Thursday, February 15, 2007

"The Piano Tuner" Daniel Mason

This book occupies an interesting place across two genres, one old, one new, both expressions of contemporary concern: 19th century imperialism and 20th century science book, one spawned by Heart of Darkness, one spawned by Dava Sobel’s Longitude. Mason’s story of a piano tuner sent by the war office to upper Burma to tune a piano in the late 19th century also has echoes of Herzog’s mad movie Fitzcarraldo, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Despite some stunningly surreal images, however - a grand piano lashed to a raft careering down some tropical rapids deep in the middle of the jungle, fired at from all sides by hostile and unseen savages- as the novel begins and ends with the death of the principle character, it will never make it to the big screen. We learn a lot about Erard pianos and piano tuning, a potentially mind numbing subject made fascinating here, as Sobel made navigation interesting; and the tuner’s meeting in the war office is a distinct homage to the opening of Heart.

Mason’s story is about how music has the potential to create peace and understanding, about the meeting of East and West, the arts of peace and the arts of war, loyalty and betrayal and cultural misunderstanding. Readable, despite vast tracts of (authentic?) secondary material describing in detail the lore, geography of Burma and the history of the three Burmese wars supposedly provided by contemporary authorities on the country. (Mason spent time in Burma researching malaria, and these passages seem to have been rejected from his Harvard thesis and included here as padding.)

Mason seems to be good at describing the place, and we can certainly imagine ourselves in Burma and London of the late 19 century. But is capturing the spirit of place really such an original accomplishment, after Durrell showed us all how to do it? Mason’s prose is often lumpy and his grammar worse. The first sentence is one of the most appalling mishmashes of tenses in contemporary fiction. The characters are sketchy and do not really come alive.

If every novel is structured around a kernel event, one from which all the other incidents and descriptions radiate and take their meaning in the pattern, then the greatness of any book, the skill, the honesty of any writer may be to some extent measured by the strength of the kernel as an image, by the way the kernel brings together various strands and themes of the book, and by the weight of the balance between the kernel and the rest of the piece, how the kernel illuminates other incidents.
Henry James taught Forster the secret of how to add weight to this kernel: ambiguate it. All of great James revolves around a kernel of something unmentionable, and therefore unnamable and unknowable: The Turn of the Screw, The Beast in the Jungle, Portrait of a Lady, the Aspern Papers etc. Forster uses the same device in his masterpiece Passage to India , where he actually removed all the concrete evidence of the rape and left a gaping black hole at the center of the novel, symbolized by the maddening echo in the black cave of the Marabur Hills.
The kernel event in this book is the night scene when the tuner is pressured to play the newly tuned Erard at a tense and dangerous midnight pow-wow between the British district commander and the fractious leaders of the warring Burmese tribes. Here, like most novelists who make music their subject, Mason falls flat (no pun intended). The tuner’s chosen piece for this midnight concert is the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Bach, which, despite his anxious protestations that he is not a pianist, only a tuner and cannot really play, and that after his months-long trek across the globe with no instrument to practice on, he performs in its entirety, from memory, the first book only (!). And here I found myself grimacing in embarrassment.

This choice of repertoire fits nicely with the theme of tuning, and we learn a lot about the technology of tempered tuning and the basis of Western harmony (very well explained by a layman for lay readers), of the aesthetic distortion inherent in the circle of fifths, and in the gap between the ideal and the real; it brings together nicely the two journeys, the one made by the piano, and the one made by the tuner, gives them, and all the intertextual documentation purpose. Thematically then and structurally, this choice makes sense. However, to play the 24 from memory in one sitting is a gigantic intellectual, artistic, and technical accomplishment, one that would have had the tuner practicing for years, on a daily basis for hours and hours, and nowhere has it been given to us that the tuner has done this, or is capable of it. Preparation for an achievement of this order would have occupied an enormous space in the protagonist’s consciousness. The fact that it doesn’t seriously mars the book’s integrity, and its design.

Mason either doesn’t realize this, or hopes that the reader won’t realize it. In this he is either incompetent to write about music, and shouldn't have, or he is dishonest with his readers. Either way, this presents a fatal flaw from which the book doesn’t recover as a work of art. As a thesis on the 19th century history of Burma, and the mechanics and history of piano tuning and technology, however, it’s fascinating.

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