Nikolai Grozni's dark novel is a revelation. Drawing deeply from his own experience as a concert pianist in Soviet era Bulgaria, he uses music as a metaphor throughout the book to show the bleakness of the life of a gifted music student under the oppressive thumb of an Eastern Bloc regime. Having spent considerable time in several for Communist nations, I can attest to the fact that Grozni hits just the right notes in painting vivid word pictures of characters, places and attitudes. The story is a heart-rending tale of the gifted young pianist, Konstantin. He struggles to make sense of his musicianship, the pedagogy and oppression of the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, the soul-dead apparatchiks, the crumbling infrastructure of his city and the wider world locked behind the Iron Curtain, and his myriad relationships with peers and older citizens.
The heart of the struggle is revealed in the quotation from Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" that opens the novel: "What is hell? I maintain that it's the suffering of being unable to love." The action of the novel unfolds like a Chopin etude, consonances and dissonances interwoven as Konstantin and his cohorts grope around in the dark to discover where love and meaning may be found. The tale is one of grayness with surprising interludes of beauty - emblematic of life in Sofia and beyond in those hopeless days before the end of the Communist era.
Grozni writes beautifully and evocatively:
"This was the temple of the robots, of science and reason, of empirical hallucinations and ideological hemorrhaging. This was where the smell of embalmed corpses and pickled contempt came from. The smell of never-ending war. The fact of the matter was, we were all still at war - only by now the battlefield had moved from the fields and the streets into our brains. We had been forced to dig trenches around ideas and big words. We had built fortifications to protect the permitted centers of thought. We had isolated our subversive tendencies with barbed wire. What a great time to be alive! Lunatics to the west, lunatics to the east. On both sides of the thought divide, people hid in shelters, clinging to their meager rations of reality. What should it be? The champions of greed or the harlequins of misery? The priests of selfishness or the heralds of the disposable soul? The grateful slaves of plenitude or the conniving experts of government-sanctioned kitsch? Take your pick." (Page 90)
I am not sure if Grozni is deliberately offering a nod to the writing of Robert Conroy, or if they have simply drawn inspiration from the same muse, but they both use a lovely metaphor to demonstrate the ineffable loveliness of music:
Conroy “The Lords of Discipline”: ". . . the window through which the bright, lovely petals of Mozart dropped into the garden.” (Page 21)
Grozni: ". . . the rose petals floating in Mozart's sonatas . . ." (page 151)The novel is clearly overtly autobiographical. The author reflects his upbringing in Sofia, as well as his sojourns studying and living in Boston and India. Equally adept at keyboarding on his laptop or sitting at a Steinway, Grozni fingers both the white keys and the black with great artistry. The chords of his writing are major, minor, diminished and augmented. This is a book that will be appreciated by artists as well as by students of the human condition. I look forward to his encore.