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Piano Tuner
by Daniel Mason

Book Description

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 its protagonist into a world of seductive loveliness and nightmarish intrigue. And as he follows Drake’s journey, Mason dazzles readers with his erudition, moves them with his vibrantly rendered characters, and enmeshes them in the unbreakable spell of his storytelling.

From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, March 15, 2004 10:28 AM What I was left with when I finished The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason was a feeling that I had just experienced the inverse of Heart of Darkness. In Mason’s book, the protagonist is seduced by beauty and innocence, instead of “the horror.” The mysterious Dr. Anthony Carroll is, on the surface, the good guy who is trying to do the best for the indigenous people of the region, instead of overwhelm them with Conradian animalistic evil or rope them into a Western brand of colonialism. Many parts of this book are lovely and full of gorgeous images, dreamlike and spacy. The trip to Burma was half of the book, and it really seemed like the reader was going with Edgar Drake, deeper and deeper into the jungle and into another life. What do you think the piano really symbolized? What did you all think of the end of the book? Was the “captain” who let him out a dream? Sherry
From: Tonya Presley Date: Monday, March 15, 2004 12:46 PM I'm at about page 100; in fact the last I read, he's just arrived in Rangoon and visited that temple or shrine or whatever. I like it so far, and plan to get a lot of reading in today. Tonya
From: R Bavetta Date: Monday, March 15, 2004 02:25 PM I read this book a couple of years ago, and have not done a reread, so I'll not be able to contribute much to this discussion. I shall, however, be interested in what is said here. R
From: Beej Connor Date: Monday, March 15, 2004 02:52 PM I'm only about 50 pages into this one but I'm really impressed with the writing. I'll be here late, but better late than never! Beej
From: Dale Short Date: Monday, March 15, 2004 02:55 PM I'm 50 pages in, too, Beej. Beautiful stuff. I'll be here eventually. >>Dale in Ala.
From: Beej Connor Date: Monday, March 15, 2004 02:59 PM Dale, I'm going out on a limb by saying this, but the dignified, ethereal quality of the writing kind of reminds me a little of that in Di Lampedusa's 'The Leopard.' Beej
From: Beej Connor Date: Monday, March 15, 2004 03:08 PM I just realized I should add, before anybody expects something that they're not going to get, few books match 'The Leopard.' The writing in this one is not quite as stunning as that in Di Lampedusa's book, nevertheless,'The Piano Tuner' is gorgeously written and for some reason made me think of 'The Leopard.' Beej
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Tuesday, March 16, 2004 01:34 PM SPOILERS! Sherry-- I read this over a month ago, and already my memory of it is fading quite a bit. The ending did have a rather dream-like quality, didn't it? It hadn't occurred to me that it really was a dream, although I thought it rather odd that the Captain was letting him go. Did you think it was an "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" sort of thing -- just a fantasy of escape? I think Mason is "really" killed at the end. And I had a somewhat different take on Anthony Carroll. I was willing to believe he was much less altruistic that you give him credit for being. Also, I didn't think his character was well drawn. The author told us, over and over, how amazing and charismatic he was, but in person, I thought him underwhelming (and maybe a bit sinister?). In this, I felt the author was unable to "show" so he did a lot of "telling." Mary Ellen
From: Sherry Keller Date: Wednesday, March 17, 2004 08:24 AM Mary Ellen, I wasn't theorizing that the end was actually a dream, just how he got out might have been different in reality than how he imagined it. I think Mason put in lots of mysterious bits in the book that have no real explanation. One example is The Man with One Story. We heard the story, then later it was alluded to near the end of the book. The One Story for Edgar was obviously different than the One Story for this other man who had heard it. Now what do you suppose that's supposed to mean? Here's a link to an interesting interview with Mason: I find it amazing that he wrote this during his "down time" while in med school. I didn't realize there was any down time. This guy must really be something. Sherry
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Wednesday, March 17, 2004 02:18 PM Sherry, thanks for the link to that interview. It was very interesting. I was particularly struck by how differently I read Anthony Carroll from Mason. As I noted before, I did not find Carroll a sympathetic figure, and Mason says he's one good person in the midst of an imperialist system. After I read the book, I looked up the NYTimes review and the reviewer noted that one does not get "close" to any of the characters, that there is an emotional distance (which the reviewer suggested could be the result of Mason's profession; as Mason said in the interview, he wrote while learning how to pull the most important facts of a "case" after interviewing a patient). This was definitely my experience of the book; I was hooked in the beginning but as it went on, I did not feel much connection with the characters, though I did get a "feel" for Burma in that time. When the end came, it did not affect me too much. I contrast this with Tess, where I could get frustrated and angry and sad over the actions and fates of the characters. Here, I thought Edgar Drake a decent enough person, but that's as far as my feeling for him went. (I did feel a little bad for his wife!) Mary Ellen
From: Sherry Keller Date: Thursday, March 18, 2004 08:10 AM Mary Ellen, SPOILERS!!! I was expecting the kind of ending that we had, so it didn't surprise me. There was a foreshadowing of his disappearance when he wrote a long letter describing something or other. I was hoping all along that the disappearance was just that he had gone to the village without his military escort, instead of with Dr. Carroll's guide, and that he would be "found." I felt sorry for his wife, too. She was a very sympathetic character. I enjoyed the role of music in the book, and know that he got the basics right, at least as far as fugue goes. I have no idea about tuning pianos, though, so don't know if that part was accurate. It was accurate enough for a non-professional to read those parts with enjoyment. Since my son just returned from a visit from Thailand, I could visualize the place very well. Sherry THAIRIVER.JPG (48KB) PARASOL.JPG (86KB)
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Friday, March 19, 2004 10:19 PM Sherry and Mary Ellen, The whole book seemed like a dream and like a myth. What was your take on Khin Myo? She seemed like a siren who was drawing Edgar toward Anthony Carroll, and she was one of the reasons that he stayed there. After Edgar's bout of malaria, the whole story seemed like a dream. I remember that Edgar finally agreed to smoke with Carroll, and it seems to me that the cigarettes were laced with some kind of dope. I really wondered why Edgar stayed, seeing that he was so devoted to his wife. Jane
From: Sherry Keller Date: Saturday, March 20, 2004 07:02 AM She did seem like a siren, didn't she? Good point. I don't think he meant to stay forever, he just didn't want to leave yet. He knew when he left, the dream would be over, and it was such a good dream. I liked the section of The Odyssey about the lotus-eaters that Carroll gave Edgar to read after he had left. Sherry
From: Barbara Moors Date: Sunday, March 21, 2004 10:43 AM I just finished this morning. I kept thinking of Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness throughout my read too, Sherry. I was surprised that Mason didn't mention the book as an influence and that the interviewer didn't ask about it. I did see Carroll as a mostly positive character throughout. However, the questions from the British had me wondering in the end. I couldn't tell if it was just one big tragic misunderstanding on their part or if Edgar really had been duped. The main sense I had of Edgar was of a man who had lived his life in control. His wife saw him as a man capable of creating beauty beyond his chosen function as a piano tuner. But, Edgar wanted perfection. So, he chose to create perfection in his role as a technician rather than risk not achieving it as a musician. The jungle frees him of that. It opens up parts of his personality that he could not free in England. I kept hoping that he could take that self knowledge back to England and expand, live a happier life with Katherine. But, that would probably have been unrealistic. All in all, I enjoyed this book enormously. Mason took me to another place quite effectively. I agree that it didn't give a lot of internal information about the characters. However, as a very descriptive narrative, I thought it succeeded. The writing style reminded me a bit of Death Comes For the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Barb
From: Mary Anne Papale Date: Sunday, March 21, 2004 08:45 PM I really liked this book, but if one stopped with the information presented on the book flap, the book seems like it could be a romanticization of English imperialism. I mean, how can it possibly be? A doctor who makes peace with the help of the Erard piano? What a far fetched idea. So clearly, the piano stands for some item of grand quest. This is not just any piano. Not a very practical guy, our doctor Carroll. But the romance falls away when Drake nears the front. Sailors fill him in on their love and admiration for Dr. Carroll. Evidence of the cruelty of the English imperialists slaps Drake in the face when his "hunting party" kills an innocent child. SPOILER: I feel that the ending of the book seemed rushed. Everything is very languid, and time seems to stand still in the village, but then Drake is given the bums rush out of town with the beloved piano. Why? Then later, because the instrument is of French origin, conspiring with the French enemy is assumed. The ending left me with many more questions than I would have liked. But on the whole, I really liked this book. MAP
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Sunday, March 21, 2004 09:51 PM Excellent reviews, Barb and MAP! I agree that the ending seemed rushed, but I thought that the big meeting with Carroll and the various tribal leaders added an element of uneasiness to the story. Jane who was reminded of her days in colonial Gabon
From: Barbara Moors Date: Sunday, March 21, 2004 10:57 PM Was the total reason for Carroll's request of the Erard piano his love of music and to bring music to the Burmese? I remember the section in which he told Edgar why he asked for a tuner. But, asking for a piano, particularly that piano, never totally made sense to me, given Carroll's goals for the region. Barb
From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, March 22, 2004 08:02 AM I think his wanting the piano was for a very personal reason. He always wanted the best, and he missed playing the piano. He never wanted to leave the village, and he was such a doer and shaker, that he assumed he could do this, too. A kind of pride gone amok. He probably rationalized to himself that he was bringing culture into the region, but that argument didn't really hold water, since it already had a flourishing culture, as he well knew. He rushed Edgar out of the village because he knew it was going to be attacked. He didn't tell Edgar who was going to be attacking it, and I think that was a mistake, since it was the English, and Edgar did not know what he was up against. Sherry
From: Beej Connor Date: Monday, March 22, 2004 08:23 AM I gave no thought to the kids being on Spring break and how it would affect my reading time. I'm behind on this book, but I'll be here soon. (It's just killing me to skip over the discussion for now!) Beej
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Monday, March 22, 2004 01:19 PM At one point when I was trying to figure out why Carroll wanted the piano, it struck me that maybe he really wanted the piano tuner. For he surely knew that a piano transported to that location would quickly go wholly out of tune. And this quixotic dream of having a piano did not fit with Carroll's character. As mentioned above, he liked to get things done. I wondered whether he requested the piano purely as a way of testing his power over the British: would they agree to so outlandish a demand? Then I thought perhaps he wanted the tuner, as only a certain type of person would agree to travel thousands of miles to tune a piano that would, almost immediately, be out of tune again. Someone with practical knowledge, but also a dreamer. Someone, I thought darkly, who would fall for the Carroll mystique. And voila, Edgar Drake, convinced he has some mystical connection with the piano and the man behind the piano and that this trip will reveal his Deeper Purpose in Life. I wondered if Edgar was someone living a life of "quiet desperation" masked by contentment? Or was he just someone who did not know how good he had it? Mary Ellen
From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, March 22, 2004 03:26 PM But did you figure out what he might have wanted a piano tuner for? It seemed that way a little to me, too, but for the life of me I couldn't come up with a solid reason. Sherry
From: Mary Anne Papale Date: Monday, March 22, 2004 08:48 PM Mary Ellen, I think you're onto something. Did we (Drake) ever actually hear or see Carroll play the piano? I don't recall that we did, but we did hear Carroll talk about playing it. It seems like the piano was a device or a decoy Carroll used to get what he wanted, but what? When Drake arrived in the village it took Carroll several days to show him the piano. Was Carroll trying to create or seduce Drake into becoming an unsuspecting accomplice? Sherry, Carroll's rush to get Drake out of town seemed like another controlling act, similar to getting Drake to play the piano against his will, or go off to the negotiating meeting without warning. The less time Drake was given to think about these things, the better. Another interesting point is that the piano gets cut loose at the end, almost given its freedom in a way. MAP
Date: Monday, March 22, 2004 11:31 PM Although I found the plot utterly implausible, I did enjoy this book. The leisurely unfolding of the story and the good writing just carried me along. However, the characters seemed aloof and did not inspire much interest, or sympathy. The doctor especially was unconvincing and his request for a piano in the tropical setting, absurd. I do not think he was working for the French. Basically, I think he was in it for himself, although at an earlier time, he may have been more altruistically motivated. Recognizing Drake's gentle spirit and honorable character, Khin Myo was very attracted to him, but at the same time, felt obligated to Dr. Carroll. Sensing her attraction to him was the reason, I think Carroll sent Drake away on a fool's errand with the piano. In the end, I think Drake was truly torn. The idea of returning to his humdrum life in London, despite his affection for Katherine, was unthinkable. At the same time, I believe he knew, that he had no future in Burma, which made the fragment from The Odyssey about the Lotus Eaters all the more poignant. I did enjoy Drake's observations on the Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor, from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, which was the piece he began with, when he played at Carroll's dinner. "It was a tuner's piece, an exploration of the possibilities of sound... it is a piece bound by strict rules of counterpoint, as all fugues are, the song is but an elaboration of one simple melody, the remainder of the piece destined to follow the rules established in the first few lines. To me this means beauty is found in order, in rules..." (p. 248-249) Perhaps this explains what happened to Drake: in leaving London he abandoned the one simple melody he knew, and in Burma, was unable to improvise a new elaboration. Katy Higgins
From: Sherry Keller Date: Tuesday, March 23, 2004 07:26 AM Katy, I really like your comparing Edgar to the fugue. I enjoyed that passage, too. In fact, I liked all the musical allusions in the piece. I think that if Carroll's main intention was to find someone to trick he used a bizarre and difficult way to do it. What a roundabout way to get a foil. Sherry
From: Barbara Moors Date: Tuesday, March 23, 2004 07:38 PM That lack of Carroll's actual piano playing was what kept sticking in my brain too. If he were enamored enough with the piano to bring it all that way, once it was tuned properly, you would think that he would have been unable to resist at least playing a few notes. Katy, I think you've nailed the connection between Edgar and the piano piece. When the captain opened the door of Edgar's prison, didn't you just know he was doomed? I kept hoping that he wouldn't go. Barb
Conf: Reading List From: Beej Connor Date: Thursday, March 25, 2004 10:35 AM I finished this last night and just hated the last quarter or so of the book. I'm sure Carroll was a spy and for some reason I didn't trust him from the get go. The longer Edgar stayed in Mae Lwin, the less I liked him. I need to gather my thoughts. In all, the book left me angry. It seemed so full of deceit. Beej
From: Sherry Keller Date: Thursday, March 25, 2004 03:05 PM Who did you think he was spying for? I thought he had "gone native" to such an extent that his main purpose was in trying to help the different tribal leaders to get together to have peace. Were you mad at Edgar for leaving his wife so easily and with so little thought? I'm not talking about "leaving" her to go to Burma, but leaving her emotionally so that the village seemed more like home to him than England. I was a puzzled by that, as well. I did give him a lot of slack, though, since I thought that he just wanted to stay a little bit longer, knowing that he'd never get back. Eventually that "little bit" became too far to return from. Sherry
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Friday, March 26, 2004 09:49 AM Sherry, I agree with you about Carroll. He had gone native and wasn't interested in the British idea of the "glorious Empire". He just wanted to save the local people. The British said they thought he was spying for the French, but I think that was just an excuse to get rid of him. He was not a "company man". Jane
From: Sherry Keller Date: Friday, March 26, 2004 09:54 AM I didn't think he was spying for the French either. It seems to me that the kind of arrogance the British had in their colonial dreams, was that they couldn't even conceive of what Carroll was doing, so it had to be the French. The natives? They thought of them as children who had to be helped into the civilized world. Sherry
From: Mary Ellen Burns Date: Friday, March 26, 2004 01:22 PM I had the impression that Carroll was trying to set up a little empire of his own. Not long after his meeting with all the warlords, didn't some of them attack the British? The British assumed that Carroll orchestrated (no pun intended) this, and it would be a silly thing to do if all he wanted for the Shan was peace. Then again, maybe he was sort of "Lawrence of Burma," and he didn't see himself as head of this alliance but rather as someone who could be a catalyst for the development of a united front by the Shan against all the imperial powers. I am still stuck as to why he'd want the piano (good point that he never played it himself!). Maybe all he wanted a tuner for was to play the piano. He'd used music as a means of diplomacy before. I realize that the more I think about this book, the more my appreciation of it drops. I thought the writing was lovely and was impressed that the author was so young. But thinking about the piano makes me very critical of the book, because it seems that the piano was just a little trick he used to set up his story, but then did not know what to do with it. It's the centerpiece, and it's hollow. The experience of reading this book was so dreamily delightful; that should be enough, I suppose! Mary Ellen
From: Barbara Moors Date: Saturday, March 27, 2004 03:23 PM Mary Ellen, I've had some of the same thoughts as I look back at this book. I absolutely loved reading it and, like you said, that should be enough. But, some of the threads are dangling a bit loosely as I try to reason them out. I'm not sure that there really is an answer to some of them. And, I don't think it's the kind of story that sets itself up as open ended, like an Alice Munro story, for instance. Barb

Daniel Mason
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