In 1886 the British are fighting an imperial war on another continent with the express goal of suppressing and maintaining control of the natives. Sound familiar? In The Piano Tuner, Daniel Mason gives us an alternative–it is the lush spiritual healing of old Burma–fighting against war not only with resistance but also with beauty, with the soulful, mystical songs of regional history. In the postmodern day, with another passionless war looming, we ache for just these sorts of songs, and many of us are haunted by their absence.
Like Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mason’s protagonist, Edgar Drake, goes on a spiritual voyage of self-discovery while traveling, in this case to Burma, where he finds an antidote to white imperialism in the songs and beauty of the native culture.
For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants. Or at times simply passing, blurred freight wagons in a traveling circus, each one a story that challenged credibility, not for any fault of plot, but because Nature could not permit such a condensation of culture without theft and vacuum in the remaining parts of the world.
But Nature cannot prevent the assault on this sensibility by soldiers. In Mason’s novel, surgeon Maj. Anthony Carroll, an eccentric lover of music and a practitioner of the latest in botany and medicine, creates his own color of resistance, combining local mysticism and herbal cures with the microscope and stethoscope. This automatically makes him a threat to the motherland, reminiscent of Conrad’s Kurtz, chief of the Inner Station and object of Marlow’s quest, who also ignores the hypocrisy of the European rulers and instead exchanges music and poetry with the natives.
In The Piano Tuner, the British War Office sends Drake, a bespectacled, bookish piano tuner, to Burma as a spy–of course without informing him that he will be doing anything other than tuning a piano, an 1840 Erard grand. This magnificent instrument is one of the first and greatest pianos ever made; it is at once a provider of musical cures, an embodiment of the best of the soothing spirit and a powerful tool of seduction. The British are in fact afraid that the piano is being used by Carroll as an instrument of diplomacy on behalf of his own rogue group as it negotiates with the Russians and the French, and they are hoping that Drake can find this out for them.
But as Drake travels toward his task, he is rapidly immersed in an adventure of beauty and poetics that soon replaces his linear purpose. On the ship he meets the “Man with One Story,” who relates the mystical overcoming that cost him his hearing and changed his life. This man’s encounter with an otherworldly woman, real or imagined, occurred at the very edge of consciousness and dream, between life and death.
I have never seen a vision so beautiful and yet so hideous. With woman’s eyes she stared at me, but her mouth wavered, like a mirage, not the mouth and nose of a woman, but of a deer, its skin soft with fur. I couldn’t speak, and there was a howling, and the sand took motion once again, spinning about us, blurring her. I raised my hand to my eyes.
And then again the sand stopped.
When Drake reaches his destination, he falls under the spell of Carroll, becoming his disciple, much as Marlow responds to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. The protagonists in both books learn to see the ravenous imperialistic appetite in sharp contrast to the innocence of its victims. Here’s Conrad, speaking through Marlow: