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Tuesday, May 5, 2020


A curious hybrid of a book – part travel tale, part history, part quest. (Review by Margaret von Klemperer, courtesy of The Witness)

The Lost Pianos of Siberia is a curious hybrid of a book – part travel tale, part history, part quest. And the quest part is perhaps the oddest. After all, most people don’t have a burning urge to trawl the inhospitable wastes of Siberia looking for ancient pianos.

But that is what British travel writer and journalist Sophy Roberts did. And as she says, her hunt was “more about the looking than the finding”. Fascinated by out of the way places, her quest started when she met Odgerel Sampilnorov, an Italian-trained Mongolian concert pianist, in need of a piano on the dusty Mongolian steppes. And Roberts, who had heard of the lost Siberian pianos, decided to try to find one for her.

Siberia, “a country within a country” has long been a place of exile for those who Russian regimes deem undesirable. The Tsars sent Decembrists and other political opponents; Poles were exiled there as the boundaries of their country advanced and retreated; Stalin forced his enemies east, and, after a brief thaw in the Krushchev years, Brezhnev kept the Gulags full. But it was after the Decembrist plot of 1825 that music flooded the spaces beyond the Ural mountains. The exiles took pianos, part of the 19th Century musical culture, for comfort, entertainment and, by teaching, as a way of earning a meagre living for a sophisticated but impoverished exile population.

Many are still there, some useable, some derelict, some loved, some neglected. But, as Roberts points out, when an object has lost its owner’s story, it has lost something of its meaning. And so she attempted to trace the history of the pianos she found, not often with much success. But on her travels, she met some extraordinary people, from Uncle Vitya the fixer who had seen a yeti, to the man who showed her a glimpse of a Siberian tiger, to the blind woman whose poignant story of her piano is one of the most moving parts of the book.

In the end, Roberts finds a piano for Odgerel, but that is almost incidental, tacked on to the end of her tale of travel, disappointment, success and danger. In places, the book is hard to follow as the author tacks back and forth across the enormous expanse of Siberia. And the lists of piano makers, piano serial numbers and the strange tangents she follows could have been pruned without losing much. But for armchair travellers in lockdown, there are worse places to go. Margaret von Klemperer

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts is published by Doubleday. - Margaret von Klemperer