There is perhaps something missing. Roberts, by her own account, “[doesn’t] even play” the piano, and she doesn’t disclose her “musical judgment” beyond historical knowledge. This may be why the book never gets bogged down in musicological jargon. But a writer with a feeling for, and understanding of, the instrument might have eked out more meaning from this adventure, which ought to be, it has to be said, at least half about pianos. Whether the author coaxing the voice out of one of her found instruments would have further elevated this already wonderful book will remain one of its mysteries, along with the many pianos Roberts was unable to trace.
There is much to enjoy in this original slice of travel writing. Yet there is one gaping flaw at its core: the central conceit involving the “lost pianos” of the title. For this book revolves around a quixotic quest to find an instrument for a talented musician she meets in Mongolia, whose family fled Siberia in the 1930s. This leads to many musical meetings and musings....It feels artificial, almost self-conscious, like a comedian dragging a fridge around a country for a bet (and a book). Beneath the author’s search lie fascinating insights into Siberia. More about the people living there now and fewer pianos might have shone an even stronger light on this little-explored and desolate place.
Roberts eventually finds a piano for her German friend’s protégée, a Thirties Grotrian-Steinweg upright, “tender, smooth, vulnerable and full of feeling”, that she first sees in the basement of the Novosibirsk opera house, and it is restored and transported to Mongolia. But that is not truly the objective of her book. Her aim is simply to prove that, yes, her pianos matter. She succeeds because her deeply sympathetic story of a dual obsession, despite its opening unevennesses, not only makes many of those pianos and their histories come alive, but movingly demonstrates how a remote and limitless wilderness was transformed, for her, into the most intense, musical, intimately human space imaginable.
The Lost Pianos of Siberia, Roberts’ first book, is a richly observed cultural history. It maps the author’s journeys through the region, past “caves hollowed out like honeycombs”, through snow drifts that “creak” around her thighs, north to where “the sun seems to nudge the surface of the Earth”, and into towns with stories “as thick as a forest”. She understands the piano first as a symbol of European influence on Catherine the Great’s Russia and then, as the instrument travelled into Siberia, carried both by exiled prisoners and migrants escaping the reach of the Tsar, as a way to trace the extent of Russification and the loss of indigenous cultures. She hopes that by tracking down the stories behind Siberia’s most socially significant pianos she might “find a counterpoint in music not only to Siberia’s brutal history but to the modern images of this country reported by the anti-Putin media”.
How much any of this matters depends on whether you’re reading for the music, the journey or the prose. The prose is good (though thick with similes). And Roberts’s politics leave her a sympathetic observer to the ghostly, sombre faces that look out at us from her pages. She is also terrific on several key periods in Siberian history, not least the purges and gulags that came into their own during and following the Revolution of 1917, where pianos were destroyed for firewood or their aristocratic associations — much like harpsichords during the French Revolution. ‘Drag pianos out on to the streets,’ wrote the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. ‘Beat them until they fall to pieces.’ Now this is an interesting collision of high art and ideology! Yet the music throughout makes her a faltering guide on this slow, uncertain journey, and though the ending is ostensibly happy, I am left wondering whether it really was.
At the end, Roberts joins a birding expedition to the Commander and Kuril Islands, the easternmost fringe of Russia atop Japan. A benevolent encounter with an octogenarian Australian birder who had “refused to shrivel up into a closed and diminished world” stands in exquisite counterpoint to her own previous descent into the heart of darkness: a visit to an abject widow living in the last flat on the last road of Dué Post on Sakhalin Island, a mercifully abandoned tsarist penal colony described by Anton Chekhov in shivering detail in his 1890 travel notes. There are few people left now, and no pianos at all.
Her focus is on the instruments themselves, and the journeys many of them made due to political disruption. Some were taken out of drawing rooms in fashionable Moscow and transported east – often on horse-drawn sledge – or were evacuated along with other treasures from Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) during its wartime siege. They ranged from the German-designed grand pianos, built in the Becker and Bechstein factories, that became status symbols for the aristocrats of the 19th century, to the Soviet-manufactured “Red October” uprights.
Roberts mentions meeting Matsuev, who is himself from the Siberian city of Irkutsk, which has a concert hall named after him. In 2018 Matsuev played in Red Square in front of Putin at the opening gala for the FIFA World Cup, accompanied by a six-year-old prodigy named Elisey Mysin. Clearly, the piano still has and will retain a central place in Russia’s national identity, even though the ability to actually manufacture instruments on home soil has foundered. The Lost Pianos of Siberia is a beautiful, eccentric and slightly pained paean to and translation of this resonance for those who freight the instrument with less meaning.
Roberts presents the book as a quest. The “lost pianos” of the title are those “washed up and abandoned” in Siberia, “the high-tidemark of 19th-century European romanticism”. Her mission, ostensibly, is to find a pre-revolutionary piano for a friend, a Mongolian pianist who wants something more soulful than her Yamaha.
Maybe, but the book amounts to something much less niche and oddball. By seeking out the stories of how those pianos came to Siberia, and how they survived, Roberts stitches together a revelatory account of the region and its history.