Sophy Roberts
The Lost Pianos of Siberia

When a Condé Nast travel writer who speaks no Russian and can’t play the piano sets out to write a book about the lost pianos of Siberia, alarm bells go off. Siberia is not “Rome’s most opulent villa”, after all. Yet this book is a triumph, every chapter an adventure and a revelation.

A piano is not just a piano. A piano is civilisation, the Enlightenment, the West, power and bourgeois refinement, as Catherine the Great, who had a tin ear, knew instinctively. The Red Guards knew what they were doing when they smashed pianos during the Cultural Revolution. Under Catherine the balalaika began to give way to the clavichord and piano across Russia, from St Petersburg to the Bering Strait. In 1842 Franz Liszt’s concerts in Russia attracted huge crowds of wildly applauding fans and the piano factories could not keep up with the surging demand.

From the hundreds of thousands of pianos flowing into Siberia, for the most part carted there over two centuries by aristocratic prisoners’ wives, government employees and free settlers, Sophy Roberts is ostensibly hunting for the perfect instrument to present to a gifted Buryat friend, Odgerel, who lives in Mongolia. Odgerel deserves something spectacular.

Roberts actually embarks on her two-year search, one suspects, in order to see Siberia – the Arctic taiga, Irkutsk (the “Paris of the East”), the ancient Silk Road trading post of Kiakhta, the horrors of the gulag at Magadan (“the saddest place on the planet”), even the once-chaotic Russian outpost of Harbin, now in China, seething with criminality, extreme political movements and high culture. Her descriptions of these places are vivid. Roberts also meets extraordinary human survivors, and the cavalcade of Siberian musicians, piano tuners, priests, birdwatchers and ordinary Russians is astonishing.

Occasionally Roberts is in danger of losing track of her quest in flurries of storytelling, minutely described chance encounters and musical history. The historical details about everything from the siege of Leningrad to the death of Tsar Nicholas II become overwhelming. At the end, though, she does find Odgerel the perfect piano and the book “comes together in a single moment”: Odgerel’s first concert in a remote valley in Mongolia. All the pieces in the vast jigsaw are finally in place. It’s a kind of epiphany.

Robert Dessaix

Doubleday, 448pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "Sophy Roberts, The Lost Pianos of Siberia".

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Reviewer: Robert Dessaix