiptoeing sideways five stories aboveground, bearing my white underwear to the elderly devushki next door. I knew the feeling of becoming suddenly self-aware while playing in front of a large audience; the halfway panic that seizes your mind and body when you realize that you’ve been playing a Chopin ballad for what seems like ages, and you’ve yet to go through the coda. To forget oneself again, once you’ve woken up in the middle: that’s the hardest thing to do onstage, and perhaps in life. I would make a mistake one day, that much I knew for sure. One day I would fall. Just not today.
From where I stood, I could hear the high-register notes of the Yamaha in Chamber Hall No. 2, five stories below. Someone was rehearsing Chopin’s Prélude in A Minor with unabashed barbarism, exaggerating the inherent ugliness in the chord progression. Balancing on the ledge of the building with nothing to hold on to except my will, I thought back to my twelfth birthday, when Ladybug had given me the sheet music of the complete preludes and instructed me to spend a night reading the A-minor prelude, without touching the piano. In this way, before I ever heard this prelude played, I’d heard it in my mind. I’d heard the raw chromaticism in the left hand and the bleak, determined voice in the right. I’d heard the voice and the accompaniment drifting apart until the voice was completely alone, a quiet monologue going nowhere, saying nothing. What I hadn’t heard while reading the sheet music was the left-hand groove, evoking the sound of a broken barrel organ played in the streets of Paris, or Warsaw, in the middle of winter, an eternal winter with gray skies and chandeliers of ice and stray dogs sleeping on steaming manhole covers. On the bottom staff—the taste of earth, worms, and dust; the smell of dead leaves and frankincense. On the top—the luminosity of awareness making sense of transience and predestination. Three quiet major chords marked the moment of death, because death was sweet. It was our true home, the home we’d left and been trying to get back to. It’s what we had passed through before and would pass through again, a moment of truth that suspended the weight of thought, the weight of the will to inhabit a dead universe.
The third bell rang just as I reached the corner and edged myself toward the window of my classroom, which, fortunately, was open. “Here she comes,” I heard Lilly announce inside. “All students rise!”
Six more meters, maybe seven. I moved slowly sideways, imagining that my fingers were magnets that snapped onto the stucco wall with great force. I felt the frightened eyes of passersby on Oborishte Street, but I refused to look down or behind me. One last step and I was safe. I sat comfortably inside the wide window frame and put on my shoes and pants. The fear was gone now, along with the nausea.
I peeked in through the curtains just as the Raven, flanked by Angel and Ligav and shaking all fifty-six bracelets, entered the door and toddled to the middle of the classroom, placing a triangle, a pair of compasses, a daybook, and her purse on the large teacher’s desk. It deserves to be pointed out that the teacher’s desk—in itself an instrument of power—was marred by five white horizontal lines that stood as a permanent reminder of the laborious task of sanding down graffiti that had been etched into the wood with a knife and then filled in with ink, an anonymous five-line manifesto articulating the reality of dating girls who are also professional musicians. The manifesto read: “Lesbians play the piano. Whores play the violin. Airheads play the flute. Bears play the cello. Singers have no brain.” Even the girls in our class had to admit that the manifesto contained some incontrovertible truths, though they were quick to point out that all boy musicians, for their part, were socially retarded, total imbeciles, pussies in love with their mothers, or all of the above—which was pretty much true as well.
Angel had volunteered to be on duty again. Being on duty meant that you were responsible for making sure that the blackboard was spotless, the water in the bucket was clean, the sponge was sitting on the board sill, and there was enough chalk to last until the Americans dropped the bomb on us.
I glanced at the exemplary students in the middle file—Lilly, the violinist; Dora, the cellist; the two Marias; and the twins, Ligav and Mazen, both untalented French horn players who always acted like sixty-year-old pedants—nodding while holding their chins, contemplating the life-altering wisdom of arithmetic with furrowed brows, ever ready with an Aha! were, for example, our history teacher to announce that the French Revolution had actually started in 72 B.C. in southern Italy and had been led by Spartacus, a natural Communist who well understood the works of Marx and Engels without even having to read them.
Normally, I sat alone at the second-to-last desk in the right row, behind Bianka and Isabel. Bianka’s parents were Hungarian Jews, but that wasn’t something you talked about. She wasn’t a particularly good pianist, which was kind of hard for me to swallow because I’d had a mild crush on her since seventh grade. Even now, in ninth grade, with everything that had happened between me and Irina, I was still curious about Bianka, not least because she was an aspiring young apparatchik and it was fun to imagine what it’d feel like to do it with the enemy. Once in a while we met before school or hung out in the afternoon. We sat together during the evening recitals and walked in Doctors’ Garden. We’d been doing all of this for two years and we hadn’t ever touched hands. My friend Alexander—last desk in the left row—claimed it all had to do with the fact that Bianka had no tits. Girls with no tits, he once told me as we smoked in the attic during long recess, have zero passion. Not that I believed him. He’d never had a relationship with a girl beyond fucking tenth graders in a school bathroom.
The Raven was incredibly short—though not short enough to qualify as a midget—and wore a black skirt, stiletto heels, and a woolen cardigan the sleeves of which were rolled up above her elbows. Her wavy, black-dyed hair seemed to be styled after a lion’s mane. She had a triangular chin and an excessive, permanently inflamed triangular nose which created the impression that she was always on the brink of bursting into hysterics.
“Dear Teacher and Comrade,” Angel began the mandatory report joyfully, “the students from grade nine, section B, are fully prepared to begin geometry class. Absent today are students number two, ten, and fourteen. This report is presented by student number one.”
“I’m not absent!” I said as I slipped through the open window and stood behind the teacher’s back, causing a ripple of suppressed laughter to pass through the room.
The Raven turned around abruptly and examined me from head to toe. I looked ridiculous in my school uniform. The blue polyester jacket and matching pants were too tight for me, while my white shirt was always stained and wrinkled. I had ripped the school’s badge (an improbable, poorly executed fusion of a harpsichord and an open book) off my sleeve, tearing a hole in the jacket. I kept the badge in my pocket so that I could show it to the government agents patrolling the streets.
“Where were you when I came in?” the Raven asked me wrathfully, testing the sharp end of her compasses against her thumb.
“There,” I answered, pointing at the gunmetal sky hanging low above the sea of rooftops.
Lilly raised her hand and stepped forward. “I’d like to explain that Konstantin just came in through the window. And he has brought nothing to write on!”
She glanced back at me and then at Bianka, with a what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it grimace.
“Greetings, students!” the Raven shouted, ignoring Lilly’s comment.
“Long live the teacher!” everyone shouted back.
“Sit down! That doesn’t apply to number fourteen, however. Number fourteen is going to prove the theorem that we discussed last time. Go on, pick up a stick of chalk.”
“I had a recital last night,” I said. “I didn’t have time to study.”
The Raven let out a laugh in her heavy smoker’s baritone. “So what? Everyone in—”
“The Communist Party, and the higher echelons of power, including the National Institute for Gnomics and the Ministry of Forests and Heavy Metals!” barked Alexander, jumping from his seat to perform a military salute. Short and beefy, Alexander had a doughy face and angelic blue eyes that concealed a cruel streak. He played the piano but was training to become an opera singer. We’d been friends since the fourth grade.
“Sit down!” the Raven commanded, her face flushed with anger. “Interrupt me one more time, Alexander, and you’re out! As I was saying, everyone in this school plays an instrument and performs in public, and that cannot diminish their ability to study all the subjects that are going to teach them how to become respectable members of the working class. Without physics, biology, chemistry, math—without math, you’re nothing! You’re half human, despite the fact that everyone may treat you as if you’re somehow special.”
The Raven, ever the staunch empiricist, was perpetually irritated by the fact that students of the Sofia Music School for the Gifted were taught physics, biology, chemistry, algebra, and geometry only through the ninth grade. She couldn’t bear the thought that one day we’d all immerse ourselves in the sorcery of sound, perfectly free to forget that the sciences ever existed.
“All Bach and Chopin did was transpose basic mathematical principles to the field of music,” the Raven went on. “Anything you can think of is explained by math. Even—”
“The unanimous declaration of the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party expressed the view that our immediate and long-term goals are—”
“Disarmament, stabilization, and the abolishment of the Cult of the Person, without saying who the Person was, since naming the Person would also mean creating a Cult of the Person, which—”
“Hand me your report book and leave the classroom!” the Raven screamed, pounding the table with a clenched fist. At any moment, Angel would offer to bring her a glass of water.
Alexander marched past the Raven, right hand raised in salute, head turned to the left, face twisted in a vacuous smile—just like the cretinous soldiers from the Military Academy one would see marching in front of the mausoleum on days of national celebration. As he passed me, I nodded my thanks. Thanks, kopeleh, for mocking the bitch.
Just before exiting, Alexander turned around and took a bow. Then he slammed the door with enough force that the soprano and pianist practicing down the hall fell silent and an angered teacher inquired loudly whether this was a school of music or a circus.
Standing close to the Raven, one could never resist the urge to examine the enormous hairy mole at the base of her nose, and her bushy eyebrows, thick enough to hide a small pencil in, and perhaps a few paper clips, for good measure.
“Give me an F,” I said and headed for my desk. I wanted to slap Lilly on the neck and knock all her stuff on the floor, but then I remembered that day when I had decided to sit in on one of the regular after-school orchestra sessions in Chamber Hall No. 1 attended by all the string students—they were playing Schubert, I think—and the conductor told everyone to stop so that he could hear Lilly play her part alone. The toxicity of her playing—the radiation—made everyone absolutely sick. Then again, it wasn’t her fault that she had been born a peasant, with the musical proclivities of a crocodile, and—with the help of her daddy, a Party member, and a system that championed mediocrity—ended up enrolled in a music school for the gifted. If you’ve ever competed with other musicians for a prize, you know that achieving perfection can cost your life. One wrong note, one convoluted melodic phrase, and you could end up in an insane asylum—or worse, in a bathtub with slit wrists. To see mediocrity thrive in a place where perfection was the norm, then, was not just offensive; it was torture. Still, I felt sorry for Lilly. She knew she was useless. The untalented always know what they’re worth. That’s their tragedy.
“Get back to the blackboard and start working on the theorem,” the Raven said calmly to me now, flipping through the daybook. “You’re going to have to earn your F, number fourteen. And if you decide to ignore me, I’ll kick you out and put you down with an absence—I see here that one more absence is just what you need to have your personal standing lowered to Satisfactory. And we all know what a slippery slope it is from there. I wonder what kind of pianist you’ll be once you’re kicked out of the Sofia Music School for the Gifted!”
Most of the sheep—Ligav, Mazen, Angel, Lilly, and Emile (a befreckled pianist with thin blond hair)—burst into laughter. Which was absolutely fine. After nine years of school and four years of government day care, where the bad kids were sent home with black stickers on their blue uniforms, I was virtually immune to every form of humiliation, except the kind that occurred while performing onstage. In the end, it was who you were onstage that really counted. The Raven and the sheep could never hurt Konstantin the pianist. Even standing idle here, beside the blackboard, a piece of chalk in my hand, I still made them feel small. When I laughed with them, I laughed at their pedestrian imagination. As for the Raven, shaking her fifty-six bracelets, she was just a cursed old spirit with an insatiable appetite for revenge and not a single blessing. I could see it in her eyes. These lands were infested with old, conniving, fallen spirits: the spirits of Thracian and Mongol warriors, of Roman slaves, of blinded and beheaded Serbs and Bulgarians, of exiled Greek philosophers, of Turks and Illyrians; they say that everyone born here is cursed, and it’s true that I, too, carried the shadow of the curse in my soul.
I couldn’t remember exactly how the feud between the Raven and me had started. Had she hated me from the moment we met five years before? Or had she only begun to hate me a few years later, when her niece, a second-rate piano player with waist-long hair and incredibly short fingers, was admitted to the school under dubious circumstances? Or did it all start in sixth grade, when my father, during his last appearance at a parent-teacher conference, told the Raven he’d given up on me?
“Draw an acute triangle and label the angles,” the Raven said, without turning around to look at me.
“Excuse me . . .” said Slav, sitting at the front desk near the door, as he held his pen and pointed at his lips and tongue, which were stained with black ink. Slav—a violinist who looked remarkably like Paganini—was known around the school for his habit of sucking the ink out of his pens. He claimed that he did this in order to earn a trip to the bathroom and get away from the teachers, if only for a few minutes. On any given day of the week, Slav might be seen walking around the building, carrying his cracked, hundred-year-old violin case, ink smeared all over his face, hands, shirt, and jacket. Both he and Ivan—another violinist who sat next to Slav in class—were very talented, especially Ivan, and were often cited as proof of the widespread view that gifted musicians were invariably messed up in one way or another. Ivan, for instance, was capable of transcribing the first ten bars of a four-voice fugue upon a single hearing—a feat of genius bordering on sickness, for even the best trained ears in the school could transcribe only seven or eight bars of monophonic melody after a single hearing. Ivan was also the kid who famously walked onstage to give a recital (a bow in his right hand and a violin in his left), tripped, and fell to the ground, his hands stretched behind his back like a pair of wings, in defiance of every self-preservation instinct known to man. He broke his nose and split an eyebrow, but hadn’t let his bow and violin touch the floor, which, as he later explained, would have been a “major faux pas.”
Slav returned from his trip to the bathroom with water dripping from his face and hair, his lips still black from the ink. I had been standing in front of the blackboard for ten minutes now and was prepared to stand another thirty. The Raven wanted me to feel humiliated, to feel as if I had walked onstage and suddenly forgotten every note from my repertoire.
“Just write anything!” Lilly complained.
“He’s wasting everyone’s time,” the twins murmured, dusting the sleeves of their jackets. I wasn’t embarrassed to look at the faces of my classmates. They had all stabbed me in the back, at one time or another. Except Bianka and Alexander. But none of this really mattered to me. This wasn’t a stage, and geometry had nothing to do with life. Life was so much larger than the Raven and her dreadful mole, her Pythagorean bracelets, her meaningless numbers; larger than the glaring faces of my classmates, the mustard-colored classroom, the ripped linoleum floor, the Chaika upright with dented lacquer and missing lid; it was larger than the seven-foot-tall windows with their century-old locking mechanisms and brass handles, the clay-tiled rooftops, the golden dome of Nevski Cathedral, the tree limbs weighed down with ice, and the rules that governed traffic and made little people get on and off trams and buses and go to work; larger still than the yellow cobblestone streets, the government Volgas occupied by fat, greasy apparatchiks eating fresh cherries in the middle of winter, and the mummy of Georgi D. lying in its glass coffin—a sleeping beauty stuffed with cotton—than the banners announcing the abolishment of the Cult of the Person, even though no one dared to say who the Person was, and the third graders in blue ties, and the fifth graders in red ties, and the ninth graders in Komsomol ties, and the policemen with pentacles on their hats, and the military generals who came to our school every year and made us strip naked and then examined our bodies to determine if they were sweet enough to be fed to the insatiable imperialist enemy.
Life was larger than all that. Life was about walking out of the Sofia Music School for the Gifted after dark—at the end of a long day of classes, ensemble sessions, piano lessons, and additional practice—and wandering downtown toward Tsar Shishman Street, past the National Assembly and the Russian High School, past pastry shops and old apartment buildings with dimly lit staircases and cramped kitchens dressed in cheap curtains, past the dirty fish store with a giant tank full of dead fish and crabs floating on its surface, crossing the street to avoid the National Security Headquarters and its cretinous soldier guards hugging their Kalashnikovs like newborn babies, over the grass and the sign that read “Don’t Walk on the Grass!” and around the stinking underground public lavatories, into the little park with the pond and the weeping willow and the miserable-looking pigeons, and the drunks, and the cancer patients in their pajamas, and the mentally ill, and the stray dogs, and the head-scarved widows; and then sitting down under the weeping willow to light a cigarette, aware of time, and gravity, and the unstoppable process of metamorphosis; aware also of the warm, golden light beaming from the door of the ancient Seven Saints Church at the park’s periphery and the black-robed orthodox clergymen tending to their tiny god—their deaf, mute, blind, limbless, powerless god, which had been banished from the Kingdom of Scientists, Proletarians, and Empirical Thinkers for bad behavior. A tiny god with a lowered personal standing.
Life was about playing Chopin’s preludes to yourself; about anticipating and surviving the stretched-out, capricious Sofia spring when cherry trees blossomed, when boys and girls walked hand in hand and made love at night on a bench in Doctors’ Garden or at the back of an empty, unlit street car; when so many adolescents decided to get ahead of the pack and hanged themselves in their grandmother’s attic, or drained their blood in a bathtub, or jumped from the top floor of their high school, most often without leaving a note, for suicide notes were rather tasteless and presumptuous: they always underestimated the intelligence of those who’d opted to wait for their natural end.
Life was, finally, about understanding the great perfection, about placing it in time, tasting it, dissolving in it. And the great perfection was death. Death, the final abode. Death, the sweet cure. Death, the only truth. Three major chords—tonic, dominant, and tonic again—at the end of Chopin’s Prélude in A Minor.
It was 11:05 a.m., according to Angel’s watch, which meant that there were still twenty minutes until the end of the period. Bianka looked so cute, three rows back, resting her head in the palm of her hand, staring gloomily out the window. Her eyes were prettiest when she was sad. Was she disappointed in me? Perhaps. I couldn’t even prove a simple theorem. I had D’s and F’s in every subject except piano, solfège, chamber music, and counterpoint. I didn’t even have the dignity to tell the Raven to go fuck herself.
I was tired of playing this game of teachers and students. Even my piano playing, which people said was on par with the very best, was by now an act of desperation. I knew I could never win. Not against the onslaught of mediocrity; not against the robots who played ten hours a day, had perfect grades, and did everything exactly as they were told; not against the protégés of the proletarian nobility who had the hands and sensibility of pigheaded weight lifters. Yet I kept on playing, kept on perfecting my chromatic and diatonic scales, my arpeggios and chord progressions, my voice—for voice was everything. Out of a thousand players, only one or two pianists had a voice. Even a ten-year-old could learn to play Rachmaninov. It was the slow pieces that were the hardest—the nocturnes, the preludes, the quiet passages of the ballads and the scherzos—for they required only voice. In the morning, in the afternoon, even in the middle of the night, I searched for the secret source of the voice, pressing a single key and listening to its sound with every cell in my body, tuning my inner being to the resonance of the ether.
It had started raining again, and, standing there with my useless stick of chalk at the blackboard, I wondered if my cigarettes were getting wet. Every morning before walking into school, I snuck through the narrow gate adjacent to the school’s main entrance and hid my cigarettes in the pushkom, a spacious backyard enclosed on all sides by a tall, mossy brick wall. Hiding one’s cigarettes outside school was essential for students with lowered personal standing as we were searched every time we approached the main entrance. Once, when Alexander was stopped by the two gym teachers and Bankoff for a routine check at the end of long recess, he kneeled down and instantly ate all six of the cigarettes he was hiding in his sleeve. 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. We were going to destroy their most cherished property: in a rotten body, an eternally dead spirit. Love is fucking in public places and aborting all accidental progenies. Exercise is smoking two packs a day, drinking eight pints of beer at the Dondukov Boulevard tavern during long recess, and stealing painkillers from the nurse’s office. Youth is feeling seventy years old, misanthropic, and ready to die at fifteen.
At their desks, the sheep were hard at work on a quiz that the Raven had given them if only to make them stop yawning. Maybe Ladybug would come and rescue me from this nightmare. She had done it before. She would knock on the door, apologize for interrupting, then ask the Raven if she would be kind enough to let me attend a rehearsal. Ah, the electricity that would pass between the two! My beautiful, thirty-one-year-old piano teacher never missed an occasion to demonstrate her superiority over the musically retarded inhabitants of the school. In an instant I would change from a hunted pariah to a kid with a unique gift that warranted unsurpassed privileges. Wasn’t it the gift that bothered them the most? How unfair, how un-Marxist and unproletarian it was to be born with a gift! If we were all born equal, and talent were merely the outcome of hard work, why was it that some—Vadim, for instance—achieved perfection spontaneously, without having to practice at all? And what empirical materialist theory could explain why some kids learned to play the piano, while others simply remembered?
“Excuse me,” Slav said, standing up clumsily and knocking the violin case propped up against his desk. He walked toward the Raven’s table, ink dripping from his hands and nose. “I’m afraid that I . . . again . . .”
“What is wrong with you?” the Raven shouted, and she pointed at the door. “Get out of my sight! Out! Snorting ink in my class! Like an animal!”
Someone in the corridor burst out laughing and we all heard Alexander distinctly say that animals don’t, as a rule, snort ink.
Now the Raven’s voice shifted to bass baritone. “Worthless brats! You all deserve to be sent to Labor-Intensive Correctional School! Number fourteen—very well—you’ve earned your F. And I’m going to do everything in my power to fail you this semester. That’s a promise!”
I placed the chalk on the blackboard sill and walked leisurely back to my desk. Never had getting an F felt so good.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Wunderkind includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nikolai Grozni. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Brash, brilliant fifteen-year-old Konstantin is teetering on the brink of self-destruction. He is a world-class pianist of exceptional sensitivity, but his propulsive rage at Soviet oppression threatens his career and his sanity. He is graced by the beauty and freedom of Chopin, Debussy, and Bach, but he is cursed by the numbing mind controls of the apparatchiks at Sofia’s Music School for the Gifted. Konstantin is a classic bad boy: drinking and smoking throughout the school day, eluding the Communist Party’s pomp and ceremony, and pining for Irina, a smoldering violinist who races Konstantin down the path of self-annihilation. The piano is both his refuge and his tether to a world he cannot abide—if he can avoid getting kicked out of school, the piano could also be his ticket out of Bulgaria.
But who can concentrate on Chopin when there are so many practical jokes to play and so many ways to seduce Irina? Konstantin’s music teachers cannot save him from himself. When the Iron Curtain falls, Konstantin faces a life without meaningless authority, without Irina, and perhaps without the piano.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What are your impressions of Konstantin as a narrator? How would you describe his unique voice? Are his struggles against authority typical of teenage angst or specific to his life in Bulgaria?
2. According to Konstantin, “I’d learned more about playing the piano from walking the streets of Sofia than from practicing ten hours a day.” (p. 284) What does Sofia look like in the late 1980s? What lessons does Konstantin learn on the streets of Sofia that his music education cannot teach him?
3. Consider the past and present of the Music School for the Gifted. How has the building been transformed from a Catholic monastery to a “communist temple” of music? (p. 9) How does the architecture of the school—from classrooms and concert halls to secret attic rooms—reflect the power struggles between the teachers and the students?
4. Compare Konstantin’s two love interests, Irina and Bianka. How do they differ as musicians? What attracts Konstantin to each girl, and why can’t he have a meaningful romance with either one?
5. What role does Konstantin’s piano teacher, “Ladybug,” play in his education, both in and out of the classroom? How does Ladybug balance her personal life and her professional life? Why does she still promise to help Konstantin, even after his expulsion from the Music School for the Gifted? Why can’t she give up on her problematic student?
6. Discuss the enigmatic character of Uncle Iliya, “a man without laugh lines, a man who never asked any questions.” (p. 92) How does Iliya’s tragic past reflect the troubled history of his country? What lessons does Konstantin learn from Iliya?
7. Konstantin thinks, “Perhaps the difference between me and the other kids in school was that I knew for a fact that we were all imprisoned in a counterfeit reality. I had peeked over the wall and seen what lay beyond.” (p. 20-21) What proof does Konstantin have of a reality beyond the school? Why do his classmates and teachers buy into the “counterfeit reality” he sees through? Do you think Konstantin is wise beyond his teenage years?
8. According to Konstantin, “My parents were puppets of the first order, their sole purpose in life to ensure that I, too, grew up respecting the pull of the strings.” (p. 194) Consider the novel’s one glimpse of Konstantin’s family life: his father’s visit to the school. What disagreements between father and son become clear in this confrontation? Are Konstantin’s parents the “puppets” he perceives them to be? Why or why not?
9. Consider the three students who are expelled from the Music School for the Gifted: Vadim, Irina, and Konstantin. Why is each student kicked out of school, and how does each react? What is the relationship between crime and punishment at the school?
10. Considering how little he knows about Irina, Konstantin realizes, “Perhaps our interior life was the only space that hadn’t yet been nationalized and so we guarded it maniacally, shielding it even from our lovers’ eyes.” (p. 214) What has Konstantin failed to see about Irina’s life? How does Konstantin, in turn, shield himself from intimacy with Irina? Does Irina know more about Konstantin, judging by the way she treats him?
11. Wunderkind contains one flashback: Konstantin’s trip to Salerno, Italy to win a competition over Isabella, who practices tirelessly on a paper piano. What revelation does Konstantin have on this trip? How does this scene provide a better idea of his temperament and talent as a musician?
12. At the Chopin competition, Konstantin’s goal is “To play Chopin as it should be played, honestly, suicidally, with terminal disappointment and a complete absence of ambition; with aristocratic tact and chivalry, with selfless piety, with the most profound knowledge of beauty and of the transience of the senses.” (p. 270-271) Does Konstantin meet his objective? Why doesn’t he win the competition?
13. “Irina wasn’t crazy. She was the most normal person in the whole world. That’s why they’d locked her up—because she reminded them that they were the insane ones.” (p. 307) Is Irina sane or insane when she commits suicide? Explain your answer.
14. Consider the final chapter of Wunderkind, which takes place after the Berlin Wall comes down. What changes to Sofia does Konstantin witness after this defining moment of history? What is the significance of his final act of the novel—returning Irina’s violin to her family? What possibilities does Konstantin’s future seem to hold?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Treat your book club to some traditional Bulgarian fare! Find tasty recipes, from a colorful shopska salad to a rich and flaky banitsa, here: http://www.findbgfood.com/bgmeals.htm.
2. Make a classical music soundtrack for your book club meeting. You can get inspired to discuss Wunderkind by listening to Chopin’s scherzos, etudes, or nocturnes. Visit your local music store to purchase a CD, or download MP3 audio files at www.itunes.com or www.amazon.com. To really get the classical music experience, organize a trip with your book club to a classical music concert. Check your local event listings and show support for your town’s talented musicians!
3. Invite your book club over for a political movie night. Good Bye, Lenin! is a comedy about the Berlin Wall’s impact on a young man’s life. Or, if you’re in the mood for an epic drama, Reds offers a different view of communist revolution in Russia.
4. Take a virtual trip to Bulgaria! You can learn all about the country’s landmarks and culture, and view photos of Sofia’s top attractions, by visiting the country’s tourism website: http://www.bulgariatravel.org/eng/index.php.
5. Nikolai Grozni has created a playlist for Wunderkind comprised of songs that relate to the book. Listen to these recordings with your book group or collect them to enhance your own reading experience.
Vocalise Op. 34 No. 14(Rachmaninov) Sergei Azizian, Elena Semishina Russian Miniatures 2006 4:25
Chopin: Préludes, Op. 28 - #2 In A Minor
Chopin: Preludes, Op. 28 Ivo Pogorelich 1990 2:10?
Chopin: Scherzo #1 In B Minor, Op. 20
Ivo Pogorelich Chopin: Scherzi 1998 11:03
Chopin: Etude #1 In C, Op. 10
Murray Perahia Chopin: Etudes, Op. 10 & 25 2001 1:59
No.2 in C sharp minor
Franz Liszt Liszt - 10 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S.244 1975 9:16
Brahms: Intermezzo In E Flat, Op. 117/1
Glenn Gould Brahms: Ballades, Rhapsodies, Intermezzi [Disc 2] 1993 5:34
Chopin: Etude #6 In E Flat, Op. 10
Murray Perahia Chopin: Etudes, Op. 10 & 25 2001 2:26
Sonate pour piano nº2 en si bémol mineur "Funèbre" - Op.35 - Scherzo
Georges Cziffra Frédéric Chopin - Œuvres pour piano 1973 6:26
Chopin: Ballade For Piano #2 In F, Op. 38, CT 3
Chopin: Four Ballades, Barcarolle, Fantasie In F Krystian Zimerman 1988 7:49
Glenn Gould, Jaime Laredo 55,2-Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, Nos.4-6 1975 5:03
Glenn Gould, Jaime Laredo 55,2-Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, Nos.4-6 1975 3:22
Glenn Gould, Jaime Laredo 55,2-Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, Nos.4-6 1975 3:21
Chopin: Scherzo #3 In C Sharp Minor, Op. 39
Ivo Pogorelich Chopin: Scherzi 1998 8:08
Polonaise en la bémol majeur, Op. 53 "Héroïque"
Georges Cziffra Frédéric Chopin - Œuvres pour piano 6:55
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor ('Appassionata') Op. 57: Allegro assai Ludwig van Beethoven Brahms: Concerto No.2/Beethoven: Sonata No.23 1961 10:45
Piano Sonata No.21 in C, Op.53, "Waldstein," 1. Allegro con brio
Maurizio Pollini Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 17 (The Tempest), No. 21 (Waldstein), No. 25 & No. 26 (Les Adieux) 1989 9:59
Sonata No.1 in B minor, BWV 1014: I. Adagio
Glenn Gould 55,1-Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, Nos.1-3 1975 5:52
Sonata No.1 in B minor, BWV 1014: II. Allegro Glenn Gould 55,1-Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, Nos.1-3 1975 3:16
Sonata No.1 in B minor, BWV 1014: III. Andante Glenn Gould 55,1-Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, Nos.1-3 1975 3:16
Chopin: Grande Valse Brillante In A Flat, Op. 34/1 Chopin/Evgeny Kissin The Chopin Collection 1995 4:57
Chopin: Etude #1 In A Flat, Op. 25 Murray Perahia Chopin: Etudes, Op. 10 & 25 2001 2:15?Chopin: Etude #6 In G Sharp Minor, Op. 25 Murray Perahia Chopin: Etudes, Op. 10 & 25 2001 1:55Fantaisie-Impromptu en ut dièse mineur, Op. 66 Georges Cziffra Frédéric Chopin - Œuvres pour piano 5:03
op. 56, No. 1 in B major: Allegro non tanto
Frederic Chopin Chopin Mazurkas 2 1992 4:54
Sonate pour piano nº2 en si bémol mineur "Funèbre" - Op.35 - Marche Funèbre – Lento
Georges Cziffra Frédéric Chopin - Œuvres pour piano 1973 8:53
Sonate pour piano nº2 en si bémol mineur "Funèbre" - Op.35 - Grave - Doppio movimento
Georges Cziffra Frédéric Chopin - Œuvres pour piano 1973 5:36
Brahms: 4 Ballades, Op. 10 - 2. Andante, Allegro Non Troppo
Glenn Gould Brahms: Ballades, Rhapsodies 1983 8:34?
Glenn Gould, Jaime Laredo 55,2-Bach: Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord, Nos.4-6 1976 5:33
Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition - 15. The Hut On Fowls' Legs
Ivo Pogorelich Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition; Ravel: Valses Nobles Et Sentimentales 1997 4:10
Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition - 13. The Catacombs
Ivo Pogorelich Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition; Ravel: Valses Nobles Et Sentimentales 1997 2:18
Chopin: Etude #12 In C Minor, Op. 25
Murray Perahia Chopin: Etudes, Op. 10 & 25 2001 2:37
A Conversation with Nikolai Grozni
Your previous book, Turtle Feet, was a memoir. How was the experience of writing Wunderkind different from writing the memoir?
Many of the characters in Wunderkind are modeled after actual people, so I never felt like I had to invent people and story lines from scratch, the way some novelists do. Yet Wunderkind is very much a novel, as my concern was primarily with telling a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, and that serves to magnify the ideas preoccupying the main character.
Wunderkind is largely based on your own adolescence as a music prodigy in Sofia. What is one major difference between you and your character, Konstantin?
The main difference, I think, is that my parents have always supported me in my adventures and rebellions. Konstantin, on the other hand, is more like an orphan in a loveless society.
Although Wunderkind features plenty of adolescent angst, it is also a unique story of coming of age under the communist regime. What aspects of the novel do you think readers will be able to relate to, and what was distinctive about growing up in 1980s Sofia?
Inasmuch as adolescence is about discovering one’s identity, all young people have their share of the euphoria and self-destructiveness that come with testing one’s free will. At the same time, I think that one could also speak of a “failed adolescence”, in the sense that in an ideologically oppressive environment—such as Sofia in the 1980’s—young people are ostracized and punished for thinking and speaking freely, and as a result many of them never succeed in forging healthy identities and end up suffering from depression, PTSD, substance abuse, and apathy for many years.
The novel features lyrical passages that evoke the beauty and depth of classical music. Was it a challenge to depict a musical experience in words?
Music comes from a place that is beyond words, so writing about music is, in some sense, like trying to represent space with a sculpture. Yet it is every writer’s ambition to invent ways to describe each sensation, no matter how subtle and immediate. One way of describing something like music, which is only made more distant by words, is to describe instead the things that are associated with it. That’s why in Wunderkind I’ve tried to supplement the technical description of each piece by evoking colors, smells, and memories, while at the same time creating a kind of rhythm in my sentences, to mimic the flow of the music in the background.
You’ve dedicated Wunderkind “For Iliya.” Please tell us about the real Iliya—how is he similar or different from the character in the novel?
Iliya was one of the most important people in my life. From the very first day he walked into our apartment in Sofia when I was only nine, and my parents introduced him as my relative and new English teacher, I knew he was different. Slowly, as years went by and my English got to a level where I was able to converse with him freely on any topic of his choosing, he opened up to me and began telling me all about his life. Ours was a relationship of secrets and encrypted communications. We would walk the streets together and discuss everything around us in English, so that no one could understand what we were talking about. All the stories told by Iliya in Wunderkind are stories I’ve heard from him. He really used to be one of the translators at the American Embassy in Sofia before the communist coup of 1944. He spent thirty years in concentration camps as a political prisoner. But there are so many other stories I haven’t written about. For example, when he was first interrogated and tortured by the communists, he was forced to sign an affidavit, stating that he’s never been married to his wife and that his daughter isn’t his. One of the generals involved in his arrest later ended up marrying Iliya’s wife and bringing up his daughter. Iliya always thought that the general had sent him to the camps so that he could steal his life. That episode has always struck me as incredibly cruel and tragic, and I hope that one day, if I manage to obtain Iliya’s dossier from the Bulgarian Intelligence Service, I would be able to write more about it. In the meantime, Wunderkind is my humble tribute to his stoicism, bravery, wisdom, and kindness.
This is an active year for political revolution, particularly in the Middle East. What parallels do you see between today’s headlines and your experience of revolution and reform in Sofia?
When the Berlin wall fell down in 1989, I was on the streets, fighting with the police and helping other students turn schools and universities into centers of resistance. Watching the pro-democratic protests sweeping the Middle East today reminds me of the time during my adolescence when the fight for dignity seemed more important than survival. But I also remember the sadness and disappointment that followed the circus of the first democratic elections and the realization that old power structures don’t die easily. As Iliya cautioned me in 1989, cataclysms often breed false prophets.
Readers seem increasingly interested in books with Soviet and communist settings. Why do you think literature about life behind the Iron Curtain is coming into vogue?
In historical terms, the end of the Cold War is a very recent event, and people in the East and the West are only beginning to come to terms with the horrors and atrocities that took place in the countries from the former Soviet block. The mummy of Lenin is yet to be buried. The documents that shed light into the workings of the Soviet security apparatus are yet to be released. Millions of people in Eastern Europe and Russia still live in complete denial of the crimes and oppression that marked forty-five years of communism. I suspect that in the coming decades the voices of those who are trying to counter the widespread apathy and amnesia which often mask past traumas, will only become louder.
With his imaginative, anti-authoritarian voice, Konstantin is a memorable narrator. Who are some of your favorite teenage heroes from books you’ve loved?
Holden Caulfield, but also Zooey Glass and his sister Franny from Franny and Zooey, together with their elder brothers Seymour and Buddy.
Konstantin says of Irina, “Without her violin, she might as well be dead!” (p. 318) Is there anything so important in your life that you might as well be dead without it?
There are many things I’ve felt like I can’t live without—my piano, being one of them. But I’ve worked for a long time to steer myself away from such fatalistic notions. One of the reasons why I gave up playing piano and went to live in India was because I felt that my obsession with practicing for many hours was preventing me from exploring life and the world around me.
Have you been back to Sofia since you left your native city? What do the streets and gardens of Sofia look like today, compared to the years chronicled in Wunderkind?
I’ve been back many times, ostensibly to walk down the streets mentioned in Wunderkind. In 2008, while I was still working on the novel, I flew into Sofia and went to see the music school which I had attended as a kid and which I describe in great detail in the book. To my surprise, I found that the school had been returned to its previous owner, the Catholic Church. The doorman let me explore the building which looked as if a powerful bomb had exploded inside it—walls had been torn down, windows broken, the ceiling had collapsed on the floor, the bathrooms were filled with heaps of bricks, the concert hall was gutted and overtaken by giant spider webs. It felt very eerie and cathartic for me to return to this much hated and much loved building after so many years and find myself alone among the debris and detritus of a time which had been cast so violently and suddenly, together with its pomp and seriousness, into the past.
Who is your favorite composer today, and what kinds of music do you currently listen to or play?
Chopin has always been my hero, and I still play the etudes, the ballads, the scherzos, the preludes. Lately I’ve been exploring a lot of Baroque music, and in particular the works of Biber and Uccellini.
Wunderkind ends just after the Berlin Wall falls, as authority structures topple on the streets and in the classrooms. Will you write about the next part of your life in another book? What other projects can your readers look forward to?
In my writing I tend to borrow heavily from personal experience, and the period of my life following the end of the Cold War has always been something I’ve wanted to write about. I’ve taken lots of notes. Hopefully, one day I will be able to turn them into a novel.