Similar Yet Somehow Unique

It’s impossible to read The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason, without noticing the parallels to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Of course, if you haven’t seen Coppola’s movie, or if you’re unaware of Conrad’s novel, you’ll be gleefully oblivious to them and can therefore enjoy Mason’s tome on it’s own merits. And there’s a lot to enjoy.

Set in the mid to late 1800’s, The Piano Tuner tells the story of Edgar Drake, a happily married piano tuner in London who get’s a commission to travel to the other side of the world, Burma, to tune a famous piano that is now the property of the British occupying forces. It was requested by and now assigned to one Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll, who has set up an outpost in the remote province of Mae Lwin, Shan States on the western side of the country just inside the French Indochina border. Unlike Conrad’s ivory trader Kurtz, and Coppola’s renegade militarist Colonel Kurtz, Carroll is not a dangerous egomaniac, but rather a man of peace who is attempting to bring the Burmese and other indigenous populations under England’s wing with science, medicine, and yes, music. Or is he?

Drake, the piano tuner, has never been out of England, and his long journey just to get to Burma via steamship on the Atlantic, trains across India, boats in the Bay of Bengal, horseback, canoe, and on foot, make up at least half the book. His subsequent stays in Rangoon, Mandalay and eventually MaeL Lwin, where he finally encounters Carroll, are filled with all manner of understated adventure. From a tiger hunt that goes terribly wrong, to a lethal encounter with brigands, to a secret meeting that may or may not be treasonous, Drake experiences more in three months than he has experienced in his 41 years of life to that point.

Along the way, the author, Daniel Mason, delivers a stunning compendium of knowledge about geography, military history, botany, literature, philosophy, music, the intricate workings of pianos, and even fate. A particularly impressive achievement considering that not only is The Piano Tuner Mason’s first novel, it was written when he was still a medical student.

The essence of the novel turns on big questions. Is it possible to leave behind everything we have cherished in life for something absolutely new and different? If a man is doing saintly things, can he really be a sinner in disguise? Was and is colonialism always doomed from the start? What truly constitutes honor?

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness exposed British colonial tragedy in the Congo. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now examined American over-extension in South Vietnam. Mason’s quiet, luminous, engaging and eventually compelling tale examines the intermingling of beauty, solitude, culture and assimilation, or the lack of it, in Burma, a country that no longer even carries the same name. The Fiction Fortune Hunter heartily recommends you take this journey back in time. The rewards are unforgettable.

62 Responses to “Similar Yet Somehow Unique”

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