(Or, Reader Goes to Burma, Catches Case of Crankypants)
I wanted to like this book. I mean, it’s a good book, which is my bravely objective attempt to say, lotsa people will like it. Heck, it was immediately sold to 18 foreign publishers, and lotsa people gush about its journey (to Burma), nods to Heart of Darkness, folk tales, about the relativity of truth, and all kinds of good things that will make a really fine movie one of these years.
But darned if I wasn’t hearing a sour melody the whole way through. First, I was having a hard time pulling for the damned piano tuner. He’s your absent-minded musical dreamer, you know, perceptive, emotional, and he has greatness—or at least the world’s most unusual piano tuning gig—thrust upon him. He is asked by the British War Office to go to Burma and tune a piano.
Not to get all Robert McKee on everyone, but just what is it that this guy wants? I suppose I’m reacting violently to all those long years of being in university during the humid spell of postmodernism, but I want a guy who wants something so I can want it too. Instead, Edgar’s story is a bit of an accidental travelogue, of an ordinary middle-class bloke who has greatness thrust upon him. Oh, and there’s the small but niggling question of, how important, really, is one in-tune piano to the British Colonial Effort?
Anyhow, Edgar the Piano Tuner goes to Burma, hears exotic stories, sees exotic people, starts to question what he wants when in the presence of the Great Man, Anthony Carroll. (To Daniel Mason’s credit, the Carroll character just might be full of shit—a welcome possibility, because if he weren’t, Mason assuredly would be.)
But along the way, the British Army take Edgar hunting, and an overeager major, keen on bagging a tiger, instead bags a small native boy. Oops. Pity.
Then—spoiler alert—when Edgar is floating home with three other young natives and a rescued piano (“As I Lay Reciting,” maybe?), baddaboombaddabing, British riflemen pick off all the darkies and arrest him.
He tries to escape, and they shoot him in the back.
So we’re left with one tuned piano left floating down the river (maybe that’s an Ike & Tina Turner b-side I haven’t heard); one hero-or-traitor Mr. Kurtz in Burma, or maybe Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now; one beautiful, enigmatic, exotic Asian love interest; one abandoned and then widowed wife; and one dead, baffled piano tuner, shot in the back by Her Majesty’s.
The takeaway message: The British are fuckers.
I’m tempted to invoke a character name here. From Postmodern Pooh, by Frederick Crews. The character is a “critic of the Colonial Unconscious” (to quote from Eliane Showalter), who need not open his mouth when he is so perfectly named. His name?
Das Nuffa Dat.