The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Piano Tuner By Daniel Mason, Picador, Rs 395

Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner has striking similarities with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The characters and the plot are remarkably like the haunting 20th century classic. For any writer, especially a debutante, that is too much to live up to.

Edgar Drake, a humble but accomplished piano tuner, specializes in Erard grand pianos. It is the 1880s, and Edgar is content with his humdrum life in London with a wife he loves dearly. Till one day, when he is summoned by the war office and is sent off on an unusual mission to Burma to tune a surgeon-major’s piano.

Though the middle-aged Edgar is not sure whether he should take up the commission which would keep him away from home for some months at least, he accepts, partly due to the encouragement of his wife Katherine. The first section of the novel is all about Edgar’s departure from London and month-long journey to Burma, while the second is dedicated to his experiences in that alien land.

The surgeon-major whose piano Edgar is sent to tune belongs to Anthony Carroll, who uses music as a bridge between the British colonizers and the native Burmese resistance. In this case, the Erard, requisitioned especially from Britain, is far from being the whim of an eccentric mind. The unconventional armyman and his revolutionary methods have, predictably, found devoted followers and angry detractors in equal measure.

Carroll’s reputation precedes him and much before Edgar meets him, he is intrigued by the man and his music, which, so goes the local lore, has the power to stop even the most ferocious rebels in their tracks.

Of the many people he meets on the way to remote Mae Lwin, where Carroll has set up base mainly to extend medical services to the local population, Edgar is most bewitched by Khin Myo. This beautiful Burmese woman works at the guesthouse Edgar lodges in on his way to the surgeon-major’s camp. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Myo share a romantic relationship with Carroll.

As the line between truth and fantasy gets clouded, Edgar’s speculations about the doctor’s intentions — military and otherwise — are sidelined. “Is it not too much to suppose that even our own dreams elude us'”, asks one of the characters in The Piano Tuner. Mason does well to highlight the ambiguity between what is real, and what is perhaps deception. But by the time everything becomes clear to Edgar, it is too late.

The Piano Tuner is a very readable first novel. Mason, who wrote most of it while studying medicine in south Asia, is a skilled writer. At times his prose rises to lyrical heights— full of potent images, and embellished with relevant literary references. The editing however could have been a little tighter, but Mason is always in control of his plot. Though his take on the classical theme of a quest lacks originality, he scores on two points — unity and consistency.

The Piano Tuner could have better borne comparisons with Conrad’s great novella had Mason concentrated on weaving, for the reader, the spell Edgar is enthralled by; on delineating what it is that moves the man “whose life is defined by creating order so that others may make beauty”, to the point where he is ready to break the rules he followed throughout his life. But the author spends more time exploring Burmese folklore, history and the science of piano-tuning, and the story loses some of the impact it may have had. Had we not, for example, glimpsed a fraction of Kurtz’s “horror”, Heart of Darkness would have lost its essence: empathy.

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