In his autobiographical first novel, this Bulgarian-American writer describes the travails of an alienated musical prodigy in Cold War Bulgaria.
“Youth is feeling seventy years old, misanthropic, and ready to die at fifteen.” So says the narrator, Konstantin. He is indeed 15, an award-winning classical pianist at Sofia Music School for the Gifted. He’s been there (Italy and Germany, for competitions) and done that (up in the school’s attic, with willing female fellow-students). His world-weariness is not just adolescent posturing. It reflects life in 1987 Bulgaria, one of the most repressive of Europe’s communist states. Its leaders, declaims Konstantin, are midgets and puppets, as are most of his teachers. His parents, both academics, are monsters, though there’s no evidence for that; they’re kept offstage. Hanging out with like-minded rebels provides some relief, but the great escape for him is music, especially his beloved Chopin. Grozni’s static novel moves between rhapsodic descriptions of his practice pieces and his sneering denigration of the regime and its obedient servants, his teachers. This is the petulance of the privileged; it becomes wearisome. Real suffering is embodied in his old uncle, who several times faced death in a Bulgarian concentration camp after offending the government. Konstantin knows that his talent is his ticket out, as his sympathetic piano teacher tells him, yet he has a self-destructive streak. He feels closest to Irina, a fine violinist and the school’s most disturbed student. He participates in pranks that are not so funny, scaring the daylights out of some teachers with some Kalashnikovs. In a familiar first novel pattern, the action is crammed into the closing chapters.
Grozni’s writing about music is resonant and nuanced; his writing about life under communism, much less so.