The Berlin Wall that had restricted travel between East and West Berlin since 1961 was taken down on November 9, 1989, leading shortly thereafter to the demise of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. Events leading to the opening of the wall are portrayed through the eyes of a Japanese pianist studying at a college of music in Dresden.
Narrator Shūji Mayama, 23, had begun piano lessons at an early age, and through endless hours of practice had attained a level of skill that won him the nickname “Precision Instrument.” After graduating from a conservatory in Japan, he is granted his lifelong dream of studying at the Carl Maria von Weber College of Music in East Germany, where Johann Sebastian Bach was trained. When he arrives in Dresden in January 1989, Mayama experiences a jarring cultural shock at the tremendous differences in living conditions between his native Japan, one of the greatest economic powerhouses among the capitalist democracies of the West, and his host country, part of the communist Soviet bloc. He is also astonished by the high level of skill displayed by other students at the college, whether hailing from the GDR itself or from other countries in the Eastern bloc. For a time he is paired as performance partners with a violin prodigy from Hungary named Lakatos Wenzel to great acclaim, but then the two have a falling out. He subsequently forms a friendship with local boy violinist Jens Streich as he continues efforts to develop his own unique sound. Meanwhile, he happens upon an organist named Christa playing at a church and is immediately smitten by her matchless playing.
Off campus, the Hungarian government opens the first chink in the Iron Curtain separating East from West in May 1989, by beginning to remove the fence along its border with Austria. Changes in the political landscape pick up speed in August, when Hungary permits thousands of people who have arrived from East Germany to exit into Austria. As the narrative proceeds, author Shinobu Suga expertly interweaves details of the true, historical events that culminated in revolution with a story of the personal growth Mayama experiences through friendships and conflicts with his fellow students.
Dresden has long been derided as a “valley of ignorance” due to not being able to pick up West German broadcasts. Its populace is also under constant surveillance by the Stasi, the official state security service of the GDR, which encourages citizens to inform on one another—even on their own family members. By helping out with a citizens’ group called Revolution Eve, Mayama, too, becomes the object of overt surveillance.
As political tensions rise, Mayama is buffeted by events around him. One night, Wenzel is attacked in the dark by someone wielding a knife and briefly remains in critical condition; although he survives, the injury to his left arm ends all possibility of continuing as a violinist, and he returns home to Budapest. Christa, whom the gay Wenzel had wed in a sham marriage to help her escape to the West, is shot and wounded by a former lover right in front of Mayama. It then comes to light that the mastermind behind these incidents is none other than Streich, working as a subcontractor for the Stasi. Streich’s father is a high-ranking Stasi officer, and interestingly, Streich himself had once run away from his family to defect to the West—at the age of nine.
In the context of musical training as well as in her portrayal of the wider political situation, Suga creates a highly charged atmosphere in which it is impossible to know whom to trust, and then masterfully treats readers to one surprise twist after another in this first rate thriller.