This was one of those impulse buys, killing my lunch hour in the local Barnes & Noble, the minimalist drawing on the cover persuaded me to pick it up and read the blurb on the back. Music, Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, coming of age story - I immediately took it to the counter and went home with it.
Nikolai Grozni is a Bulgarian novelist who had his start as a piano prodigy, winning his first major award in Salerno, Italy at the age of 10. This musical past is the foundation of this wonderful novel about a Bulgarian teenager named Konstantin who attends the Bulgarian Music School For the Gifted. The atmosphere at the school is as oppressive as the regime he lives under. Set in the last years of Communist rule in Bulgaria, Konstantin rages against the oppressive system that not only affects him spiritually, but musically as well. There is a deep seeded fear that he, an immensely gifted musician, will become nothing more than automaton like his teachers, like his fellow students. However, some of these students are in open rebellion against the system and do all the things teenagers around the world do: drink, smoke, fuck, all to the horror of their true believing authority figures. Konstantin struggles to be his own person, coming of age at a time when the slightest infraction could have one sent away for “reeducation.”
He meets a fellow rebellious student named Irina, who more often than not pulls him along this rebellious path. Their relationship is complex and full of drama (as teen relationships often are) but they both dream that one day their music would be their ticket out of Bulgaria. However, their self-destructive behavior only makes matters worse for each of them as they try to evade Communist Party pomp and propaganda and become their own selves. They each spiral further and further into self-annihilation, and with an important music contest coming up, Konstantin’s actions only serve to self-sabotage his only possible chance to free himself from his oppressive environment. The irony is, failure and self-destruction is his way of proving to himself that he will not succumb to marching in line with everyone else.
There’s a lot to think about here: the effect totalitarian regimes have on the young, how music can be a source of sanity in a completely insane and irrational environment, how mediocrity is often rewarded and genius punished, the myths and legends of Bulgaria’s past, and of course, being oneself in a society where being an individual is equated with mental illness. This aspect of the story comes through the character of Illya, Konstantin’s uncle who spent most of his life in concentration and prison camps, subjected to the most inhumane treatment imaginable. His frequent meetings with his uncle often serve as a “teaching moment” for the young Konstantin, who’s anger and rage makes him blind to the wisdom his uncle tries to impart. The character of Konstantin was clearly drawn from the author’s personal experiences but there is also a homage to “Holden Caulfield” and it’s hard not to think about J.D. Salinger’s classic novel while reading this. However the prose is often very lyrical, its descriptions of Sofia beautifully written.
One of the most important aspects of this novel is music and these passages, which in a way corollate with the musical pieces the narrator refers to, (each chapter head is a specific classical music piece), the sentences flowing along like the music itself, often giving a dream-like quality to the prose. A healthy knowledge of classical music would most definitely enhance the reading experience here but it isn’t essential. You get the idea - and one passage in particular illustrates the idea of the power of music better than all the others:
I realized that in each great piece of music, there were spirits and gods, heroes and villains, waiting to come out and tell their story. The only problem was that we didn’t know how to invite them into our realm. Musicians were too arrogant, too self-obsessed to step aside and let the hidden forces take the reins. Sometimes, only sometimes, when the planets were aligned fortuitously, when the performer and the audience were in accord with the gods, the magic happened. Being a vessel, an oracle, speaking foreign tongues, making prophecies - that was the role of a great performer. Temperament was the courage to become the music and not allow your petty human emotions to get in the way.
I think this can easily apply to all the arts.