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Piano: A Novel - Jean Echenoz

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Genre: Fiction / Author: Jean Echenoz / Hardcover / 128 Pages / Book is published 2004-08-01 by The New Press

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      25.09.2008 21:18
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      Get it out of the library and see what you think.

      The Piano is an interesting novel. Written by a French author, Jean Echenoz, and set in Paris, the story begins with a classical performance pianist who has extreme stage fright. I was given this book by a friend and therefore had no prior knowledge or expectations about it. As I began reading therefore, I presumed that this would be a story based around the pianist, his concert career, and possibly a break down or romance along the way. How wrong was I?!

      It's not ruining the surprise to say that the pianist dies early on in the story, as his death is announced in the first line. Somehow though, when I began reading, I couldn't quite imagine that it would end up like that - the novel seemed really too entrenched in the character. I was right and wrong as it turns out. The story primarily focuses on what happens to the protagonist, who was a concert pianist in life, after his death.

      Piano is essentially an existentialist exploration of life after death, and heaven and hell, described and played out through real characters and in a seemingly real city (Paris). This is quite an interesting premise, if somewhat far-fetched. And for this reason I enjoyed reading it.

      I did have some gripes with it however. For one thing, Echenoz's writing style seems to waver somewhat uncertainly between drama/tragedy, and comedy or even farce. The story also progresses at extremely varied paces. At the beginning whole evenings are described in quite a lot of detail, agonising over the character's mental state etc, but then other significant aspects are covered barely. While I don't believe that a novel should simply plod along at a pedestrian and predictable pace, it did sometimes feel almost a little lazy when parts of the story were just skipped over, especially as the novel is certainly not overly long as it is.

      The varying tone also threw me a bit. I could imagine Milan Kundera, for example, making an extremely interesting, deep, and thought-provoking meal of this subject matter. In Echenoz's hands, it becomes something between a farcical comedy and a parable. I suppose that meant it was thought provoking in it's own way as we try to work out what the novel is saying about the nature of heaven and hell, whether the protagonist deserved his fate or not, and what all this might mean for us, but it doesn't seem to do any of the work towards answering any of the questions itself. Again, this seems ever so slightly lazy to me - like the novel hasn't quite the energy to dig below the surface level.

      The other problem is that the characters really are, for the most part, quite rudimentary. Numerous characters are essentially only cardboard cut-outs, e.g. a symbolic love interest, a facade of a girlfriend, a stereotypical spinster sister etc. This doesn't really do much to enhance or forward any thinking about the nature of humanity or what our fate should be after death. Even the protagonist is only really examined summarily through his own self-evaluations that he led a reasonably up-standing life etc.

      In sum, this would have been a better novel for me if the writer had either fully embraced the quirky elements and gone further into magic realism, or surrealist territory, or if he had put more work into developing the characters and questioning the premise more thoroughly to come up with some sort of deeper meaning (even if this wasn't explicit, but rather left for the audience to discover). Still definitely worth a read though - it is quite short, simple to read, and for the most part engaging. Take a look, maybe you'll get more out of it than I did!

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