In October 1886, Edgar Drake receives a strange request from the British War office: he must leave his wife and his quiet life in London to travel to the jungles of Burma, where a rare Erard grand piano is in need of repair. The piano belongs to an army surgeon -- major whose unorthodox peacekeeping methods -- poetry, music, and learning shared with local warring princes -- have brought a tentative quiet to the southern Shan States but have elicited questions from his superiors about his loyalty. On his journey toward Burma -- across Europe, the Red Sea, and India -- Edgar encounters prophets and thieves, soldiers and tale-spinners, and an enchanting woman as elusive as the surgeon-major will turn out to be. And, on Burma's vast rivers and in her abandoned cities, Edgar encounters a place more mysterious and dangerous than he could ever have imagined.
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.
There was a bit too much emphasis on the piano tuning details which I felt could have been eliminated, but just skim this and let yourself be drawn into a world we seldom see.
There was some abridgement in my version, possibly of some of the language that has slowed other readers down in the early stages of this book.
Edgar Drake, a piano tumer in the late nineteenth century, is entrusted with the task of travelling to remote ares of Burma to tune a piano. The piano belongs to Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, a doctor who appears to be negotiating peace through music.
We join Drake on his journey from England, over land and water, meeting some interesting characters on the way. But it is on arrival at the fort of Mae Lwyn, his destination, that the story begins to gather momentum. As he tunes the piano, events are escalating in the surrounding area and he becomes drawn in unwittingly.
The denouement was a surprise and I'm still not sure if I found it clever or disappointing, it was certainly food for thought.
I found the CD beautiflly evocative of the sights, sounds and smells of Burma, a place I have read little about.
I have a copy of the book on my shelves and may well read it in print form, meanwhile I'll be on the lookout for his recently published "A Far Country".
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
Lovely languague, good story, ending so-so
There were lots of sections which got me intrigued and wanting to know more, but often nothing more was said about them which made me a little annoyed as they were part of what kept me reading. In fact the most interesting portion for me was the man with one story, and I think I would have actually prefered a book about him to the book that was actually written! (I checked, it doesn’t seem Amazon has a book by Mason about the man with one story, although his second novel, A Distant Country sounds interesting) By the end I did want to know what was going to happen next but the end was a bit of a let down for me, there were lots of unanswered questions which I don’t even really have any theories about. I actually got the impression Mason didn’t know the answers either.
I had high hopes for this book as it was recommended by the same person who introduced me to Marukami but I didn’t get on with it half as well as Norwegian Wood
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 to form.
Khin Myo is also a confidant of Carroll and she spirits Drake to Carroll's camp secretly, when the local Brits want to ship him home without him ever seeing Carroll or the piano. One also has to wonder what motivates Khin Myo and if she might be a spy/double agent for some other agency ?
Later, in Carroll's remote camp Drake plays the tuned piano for a group of Shan princes. Carroll is trying to broker a peace. They also go to another site with a larger group of Shan bigwigs to finalize what was started in the camp. Just before Drake's arrival and just after the peace is concluded, Carroll's camp is attacked by bandits, some of whom are using British rifles. The bandit king, also at the large meeting, lets Drake know he is aware of his true identity (piano tuner), not the fake rank Carroll introduced him with. It appears that the bandit king has the most to lose if there is peace. Both the Brits and the Shan will hunt him then. He also appears to have a connection to the British outside of Carroll. He manages to flit around the countryside, killing and robbing at will. Does he have a pass from the Brits because he is their spy on Carroll ?
When the last attack on Carroll's camp happens, Drake is sent away with the piano for safety, just before the attackers arrive. Later it turns out that it is the British who are the attackers. They track Drake and kill his teenage guides and arrest him. They have decided that Carroll is a spy for the enemy French (based on the French Piano), or Russian (because his handler in the War Office in London has been found with notes written in Russian), and that Drake is his accomplice. They also have knowledge of what happened at the last meeting with the Shan princes that only a spy could have told them (Bandit king ?).
The Raj of course interpret the agreement as one of war against the British, rather than peace.
They are acting out their life pattern and the pattern of their society, to destroy, to dominate, to overcome, even when it may not be necessary, even when they have to kill innocents of little social value to do so. They can't see anything that doesn't fit their ideas of how things should be. The reader is left to wonder what is true, which side is telling the truth ?
The whole story is told with beauty and with a blending of dream, imagination, and myth. It often becomes hard to tell what is real, what is dreamed, what is imagined and hoped for as opposed to what actually happens. Throughout the book Drake is engaged in a journey of wonder and that is expressed and sometimes conflicts with the linear, orderly narrative of the story.
It is a very good read, and gives you a lot to think about because there are so many possibilities and interpretations. The writing flows; he does odd things with dialog, but it works. There is a lot of detail about Burma, the Burmese and the Shan. There are Burmese and Shan characters who get to present their lives and desires without going through the British, so they can speak to the reader directly.
Mason also includes a good bit of information about piano tuning and music. The patterns in music are the metaphor for the patterns their lives are set in by the song their society decides to sing. Very few people are able to resist the pattern and the song, and make a meaningful life on their own.