lunes, 22 de octubre de 2012

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

Edgar Drake is a piano tuner and is the principal character of Daniel Mason’s novel. Based in late nineteenth century London, he is also something of a specialist. No doubt he will tune any instrument, but Edgar Drake advertises himself as a specialist the Erard, the brand of piano that Franz Liszt had chosen for its special, perhaps unique qualities. And so, perhaps, Edgar Drake is not just any piano tuner: he is a tuner of Erards, a star performer of sorts, though personally he aspires to no sort of stardom.

He is clearly not short of work. He and his wife, Katherine, live a thoroughly middle-class life from his earnings. They could afford to support a family, but after several years of amorous marriage they have no children. It appears that Erard pianos might just be Edgar Drake’s children, so dearly does he care for their well being, their present and their future, there being no space left for any other concerns.

A letter arrives to disrupt this professional and domestic blissful stability. It’s a request to tune, re-voice and perhaps repair an Erard piano. There is nothing special about that, perhaps, but the letter domes from Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll from his outpost on the very edge of the British Empire, deep in the jungle highlands of Burma. Anthony Carroll, Edgar Drake is told by a gentleman in the War Office, lives in the highlands of the Shan states which span the Burma-Siam border, an area noted for its political and military insecurity. How on earth did an Erard grand piano make its way to such a place? And why? Is it a mere plaything of a serviceman stationed far from home? And why is the request to repair it being handled through official channels? Edgar Drake will be well rewarded if he accepts the commission, but he will be away from home for months and, unfortunately, such a journey is not suitable for a woman.

Well, of course he accepts. Edgar Drake’s journey by steamship via the Mediterranean, Egypt, Arabia and India form the first part of The Piano Tuner. Some of those whom he meets along the way - especially a man who tells every traveller just one tale - play a part in the book’s story, but these roles are revealed much later, and subtly. The true significance of any event or claim by any character in The Piano Tuner in never immediately apparent.

Edgar Drake is hosted by the colonial military during his stays in Rangoon and Mandalay. He is reassured that the official, thoroughly British establishment is behind his venture. But as time passes it becomes clear that the task that he is being asked to accomplish is not considered by anyone with an opinion as being a simple, technical job on a musical instrument. And it is not just the threat of raiding bandits, the trials and tribulations of a river journey, the oppressive climate and threatening diseases, or even a visit to the politically unstable Shan kingdoms on the edge of imperial influence that provide the complication. There is clearly something that Edgar Drake is not being told.

The piano tuner grows ever more frustrated while he waits to start his assignment. When he eventually travels, it is unclear whose support he retains or whose commission he is undertaking. It is then that the place, its beauty, its culture, mysticism and promise begin to bewitch Mr Drake. The more he is exposed to the stimuli of Burmese life, the more he becomes absorbed by his surroundings and obsessed with a task that he does not want to end. Soon he finds himself at the centre of events and relationships he could never have imagined when he first read the letter that explained his commission back in London.

Edgar Drake is very much at the centre of The Piano Tuner’s plot. It is his story, his perceptions and reactions as life reveals itself to him that are described. The book unfolds from his consistent point of view, but Drake’s views are changed by experience and we live through these experiences with him. He becomes a competent, reserved hero who responds to surroundings and experience and is changed by both. The true success of the novel is that the reader feels these same transforming sensations as the story unfolds.

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