Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reflections: The Piano Teacher

This is yet another book set during World War II. I guess I’m in one of those phases where I consciously (and subconsciously) keep stumbling on books and movies of a certain theme. I see myself almost at the tip of the saturation point, so hopefully I’ll soon move out of this theme soon.

Claire is a classic English woman - stiff and prejudiced. She is insecure and timid, not really knowing what she wants in life. She just seems to know that she wants to get out of her old, impoverished home and her critical mother. So she marries Martin and enters Hong Kong in the early 1950s. She soon finds employment as a Piano teacher to the wealthy and Westernized Chens. When she finds herself wetting her toes in Hong Kong’s elite social-circles, she abruptly plunges into an affair with an English man who is hardened and scarred by the war. The story moves around this mysterious English man’s past during the war, and the conspiracy around the Chinese Crown Collection which the Japanese were trying to pry from the English, while the English had themselves “legally” appropriated it from the Chinese.

As I have confessed before, I have been a pathetically poor student of History. Since this book was my first introduction to the political intrigue surrounding the Crown Collection, it was informative on that regard. It was also refreshing to get an account of the Western immigrants’ (particularly the status of English and Americans) prisoner-of-war conditions and struggles in Hong Kong when Japan raided the place. Regardless of which countries were fighting against which, and which ones called themselves “super-powers”, civilians across the world have suffered terribly. Particularly, immigrants stuck in other countries were in a harrowing limbo. These parts of the book were well researched and served as a good history “lesson”.

Lee also depicts the multicultural and highly westernized aspects of Hong Kong, even back in the 50s. Claire’s ignorant notion that none of the Chinese in Hong Kong knew English, and her surprise upon meeting many who spoke fluent and good English, reminded me of the constant “compliments” Indians receive in the U.S - “Why, your English is quite good!”. While many of my friends find this patronizing and infuriating, I don’t read too much into it. But reading Claire’s thoughts, as a prim and astonished English woman who couldn’t comprehend how people in other countries could speak her language as well as she could (or even better), irritated me. Through such succinct and sharp descriptions, Lee conveys entire paragraphs worth of History, ignorance and social notions. I admire Lee’s brevity in portraying such clear and vivid episodes which highlight the effects of war and the changes in the social and personal mentality of the diverse people that made up Hong Kong.

However, her brevity and subtlety come at a high cost. It makes her characters flat and boring, and her narration extremely choppy and vague. I was reminded of Mani Ratnam’s style of direction where actors abruptly say a few vague (but usually powerful) words for dialogue and leave it at that. This style does work in the visual medium, but it utterly fails in prose. This is my biggest problem with the book. I understand the the beauty behind subtlety, but when executed improperly, clarity suffers. Also, Lee's writing doesn’t define the characters, so I was unsympathetic to most characters, particularly Claire. I would argue that Claire is most certainly not the protagonist of this story, and her role can be likened to that of the flashy, substance-less heroines who star against Rajni Kanth. I found the round-about justification of her part to the “conspiracy” exceedingly silly and senseless.

Digested Thoughts: Although I was tempted to rule this book off saying I didn’t like it, I decided on a “kindlier” rating, because the History in this book was informative (yes, I can hear you say that you can find better books in the “History” section of a good library). The story suffered because of Lee’s writing style, but she did nicely bring out the moral/ethical dilemmas that surface and affect people during tragic circumstances  when one’s survival is at stake. In addition, I appreciated her portrayal of Hong Kong and its elites during the war and post-war time period. 


Karthik said...

I am terrible at history myself:-) It seems like music isn't a point of focus at all in this book in spite of the title.

Neeraja said...

Yeah, music doesn't feature in the story! The title and book cover are surely misleading.