Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review - The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

The centerpiece of Daniel Mason’s lovely and graceful debut novel, The Piano Tuner, (published in 2002), is a grand piano that belongs to Surgeon Major Anthony Carroll, a strange and perhaps dangerous, officer stationed in a remote village in Burma (now Myanmar). The piano isn’t an ordinary grand piano, however, it’s an exquisite 1840 Sebastian Erard with a black mahogany veneer and a delicate mother-of-pearl inlay of flowers.

The Piano Tuner opens in October 1886 and centers around shy, retiring Edgar Drake, a forty-one-year-old London piano tuner who is well-known as being the best in the business. In fact, he specializes in pianos made by the French firm of Sebastian Erard, the preferred piano of Napoleon, Beethoven and even the incomparable Haydn. However, when Drake is summoned by the War Office and told to go to Burma to repair and tune Surgeon Major Carroll’s piano, no one could be more surprised than Drake, himself.

Readers might wonder why Surgeon Major Carroll even has a grand piano in such a remote area of the world, but in The Piano Tuner, Mason makes the reasons seem quite believable. Mandalay has fallen, and Burma’s last king, King Thibaw, has been deposed. Shan warlords are beginning to revolt. Only Surgeon Major Carroll, the British believe, can form the necessary alliances with Burma’s royalty and thus stave off both Siamese and French advancement into Indochina. Surgeon Major Carroll has steadfastly refused to work without a piano, however, something that is more necessary to his war plans than are guns. And for now, what Surgeon Major Carroll wants, Surgeon Major Carroll gets.

Drake doesn’t really want to go to Burma. He’s not a traveling man, and in fact, this would be his first trip abroad. He doesn’t like the military, and he’s happy at home with his loving wife, Katherine. The five thousand mile trip to Burma, he knows, would be fraught with danger, involving a long sea voyage, then a trek through the jungle, just to reach Carroll’s remote outpost, Mae Lwin, in the northern Shan states. Yet go he does, not so much out of loyalty to Britain as love for music and the piano.

The journey to Burma encompasses about one-third of the book, but Mason’s writing in these passages is some of the novel’s most poetic and lyrical. Mason weaves unusual stories into this section of his narrative, which are told by unusual people: Drake meets the “Man with One Story” who tells him how he was caused to be deaf by the songs of the sirens in the Straits of Bab al-Mandab; he hears of a ferocious tiger hunt; stories of the Suez Canal and beautiful descriptions of old Pagan and old Mandalay. As Drake travels through France, Egypt, India, and into Burma, he writes letters to Katherine that are filled with lush descriptions of the new sights he’s seeing, his doubts and fears about the journey he’s undertaking, his awe at the brilliant and mesmerizing beauty of the East. We realize, little by little, that Drake has been thoroughly seduced by Burma, herself. And we realize that we are being seduced as well, by the power of the images Mason creates.

When Drake finally does meet Anthony Carroll, the enigmatic surgeon seems a bit like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He obviously loves Burma; he obviously loves poetry; above all else, he obviously loves music. He also seems to be very happy to have Edgar Drake as a companion, just as Drake seems, somehow, strangely drawn to the somewhat puzzling Carroll. Along with his Shan guard, Carroll takes Drake on one of his “hunts” in the mountains, during which he searches for plants and herbs to catalog and study:

Above them, a raptor circled and caught a rising current, and he imagined what the bird must see, three tiny figures winding their way along a dry trail which traced the collar of the karst hills, the tiny villages, the Salween snaking languidly, the mountains to the east, the Shan plateau dropping to Mandalay, and then all of Burma, of Siam, of India, of the armies gathered there, grids of French and British soldiers blind to each other but visible to this bird, gathering, waiting, while in between, three men rode together, collecting flowers.

Drake, however, soon becomes most enchanted with Carroll’s beautiful assistant, Khin Myo, a woman who is rarely seen without a parasol. I couldn’t empathize completely with Drake’s infatuation with Khin Myo. I kept remembering Katherine, back in London, and her great love for her husband. Even Drake, himself, does not approve of the infatuation, for he thinks, “This (his love for Khin Myo) expects too much of a piano tuner, whose life is defined by creating order so that others may make beauty. It expects too much of one who makes rules to ask that he break them.”

However, love her he does, and Mason develops the love Drake feels for Khin Myo very sensitively:

He stood and watched her and for a moment she held his gaze, and in the deep recesses of his chest he felt something stir, a longing, that she would invite him to her room, to dry off only, of course, he would never ask for more. To dry off only, and then in the darkness of the room, scented with coconut and cinnamon, a wish that perhaps their hands would brush, first accidentally, then again, perhaps, bolder, deliberate, that their fingers would meet and entwine and they would stand like that for a moment before she looked up and he looked down. And he wondered if she thought the same, as they stood outside and felt the coolness of the water on their skin.

Mason is obviously a writer whose natural talents lie in the realm of setting and description rather than in character and dialogue. A California medical student who studied malaria in Myanmar, Mason is dead-on perfect in his descriptions of the scenery and culture of Southeast Asia. I absolutely relished the description in this book. Mason describes a trip Carroll and Drake take to Mae Lwin like this:

On the lonely road, they passed through an old temple complex where dozens of pagodas were aligned in rows. The structures were of various sizes and ages and shapes, some freshly painted and capped with ornaments, others pale and crumbling. On one, the body of the pagoda had been crafted into the shape of a coiled serpent. It was eerily silent. Birds flitted over the ground. The only person they saw was a monk who looked as old as the temples themselves, his skin dark and wrinkled, his body tinted with dust. He was sweeping the path as they approached, and Edgar saw Carroll press his hands together and bow slightly to the man. The old monk said nothing, but kept sweeping, the grass broomstick swaying with the hypnotic rhythm of his chant.

Mason also doesn’t stint on descriptions of the art and craft of piano tuning, itself. It’s obvious that he’s researched this novel meticulously and the details only serve to strengthen the narrative:

He began the day’s work by voicing the hammers, repairing damaged felt so that the hammer strike would produce a good clean tone. Back in England, he often waited until fine-tuning was complete before voicing, but he had been bothered by the tone: It was either too hard and tinny or too dull and soft. He needled the harder felt to soften it and pressed the softer felt with the voicing iron to harden it, reshaping the hammerheads so that they presented an even-angled surface to the strings. He tested the voicing by running through each octave chromatically, in broken arpeggios, and finally by pounding individual keys, so that the hardness deep within the felt would be noticed.

While Edgar Drake is quite beautifully characterized, both Carroll and Khin Myo are a little clichéd and a little “off key.” The characters’ thoughts were, at times, rather clumsily written, as was the dialogue, but only at times, and at least the thoughts were there. Many of today’s authors skip them entirely, something that is, in my opinion, a huge mistake. Some of the dialogue between two characters is written in one long paragraph, sans punctuation. I’ve heard some criticism of The Piano Tuner because of this, but I don’t think that criticism is valid. It’s not at all confusing and Mason only employs the technique in one section, to make a very important point, one that is crucial to a full understanding of this beautiful novel. I think readers who criticized this artistic choice really didn’t read the book as carefully as they should have/could have done.

This book is really two intertwining stories: the first is Edgar Drake’s, and revolves around his fascination with Burma and his identification with Carroll; the second belongs to Surgeon Major Anthony Carroll and his agenda (I’m not going to tell you if it’s good or evil). At times, I didn’t think the two stories connected and intersected as seamlessly as they should have. From time to time, a disjointed note would interrupt the otherwise beautiful, hallucinatory quality of this novel, but only from time to time. Overall, The Piano Tuner is extremely fluid.

Interwoven through the narrative of The Piano Tuner are letters, official documents, reports, and various stories told by various people at various times. Although one might expect this to make for a choppy narrative, I thought Mason did a wonderful job of integrating them into the plot line.

The theme of The Piano Tuner is not only one of British colonialism, it’s one of the power of music to transcend the barriers of language and culture. Music is the first love of both Carroll and Drake, and Carroll even uses music to “soothe the savage beast,” i.e., the Shan revolutionaries. Drake is entranced, early on, by a story of how Carroll once prevented a Shan attack by playing his flute and converted a local chieftain to his beliefs by reciting Shelley’s Ozymandias. Of the flute rendition, which turns out to be a Shan courting song, Carroll, himself, later tells Drake, “ man could kill one who played a song that reminded him of the first time he had fallen in love.” Another character speaks to Drake of Carroll, telling him, “Half the mail that comes to Upper Burma is scientific correspondence for Anthony Carroll. And the other half is sheet music for him.” Thoroughly in love with Burma and the Burmese people, Carroll has learned their language and embraced their customs. He is even translating Homer’s Odyssey into Shan.

The Piano Tuner is a slow moving, languidly paced book and that pace “fit” the story perfectly. Mason draws us into his book; he mesmerizes us, along with Drake, with the beauty and the exoticism of the East. This isn’t a novel with a neat-and-tidy ending, and it might not be the ending every reader is hoping for, but it does fit the story that came before perfectly. There are many unanswered questions, not of plot, but of what was real and what Drake only wanted to be real.

The Piano Tuner is a surreal, dreamy, languid, hallucinatory book that hypnotizes, mesmerizes, and intoxicates. It lingers and resonates long after you’ve finished the final page. The dénouement was so moving it brought tears to my eyes. It still does and I really can’t stop thinking about the book or Edgar Drake. In this book, one doesn’t always know where dreams end and reality begins, but that was fine with me. Despite its few faults, I loved this book beyond dreams.


Recommended: Yes, to those who can tolerate a slow paced book and love a dreamy and hallucinatory story in which the lines between reality and dreams blur. The locale is exotic, but be aware that while the protagonist is beautifully characterized, the secondary characters can be a little stereotypical.

1 comment:

Jim Arnn said...

A very helpful review. You have described the plot, the style of writing, details that might be of interest, and abit about the charactets...enough to help any reader in deciding to open the book.