A rebellious teenaged prodigy studying piano at an authoritarian school for the musically-gifted in communist Bulgaria – what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as it turns out, and fifteen-year-old Konstantin learns some hard life lessons in Nikolai Grozni’s semiautobiographical novel Wunderkind.
Konstantin’s passion for playing the works of Frédéric Chopin is matched only by his enthusiasm for having sex with the girls in his school, especially the brilliant violinist Irina. He and Irina challenge each other to increasingly precarious dares, like when Irina bets that her performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Vocalise” will make Konstantin cry. If she fails, she will have to walk naked through the entire school, but if she is successful, he will have to take off his pants and enter his classroom through the window, which entails walking along a narrow ledge on the outside of the building, five stories up.
It seems that Konstantin is always running afoul of someone or another in the autocratic administration or on the faculty of the Sofia Music School for the Gifted. He also has a bad relationship with his parents, of whom he says, “They seemed unable to understand that I couldn’t be both a genius and an average kid who went to school and brought home straight A’s; that my tendency to sabotage my own achievements was perhaps a direct consequence of being born with a gift.” The only adults who appear to be always on his side are his piano teacher, whom the students refer to as “Ladybug,” and his mysterious Uncle Iliya, who appears from time to time to tell Konstantin about the decades he spent in concentration camps.
Konstantin’s closest friends at the school tend to be rebels and troublemakers, just as he is, and one by one, they are expelled from the school. When that happens, these young people, who were always considered to be special, find that their musical talents have no value for them without the school’s backing, and they are just average Bulgarians with no high school diploma and limited options for their future .
One thing I loved about this book is that each chapter is titled with the name of a musical composition, usually, but not always, by Chopin. Someday, I want to reread this book while listening to the masterpieces that illuminate each chapter.
Food didn’t play a big role in this book, although I thought briefly about making borscht, a beet soup that Konstantin’s piano teacher’s sister was preparing for dinner one night during Konstantin’s piano lesson. Standing over the stove making soup during this hot Sacramento summer just didn’t sound appealing, however, so I decided to make a cold dish instead.
Tarator is a cold cucumber soup, which is popular in Bulgaria during the summer. I used a recipe from a website called Gourmed featuring recipes from the Mediterranean region. The only substitution I had to make to veganize the recipe was to use vegan yogurt. The soup turned out really well and was very refreshing.
The GlobalGiving website lists numerous projects needing donations in Bulgaria. The one I chose is a project of the Trotoara Foundation, which seeks to open a youth center in Sofia to provide at-risk youth with a creative space where they can participate in activities that involve music, arts, and crafts.
The project coordinators hope that by “[f]ocusing on creativity and personal empowerment, our pedagogical approach can help raise a new generation with the ambition to set challenging goals in life. By helping children obtain new abilities and knowledge, complementary to what is taught at school, we can foster self-esteem and a belief in one’s own abilities.”
More information about this project is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/trap/.
NEXT STOP: CHILE
(Originally published on July 1, 2017.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.