A New York Times Notable Book
A San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year
“A gripping and resonant novel. . . . It immerses the reader in a distant world with startling immediacy and ardor. . . . Riveting.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
In 1886 a shy, middle-aged piano tuner named Edgar Drake receives an unusual commission from the British War Office: to travel to the remote jungles of northeast Burma and there repair a rare piano belonging to an eccentric army surgeon who has proven mysteriously indispensable to the imperial design. From this irresistible beginning, The Piano Tuner launches readers into a world of seductive, vibrantly rendered characters, and enmeshes them in an unbreakable spell of storytelling.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.15(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.71(d)|
About the Author
Daniel Mason was born and raised in Northern California. He studied biology at Harvard, and medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. His first novel, The Piano Tuner, published in 2002, was a national bestseller and has since been published in 27 countries. His other works include A Far Country. Mason has also published a short story, on the life of the artist Arthur Bispo de Rosario, in Harper's Magazine. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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, then 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 time, 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 which 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 somewhat 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 he massaged incessantly, their wrists lost in the cavities of his sleeves. They were not the type of hands he was accustomed to, 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 understand why you need my expertise . . . I understand 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, 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 1879, 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 dark, 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 cannot 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 creeping 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 further, 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 1840 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 instruments 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?"
What People are Saying About This
An extraordinary piece of work. The Piano Tuner is a novel of journeys and the shifting grounds of perception, but at heart it is a story of the human urge to be absorbed fully into life, to cease to be a bystander, to be thrust into the essential dreamscape of human strivings. Daniel Mason's debut is shining and striking. He transported me thoroughly, well beyond the initial reading. Days later, the scenes shift and stir and agitate within me. This is writing of deep potency and resonance. Of beauty and pain and all things in between. -- (Jeffrey Lent, author of In the Fall and Lost Nation)
Daniel Mason has woven together an elegant and unusually engrossing story, one that offers the reader the best possible journey -- into a world that no longer exists. Rich, atmospheric, and evocative of the sights, smells and textures of 19th-century Burma, The Piano Tuner is an astonishingly accomplished first novel. I truly enjoyed it.
Reading Group Guide
“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.
1. In briefing Edgar Drake about Anthony Carroll, Colonel Killian tells him, “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” [p. 18]. Is this true of Carroll? Is he motivated to spread Western culture, via music, to the East? Is it true of Edgar? What does the novel suggest about the purpose of imperialism?
2. Why does Edgar decide to accept a mission to travel thousands of miles to tune a piano in a remote and dangerous jungle at the furthest outreaches of the British Empire? Why does his wife, Katherine, encourage him to go?
3. Why is Anthony Carroll viewed with such a mixture of reverence and suspicion by the British military? In what ways does his behavior defy convention?
4. As he contemplates his voyage to Burma, Edgar views London on a foggy night: “He could see the vague line of the shore, the vast, heavy architecture that crowded the river. Like animals at a waterhole, he thought, and he liked the comparison” [p. 23]. Why is this a particularly apt simile for Edgar to use at this moment? Where else in the novel does Mason reveal the depth of Edgar’s consciousness through his impressions?
5. Edgar writes to Katherine that the “entire trip has already coated itself in a veneer of seeming, a dreamlikeness” [p. 146]. In what ways is this true? What gives Edgar’s experiences an otherworldly quality? What role do his dreams play in the novel?
6. During the tiger hunt, Captain Witherspoon spots some egrets and asks if he can shoot them. “Not here,” Captain Dalton tells him. “The egrets are part of the founding myths of Pegu. Bad luck to shoot them, my friend.” To which Witherspoon replies, “Superstitious nonsense. . . . I thought we were educating them to abandon such beliefs” [p. 94]. What does this exchange suggest about the British attitude toward colonial subjects in Burma? About the cultural differences between the British and Burmese?
7. What is the significance of the boy to whom Edgar gives a coin being accidentally shot by Captain Witherspoon? Why does Edgar refer to the coin as “a symbol of responsibility, of misplaced munificence, a reminder of mistakes, and so a talisman” [p. 104]? In what sense does Edgar inherit the boy’s “fortune”?
8. How is Edgar perfectly suited to the task set for him by Anthony Carroll? How do his dreaminess, his propensity for getting lost, his clumsiness, and his political naïveté all serve Carroll’s ends?
9. After he’s been away from London for several months, Edgar writes to Katherine that he has changed, although, he admits “What this change means I don’t know, just as I don’t know if I am happier or sadder than I have ever been.” He also says, “There is a purpose in all of this . . . although I do not know yet what it is” [p. 252]. How has Edgar changed? What has changed him? What is his real purpose in Burma?
10. What kind of woman is Khin Myo? Is her attraction to Edgar real or feigned? What is her relationship to Anthony Carroll? How is she related to the woman with the parasol at the beginning and end of the story? Is she, as Nash-Burnham suggests in the ghostly conversation in the guardhouse, Edgar’s “creation,” a part of his “imaginings” [p.302]?
11. Music is a recurring theme in The Piano Tuner, from the hauntingly beautiful song the Man with One Story hears in the desert, to the love ditty Anthony Carroll plays on a flute to fend off attackers in the jungle, to the Bach fugue Edgar plays for the sawbwa, to the call of insects scraping their wings in the jungle. What roles does music play in the novel? How does it affect its listeners? What is its ultimate importance in the story?
12. After Edgar escapes from the guardhouse, he reads the note that Carroll had given him—a passage from his translation of The Odyssey about the Lotus-Eaters who “forget the way home” [p. 310]. In what ways has Edgar “tasted” of the lotus? Why does he find Burma so alluring? What does the lotus signify in this context?
13. Why does Edgar cut the piano loose from its moorings and send it down the Salween River in a rainstorm? In what way is this striking image—a grand piano floating downriver on an unmanned raft and being “played” by the rain—suggestive of the novel’s larger themes?
14. What accounts for The Piano Tuner’s elusive, hard-to-pin-down quality? What remains mysterious after the book is finished? How does Mason’s prose style contribute to the sense of ambiguity that pervades the novel?
15. At the end of the novel, Captain Nash-Burnham tells Edgar that Anthony Carroll is a traitor to England and suggests a number of possible roles for the Doctor: “Anthony Carroll is an agent working for Russia, He is a Shan nationalist, He is a French spy, Anthony Carroll wants to build his own kingdom in the jungles of Burma” [p. 301]. Edgar thinks Carroll is a genius and a peacemaker. Which of these interpretations is correct? Does the novel present enough evidence to decide?
16. Why does Mason begin and end the novel with the image of the sun and a parasol? What symbolic or cultural values might these images represent?
17. What does the novel as a whole suggest about the British Empire—its effects on colonized peoples and on those who try to rule them—in the late nineteenth century? How is this historical portrait relevant to our own time and the political and cultural conflicts between the West and the
18. The Piano Tuner participates in a tradition of literary works that try to fathom colonized cultures vastly different from the author’s own. What features does Daniel Mason’s novel share with such predecessors as E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”? How is it different from these works?
A Conversation with Daniel Mason, author of THE PIANO TUNER
Q: Between college and medical school, you spent a year studying malaria on the Thai-Myanmar border. Why did you decide to make that trip, and what was the experience like?
A: In college, I wrote my senior thesis on mixed-species malaria infections, on what happens when someone is infected with more than one of the four species of parasite that cause human malaria. I was fascinated by the subject—it appears that infections with two species may at times be better than infection with one—but my work was mainly mathematical, and I had never had the opportunity to work in the field. Then not long before I graduated, reports began to come from the Thai-Myanmar border that mixed infections were more common there than previously thought. Soon after, I received a scholarship from the Luce Foundation for a year of research at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine at Mahidol University, in Bangkok, Thailand.
I spent a year in Thailand, splitting my time between the university in Bangkok and our field site in the province of Ranong, along the southern Thai-Myanmar border. There, most of our patients were Burmese migrant workers who had come to Thailand to work in wood mills or fishing boats, or travel to offshore islands to cut wood. The work was extremely interesting; there was a lot of malaria, and because most of the staff was Burmese, I began to learn about Burmese culture, history, medicine. After a year in southeast Asia, I returned to California, for my first year of medical school. Then the next summer I went back to Asia again, this time with a Japanese-Thai project studyingmalaria in northeastern Burma, specifically the Shan States, where much of The Piano Tuner takes place.
Q: When did you begin THE PIANO TUNER? Had you thought you would work on a novel when you first left for Thailand?
A: I never intended to write a novel when I first went to Thailand. I didn't even really keep a journal, only jotting ideas down from time to time, things I wanted to remember, but this was on napkins, bus tickets, nothing formal: Thai or Burmese words, brief impressions. I think there was simply too much that was new, that there wasn't really any time for reflection. It was only when I came back home, and began medical school, that I began to feel the need to write. It was a strange time to write; I would either work in the early hours before classes, or slip books on Burmese history between anatomy and physiology books.
Q: Where did the idea for THE PIANO TUNER come from?
A: The book began with just an image of a piano in the jungle. I wish I remember when I first thought of this, but honestly, I don't. I was often struck by reports of colonists bringing items from Europe to the colonies, for example there is a story of Frenchman bringing a bathtub to Indochina. Or the opera in Manaus, in Brazil. A piano seemed like a wonderfully complex symbol of colonialism; one can object to many aspects of European colonialism, but the beauty of at least some European music I think is universal. So it began with a piano; I wrote one page of a story about a pianist in Burma, and then decided that a piano tuner was a more interesting character, a person who is called to do a job, and therefore has room to change as a character. Of course, I would have had to have a piano tuner somewhere. It may be a fine to write a piano into the jungles of Burma, but such a piano cannot escape nature, humidity. As I wrote, I became more and more fascinated by piano tuning. While at first I thought of it as a relatively mechanical task, the more I wrote, and the more tuners I interacted with, the more I realized that the act of tuning a piano is really quite sublime. A composer provides a song, a pianist the motor activity, and the piano the mechanics, but a tuner is the one whose work transforms human motives and construction into beautiful sound. The idea of a broken piano is tragic, imagine the beauty in taking a contraption of metal and wood and strings and transforming it into something that can bring us Beethoven.
That is where the ‘story' part of the novel came from. The general theme of how people are irreparably changed by their experiences came from my own sense of dislocation, loneliness, and disorientation when I returned to the United States after working in such a different place.
Q: You don't have a musical background. What drew you to using music as an important element in this story, and how did you gain a working knowledge of tuning, composers, etc. More specifically, what led you to chose an 1840 Erard grand, or Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier?
A: Once I decided to write about a piano, I was suddenly confronted with the task of choosing what kind of piano, what was wrong with it that needed tuning, and what it would play. The first task was perhaps the easiest. I looked at books on the history of pianos for one I thought was beautiful—it was a visual image of the piano which drove the book, so it would be only fitting that I chose a handsome instrument. After that, it was like the personality part of a beauty contest. Erards were particularly interesting because of their past; Sebastian Erard was a tremendous innovator and technician, and the piano itself has a wonderfully bloody history entwined with the French revolution, which Edgar describes in the book.
As for tuning, I began with old tuning manuals, trying to learn how the instrument would work, what the basic tasks of a tuner are, and what unique things might have gone wrong with ornate 50 year-old instrument in the tropics, in the midst of a rebellion. Later, I had the fortune to share ‘my piano' with two piano tuners. One, Ben Treuhaft, is a piano tuner in New York, who had actually tuned an 1840 Erard that was once played by Liszt. I remember being in his little piano shop on the Lower East side of Manhattan surrounded by an array of piano parts, while Ben read the manuscript and pointed out to me all my mistakes, some which were due to the uniqueness of an 1840 Erard, others due to my general ignorance. It was a day which makes one realize how wonderful it is to be a writer. Ben and I batted plot and dialogue back and forth, and tried to reconcile both narrative and technical considerations.
My choice of the musical ‘theme' grew out of my choice of tuning. As is obvious by its name, The Well-Tempered Clavier is a piece that is closely related to the art of tuning a piano; it is a celebration of equal temperament, the tuning technique which allowed Bach to write a piece in all keys that could be played by a single instrument. The more I listened to it, the more enamored of it I became. Now I listen to Bach almost obsessively, especially before I write. Later, after I chose this piece, I would realize how wonderfully the structure of a fugue fit with the book's pattern of overlapping stories, not to mention the double meaning of the word itself.
Q: Why did you decide to set the story in 19th century Burma and the Shan States?
A: For some time, I thought of setting it in Thailand. I spent most of my time in Thailand, spoke Thai, and was very interested in Thai history. But 19th century British Burma allowed real historical and political tension, while Thailand was never colonized. There were other reasons as well. There are many wonderful accounts of Burma written in English by British officers, administrators, or simply visitors. Also, since I spent so much time on the border, where one could see the wink of pagodas from the mountains across the river, there was always something distant and elusive about Burma. Virtually all of our patients were Burmese, and I was always hearing stories of what it was like. Occasionally we would cross to a small Burmese city famous for its kickboxers, where the immigration office was on little island and you had to jump from the boat to get your passport stamped. But we weren't allowed farther inland.
Q: What kind of research did you do for the elements of British military history, Burmese history, geography, politics?
A: Researching the Shan Revolt was probably the easiest part of the book: the history is so interesting and colorful, that studying it at times feels like reading a novel (much of it reminded me of adventure stories I used to read, with jungle battles, legends of sorcerers). Surprisingly, I found that some of the most difficult history was actually that which is most well known. For example, it is much easier to learn about the local Shan rebels (for which there are only a handful of sources) than the history of the Raj. Because I found the history so fascinating I felt a certain commitment to it, and tended to be a little obsessive about making the story fit history, dates, etc. I remember at one point going to Lloyd's List to find a particular ship that Edgar could have left England on, but then knew I would have to follow its every stop, so I chose an imaginary ship instead. This kind of choice came up continually.
As for Burmese geography, I was lucky. I originally was going to set the novel either in the Chin states, in the west, where there was a revolt by a monk named U Ottama, or in amongst the Karenni, another tribe, among whom the name of the warlord Sawlapaw still brings stories of awe. But then I came across the story of the Shan revolts, and specifically, of the bandit chief, Twet Nga Lu, a legendary brigand whose body was said to be imbeded with amulets, and who, when he was killed, was boiled down to make a magical potion. Then, just when I had decided to focus on the Shan States, I was offered the research position in Myanmar that summer, in the Shan States. So by chance, I got to travel within a miles of my imaginary site. Unfortunately, I couldn't go there. That part of Myanmar lies right in the Golden Triangle where opium production and local insurgency has led the government to cut it off to outsiders. I would love to go there one day, to see if it is like how I imagined it.
Q: Dr. Carroll, the Surgeon-Major who commands the remote fort of Mae Lwin, is the only person capable of maintaining an unsteady peace in the Shan States. Is he, or any of the characters, based on actual historical figures?
A: All of the main characters are fictional. The only true historical characters to appear are some of the Shan princes, and references are made to certain British officers. Twet Nga Lu is the only true character "with a speaking role." One interesting point about Carroll, is that early in writing the book, I relied on several sources by a British officer named James George Scott; both a wonderful ethnography called The Burman, His Life and Notions, as well as some other gazetteers and histories. Only later in the process, when was I introduced to Scotts biography, Scott of the Shan Hills, did I realize how very much he was like Anthony Carroll. He was one of those amazing 19th century breeds of polymath, interested in everything, from linguistics and ethnology to natural history. And compared to other officers, he was very committed to ‘pacifying' the Shan States with as little bloodshed as possible. So I think that Scott was an unconscious inspiration for Doctor Carroll: I used his writings to create a character, but only later, did I realize how similar the two characters were. It was very wonderful, like meeting an old family member. Scott appears in The Piano Tuner, although never directly. Carroll refers to him as his friend.
One aspect of this mix of history and fiction which I found interesting was to meet people from the areas in my book. Because I did not have the opportunity to travel to that area of the Shan States, this was rare, and so even more exciting. For example, in Rangoon, I met a woman who was the granddaughter of one of the Shan prices. In northern Thailand, I met a waiter from Mongnai, which is one of the most important Shan principalities. I could hardly control my excitement. I think he thought it was a little bizarre I was so interested in Mongnai, but enjoyed talking about his home. It so happened that there was a melodrama on Thai TV at the time about an ancient legend of Mongnai; although it is in Burma, the Thai and the Shan are very similar, and share many moments in history. So we used to go to this little ice cream shop to watch the show together. It was very surreal: it was like a soap opera, but with giants and magicians, and we would sit and watch and eat ice cream at about nine in the morning.
I think that for any author, after spending so much time with your characters, it becomes hard to convince yourself they aren't real. When I was in London, I remember looking in an old London Directory for the name Edgar Drake. There were several men with that name, and the old directories used to list professions. For a moment, I thought that I would see "piano tuner," and felt my heart race. I didn't, but I found myself double-checking.
Q: When you are a doctor, do you hope to emulate Carroll?
A: I hope so! Carroll is such an admirable doctor, he is very kind to his patients, he is well-studied, and he is humble in admitting when he doesn't understand something. I definitely hope to emulate these aspects of his personality, and his commitment to serving in underserved, remote areas. But I am also deeply envious of people like him, who can commit themselves to learning so much about a local area, who can sacrifice so much of their personal life in the pursuit of humanitarian goals. I could never stay in the jungle for so long. It is wonderful, for a time, but I get too homesick.
Q: Story-telling is an important part of THE PIANO TUNER. As Edgar travels from London to Burma, and eventually to Dr. Carroll, he hears many tales along the way. Was this an important element for you? How did you see this interacting with your role as an author?
A: The importance of stories became increasingly fascinating for me throughout the process, and in many ways, now I think the book is really about this more than anything else. Edgar hears other characters' stories as he travels, and is struck by them, until he slowly realizes how his own journey has begun to take on similar aspects of a tale, so that the book becomes a sort of Russian doll of stories, tales within tales, and the line between fiction and truth gets blurred. I loved the idea that Edgar could have started dreaming at any point in the story, and he wouldn't know, I wouldn't know. The stories Edgar hears tend to intertwine themselves with the story he is experiencing, until it becomes difficult to extract himself, to know again what is real and what is his imagination.
Perhaps one reason that I became so entranced by the idea of story-telling is that it is the thing that I share with the characters, all of whom are story-tellers in some way. This includes both characters who literally tell stories, to others whose reflections are ultimately reflections on the story itself. I realized after I wrote it, that when Edgar decides to write a letter to the War Office about the piano, deciding that its ‘absence was an obvious omission in the narrative thus far,' this is not only a criticism of the War Office (who he feels care too little about the instrument) but in a way of me, the author, for not discussing the piano as much as he probably would have wanted.
Although this wasn't obvious to me when I started writing, the ambiguous lines of truth and fiction, between author and story, fit wonderfully with the concept of tuning a piano. At one point Edgar recalls a teacher who told him that in all pianos lie a song, and it is a tuners job to liberate it. The implication for literature is that stories exist as entities greater than the author, who is only a medium for them to escape, enabling pen and paper to express a story, as a tuner enables wood and string to express music.
Q: One can sense certain literary influences—Dante and Homer with regards to theme,Conrad to setting. Are there certain books or writers that have been important influences on your work?
A: I think that I am definitely influenced by other writers; I think that the best way to learn to write is to read. I think that in no other art form can you learn so well from the work itself as in writing. It is impossible to know how a sculpture came to be, or how one dances well, or how to paint. But everything is there in writing. We know exactly how, for example, Faulkner can create such a sense of fear because it is all there, on the pages. I owe so much to other writers as my teachers.
The authors that you mention are fascinating, because I think it is impossible for a writer not to be influenced by them. The Odyssey is such a fundamental story that I think that any story about a journey would seem to come from it in that it is so elemental. This said, I do feel directly influenced by it as well. I love the story, on so many levels, but mostly as an adventure story, in the same way that I first read it in my illustrated D'Aullerie's Book of Greek Myths as a child. Maybe this sounds simplistic. But in college I took a course on it, and I remember that despite all of the analysis, I couldn't escape the fact that it was just a great tale. And so when everyone discussed all of the complex reasons for Odysseus not reaching home, I remember just thinking: He doesn't want to; I don't want him to; When he gets home the adventure ends. This comes up in my book very often, and Dr. Carroll articulates it better than I. If my character's story is that of a journey, there is an always an element of him not wanting it to end but knowing it must, a conflict which I think has wrenching consequences. Of course, I wasn't the only one to read The Odyssey in this way (although I think that as a college freshman, I was probably convinced I was); one finds this reading in poems by Dante and Tennyson.
Conrad is also an interesting reference. Yes, I was influenced by Heart of Darkness, but this is only because it so wonderfully articulates such a deeply universal theme, the voyage into the wilderness. My book is not based on it, as say, Apocalypse Now is; Carroll is not Kurtz. But I think it comes from the same place as that book, the same imagining about what it is like to travel upriver and into the unknown.
Q: How have you managed to balance writing this book during medical school?
A: I really think I probably never would have written this book if I hadn't been in medical school. In some ways, there was a thrill to writing, in the sense that I wasn't supposed to be doing it. This is not to say my medical school wasn't supportive; some of the most warmth and encouragement I have received has come from people at school who have gone out of their way to help me write and study at the same time. This has been so important because my greatest fear is that writing would interfere with medicine, which I love. I really think that the two professions are wonderfully complementary. It is very hard, as a twenty-six year-old male med student, to imagine what characters who are not twenty-six year-old med students would do and think. But being able to talk to so many patients from so many walks of life gives a tremendous window into people's lives. This is not to say I want to write about individual patients, but I think that after listening to the concerns of people who are so different from me, I can more realistically portray characters who are so different from me.
There are other reasons I think that medical school helped me write. While medicine creates material for writing, perhaps even more important is that it also creates a psychological and emotional need to write. When I first came to medical school, I suddenly had to confront issues of death and disease and healing on a level which I could have never prepared for. And because students know so little, there is very little we can do, which can be extremely sad and frustrating. So writing was a way to process some of what I was seeing. There are many things you see while training to be a doctor that can change you, in bad and good ways. Writing was a way of trying to understand these experiences.
Q: What is next for you?
A: Another piece of fiction set within history, this one taking place in Brazil. I have begun researching, and have written some, but am far from done.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Mr. Mason has crafted a well told story of Oriental intrigue set in the 19th century. This fluid and pulchritude novel is authentic and haunting. Nescience is never an issue because Mr. Mason has researched the novel so well. If you dislike historical fiction, you will dislike this as well. If you enjoy high quality story telling then read this book and be prepared to be taken on a journey of constant suspense and mystrey.
This book was extremely insightful and thought-provoking. The ending was my favorite part as it was both surprising and moving.This book is not for everyone.
I wanted to enjoy this book. The first few pages demonstrate that Mason is a more than capable writer, his sentences poetic and his tone believably 19th century. But very quickly it is apparent that this is going to be a long haul. The characterizations are flat. Dr. Carroll is a huge letdown when he finally makes his appearance (actually, he's absent most of the time even after his entrance), and Mr. Drake so quickly devotes himself to this milktoast Svengali that the reader concludes he never had a self to lose to the mysteries of Burma. The book ultimately feels like a depository for every fact about Burma that Mason was able to scrape up in his year of research there, thus he succeeds in creating a lush stage for the action but unfortunately casts his story with puppets.
I was initially intriqued by this book but soon found that I was reading only so I could participate in the discussion. The book left me wondering what was real and what was a mirage. Not a satisfying read.
I just couldn't recommend this to anyone.
This is one of the most enchanting stories I have ever read. It is both exotic and suspenseful,lying somewhere between Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad.
While I liked the author's style of writing, the subject was often rather depressing and hard to follow. Sometimes while relaying a conversation there was no break to denote who said what, so you had to read back to check. His descriptions of the area in the book (Thailand, Myanmar) are wonderful - the imagination soars.This is one of those books that demands you focus carefully while reading. No wandering minds or distractions!In the end, I closed the book and wondered if I had wasted my time - I had no real sense of closure.Not my cup of tea.
In October 1886, about a year after the British invaded and took over the lower region of Burma, a shy and modest piano tuner Edgar Drake received a strange request from the British War Office. The Crown had requested of his immediate service in repairing an Erard grand piano thousands of miles away, its soundboard swollen and miserably out of tune. He was to leave his wife and his quiet life in London to travel to the jungles of Burma; settled deep in a country that was almost too dangerous for a civilian deprived of any military training. The piano belonged to one Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll who had requested the piano 30 some years earlier and threatened to resign from service had the acquisition not granted by the Crown. The irreplaceable doctor, whose eccentric peace-making strategies comprised of poetry, medicine and music, despite much disapproval and jeering from contemporaries, had mitigated tension in Burma and brought a tentative quiet to the south Shan states.Though the request for piano repair in war states was strange and incredulous, the premise of the debut novel is tantalizing enough to elicit interest to move on as Edgar Drake embarked on his journey to the Far East. The first part of the novel detailed his journey through Europe, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, India, then into Burma - but still that was not it as Drake had to venture into the jungle, almost in dugout, from Rangoon to the distant fort of Mae Lwin. The encounter with officers whom he had always mistrusted, Burmese, bandits, and soothsayers further intensify the suspense of what Drake might expect at his destination, and accentuate his thirst for the damaged piano.Author Daniel Mason, who had spent a year studying malaria on the Thai-Myanmar border, where much was the book was written, delivers an absorbing story of a world in transition, through vicissitude, enlivened through characters who loved music and peace and suffer from warfare with equal intensity. The book delineates the complicated cross-currents of emerging espionage, the British contention with the Limbin Confederacy, the consolidation forces of French forces in Indo-China, and local insurgence that threatened British hold of remote regions. Though not as rich and layered an epic as The Glass Palace, The Piano Tuner subtlety probes the meaning of identity of homeland. To Edgar Drake, it was his duty to the piano and not the Crown and he what mattered the most was that he could help in the cause of music. While at one point he felt disconcerted at the delay of repair and his hope began to vanished, he also felt like Odysseus who could no longer return home after witnessing all the wonders of a country which he struggled to eke out an inkling of understanding. The Piano Tuner is a memorable tale of one man's journey to self-discovery and passion.
Sometimes I just don't get it. There are books that are bestsellers and over which many people rave. I read them and, well, I don't agree. Sometimes, I just figure I'm on a different wavelength than the general public. Those are usually popular books which I really dislike. Then there are those books that are enjoyable, but nothing spectacular. The book doesn't send me into fits of rapture or anything. I wonder if I'm missing something. "The Piano Tuner" is one of those latter books. It's the tale set in 1886. A piano tuner named Edgar Drake is called upon by the British army to travel to the wilds of Burma and tune a rare piano. The piano is an integral part of a plan by an oddball army major to pacify the region. Edgar agrees and embarks on an interesting journey to the mountains of western Burma. It's an enjoyable, well-written tale which I found to be engaging. The ending left me a tad disappointed, but I wouldn't let that keeping you from checking it out.--J.
It feels like being there. Rather good for a first novel. We need more from this author
in 1886 Edgar Drake, a London piano tuner, was sent to Burma by the British Army, to visit a surgeon-major stationed in a remote jungle village. The surgeon-major had demanded a fine rare piano be sent to him, and then later demanded it be tuned or he would resign. This quirky military leader is the stuff of myth and legend among the British forces. And so Edgar embarked on a kind of Apocalypse Now sort of journey from London to the Burmese village. The journey takes up nearly half of this book and is full of cliches: Edgar is the typical hapless innocent in a foreign land; he looks wide-eyed at the scenery in every Burmese town; he shudders at atrocities; he gets annoyed with British colonial beaurocracy. I found the story even less believable once Edgar finally met Doctor Anthony Carroll. Inexplicably, the doctor takes Edgar into his confidence, sharing military secrets. Mason implies their strong bonds come from a shared love of music, and the piano itself, but this is not very believable. After Carroll diagnoses a patient with Saint Vitus' dance: "St Vitus, thought Edgar, Vitus was the name of Bach's grandfather, It is strange how all is connected, even if only by a name." (p. 189) ... huh? Mason's prose is overly descriptive, with adjectives galore, extraneous detail, and trite phrasing. After Doctor Carroll delivers a particularly stern lecture to Edgar, "Edgar's pony twitched her ears at the mosquitos that buzzed around her head, the only sound. Her mane shivered." (p. 264) Puh-leeze!This book was Mason's first novel, and it shows. There was just enough foreshadowing to hold my interest to the end, but I cannot recommend this book with much enthusiasm.
Quiet, humble man is asked to serve the crown by traveling to Burma. The new eastern world teaches him new things about life and himself.
Another amazingly well written first novel. The author was most definately playing with his readers, presenting them with an fuzzy filter on reality, and letting them pick and choose their own versions of the truth. And the idea of diplomacy through music, and building a common understanding with Bach is pretty appealing.
Stripped of its lengthy discursive passages on the British occupation and Shan rebellion in Burma, along with its travel-book style descriptions of piano tuner Edgar Drake's journey to Nineteenth-Century Burma and his exploration of its primitive environs once there, little of substance would remain to The Piano Tuner. Its plot is the stuff of a short story or novella at best, and few of the characters, save for Drake himself, ever really came to life for me.Mason's prose does have a lyrical, haunting quality that succeeded in transporting me, in certain passages, to these far-off lands. He also displays a subtle touch to his dialogue (especially in the delicate interactions between Drake and Khin Myo) and a flair for the mystical (The Man With One Story is quite effective).But, in the end, the story fails to resonate in the way Mason intended it to. The intriguing set-up of Anthony Carroll's character falls flat once he enters the story. And the tragedy that befalls Drake seems thrust upon him by out-of-character choices that he makes and external events rather than as the product of his character flaws or conscious choices. Instead of tying together the interesting measures of this fugue, it ends on a disappointingly dissonant note.-Kevin Joseph, author of "The Champion Maker"
The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason, is a mysterious and mesmerizing tale of adventure set in the jungles of 19th-century Burma at the height of the Shan Rebellion. At the center of the story is the a most unlikely hero, Edgar Drake, a gentle-mannered London piano-tuner who specializes in repairing Erard grand pianos. Drake lives a narrow life of bland contentment. He has rarely been outside his neighborhood, much less the greater city of London. He is a man of twin devotions¿to his wife and career; both apparently suit his temperament in all respects. He possesses but one singular passion, and that is for music, in particular, the well-ordered tones of a Bach fugue. But all this will soon change.Edgar¿s serene life is shattered by a letter from the British War Office requesting that he travel urgently to the far-flung Shan States, deep in the jungles of Burma, to tune an Erard grand piano. The piano is in the possession of Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, a legendary military strategist currently playing a key role in the Burmese theater of war. Edgar¿s mission is described as being of the uppermost importance. Not long ago, the Surgeon-Major threatened to resign his post if the War Office did not immediately send him a grand piano. They did¿naturally with enormous difficulty and at great human and monetary cost. Now the piano is out of tune, and the native tribesmen are restless. Carroll is a mysterious and eccentric fellow. Apparently, he has been using the piano to pacify the savages.Edgar is enthralled with the idea that music might be used as an instrument of peace. Without hesitation, he agrees to go¿to serve the Crown, his passion for the Erard grand, and for Bach.Naturally, the journey becomes the story, and it is impossible to put this book down until one finds out what becomes of Edgar as he ventures ever deeper into strange and exotic realms. The journey emerges as a tale of transformation. Edgar slowly changes as he experiences the exotic allure of the Burmese countryside, its vibrant colors, warm-hearted people, and strange customs. The dull piano tuner opens himself to life and is reborn. But he is also swept up in dangerous personal, military, and political intrigues that he does not understand and lead to his undoing.Mason is a master storyteller. His prose is spot-on perfect for the task at hand¿haunting, slow, precise, and lyrical. The Piano Tuner has become a well-deserved international bestseller, translated now into 29 languages. Recently the London Royal Opera House staged an opera based on the book.I highly recommend this novel as well as Mason¿s second novel, A Far Country, which was published in mid-2007. I read A Far Country first, and came to this, his debut novel, only after falling in love with his second. Both are haunting stories of people discovering themselves in strange new surroundings. The Piano Tuner tells the story of a civilized man¿s adventures in a primitive land while A Far Country tells the story of a primitive young woman¿s slow transformation and growth in the civilized world. Both are spellbinding.Incredibly, Mason managed to write both novels while still attending medical school. He is working on his third novel and it is unclear which will come first: the completion of his medical training or the completion of his next novel. What is clear is that Mason plans to devote his life equally to medicine and writing.
This book reminded me a bit of Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now, though the main character's transformation is 180 degrees off, in this tale about a man journeying away from civilization. The story was well-told and interesting. However, even though the ending was somewhat inevitable, I found it abruptly and unsatisfyingly written, so this drops down from 4 stars.
The only book I know of that features a piano tuner as the protagonist. It¿s 1886, and an eccentric British Army surgeon in Burma needs his piano turned. The surgeon is so important to the British Army efforts to colonize Burma that Edgar Drake, a piano tuner in London, is recruited to journey to Burma and tune and repair the surgeon¿s Erard grand piano.The novel owes much to Conrad¿s Heart of Darkness. Is the surgeon deep in the jungle of Burma merely an influential doctor, or has he gone native? Is he working in the best interest of the British Empire, or does he have other plans? And why is a piano so important? Drake¿s journey is eye-opening as he encounters a culture that he never imagined could exist. He falls under the spell of Burma as well as the eccentric surgeon who has brought him to tune his piano. Of course things get out of hand ¿ Drake has to repair damage to the piano from a bullet.The writing is good, although at times the author abandons traditional dialogue punctuation in favor of a style that is confusing at best ¿ he would have been well-advised to stick to traditional punctuation at all times.Here is the climatic moment when Drake finally arrives at the location of the piano: Edgar climbed out of the boat. The man looked at him without speaking. The piano tuner¿s clothes were still soaked with mud, his hair matted against his forehead. He could feel the dried mud on his face crack as he smiled. There was a long silence and then he slowly raised his hand. He had thought about this moment for weeks, and about what he would say. The moment called for words fit for History, to be remembered and recorded once the Shan States were finally won and the Empire secured. ¿I am Edgar Drake,¿ he said. ¿I am here to repair a piano.¿ Yes, it seems a little overblown and melodramatic when quoted. I admit that I laughed when I read that passage. The plot is, for the most part, predictable. The ending (which I will not reveal) may be disappointing to some.And how is the depiction of the actual piano tuning? Spotty. I have had some experience in this area, in the moving, tuning, and repair of pianos. It seems that the Erard grand was transported across Burma without removing the legs ¿ not likely. The piano tuner is called on to perform, and is able to play multiple preludes and fugues from Bach¿s Well Tempered Clavier without much, if any, preparation. I find that hard to believe for even a professional pianist. The descriptions of the actual tuning of the piano are also not technically accurate, at least not consistent with modern practice. But this is fiction, and we should give the author, whose training is in medicine, the benefit of the doubt.Overall I give it two and a half stars out of five. It¿s a good effort, and where else can you read a book where a piano tuner is the principal character?
This is a powerful story and I can see it might appeal to lots of people. Unfortunately, it just didn't do it for me.
I love strong historical fiction, especially about far away places, so I thought this novel set in the Victorian Age about an Englishman who travels to colonial Burma would be just the thing I'd love, but this was one story that just wasn't my cuppa. It has gotten rave reviews, including from some friends, and I tried, but I have style issues that stood between the story and me. I could see from the beginning that Mason can write shapely, lyrical prose, but his title character Edgar Drake didn't even get to Burma before stylistic tics started to deeply annoy me. (Although mind you, it takes about half the book for him to get there.) I noticed right off a habit of head-hopping--and this just didn't have a strong overarching omniscient voice that would allow it gracefully. Then I noticed strange slipping in and out between past and present tense, and then quotation marks dropped around dialogue without warning--only to return. This book just crawled by, and I noticed I was taking longer to read it the further I went along until I decided no ending could redeem it for me and I stopped midway. That said, I really, truly am no fan of modernist style. If you're more tolerant of that kind of style, you may love this. Someone commenting on how the novel struck me did say it was a pity I stopped where I did, that the second half is powerful and that Mason knew Burma and it's his personal experience that drew him to write the novel. That might have convinced me to give the novel another shot, but I find that when your objection is to the style itself rather than just a slow start, developments later in the book can't change your mind. I'm sure this is someone's favorite book. Just not mine.
Good writing, just a touch slow for me.
I had to read this book for a local book group. I am very pleased because I would never have found it otherwise.The book is set in Victorian times, and has a middle class piano tuner sent to the wilds of unsettled Burma, among the Raj, to tune a French Erard piano.The story is about class, the conflict of cultures, the life patterns that people and societies develop, and how they will ignore reality and cling to the pattern even when it no longer applies.The shy, sheltered piano tuner, Edgar Drake has an inner world that revolves around music and a dreamy way of looking at life. He is detached and disconnected from his world and his place in it: not comfortable with the lower classes he employs, and not accepted by the rich and aristocratic who employ him. His wife Katherine is his only connection to reality.He escapes the pattern of his life and travels to Burma to tune a piano for an eccentric British officer, at the reluctant behest of the War Office. The officer, Anthony Carroll is a medical doctor and humanist, who is trying to construct a peace through respect, learning, and cultural compromise in a remote outpost in the Shan States. He is despised by many of the more traditional War minded officers who believe in War, their cultural superiority and destiny to rule and 'civilize' the darker races. They also have personally internalized the characteristics of the Raj, the British Rulers, some of whom are upper class, and others who emulate them (they are accorded the same status overseas because they are white and British, but would not be at afforded the same social rank at home). Drake does not take this opportunity to boost his status at the expense of the locals.There is conflict between Carroll and many of the local British establishment. Carroll is able to keep the peace in his remote outpost, while the rest of the Brits are engaged in trying to annex and subjugate the Burmese and the people of the Shan States. The Shan States are a bulwark against foreign meddlers (French), so Carroll's eccentricity is tolerated. Carroll uses music and the piano to bridge the cultural gap with the Shan and forge mutual cooperation, rather than conflict and war. He uses what is good from the Brits, and takes what is good from the Shan, and mixes it to develop understanding and peace.Once Drake arrives in Burma he meets a mysterious Burmese woman, Khin Myo. She is a distant cousin of the royals and is an elite, educated woman who can speak English. She runs the guest house where he stays in Mandalay, and is employed by the British. Drake becomes enchanted with her and with the setting, and the culture. She and a sympathetic member of the Raj take Drake on a quick cultural tour of Mandalay. This contrasted with an official British function where the Raj are in full display, completely ignoring the fact that they are in a foreign country, the tropics, thousands of miles from England. They dress and behave and talk as if they were at a London party, or weekend gathering. The official position is to have contempt for the natives, the country and Dr. Carroll.Another of Drake's adventures with the local Brits in Mandalay is a tiger hunt. Edgar is shown the true face of the Raj, and the British establishment. One of the officers has taken on the role of the great white hunter, the superior British officer. He is only interested in filling his role, of collecting pelts for display and talking points. He shoots at a rustle in the bushes, even though native women and other Brits in his party try to stop him. He shoots a native child, but it matters so little to them, that they actually report the accident, and nothing happens to the Brits. The native child's life is so worthless that the official Brits view it as little more than a traffic violation. The shooter was going through the motions of the pattern expected of him, even though it was not based in reality, and he was rewarded by those in power for being true
The City of Winnipeg Library provides book club kits (10 copies of a book plus a reading guide in a sturdy cloth bag) for the use of any book club. They give a brief description of the book and based upon the description of this book my work book club decided to read it for October 2011. Otherwise I doubt I would have heard of this book and that would have been a shame. It is wonderfully written, has an interesting story-line and takes place in a time and location that is exotic and interesting.Edgar Drake is a piano tuner, specializing in Erard pianos, who lives in London, England in the late 1800s. His life is predictable and structured until the day he receives a letter from War Office. In the letter he is requested to travel to Burma to tune an Erard piano that was sent to Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, the commander of a remote outpost. After a meeting with the sender of the letter Drake decides to take this long journey. At the time the Shan States of Burma are not part of the British Empire. Armed bandits, called dacoits, regularly attack travelers in the area. Carroll seems to have some success dealing with the local people and he believes that poetry and music in addition to medicine are a better method to expand the empire than warfare. Drake, as a person attuned to music, is fascinated by this and wishes to meet Carroll.Almost the first half of the book is about Drake¿s voyage to Burma and his travels within Burma. Mason excels in portraying the sights and sounds so that the reader is travelling with Drake, seeing the things he is seeing and meeting the people he is meeting. In Mandalay Drake is held up in his mission because Carroll¿s outpost has been attacked. The military is meeting to discuss what to do and it looks like Drake might be sent back to England without ever tuning the Erard. While he is waiting to learn his fate Carroll sends a guide to take Drake from Mandalay to Mae Lwin. Without military approval Drake and the lovely housekeeper Khin Myo go with the guide.In Mae Lwin, Drake is drawn into Anthony Carroll¿s life. Even after he tunes the piano he continues to stay. It¿s hard to say what the attraction is; Khin Myo is part of the reason even though she is Carroll¿s lover but Carroll himself is at least as seductive to Drake. The ending is shocking and puzzling. I¿m still not sure what to believe. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended.
In 1886, a piano tuner is recruited to go to the wilds of Burma to tune a rare piano for a legendary and unconventional doctor who appears to have had remarkable success in brokering peace between the Britsh and the Shan States. But all is not what it seems. Exotic, haunting, intriguing.
This is a journey into a world somewhat reminiscent of PBS Indian Summer, the main English outsider being a piano tuner-called into the jungle to repair and tune a rare piano. We find out that the person making the request has more in mind than piano tuning, but not until the book is towards the finale. I enjoyed this book because of the vivid description of Burma and being a music teacher; the change in the attitude of the piano tuner as he is subtly manipulated by the person requesting his piano tuning services. For me, this book was ruined by an ending that destroyed the "character" of the 2 main characters. I felt that this book's author wanted a quirky ending and sacrificed good literature to achieve it. Too bad!!!