“The Piano Teacher,” by Janice Y.K. Lee
Strange days in Milan back then. I was packing my stuff, with the ticket to Hong Kong already in my pocket, fighting against the Italian bureaucracy that was complicating the delivery of my dog. The chief of the Veterinary Department, a kind woman, told me that it was really difficult to comply with the Japanese rules. She believed that Hong Kong was in Japan. I didn’t dare contradict her.
Browsing around the only bookstore in my street, an old shop that showed a red communist flag and a blue and black pennant of the Inter-Milan Football Club (owner’s undisputable passions) in the window, I bought “L’insegnante di pianoforte,” by Janice Y.K. Lee, in Italian, of course. And I read it in a blink, eager to enter Hong Kong’s atmosphere and driven by the easy writing of the book.
Without any strong feeling, I have to say since I was distracted by the dominant sense of my departure. Hong Kong was still far, and the Second World War either, a remote tale.
It was in May 2010.
After three years I’m reading this book again, in English this time, in Hong Kong. Arrogant like many expats, I though I have interiorized this strange city soon, and understood almost everything about it. So “The Piano Teacher” was only a matter of literary curiosity, you know, the desire to deepen the English writing craft and compare it with the Italian translation, more than listen to a story and learn from other people’s experiences.
On the contrary, I confess I’m enjoying a lot “The Piano Teacher” from every point of view, sipping its pages with taste and care as if it was a rare wine. I like its plot, the smart descriptions of the expats’ world, which now I categorize better, and the passage of time that is the main character of the book – in my opinion. Hong Kong is in fact a terrific, stiff stage in which crowds of extras play their quick existences, each one convinced to be at the centre of the scene. And also the coming of the war is designed in a peculiar way, not like an epochal episode, but like a bother, a personal difficulty, and an existential passage. Even though war changed everything, of course.
Janice Y.K. Lee has an exquisite, elegant sensibility, always polite, light, and this time is her voice and not her writing craft that drives and arouses me.
Maybe I’m repeating things already said about “The Piano Teacher,” after several years from its appearance, but a good book is a clear mirror, often dangerous, and now it is easier for me, thanks to this piece, to settle my bill, my debt to Hong Kong. I fell humble and respectful facing this story and this city I love so much. I’m the last one among innumerable tides of expats; I have not to forget it.
By the way, you always need a spark. What convinced me to write about “The Piano Teacher” has been a dream after a long session of reading, I confess, a nightmare in which I was at wartime, in a transfigured Hong Kong from which it was impossible to flee.
The book is hitting me so much, right, touching deep heartstrings: anyhow a good reference.