A piano competition in a seaside town near Tokyo brings together pianists from around the world. Among the competitors are a former prodigy who left the competition circuit seven years earlier after her mother died, a third-generation Japanese-Peruvian, and a teenaged child of a beekeeper. Riku Onda’s Honeybees and Distant Thunder, the basis of a Japanese film a few years ago and newly translated by Philip Gabriel, begins when three of the judges first hear the beekeeper’s son audition in Paris and continues through to the end of the competition in Japan.
Onda has won awards in Japan for mystery writing, and Honeybees and Distant Thunder begins with a bit of a mystery, although not a gruesome or deadly one as in her celebrated novel, The Aosawa Murders. Jin Kazama is the sixteen year-old beekeeper’s son and mystifies the judges in Paris. Two feel as if they’ve never seen anyone play piano as Jin does, while the third judge feels offended by his performance, although she cannot place why.
Another of the competitors, Masaru Carlos Levi Anatole, is a Julliard student and had lived in Japan as a young child for a few years. His mother was third generation Japanese-Peruvian and his father French, “all of which explained Masaru’s long, complex name.” When he studied piano in Japan all those years ago, he became friendly with another student one year his senior. Aya Eiten and Masaru studied with the same piano teacher until Masaru left Japan for France. Aya was a prodigy as a young girl and quit the piano competition circuit at the age of thirteen after her mother died. Now the two are competing against one another, yet do not feel competitive with the other. Masaru hopes Aya can have a successful comeback after a seven-year hiatus and Aya also roots for Masaru.
After the original ninety pianists compete in the first round, twenty-four will make it to the second round and six to the third and final round. It’s made pretty obvious that Jin, Masaru and Aya will make it through to the final round. Competitions like this one are usually very competitive.
With the audience and all the supporting staff having to stay locally for the duration of the competition, it was an economic boost for a town, and a good opportunity to raise its profile. This resulted in a flood of competitions, big and small, popping up all over the world, with pianists seeking out contests that would bolster their careers, and the organizers seeking outstanding competitors who would win more renown for the competition. So cut-throat was the whole business now that competitions had become like warring fiefdoms.
But the story turns out to be anything but competitive, at least when it comes to these three. They are each seeking something personal from the competition. If Jin gets to the finals, his beekeeper father will buy him a piano. If Aya can play the piece she ran from seven years ago when she left the stage, she hopes to find joy in piano again. Masaru felt rejected in Japan when he lived there as a child, so winning this competition could give him a sense of belonging.
Onda also links nature to music. Masaru thinks about a piece called Spring and Ashura that he played in the competition:
The atmosphere of the piece was serene, modest, uncomplicated. Yet the world it portrayed was vast. Like a miniature indoor garden or a tea house. Where a part could evoke the whole. Where, from a tiny fragment, you felt something massive and endless. Or perhaps you could say it inspired a paradoxical view of the universe, where the whole world was contained in it precisely because of its smallness.
Jin is surrounded by nature in France, where he usually lives with his beekeeper father. Because his father cannot travel to Japan while Jin competes, he arranges for Jin to stay with a friend who owns a florist shop. Jin feels a special bond with the florist.
This was a type Jin knew well. Farmers and horticulturists, people working with nature, and especially with plants, shared an astonishing patience. When dealing with the natural world there really was little humans could do. You could make an effort, yet there was scant guarantee of reward.
And then there’s the audience and its reaction to the music in one of the later rounds:
The third piece of Estampes, ‘Gardens in the Rain’.
The temperature suddenly dropped.
The madder-red light that had been shining down on the audience dissipated, whisking them to chilly France.
To a lush garden wet in the afternoon rain.
The sky suddenly dimmed, with gusts of moist wind, raindrops.
The wind grew more blustery, shaking the trees, the rain striking leaves and flowers, making them bow lower, lower and lower.
Children scattered, trying to dodge the rain, a dog scampering beside them.
The music doesn’t just have this effect on the audience, though. The musicians who make it to the final round, and even some that don’t, feel connected to a larger world beyond the concert hall.
Honeybees and Distant Thunder is on the long side at 430 pages, but it’s a charming story and an enjoyable one; for which knowledge about classical music isn’t required. And while it’s a much happier story than, say, The Aosawa Murders, Onda’s skills as a thriller writer are much in evidence: the identity of the winning contestant is kept under wraps until the very end.