Getting Lost

Because I liked his article in Lapham’s Quarterly on pica (which I wrote about here), I decided to read Daniel Mason’s novel The Piano Tuner.

My recommendation is not, repeat NOT, to read the author’s note at the end. Although it does contain some mildly interesting facts about Burmese history, it also tells the reader which parts of the novel are historical and which are invented. What this does is to reinforce the familiar, comfortable and above all false dichotomy between fact and fiction. Like, here are the things that are supposedly real (history) and false (invention), so when you close the back cover of the book you are fully back in the given, everyday world. This is a shame because the novel does such a good job of teasing the reader out of it, slowly and subtly charming the reader into a foreign world.

Edgar Drake, the main character, is a piano tuner in London at the end of the 19th century, during the British-Burmese wars. There is an unusual request by the War Office that he travel to the remote hills of Burma to tune a grand Erard piano. From the very beginning, the reader is tied to Drake. We want to know just as much as he does why someone would demand a grand piano be shipped from London to the jungle in Burma, how it was transported, what is it used for, how it is helping the British war effort (for the purposes of the book, we are loyal British subjects), etc.?

The book echoes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in that takes its time describing the trip out of Britain and into foreign, other, colonial, war-zone territory. But where in the Heart of Darkness the more we travel, the more strange and other the Congo becomes, in the Piano Tuner the opposite happens. Drake is a curious yet sensitive traveler. His eyes onto a new world open us up to reading about a exciting and beautiful world, that loses none of its enchantment as it becomes more familiar.

When we finally meet Anthony Carroll, the eccentric genius doctor in the British military at whose request both the piano and the piano tuner were brought to Burma, we have, along with Edgar Drake, forgotten that there is a war going on – we are lost. Now we have eyes for fascinating rituals, exotic plants, and people’s habits only. Drake’s and our transition can be seen in Mason’s language describing the makeup and paint the women and men in Burma use for their faces. When we first encounter it, there is a grotesque aspect, a slight revulsion, like upon hearing that some foreign culture eats a plant or animal we (in Victorian England) do not consider food. As the novels moves, Drake notices the make up no longer as ‘that thing they do,’ but rather in the way we would notice the difference between a woman wearing or not wearing mascara and what it means for example that she had just put it on. It goes from strange phenomenon to signifier.

Mason, of course does not leave it there. Without revealing too much, I’ll say that the war provides complications. But however things turn out for Mr. Drake, it is this aspect of leaving the familiar and getting lost that is the joy of reading this novel. Until, as I said, he goes on to ruin it all by writing an author’s note at the end.

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