Music is a complex abstraction that is difficult to convey in writing. Riku Onda’s Honeybees and Distant Thunder is a novel that manages to bridge that gap even for an individual like me who is not a classical music aficionado. One can name a piece like Liszt’s Mazeppa and be told that it’s difficult to play, that the pianist must focus on one’s fingers. In Onda’s best passages, this author uses touch and metaphor: “That’s why, to play Bartók, you have to strike with urgency, even violence…Masaru’s heart soared as he played. Yes—this was much like the joy of playing drums. The sensation as the vibrations rebounded through your body, the pleasure of rhythm surging through you.” Or “Jin felt a breeze brush his cheeks…Jin had pictured ripples on a river, the wind whistling, the pitch-black universe above. That man must be living his own music as well.” And my favorite description by Aya: “I saw this funny scene in a Korean movie recently…A load of watermelons had fallen off a cart and were rolling down a road in the mountains. Some split open, some didn’t. The tarmac turned bright red, but still the watermelons that hadn’t split continued rolling down the road…Don’t you get that feeling with this music?”
The Yoshigae International Piano Competition is beginning to be known for its discovery of emerging talent. Over the course of two weeks, students will be winnowed down from entry, to round one, round two, round three, and the finals. The procedure for the competition is essentially the structure of the novel which could be seen as repetitive if the book weren’t peopled with so many points-of-views that lend important insights. The main focus is on four students—Aya, a child prodigy whose mother died, and who wants to make a comeback after giving up performing; Masaru, a long-ago childhood friend of Aya’s; Akashi, one of the oldest competitors, and Jin, the son of a beekeeper. But many other points-of-views populate Honeybees and Distant Thunder, ranging from the judges, to supportive friends, to a filmmaker, to audience members, other competitors, and even the piano tuner.
There is also a point-of-view scene with a man occupied with his business of flower-arranging who brings an epiphany to young Jin by saying about art and music: “In terms of reproducibility, it’s the same as ikebana—just one moment. You can’t keep it in this world forever. It’s just that one moment, which vanishes. But that moment is eternal, and when you’re reproducing it, you can live in that eternal moment.”
Honeybees and Distant Thunder is full of moments like these where the four main protagonists meet, listen to one another’s playing, and challenge their original ideas (and fears) about music. There is self-doubt, but also inspiration. One of the novel’s best themes is how the characters open their minds to listening to the other competitors, thereby learning more about themselves and what music means, helping each pianist to further develop their own style. After listening to Jin Kazama’s performance, Masaru makes the comment about Aya: “She’d done it again—taken another leap forward. Her face today was completely different from how it had been the other day…Aa-chan, you’re a goddess. You’ve sprouted wings.”
Handling so many characters and making their descriptions unique is challenging. Maybe a concentration on fewer individuals could have added more of the distinction that I enjoyed. A reader needs ups and down just as in a musical score. The character I was most drawn to was the mysterious Jin Kazama, who at age 16 is the son of a beekeeper, has no piano of his own to practice on, and has the most interesting background and approach to music. He is the catalyst for so many of the changes within the competing pianists, but his point-of-view scenes feel minor compared to the others.
In terms of drama, there are small moments like deciding the right dress or suit to wear for each stage of the competition, the strategy in terms of the musical pieces selected for how long the competitor will be playing, and consideration of how the audience will react. But mostly Honeybees and Distant Thunder excels on capturing the internal, reflective moments of the competitors. There is no dark villain save perhaps that of self-doubt. Much more important questions are addressed: how to judge excellence when all of the players are good, what is it to love music, what is it to play joyfully, and how to give music back to music.