Upending the Travelogue: A Conversation with Sophy Roberts




SOPHY ROBERTS’S The Lost Pianos of Siberia, out from Grove Atlantic this month, upends the Siberia of common imagination, transforming a place of pain, punishment, exile, and systematic horror into a complex landscape of narrative, survival, and beauty. The book begins with Roberts’s search for a piano that her dear friend, a talented Mongolian pianist, can play and becomes a nonfiction account of the pianos of Siberia: who loved them, who played them, who brought them to the landscape. The music Roberts finds as she searches is not a gilt overlay, but an integral part of how people survive and thrive in difficulty.

Roberts rescues the travelogue from its very white, male origins, unfolding instead a tale of what she calls “deep relationship” with both place and people. As I read the book, I found myself surprised and happy that a book of such patience and depth could come to exist in an era of such rapidity. I was grateful, too, in a time of tremendous immobility, to consider how humanity before me had transformed forced solitude and stasis into evocative and creative spaces.

With COVID-19 keeping Roberts in Devon, far from her usual world travels, and me in Marin, away from my home of the last 10 years in Iraq, we conducted this cross-continental interview over Zoom, a tool that has become a mundane reference in our global lexicon.

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ALANA MARIE LEVINSON-LABROSSE: How do you conceive of traditional travelogue, and how does this book diverge from that tradition?

SOPHY ROBERTS: It always bothered me when I went into a bookshop in Britain to see travel literature fill a shelf in the basement floor. Why is that, when we are a profoundly curious and mobile species? The travelogue had got strung up with the “I” narrative of the imperial white male. That’s the tradition I come out of: white Westerners traveled so freely without passports, giving this very confident “I” voice to the genre for around a century or more. I was keen to try and disturb those expectations a bit, in part, too, because I know how it works in the field. There’s always an interpreter, a fixer, but that’s so often hidden as if an interaction happened without any kind of collaboration. My book would have been nothing without the people I worked with. I have no sense of confusion on that point. A writer I know read the book and said, “Why do you go on about your interpreter at the beginning?” Because these are her words, I relied on her, this is deep relationship, deep relationship. And yes, there are people who say, “I wish there was more of you in the book.” I don’t want more of me. I want to tell other people’s stories. I wanted a book that didn’t sit so comfortably on the travel shelf, but in history, music.

Edmund de Waal talks about how objects have always been stolen, retrieved, and lost; it’s how you tell their stories that matters. And that was my golden moment: tell the story through the object, not through the tradition of “Aren’t I tough in an extreme environment.” That is not a tradition I want to contribute to. It’s outdated.

Your hope to find a piano is clear throughout the book, but somewhat surprisingly at moments you almost express the hope to not find one. Can you discuss that ambivalence about the object of your search?

The whole book was a constant roller-coaster of potential failure and success. That roller-coaster was private, my own self-doubt; professional, as an English writer working in Russia with the eye of the system on me; and artistic: it was my first book.

Often a quest narrative has to meet with success — and I was questioning that the whole time. Did I need to meet with success, or was the quest enough? Then it becomes more modern. Why can’t a failure narrative be as interesting to read as a success? If I ended up not bringing a piano to Mongolia, I had to face that there would be a story in that failure.

Travel is an act of curiosity, and we’ve forgotten that because it has become an act of consumption. It’s not. It’s an act of empathy. By knocking on the doors of strangers and asking, “Have you got a piano,” there’s an immediate connection and curiosity that’s totally human. As opposed to: “Here I am, here’s some money, give me a bed for the night and show me a good time.” Brits can cope with failure, but Americans are used to success. I’ve already seen a slightly different sort of reader feedback. It’s as if American readers want a singular, directed narrative where it’s clear: here’s the quest, here’s the jeopardy moment.

And jeopardy makes travel fun. Frankly. It puts risk back into the experience. Where there is risk, there is serendipity. Where there is serendipity, there is magic. Failure has to be part of all those relationships.

Leonid Kaloshin, a contemporary figure in the book who lives in Siberia and dedicates himself to bringing “high” culture to everyone in his town, remarks, in a delightful turn of perspective, that Siberia is not remote, but “at the center” — that the world is what is so remote. Is this something you try to communicate in your work? In your travels?

You’ve got to the absolute nub of the book by pointing out that line. I didn’t know until long into the editing process how important that line was. I spend a long time looking at the stereotype of the proverbial backwoods. Leonid had no sense of “wokeness,” just a completely straight face, and he set me in a spin, he confronted my ideas of why I am drawn to places like Siberia that are often judged before they are experienced and why they are perceived to be inferior or frightening before they are understood.

Leonid did two things: he told me the world was remote and he stood at the center, but he also told me that music does not belong to the elite. He didn’t have enough money to buy firewood, but he was building a small concert hall at the back of his Siberian cottage. High culture belongs to everybody. In Siberia, the piano is a democratized instrument. Also, Leonid is deeply self-educated because he gave himself time and space. Our education comes through screens and snatches of distracting news. His came through deep immersion in culture. It was a real instruction in my own cultural arrogance.

Throughout the book, we see people survive through the creation and appreciation of culture — Sergei Volkonsky, a famous Decembrist exiled to Siberia; Maria Rayevskaya, his wife who chose to follow him into his 30-year exile; the people of Leningrad during the city’s siege. I’d be interested to hear how and when, from your perspective, creation and survival are the same act.

I’m part of the age of distraction. In our age, culture is another distraction, not this rifle-shot focus that comes from having nothing else. A single piano when there’s nothing else in the house. The sound of Bach when you’ve lost your whole family. The music in your head when you’re in a gulag. Music can give a total focus that absorbs and comforts you when all else is gone. I want to live with a greater consciousness of what I do have, rather than what I do not. But I live in the age of distraction. I go to the theater — sometimes I walk out before the final act, I get on Instagram. I don’t have that commitment. I’m constantly being distracted. We have an overabundance of stimulation. When you have very little in a place that is remote, that’s when it has real power. What I loved about this project was becoming genuinely and absurdly obsessed. The paragon of obsession is love. This book gave me that feeling of really, truly falling in love with something.

Sometimes I read great poets and novelists from the 19th century, I read The Count of Monte Cristo and I think, “How on earth was that book written?” Because the author could focus on a single thought. And that’s hard in the here and now.

When you have nothing else, you find solace in a narcissus. That wonderful family I meet in the book, the Lomatchenkos, had three books. Their father sold the house to pay for a piano.

Travels in Siberia taught me: You can focus on a single thing obsessively and that focus reveals magic. And it’s disappearing there quickly, too.

Right now, though, we’re going through this time of terrific immobility — we can look toward the prisoner who practices on a piano carved into a wooden bunk in the gulag.

This whole book is about an object — and, as you hint toward in the first pages of the book, objects are never merely objects — that takes on the values of its surroundings. As Russia seeks to be more European, pianos flood in; when Russia wants to be more Russian, the piano industry moves to Russia; similarly, when the Cultural Revolution reaches Harbin, a district of the People’s Republic of China near the Siberian border, the instrument becomes yet again a symbol for opposition and is vilified. Did you expect the piano to bear this kind of weight as an object, or did you discover the different weights it bore only over time and with research?

I discovered the different weights. I expected it to be an object that I heroically returned to Mongolia. I was so wrong. I discovered it to be a vessel of story. You open a piano, it’s like opening someone’s heart. It was that simple. And you can’t just take someone’s heart. You can’t rip it out of the room. This object can express something words can’t. It’s the unpaid therapist in the room. It’s a friend, a lover. So, there was a constantly deepening understanding of what an object can mean, an object that is capable of evoking and expressing emotion. Not an object for the sake of ownership. Mere possession bears no capacity to make music.

And I didn’t know that when I started. I’m not a musician. I didn’t know that knocking on a door would introduce me to someone who survived the siege of Leningrad by listening to music. It was genuine discovery for me. If I had one regret, I wish I had taken five years to understand the shift of the piano’s role, and what it symbolized throughout history. I didn’t get to investigate that as much as I would like to have done. You have to pull back from the trenches, from the thick of it, and I wish I’d had more time. That’s very honest, I haven’t said that to anyone, but it’s true. And again it comes back to this idea that we try to compress so much experience so quickly in the times we live in.

You discuss the emotional difficulty of focusing on pianos as survivors when so many human casualties and survivors require attention. How do you feel about naming these pianos as “survivors”? What is the importance in that act?

It’s the journalist in me. There is a responsibility, a moral responsibility, to be specific and strong about what has survived — to name, to call, to say. I absolutely couldn’t write a book about Siberia without acknowledging what is missing. Every single story has to have dark and light. A survivor carries memory. And memory matters. Even if it’s selective. Memory is the story we tell ourselves.

That’s not to say it’s reliable. Just because you’ve survived or an object has survived does not mean it’s reliable, but it is to say it’s relevant. I quite like the stories in the book when I can’t get clean provenance. It shows deeply disturbed history, not bad journalism. That’s how the world goes.

You refer to “a small museum put together by a committed Chinese academic” as your story’s “Room 101,” the room in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four built by the dystopian government for the purpose of individual torture that contains that person’s “worst thing in the world.” There is a sense throughout the book that your “worst things” are lost meaning, an object whose story we can no longer tell, a piano that can no longer make music. What is your Room 101, and what is the Room 101 of this story?

It’s lost stories. Lost memory. Lost storytellers. Lost names. It’s the gravestone without a name, only a number. Those were always the moments that made me catch my breath and remember my good fortune. I felt the same way when I walked past gulag memorials. It was millions. And what did we lose in those millions?

There were so many more pianos that I could have found. There were so many more stories in private houses, in even more remote places, where that incredible instrument did something to someone’s life. And those stories are gone. When I went into that room in Harbin, that’s what I felt. It was empty of meaning. It was empty of connection.

And the tragedy of it was that someone was trying to find connection. The intention of that room was someone trying to hold on to history. But the humanity in that room had already disappeared. It’s a bit like when you see a gravestone that has been erased by time. Who were they? Who loved them? Who were their children?

It’s more sophisticated than nostalgia. Nostalgia is something I knowingly fight against. You can tell in the book I’m a romantic. My nature is romantic. I would easily, earnestly tip into that if I didn’t stop myself. But when you tip into a place where the romanticism goes blind, you begin to think things like, “It was better then…” No, it wasn’t better then. It was a different story then. And that’s what I’m interested in. What makes you ache for knowing? What is the ache to know? Every time you sit down at a table, you want to know what wasn’t written down by those who can still remember.

I say right at the beginning of the book: I’m not a pianist, I’m not a historian, I’m not a lot of things, but I am a good listener. And that is sometimes missing in the history books. I don’t always hear those writers listening. They were relying on different kinds of relationships with the past. I wanted to listen. I had the desire to share an experience that ought not be missed. That’s why I was so determined to disrupt the tradition of “I’m the center of this travel story.” Why? Why do you need more of me? You don’t.

There is a part of you, you say, that is lost to Siberia, the part that taught you “the distracting knowledge that there is always further to go,” to lean into “the outside possibility a little marvel might appear.” How is that part of you finding its way out or manifesting in this new time of far more limited travel?

I’m really disturbed by two things that I see happening: the speed of technology and the speed of this new nationalism. And they are happening so fast, we can’t really understand it. And I feel — and I think many people share the feeling — completely at sea, adrift, in that speed. Things feel out of control, to be brutally honest. We all have things to which we believe we can contribute or try to contribute — and whether you’re a doctor or a nurse or a mother or a police officer, most everyone is trying to contribute — but it’s really hard to know what constitutes contribution at this speed.

I don’t believe travel literature has a place in this new world, in the old sense of the genre. I think that genre is being shot apart, as much as anything else is. So, how do you communicate the real importance of human connection, of empathy and memory, in a redefined genre? I’m working on a second book idea right now, and this question hits at the heart of it. Where is the place of my work in this world?

In Siberia, there was a completely different calibration of space and time. Every door I knocked on, they’d give me three days if I needed it. I come back into my own society and I’m pinched, confused. I miss Siberia’s different sense of life. I want to slow life here down. I want to slow it down for my kids. For me. For the planet. For storytelling. But slow it down without retreating. I don’t want to retreat. So, that creates tension. I haven’t worked it out.

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Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse is a translator, poet, and professor who has lived and worked in Iraq since 2011.

 

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