Occasionally an interesting novel about music crosses my path, and most recently I finished The Piano Tuner, a first novel by Daniel Mason. The protagonist is Edgar Drake, specialist in Erard pianos, who is summoned by the British War Office to tune an Erard belonging to Anthony Carroll, an unorthodox officer deep in the jungles of Burma. Although the novel is set in the late 1880s, at the conclusion of the Third Anglo-Burmese War, when the British Empire was finally consolidated and the current boundaries of Burma (now Myanmar) were set, the main characters and settings are completely fictional. Carroll has set up shop in eastern Burma and has established friendly relations with the local tribal leaders, and some time before the beginning of the novel, has requested and received an Erard piano. However, the jungle humidity and the difficulties of transport have taken their toll on the piano, so Carroll has requested a tuner. The War Office selects Drake, and Drake agrees to the trip.
Drake is a sensitive individual and considerably more aware of his surroundings than most of the military men with whom he shares his trip. With his background as a piano tuner, he is also acutely sensitive to the sounds of the trip. He meets the Man with One Story, who travels the Red Sea seeking the music which he heard once, and from which he awoke completely deaf. He wanders the streets of Mandalay and finds puppet theaters, complete with otherworldly songs. But Drake identifies most closely with Bach's music, in particular the Well-Tempered Clavier, which he learned as an apprentice, and whose great melodies of worship and faith "are named after the act of tuning a piano." Bach's music contains a world of beauty found in order and the laws of counterpoint. This contrasts not only with the disordered beauty of the unexplored Burmese jungle in which Drake finds himself, but with the hidden and unnamed song that lies inside each piano. Another lesson for the apprentice: we must tune pianos so that something as mundane as muscles and tendons and keys and wire and wood can become song. In the jungle, it seems like the instrument eventually follows its own path and finds its own song, despite Drake's best intentions.
In the same way that melodies recall other melodies, The Piano Tuner reminds me of many other stories. For a long part of the novel, Carroll is like Colonel Kurtz from The Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. The Man with One Story recalls another traveler, Odysseus, in his encounter with the Sirens (Carroll explicitly reminds Drake of the Lotus-Eaters, another tale from the Odyssey). Without revealing too much of the ending, Drake succeeds in finding and tuning the piano, and even manages to cross over from tuner to finding his own music and becoming a performer, playing his beloved Bach to tribal royalty.
Mason trained in biology and spent a year in the region studying malaria, so he brings considerable local color to the novel. Most of the reviews emphasize the locale more than the music, but it was interesting to me because of the musical connection, how would a man steeped in music change the basic heart-of-darkness plot? And besides, even though the Library of Congress has a heading for fiction about piano technicians, how many novels like this are there, really?