Published by Picador
Published on: September, 2002
For the Victorian colonialist, ‘going native’ was not only a form of insubordination but a retreat from European values. The races of the Empire’s far flung lands were considered ‘primitive’ and childlike. The anthropologist Malinowski believed they existed at the “lowest cultural levels,” whilst Europeans occupied the “highest”. ‘Primitive’ peoples were seen as mystics, in tune with nature; libidinous, irrational, violent and dangerous. They represented what Freud contemporaneously described as our id forces and were, therefore, dangerously seductive. It was this dissolution of ‘civilised’ boundaries and the stirring of our unconscious desires, just as much as the exploitation of the Congolese by the Belgiums, which formed the backdrop to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And it is Conrad’s tale, along with its notorious hero, Mr. Kurtz, (with touches of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo) that creates the blue-print for Daniel Mason’s first novel, The Piano Tuner.
Mason received his degree in Biology at Harvard in 1998 and spent a year studying malaria on the Thailand-Myanmar border, where he wrote The Piano Tuner “between lessons at medical school.” Like Conrad his novel starts in London. There is even a similar thick fog hanging over the city when his Marlow-like figure, Edgar Drake, a piano tuner and specialist in rare French Erard pianos is ordered by the Director of Operations for the Burma Division of the War Office to go to Mae Lwin, a remote outpost in the Shan Plateau to tune an Erand which they have recently supplied to the music-loving Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll. “A concession we must make to keep him at his post” as he is “indispensable” and “commands one of the most dangerous and important posts in our colonies.” For Carroll is not your usual military man; he speaks Shan, has an in-depth knowledge of the healing properties of the local flora and keeps the peace – so rumour has it – with music rather than bullets.
The novel follows Drake, as he leaves behind his loving wife (Conrad’s Intended) through a series of graphic adventures, including an ill-fated tiger hunt in Rangoon, to his eventual encounter with Carroll and his beautiful English-speaking Burmese mistress in a secret jungle hide-away. But as the plot unfolds Drake realises that the polymath Carroll, is not all he seems. Could it be that this humanitarian and arts lover is also a warlord, an adventurer and a spy?
Mason is good on Victorian London and the arcane history of the Erard piano, on bringing to life the political complexities of Burma in the 1880s when the British were keen to secure the region against the French. But the interwoven love-story whereby Drake falls for Carroll’s mistress is predictably one dimensional. With the clichéd strands falling from her flower-pinned hair and “cool moist skin” it as though he already has one eye on the film-script.
But this is an ambitious first novel. The real seductress, though, is not the doe-eyed Khin Myo, but the potently exotic region that exerts its power over Drake with disastrous consequences. It is no coincidence that Carroll is translating the Odyssey. “Now I understand … what Dante and Tennyson wrote …” he tells Drake, “that he wasn’t lost, but that after the wonders he had seen Odysseus couldn’t, perhaps didn’t want to, return home.”
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2002
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