By Sylvia Lichun Lin
Dec 22, 2021

A musical genius turned piano tuner, a self-made wealthy businessman, and his young pianist wife are brought together by a piano that refuses to be tuned. Does the tuner fail at his job? Are the pianist’s ears playing a trick on her? Or is the piano off-key because the marriage is in trouble? When promises are broken and trust betrayed, where does one find a tuner to restore the timbre of life?

The Piano Tuner, a novel by award-winning Taiwanese writer, Kuo Chiang-Sheng, is narrated by the eponymous title character, a one-time child prodigy whose potential earned him free music lessons and scorn from his peers and his own family. His father does not understand music and his classmates bully him – no macho boys play a sissy instrument like the piano. He would have given up if not for his persistent elementary school teacher, who finds him tutors and pays for his lessons. When one of her former students, now a renowned concert pianist returns to Taiwan for a brief stay, she arranges for the narrator to study with the pianist, who one day suggests a four-hand piano recital with the narrator. Growing up with inadequate love and few positive experiences, the narrator is overwhelmed by the attention, but an invitation extended too easily should never be taken seriously, he quickly learns. The pianist’s lover arrives in Taiwan and together they perform the four-hand piano piece. Feeling betrayed, the piano tuner leaves a deep scratch on the surface of the pianist’s expensive piano before storming out; he quits the lessons and turns to the more anonymous refuge of tuning pianos.

Mr. Lin, the wealthy businessman, meets his wife, Emily, during a dinner with business associates at a restaurant that offers post-meal whisky tasting, accompanied by live, classical music. One of the dinner guests asks Emily to drink with them, a crass request that is out of line for a refined place, but which is finessed by the manager. And so they meet. Eventually they marry, and Lin begins to learn about classical music, attending concerts and later planning a recital for Emily. Then he helps her open a music studio that offers lessons. She later dies of cancer, leaving a roomful of pianos, and the Steinway he bought for her at home.                    

Grief-stricken Lin must decide what to do with the pianos. In the meantime, the tuner continues to maintain the instruments in the studio and at Lin’s house. In one of his trips to the house, he reveals to Lin that Emily was never happy with how the Steinway sounded, to Lin’s great surprise. Why had she never told him? What else had she concealed from him? The tuner knows; she was in love with someone else, a former student. Being privy to the secret lets the narrator feel that he’s leveled the uneven relationship between Lin and him.

The two men, with their disparate relationships with Emily, decide to form a quasi-partnership to sell second-hand pianos. In addition to those currently housed in the studio, they need more inventory, which takes them on a buying trip to New York. While in Manhattan, Emily’s former student/lover happens to show up at the same restaurant. Oblivious to the affair, Lin is happy to see someone who once knew his wife, while the narrator is put off by the younger man’s insincerity and forced pleasantries during the brief encounter. Without knowing it, the narrator is on the precipice of a downward spiral.

As snow falls in New York, the narrator continues to slip into a mental state similar to the snow-blanketed world outside his hotel room. The two men drive to the outskirts of New York to visit a piano grave yard, where used pianos are either repaired, cannibalized, or turned into firewood to heat the massive space. In a semi-delirious state, the narrator picks up a hammer and smashes a piano waiting to be restored, a display of his mental decline. Lin has second thoughts about the joint venture and decides to spend time with his son in the city, sending the piano tuner home alone. Another promise broken.

The novel ends with the narrator traveling to Moscow to visit the former residence of Sviatoslav Richter, a Soviet pianist whose 18th piano sonata informs many of the relationships in the second half of the novel, and whose life sheds lights on the narrator, a piano tuner, and a metaphorical broken piano.

The Piano Tuner is an exploration of unfulfilled dreams and unkept pledges and their consequences, as well as a meditation on life, love, and friendship. Kuo writes in unadorned and yet elegant Chinese, which is beautifully rendered by an award-winning translating team.



Read more:
- Kuo Chiang-Sheng: https://booksfromtaiwan.tw/authors_info.php?id=374
- The Piano Tunerhttps://booksfromtaiwan.tw/books_info.php?id=411