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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. ISBN: 0-375-41465-7

This is a “Heart of Darkness” kind of story, only the setting is Burma in the late 19th century, when the British are still attempting to consolidate their influence over the region and its indigenous rulers.

In the story, a British doctor, living deep within the Burmese territory, is having more success negotiating deals with the natives than is the British army and its officers. He is so uncommonly successful that the hierarchy back in London cater to his every whim, even to the point of shipping a French Erard grand piano all the way from London to his remote outpost in the Burmese jungle, despite the immense hardships and expense this entails.

Naturally, the piano arrives out of tune, and is later damaged by bullet fire. So the doctor sends for a piano tuner, and not just any old piano tuner, but the foremost expert on Erard pianos, one Edgar Drake, living a happy but quiet life with his wife in London. It is Drake's odyssey to the remote regions of Burma that becomes the primary focus of our story.

Drake himself is caught up in the mystery and allure of the East; by the time he finally reaches the doctor, and makes the necessary repairs, he is caught. Somehow, he can't seem to summon the will to start his journey back home. First he stays because all pianos need to “settle in” after tuning, and need a second going over after a couple of weeks. But the two weeks go by, and Drake still has no impetus to leave. Before he (or we) seem to realize it, three months have gone by, and he is still there.

Meanwhile, the British are beginning to have their doubts about the good doctor, and consequently about his piano tuner, too. Is the doctor really on their side? Or is he setting himself up as a power in his own right, not necessarily in line with the British goals and aspirations for the region?

While not directly forbidding Drake from traveling the last leg of his journey through the jungle to reach the doctor, it has become apparent that they intend to send him back to London, instead. The doctor sends one of his own native “messengers” to escort Drake to him, against the express wishes of the British. Attending them is Khin Myo, the woman assigned to him as his . . . servant? companion? from the time he arrived in Mandalay.

Naturally, he eventually falls in love with Khin Myo, but her role is never entirely clear, certainly not to him. Is she is the doctor's lover already? And yet he (Drake) has no intention of being unfaithful to his wife, to whom he writes occasional lengthy letters. He seems to have fallen unwittingly under the spell of the Orient itself, as expressed in the beauty (and squalor) of Mandalay, and the jungles beyond, a beauty of which Khin Myo is but a personification.

Eventually the British take action, suspecting the worst of the errant doctor AND his piano tuner. The story hurls itself headlong into its seemingly inevitable and yet unfathomable tragic ending.

The incongruous nature of the basic elements of the story—a piano tuner in the jungles of 19th century Burma—makes for much of the ambiance, as do the thoughts and experiences of the piano tuner. We experience the narrative directly from his perspective, after all. We experience what he experiences. An unusual, but evocative tale. Definitely recommended.

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