Situation desperate – send in the pianist!

Music may soothe the savage beast, but what can it do for the military-industrial complex?

As the world debates whether to bomb or inspect Saddam Hussein into submission, not even the most starry-eyed idealist has suggested taming him with music. But it's not that we don't have the equipment. After all, in 1989, the US Army wore down General Noriega by blasting rock 'n' roll outside the Vatican Embassy in Panama. Who knows what a few days of Britany Spears directed at the Iraqi palace might accomplish. Saddam might finally admit, "Oops, I did it again," or confess, "I'm not that innocent."

Daniel Mason's debut novel asks us to consider giving peace a chance – or at least giving a piece of music a chance. It's a strange, often beautiful story about a London piano tuner in 1886 who receives a remarkable request that plunges him into the center of a geopolitical conflict.

Edgar Drake is a sensitive, happily married man, who's never traveled outside England or given his country's numerous conquests much thought. But when a letter arrives from the assistant director of military operations for Burma, he's both intrigued and intimidated. The details of his mission sound absurd even to the officers who brief him: The queen needs Edgar to travel 5,000 miles away to Burma. He must spend a month (and more than half the book) moving by train, boat, horse, and foot to reach Surgeon-Major Carroll, deep in the darkest jungle, rife with man-eating tigers, poisonous snakes, tropical diseases, and ferocious natives set on resisting British rule.

This is, of course, a far cry from braving a dusty music room and recalibrating middle C. But Edgar can't resist the opportunity for adventure, for service, for filling an amorphous emptiness in his pleasant life. Besides, he immediately identifies with the mysterious surgeon-major, as a kind of fantasy alter ego.

His jungle destination is so remote that military intelligence has only a vague impression of what's happening there. Apparently, Carroll uses music to negotiate with Burmese rebels who are crucial to Britain's conflict with the French. Though other officers resent his pacifism, because of his success, whatever Carroll requests, no matter how odd, Carroll gets. When he demanded a piano, men risked (and lost) their lives to carry one to him through the mountainous jungle. Now that the humidity has warped it (and perhaps him), he's demanded a tuner. The military immediately complies.

With a wink to Joseph Conrad, Mason delivers a kind of "Heart of Whiteness," a photographic negative of young Marlow's descent into the horror, the horror of Kurtz's domain. An officer with the War Office warns Edgar to stay alert – "His ideas can be seductive" – but the more he hears about the saintly surgeon-major, the more fascinated he becomes. Enlisted men he meets along the way regale him with legends of Carroll's peaceful tactics, his ability to repel attack with a little flute and win over enemies with magical songs. As Edgar passes through towns with names like incantations, he fancies that he might play a crucial role in Carroll's musical conquest.

"If I can help in the cause of Music, perhaps that is my duty," he writes to his wife en route, trying on this pretension to cover deeper, more ambiguous reasons for leaving. "Part of my decision certainly rests in my confidence in Dr. Carroll, and a sense of shared mission with him and his desire to bring the music I find beautiful to places where others have only thought of bringing guns. I know that such sentiments often pale when faced with reality." A month later, Edgar's sentiments are bleached pale in the face of a hazy Burmese sun. Though he's not seven feet tall and doesn't breathe fire, Dr. Carroll is otherwise pretty much as legend portrayed him: commanding, magnetic, and benevolent. But he's also entwined in plots as mysterious as the jungle that hides his private paradise. While Edgar dutifully tunes the piano, the doctor begins to draw him into his own composition, a melody his military superiors would not recognize.

Mason handles all this with a deft hand. Trills of wit and suspense run through Edgar's portentous journey. The narrative maintains a kind of arched 19th-century tone by including military reports, letters, and histories that gracefully fill in the arcane politics of the Burmese conflict. And it's full of haunting, gorgeous scenes of striking incongruity, such as the doctor's piano swaying on the back of an elephant climbing through the brush, producing a sprinkling of random notes as the hammers bounce against the strings. The author, a medical student at the University of California, spent a year on the Thai-Myanmar border, an experience that obviously informed his lush description of these exotic places.

It's a smart, entertaining adventure, but ultimately a story of disillusionment – Edgar's and ours. Mason delivers a timely critique of the self-justifying nature of military action, but he also develops an equally troubling contrapuntal theme about the dangers of quixotic rogues and "misplaced munificence." In these troubled times, it's a tune you can't get out of your head.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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