Posts tagged ‘Daniel Mason’

August 9, 2011

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.

July 30, 2011

Tidings of Pica

In 1581, a criminal set for execution by the name Wendel Thumblardt offered his captors a deal. In lieu of executing him, they could test the purported magical effects of terra sigillata from the Greek island of Lemnos. The source of the belief was the ancient Roman medical researcher, Galen, who claimed that the red clay from Lemnos had medicinal qualities. The authorities in the 16th century agreed to Thumblardt’s offer. They gave him a poison along with the terra sigillata, and when he survived, they freed him.

I read this in a fascinating article by Daniel Mason in Lapham’s Quarterly, entitled Balanced Diets. Mason was in medical school when he wrote a novel, The Piano Tuner, and when the novel became a bestseller, he decided to stay a writer. His subject in the article is Pica, a medical disorder, defined on Wikipedia as “characterized by an appetite for substances largely non-nutritive (e.g., metal, clay, coal, sand, dirt, soil, feces, chalk, pens and pencils, paper, batteries, spoons, toothbrushes, soap, mucus, ash, gum, lip balm, tacks and other office supplies, etc.).” More specifically, geophagic pica, or the practice of eating earth. Here, in five acts, is a very brief modern history of pica.


Prior to the 19th century, pica, like hysteria, was considered a woman’s disease, and associated with chlorosis (the green sickness). Mason quotes Ambroise Paré, “physician to four French kings: ‘And when they are mature and ready for marriage, if menstruation begins but marriage is too long delayed, we find always that they are tormented grievously by a swooning of the heart and suffocation of the womb, particularly if they fall in love; their genitals feel warm, which arouses their desires and titillates and stimulates them, causing them to expel their own seed themselves. The seed, if it remains in the spermatic vessels or in the womb, rots and turns to poison…causing putrid vapors to rise to the higher parts and to pass into the blood…They feel pensive and sad and lose all appetite, their depraved appetite being called pica…They seem more dead than alive and often die dropsical and languishing, or mad.’” Cure for pica, thus, was – marriage.


In 1800, Alexander von Humboldt reported on a tribe in South America he had encountered near the Orinoco river. Two or three months of the year, when fishing was difficult, the Otomacs ate huge quantities of earth. What shocked the European educated world was not just that seemingly healthy people ate dirt, but that it was eaten by men. Not to worry, the open-minded scientists of Europe amended their views of pica. The disease afflicted, they said now, women and savages. For this there was abundant evidence. European slaveowners in the Caribbean had plenty of accounts of their slaves, who came from West Africa, craving charcoal, clay, chalk, mud, sand, rotten wood, shells, cloth, etc.


The problem with this view of pica, fascinating as it was, lay in the overabundance of evidence. For in seeking to explain it, scientists started finding pica everywhere. By 1849, Humboldt himself had to add to the earth eating peoples list Swedes, Finns, and even northern Germans during the Thirty Years War. It wasn’t just women and savages. Then in 1851, Otto Funke discovered hemoglobin as the carrier of iron in the blood, opening up research of anemia. Even prior to this scientist knew that pica could be cured with a hearty meal of red meat and vegetables, but now they understood why it occurred in the first place: lack of nutritional food caused low iron in the blood, causing a craving for the kinds of minerals that could regulate the problem. To quote Mason, “…there is an inherent beauty in this image of auto-regulation, this instinctual understanding of the mineral commerce that moves so invisibly through our blood.” Neat, huh?


Except that it’s a little more complicated. People with pica did not really crave foods high in iron, nor did they crave earth in general. “The Otomacs had not considered all clays “equally agreeable,” nor the “Negroes of Guinea” who sought vainly for caouac in Martinique. Across the world, the craved earths are mostly light-colored, crunchy when dry, aromatic when wet, easy to dissolve.” Nor could its prevalence be explained. Mason quotes Berthold Laufer, an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th century. “Laufer left little doubt that earth eating had “nothing to do with climate, race, creed, culture areas, or a higher or lesser degree of culture.” Indeed, to read Laufer is to watch a war of attrition remove all notions of Otherness from our understanding of pica.” Pica, then, is not of the other, perhaps not even a disorder.


Even Humboldt recorded cases of animals consuming earth. “Over fifty species of primates practice pica,” writes Mason. So he, along with contemporary scientists, offers an evolutionary explanation for pica (after all, we live in the age of the evolutionary explanation). Eating earth is a way to domesticate food, so to speak. Eating clay cuts out the bitterness of certain foods, claimed Laufer, and bitterness is often found in foods that are in some way poisonous. They clay neutralizes the poison, which is what happened in the case of Wendel Thumblardt in 1581.

And that’s the best we got. Pica is a vestige of an evolutionary response to poisonous food. What I love about this article is how the attempts at explaining the disorder say more about the scientists and their prejudices, or the paradigms of their age (and our own!) than they do about the disease. And what I love about pica is that it lies at the cross of biology and culture, and the mind and body. Pica may appear in nature and may be an evolutionary response, but how cultures deal with this varies based on particular conditions of climate, flora, fauna, etc. And although it has something to do with iron deficiency, how and why that deficiency is manifested in the mind that craves not just specific kinds of clay, but chalk, metal, wood, ice – remains a mystery.

Oh, I almost forgot. The word pica originates from the Latin word for magpie, because it was considered that the bird would eat anything. So here’s a picture of a magpie.