Well, I have 43 more pages to go before book club meeting tonight. But more
importantly, I have 43 more pages to find out if Edgar will return to England
and his wife of eighteen years, or if he’ll fall under the spell of Burma
and stay for the rest of his life.
This is a great book, and as promised in a recent post, a good book for armchair
travel. You don’t personally have to get on the train to cross Europe, the boat to
India, the train to cross India, the boat to Rangoon, the trip north to Mandalay,
and the harrowing trip to the upper jungle regions of Burma.
Edgar takes this trip because he’s been asked by the War Office of London to go to
Burma to repair and tune a fine grand piano belonging to an important officer. This
officer is a surgeon and seems to hold a fine critical line to a lasting peace in
northern Burma. The army wants to placate him–thus they sent him his request of an
Erard—-a superior piano of the time made in France, and now they want to grant his
wish to tune it.
Almost half of the book is spent reporting his travels to get to Burma–with amazing
descriptions of the sights and smells and music he finds. At one point a small beggar
boy approaches Edgar –one among many offering candies, betel nuts, etc–and offers to
recite a poem for a coin. (cute)
In Mandalay he stays at a house whose “landlady” is a lovely young woman named Khin Myo.
She is welcoming and speaks English, is educated. She accompanies him to show him
around Mandalay. He enjoys the companionship and is interested to know everything
about Burma and she is an excellent guide.
Edgar has heard conflicting reports about the owner of the piano, Anthony Carroll.
When Edgar is with military people, they seem to have little regard for him. A bit
of mystery is added to the story and we also are interested in meeting him. What is
this man like?–a man who wants a grand piano in the jungle? What can Bach do
for a country like Burma in the midst of war?
Finally, he is to go to Mae Lwin, the compound where Carroll is stationed. A trip
of many days is taken through the jungle to get there–accompanied by a soldier,
Nok Lek, and the woman, Khin Myo, too.
He falls asleep one night, forgetting to close his hut door, and wakes in the night
and “Moonlight danced in on the wings of tiny moths.”
When he arrives at Mae Lwin and meets Anthony Carroll, they go out on a long trek to
the countryside to collect plant specimens. They stop along the Salween River and
Carroll tells Edgar to listen to the music of the river by putting his ear to a
There are many such days of exploring the sights and sounds of Burma, mingling with
the children, watching Carroll perform in his surgery on local native patients. His
treatments are limited–it is 1886 and medical advances are slow, and even slower
to reach Burma. Carroll says that if the English could provide enough food for
the country they would win the war.
At last Edgar is given the time to tune the piano and even that part is
Carroll asks him to play for an important visitor. Edgar protests that he only
tunes pianos, he is not a pianist. But he does give a concert–playing Bach’s
Prelude and Fugue in C-Sharp Minor, the fourth piece of Bach’s The Well-Tempered
Clavier. It’s a piece he uses to tune pianos—a mathematical piece and he
figures that mathematics is a language that reaches across all nations.
Edgar has found a fascinating new life with meaning and unexplored opportunities.
His work seems to be done. Why doesn’t he long to return home as soon as possible?
Carroll asks him to accompany him on a military mission, and pretend to be an English
officer. Edgar hesitates, but goes with him. When they get to the camp, the men
salute Carroll and don’t call him “Doctor” or “Major” but “Bo”–the Shan word for
warrior chief. Is Carroll who he says he is?
So I’ll be finishing the book today and will let you know what the book club thought
and maybe I’ve whetted your appetite for a good read . . .