The Piano Tunerby Daniel Mason
“A seductive and lyrical novel that probes the brutalities and compromises of colonization, even as it celebrates the elusive powers of music and the imagination.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed/i>… See more details below
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“A seductive and lyrical novel that probes the brutalities and compromises of colonization, even as it celebrates the elusive powers of music and the imagination.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Daniel Mason’s enigmatic and compelling first novel about the Anglo-Burmese war, a rogue major, and the fate of an ordinary piano tuner drawn into an extraordinary entanglement.
“An ambitious, adventuresome, highly unusual first novel that offers pleasures too rarely encountered in contemporary American literary fiction. . . . [Mason is] a gifted, original and courageous writer.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Luminous. . . . Mason’s writing achieves that kind of reverie in which every vision, tone, flavor and sensation is magnified.” —Los Angeles Times
“Intoxicating, full of sights to see, histories to learn, stories to entertain.” —USA Today
“Remarkable. . . . A profound adventure story.” –The New Yorker
“Inspired. . . . The Piano Tuner is a brilliant debut.” –Miami Herald
“Reminded me of books I read by flashlight, under the covers, when I was young.” –USA Today
“Mason’s writing achieves that kind of reverie in which every vision, tone, flavor and sensation is magnified.” –LA Times
“Excellent. . . . [Mason’s] powerful prose style and his ability to embrace history, politics, nature and medicine . . . [is] astonishing.” –The New York Times Book Review
“The Piano Tuner is a haunting, passionate story of empire and individualism. . . . [Mason is] a gifted writer.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“This wondrous work of fiction . . . artfully weaves psychology, politics, medicine and music theory into a polyphonic composition. . . . A virtuoso performance.” –Newsday
“[A] very fine first novel. . . . Its author is rich in talent and promise.” –Philadelphia Inquirer
“Daniel Mason’s ambitious, lyrical The Piano Tuner . . . [possesses] genuine moments of ominous beauty. . . . Readers . . . should be intrigued by the mix of historical detail, lush settings, and equally lush language.” –San Jose Mercury News
“A smart, entertaining adventure.” –Christian Science Monitor
“An intense, shimmering dream of a story.” –Grand Rapids Press
“Mason has improvised a virtuoso tale . . . a complex and subtly imagined adventure.” –Guardian Unlimited
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Read an Excerpt
It was afternoon in the office of Colonel Killian, Director of Operations for the Burma Division of the British army. Edgar Drake sat by a pair of dark, rattling heating pipes and stared out the window, watching the sweep of rain. Across the room sat the Colonel, a broad, sunburnt man with a shock of red hair and a thick mustache that fanned out in combed symmetry, underlining a fierce pair of green eyes. Behind his desk hung a long Bantu lance and a painted shield that still bore the scars of battle. He wore a scarlet uniform, edged with braids of black mohair. Edgar would remember this, for the braids reminded him of a tiger's stripes, and the scarlet made the green eyes greener.
Several minutes had passed since the Colonel had entered the room, drawn up a chair behind a deeply polished mahogany desk, and begun to thumb through a stack of papers. At last he looked up. From behind the mustache came a stentorian baritone. "Thank you for waiting, Mr. Drake. I had a matter of urgency to attend to."
The piano tuner turned from the window. "Of course, Colonel."
He fingered his hat in his lap.
"If you don't mind, we will begin at once with the matter at hand." The Colonel leaned forward. "Again, welcome to the War Office. I imagine this is your first visit here." He did not leave time for the piano tuner to respond. "On behalf of my staff and superiors, I appreciate your attention to what we consider a most serious matter. We have prepared a briefing regarding the background of this affair. If you agree, I think it would be most expedient if I summarize it for you first. We can discuss any questions you may have when you know more details." He rested his hand on a stack of papers.
"Thank you, Colonel," replied the tuner quietly. "I must admit that I was intrigued by your request. It is most unusual."
Across the table the mustache wavered. "Most unusual indeed, Mr. Drake. We do have much to discuss of this matter. If you haven't recognized by now, this commission is as much about a man as it is about a piano. So I will begin with Surgeon-Major Carroll himself."
The piano tuner nodded.
The mustache wavered again. "Mr. Drake, I will not bother you with the details of Carroll's youth. Actually, his background is somewhat mysterious, and we know little. He was born in 1833, of Irish stock, the son of Mr. Thomas Carroll, a teacher of Greek poetry and prose at a boarding school in Oxfordshire. Although his family was never wealthy, his father's interest in education must have been passed along to his son, who excelled at school, and left home to pursue medicine at University College Hospital in London. Upon graduation, rather than open a private surgery as most were inclined to do, he applied for a position at a provincial hospital for the poor. As earlier, we have few records of Carroll during this period, we only know that he remained in the provinces for five years. During this time he married a local girl. The marriage was short-lived. His wife died in childbirth, along with their child, and Carroll never remarried."
The Colonel cleared his throat, picked up another document, and continued. "Following his wife's death, Carroll returned to London, where he applied for a position as a physician at the Asylum for the Ragged Poor in the East End during the cholera outbreaks. He held this post for only two years. In 1863 he secured a commission as a surgeon on the Army Medical Staff.
"It is here, Mr. Drake, that our history becomes more complete. Carroll was appointed as a doctor to the 28th Foot in Bristol, but applied for a transfer to serve in the colonies only four months after his enlistment. The application was accepted immediately, and he was appointed deputy director of the military hospital in Saharanpur, in India. There he gained an early reputation not only as a fine physician but also as somewhat of an adventurer. He frequently accompanied expeditions into the Punjab and Kashmir, missions that put him in danger from local tribes as well as Russian agents, a problem that persists as the Tsar tries to match our territorial gains. There he also earned a reputation as a man of letters, although nothing that would suggest the, well, let us say fervor that led him to request a piano. Several superiors reported him shirking rounds and observed him reading poetry in the hospital gardens. This practice was tolerated, albeit grudgingly, after Carroll apparently recited a poem by Shelley -- 'Ozymandias,' I believe -- to a local chieftain who was being treated at the hospital. The man, who had already signed a treaty of cooperation but had refused to commit any troops, returned to the hospital a week after his convalescence and asked to see Carroll, not the military officer. He brought with him a force of three hundred, 'to serve the "poet-soldier" ' -- his words, not ours, Mr. Drake."
The Colonel looked up. He thought he saw a slight smile on the piano tuner's face. "Remarkable story, I know."
"It is a powerful poem."
"It is, although I admit the episode was perhaps somewhat unfortunate."
"We are getting ahead of ourselves, Mr. Drake, but I am of the mind that this matter with the Erard has something to do with the 'soldier' attempting to become more of a 'poet.' The piano -- and, granted, this is just my opinion -- represents a -- how best to put this? -- an illogical extension of such a strategy. If Doctor Carroll truly believes that bringing music to such a place will hasten peace, I only hope he brings enough riflemen to defend it." The piano tuner said nothing, and the Colonel shifted slightly in his seat. "You would agree, Mr. Drake, that to impress a local noble with recitation and rhyme is one thing. To request a grand piano to be sent to the most remote of our forts is quite another."
"I know little of military matters," said Edgar Drake.
The Colonel looked at him briefly before returning to the papers. This was not the kind of person ready for the climate and challenges of Burma, he thought. A tall, thin man with thick graying hair that hung loosely above a pair of wire-rim glasses, the tuner looked more like a schoolteacher than someone capable of bearing any military responsibility. He seemed old for his forty-one years; his eyebrows were dark, his cheeks lined with soft whiskers. His light-colored eyes wrinkled at their corners, although not, the Colonel noted, in the manner of someone who had spent a lifetime smiling. He was wearing a corduroy jacket, a bow tie, and worn wool trousers. It all would have conveyed a feeling of sadness, he thought, were it not for his lips, unusually full for an Englishman, which rested in a position between bemusement and faint surprise and lent him a softness which unnerved the Colonel. He also noticed the piano tuner's hands, which the tuner massaged incessantly, their wrists lost in the cavities of his sleeves. They were not the type of hands to which he was accustomed, too delicate for a man's, yet when they had greeted each other, the Colonel had felt a roughness and strength, as if they were moved by wires beneath the calloused skin.
He looked back to the papers and continued. "So Carroll remained in Saharanpur for five years. During this time he served on no fewer than seventeen missions, passing more time in the field than at his post." He began to thumb through the reports on the missions the Doctor had accompanied, reading out their names. September 1866 -- Survey for a Rail Route Along the Upper Sutlej River. December -- Mapping Expedition of the Corps of Water Engineers in the Punjab. February 1867 -- Report on Childbirth and Obstetric Diseases in Eastern Afghanistan. May -- Veterinary Infections of Herd Animals in the Mountains of Kashmir and Their Risk to Humans. September -- the Royal Society's Highland Survey of Flora in Sikkim. He seemed compelled to name them all, and did so without taking a breath, so that the veins on his neck swelled to resemble the very mountains of Kashmir -- at least thought Edgar Drake, who had never been there, or studied its geography, but who, by this point, was growing impatient with the notable absence of any piano from the story.
"In late 1868," continued the Colonel, "the deputy director of our military hospital in Rangoon, then the only major hospital in Burma, died suddenly of dysentery. To replace him, the medical director in Calcutta recommended Carroll, who arrived in Rangoon in February 1869. He served there for three years, and since his work was mainly medical, we have few reports on his activities. All evidence suggests he was occupied with his responsibilities at the hospital."
The Colonel slid a folder forward on the desk. "This is a photograph of Carroll, in Bengal." Edgar waited briefly, and then, realizing he should rise to accept it, leaned forward, dropping his hat on the floor in the process. "Sorry," he muttered, grabbing the hat, then the folder, and returning to his chair. He opened the folder in his lap.
Inside was a photo, upside down. He rotated it gingerly. It showed a tall, confident man with a dark mustache and finely combed hair, dressed in khaki, standing over the bed of a patient, a darker man, perhaps an Indian. In the background there were other beds, other patients. A hospital, thought the tuner, and returned his eyes to the face of the Doctor. He could read little from the man's expression. His face was blurred, although strangely all the patients were in focus, as if the Doctor was in a state of constant animation. He stared, trying to match the man to the story he was hearing, but the photo revealed little. He rose and returned it to the Colonel's desk.
"In 1871 Carroll requested to be moved to a more remote station in central Burma. The request was approved, as this was a period of intensifying Burmese activity in the Irrawaddy River valley south of Mandalay. At his new post, as in India, Carroll busied himself with frequent surveying expeditions, often into the southern Shan Hills. Although it is not known exactly how-given his many responsibilities -- Carroll apparently found the time to acquire near fluency in the Shan language. Some have suggested that he studied with a local monk, others that he learned from a mistress.
"Monks or mistresses, in 1873 we received the disastrous news that the Burmese, after decades of flirtation, had signed a commercial treaty with France. You may know this history; it was covered quite extensively in the newspapers. Although French troops were still in Indo-China and had not advanced past the Mekong, this was obviously an extremely dangerous precedent for further Franco-Burmese cooperation and an open threat to India. We immediately began rapid preparations to occupy the states of Upper Burma. Many of the Shan princes had shown long-standing antagonism to the Burmese throne, and . . ." The Colonel trailed off, out of breath from the soliloquy, and saw the piano tuner staring out the window. "Mr. Drake, are you listening?"
Edgar turned back, embarrassed. "Yes . . . yes, of course."
"Well then, I will continue." The Colonel looked back at his papers.
Across the desk, the tuner spoke tentatively. "Actually, with due respect, Colonel, it is a most complex and interesting story, but I must admit that I don't yet understand exactly why you need my expertise . . . I know that you are accustomed to give briefings in this manner, but may I trouble you with a question?"
"Yes, Mr. Drake?"
"Well . . . to be honest, I am waiting to hear what is wrong with the piano."
"The piano. I was contacted because I am being hired to tune a piano. This meeting is most comprehensive with regard to the man, but I don't believe he is my commission."
The Colonel's face grew red. "As I stated at the beginning, Mr. Drake, I do believe that this background is important."
"I agree, sir, but I don't know what is wrong with the piano, or even whether or not I can mend it. I hope you understand."
"Yes, yes. Of course I understand." The muscles in his jaw tensed. He was ready to talk about the withdrawal of the Resident from Mandalay in ...., and the Battle of Myingyan, and the siege of the Maymyo garrison, one of his favorite stories. He waited.
Edgar stared down at his hands. "I apologize, please, please, do continue," he said. "It is only that I must leave soon, as it is quite a walk to my home, and I really am most interested in the Erard grand." Despite feeling intimidated, he secretly savored this brief interruption. He had always disliked military men, and had begun to like this Carroll character more and more. In truth, he did want to hear the details of the story, but it was almost night, and the Colonel showed no sign of stopping.
The Colonel turned back to the papers, "Very well, Mr. Drake, I will make this brief. By 1874, we had begun to establish a handful of secret outposts in the Shan territories, one near Hsipaw, another near Taunggyi, and another -- this the most remote -- in a small village called Mae Lwin, on the bank of the Salween River. You won't find Mae Lwin on any maps, and until you accept the commission, I can't tell you where it is. There we sent Carroll."
The room was getting dark, and the Colonel lit a small lamp on the desk. The light flickered, casting the shadow of his mustache across his cheekbones. He studied the piano tuner again. He looks impatient, he thought, and took a deep breath. "Mr. Drake, so as not to detain you much longer, I will spare you the details of Carroll's twelve years in Mae Lwin. Should you accept the commission, we can talk further, and I can provide you with military reports. Unless, of course, you would like to hear them now."
"I would like to hear about the piano if you don't mind."
"Yes, yes of course, the piano." He sighed. "What would you like to know? I believe you have been informed of most of the details of this matter in the letter from Colonel Fitzgerald."
"Yes, Carroll requested a piano. The army purchased an .... Erard grand and shipped it to him. Would you mind telling me more of that story?"
"I can't really. Other than hoping to repeat the success he found in reciting Shelley, we can't understand why he would want a piano."
"Why?" The piano tuner laughed, a deep sound that came unexpectedly from the thin frame. "How many times I have asked myself the same question about my other clients. Why would a society matron who doesn't know Handel from Haydn purchase an 1820 Broadwood and request that it be tuned weekly even though it has never been played? Or how to explain the County Justice who has his instrument revoiced once every two months -- which, I might add, although entirely unnecessary, is wonderful for my affairs -- yet this same man refuses an entertainment license for the annual public piano competition? You will excuse me, but Doctor Carroll doesn't seem so bizarre. Have you ever heard, sir, Bach's Inventions?"
The Colonel stuttered, "I think so . . . I'm certain I must have, but -- no offense intended, Mr. Drake -- I do not see how that has anything to do with -- "
"The thought of living for eight years in the jungle without Bach's music is horrid to me." Edgar paused, then added, "It sounds beautiful on an 1840 Erard."
"That may be, but our soldiers are still fighting."
Edgar Drake took a deep breath. He could suddenly feel his heart beating faster. "I apologize, I do not intend my remarks to seem presumptuous. In fact, every minute of your history makes me more interested. But I am confused. If you so disapprove of our pianist, Colonel, then why am I here? You are a very important person; it is rare for someone of your rank to spend several hours interviewing a civilian, even I know this. I also know that the War Office must have invested a tremendous sum in shipping the piano to Burma, let alone purchasing it. And you have offered to pay me generously -- well, fairly in my opinion, but from an objective perspective, generously. Yet you seem so disapproving of my commission."
The Colonel leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "Very well. It is important that we discuss this. I am open with my disapproval, but please do not confuse that with disrespect. The Surgeon-Major is an extremely effective soldier, an unusual person perhaps, but he is irreplaceable. There are some, very high within this office, who have a great interest in his work."
"But not yourself."
"Let's just say that there are men who get lost in the rhetoric of our imperial destiny, that we conquer not to gain land and wealth but to spread culture and civilization. I will not deny them this, but it is not the duty of the War Office."
"And yet you support him?"
The Colonel paused. "If I speak bluntly, Mr. Drake, it is because it is important that you understand the position of the War Office. The Shan States are lawless. Except Mae Lwin. Carroll has accomplished more than several battalions. He is indispensable, and he commands one of the most dangerous and important posts in our colonies. The Shan States are essential to securing our eastern frontier; without them we risk invasion, French or even Siamese. If a piano is the concession we must make to keep him at his post, then it is a small cost. But his post is a military post, not a music salon. It is our hope that when the piano is tuned he will return to his work. It is important that you understand this, that you understand that we, not the Surgeon-Major, are hiring you. His ideas can be . . . seductive."
You don't trust him, thought Edgar. "Just a concession then, like cigarettes," he said.
"No, this is different, I think you understand."
"So I should not try to argue that it is because of the piano that he is indispensable?"
"We will know when it is tuned. Won't we, Mr. Drake?"
And at his words, the piano tuner smiled. "Perhaps we will."
The Colonel sat forward. "Do you have any other questions?"
"Yes, what is it?"
Edgar looked down at his hands. "I am sorry, Colonel, but what exactly is wrong with the piano?"
The Colonel stared. "I think we have discussed this."
The tuner took a deep breath. "With all due respect, sir, we discussed what you think is wrong with a piano. But I need to know what is wrong with this piano, with the 1840 Erard that sits somewhere in a jungle far away, where you are asking me to go. Your office has told me little about the piano besides the fact that it is out of tune, which, I might add, is due to the swelling of the soundboard, not the body, as you mentioned in your letter. Of course, I am amazed that you did not anticipate this, the piano going out of tune. Humidity works horrors."
"Again, Mr. Drake, we were doing this for Carroll. You will have to make such philosophical inquiries of the man himself."
"Well, then may I ask what it is that I need to mend?"
The Colonel coughed. "Such details were not provided to us."
"He must have written about the piano somewhere."
"We have only one note, strange and uncharacteristically short for the Doctor, usually a man of eloquence, which made us somewhat incredulous of the request, until it was followed by his threat to resign."
"May I read it?"
The Colonel hesitated, and then passed a small brown piece of paper to the piano tuner. "It is Shan paper," the Colonel said. "Supposedly the tribe is famous for it. It is odd, as the Surgeon-Major has never used it for any other correspondence." The paper was soft, a handmade matte with visible fibers, now stained with a dark ink.
Gentlemen,Edgar looked up. "These are spare words to justify sending a man to the other side of the world."
The Erard grand can no longer be played, and must be tuned and repaired, a task which I have attempted but failed. A piano tuner who specializes in Erards is needed urgently in Mae Lwin. I trust that this should not be difficult. It is much easier to deliver a man than a piano.
Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll, Mae Lwin, Shan States
"Mr. Drake," said the Colonel, "your reputation as a tuner of Erard grands is well known by those in London who concern themselves with the matter of music. We anticipate the entire duration of the journey to be no longer than three months from when you leave to when you return to England. As you know, you will be rewarded well."
"And I must go alone."
"Your wife will be well provided for here."
The piano tuner sat back in his chair.
"Do you have any more questions?"
"No, I think I understand," he said softly, as if speaking only to himself.
The Colonel set the papers down and leaned forward in his seat. "Will you go to Mae Lwin?"
Edgar Drake turned back to the window. It was dusk, and wind played with the falling water, intricate crescendos and diminuendos of rain. I decided long before I came here, he thought.
He turned to the Colonel and nodded.
Copyright © 2002 by Daniel Mason
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