Saturday, September 24, 2011


By Nikolai Grozni
New York, Free Press, 2011
287 pages      Fiction

I have a new word in my book vocabulary—roman a clef—a novel in which actual persons and events are disguised as fictional characters and events. Wunderkind is a novelized version, a roman a clef, of the teenaged years of the book’s author Nikolai Grozni.

Grozni was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria and was a teenager when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1989 taking the Communist dictatorship in Bulgaria with it. Wunderkind tells the novelized story of his life as a piano student at the Sofia Music School during the years preceding the revolution.

Much of Wunderkind reads like any coming-of-age novel about a disenfranchised youth. Certainly there are twinges of Holden Caulfield in Konstantin, the protagonist, who is self-absorbed, rebellious, and extremely insolent and impertinent. He is living in a totalitarian state for which he shows total disdain, as do many of the youth with whom he comes in contact. What Konstantin has that most youth do not have is an amazing talent as a pianist, and an overwhelming love of music. In his regular classes, Konstantin is student number 14, who is failing all his classes. In the studio, however, he is the star musician.

The narrator’s love of music is what captured me as I began reading, and frankly it was the music that kept me reading when Konstantin’s ugly behavior began to be a bit wearing and tedious. Konstantin loves Chopin, and many of the chapters are named for pieces in the Chopin repertoire. As Konstantin practices, he describes the music he is playing, and for a moment, he is able to transcend the difficulties of his life and the rebelliousness of his nature. He loses himself in the music—something that only true musicians are able to do.

It is obvious that Grozni is passionate about music. I understood completely when he has Konstantin muse about what makes a great musical experience. “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 true 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.” There are so many eloquent passages in the novel—almost all about music—it made me wish to share those magical musical moments. 

The major plot movements occur in the last few chapters of the book when Konstantin is expelled from the music school, the revolution begins, the unspeakable happens to the beautiful violinist that Konstantin loves, and the boy grows to a man. If you are reading for plot, this is probably not the book for you. 

The musical pieces that make up the chapter headings can be found on the author’s website, each piece played by a famous pianist. There is also a link to a video of the author as a teenager playing Chopin. One of the quotes on the back cover is by Patti Smith, the singer and author of Just Kids. I can see why she was asked to read and comment on the book. Her memoir is also about the creative process and the passion of youth. She, her friend Robert Maplethorpe, and Nikolai Grozni would have had a lot in common.

Every other year in Kalamazoo, we are privileged to hear some of the world’s greatest pianists at the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. One component of the festival is a series of concerts featuring the world’s best young pianists. During one festival, I had the privilege of driving a young Chinese pianist to her several concerts around the area. One afternoon, she came to the house to practice on my grand piano; I sat at the kitchen table and listened to sounds coming from my piano that I could not possibly have made. It was a transcendent experience. 

There are moments like that in Wunderkind, moments when you wish you could be hearing what Konstantin is playing, when you wish you could be feeling what Konstantin is feeling. Grozni’s descriptive voice is such that you are almost there. 

Nikolai Grozni’s website has pictures of the Sofia Music School, pictures of himself as a young pianist, and a video of him playing Chopin. I received this book from the publisher. I probably would not have found the book otherwise, and I am a better person for having read it.

Read also an opinion article Grozni wrote during the Egyptian Revolution, comparing it to the revolution in Bulgaria in 1989:

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