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Wunderkind

Wunderkind

A Novel

  • reading group guide
Life in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1980s is bleak and controlled. The oppressive Communist regime bears down on all aspects of people’s lives much like the granite sky overhead. In the crumbling old building that hosts the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, inflexible and unsentimental apparatchiks drill the students like soldiers—as if the music they are teaching did not have the power to set these young souls on fire.

Fifteen-year-old Konstantin is a brash, brilliant pianist of exceptional sensitivity, struggling toward adulthood in a society where honest expression often comes at a terrible cost. Confined to the Music School for most of each day and a good part of the night, Konstantin exults in his small rebellions—smoking, drinking, and mocking Party pomp and cant at every opportunity. Intelligent and arrogant, funny and despairing, compassionate and cruel, he is driven simultaneously by a desire to be the best and an almost irresistible urge to fail. His isolation, buttressed by the grim conventions of a loveless society, prevents him from getting close to the mercurial violin virtuoso Irina, but also from understanding himself.

Through it all, Konstantin plays the piano with inflamed passion: he is transported by unparalleled explorations of Chopin, Debussy, and Bach, even as he is cursed by his teachers’ numbing efforts at mind control. Each challenging piano piece takes on a life of its own, engendering exquisite new revelations. A refuge from a reality Konstantin detests, the piano is also what tethers him to it. Yet if he can only truly master this grandest of instruments—as well as his own self-destructive urges—it might just secure his passage out of this broken country.

Nikolai Grozni—himself a native of Bulgaria and a world-class pianist in his youth—sets this electrifying portrait of adolescent longing and anxiety against a backdrop of tumultuous, historic world events. Hypnotic and headlong, Wunderkind gives us a stunningly urgent, acutely observed, and wonderfully tragicomic glimpse behind the Iron Curtain at the very end of the Cold War, reminding us of the sometimes life-saving grace of great music.
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  • Free Press | 
  • 304 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781451616989 | 
  • September 2011
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Read an Excerpt

Rachmaninov,
“Vocalise,” op. 34, no. 14

November 3, 1987


Russian midgets are the tallest and Russian watches are the fastest, went the joke, and my watch—a Sputnik, which I had bought in Moscow after my recital at the National Conservatory—lived up to its reputation. On average it gained about two extra hours a week, which, considering my incurable habit of arriving late for every class or meeting, was quite helpful. I kept it in the front pocket of my brown leather shoulder bag, as I couldn’t bear having anything on my wrist.

“It’s somewhere between ten thirty and... see more

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Wunderkind includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nikolai Grozni. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Brash, brilliant fifteen-year-old Konstantin is teetering on the brink of self-destruction. He is a world-class pianist of exceptional sensitivity, but his propulsive rage at Soviet oppression threatens his career and his sanity. He is graced by the beauty and freedom of Chopin, Debussy, and Bach, but he is cursed by the numbing mind controls of the apparatchiks at Sofia’s Music School for the Gifted. Konstantin is a classic bad boy: drinking and smoking throughout the school day, eluding the Communist Party’s pomp and ceremony, and pining for Irina, a smoldering violinist who races Konstantin down the path of self-annihilation. The piano is both his refuge and his tether to a world he cannot abide—if he can avoid getting kicked out of school, the piano could also be his ticket out of Bulgaria.

But who can concentrate on Chopin when there are so many practical jokes to play and so many ways to seduce Irina? Konstantin’s music teachers cannot save him from himself. When the Iron Curtain falls, Konstanti see more

About the Author

Nikolai Grozni
Photograph by Marion Ettlinger

Nikolai Grozni

Nikolai Grozni began training as a classical pianist at age four, and won his first major award in Salerno, Italy, at the age of ten. Grozni's acclaimed memoir Turtle Feet follows his four years spent as a Buddhist monk studying at the Institute of Tibetan Dialectics in Dharamsala, and later at a monastery in South India. Grozni holds an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. He lives with his wife and their children in France.

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