The Piano by Anibal Monteiro Machado, 1944
The magic trick:
Writing a funny scene by creating an expectation of normalcy and then delivering the opposite result
I did not wholly enjoy this story. I found its comments on freedom and tradition were too unfocused to really hit the mark. However, I loved the moments of humor. Machado has an almost-Wodehousian way with a simile, and one scene in particular had me howling with laughter.
A family has advertised their old piano for sale in the newspaper and attracted a group of prospective buyers who have gathered in the room with the piano when young girl sits down and starts playing. Machado has set up an expectation both in the room and with the reader. We all, together, expect the piano to sound wonderful. After all, the family advertised the instrument as a luxurious antique. And then the girl plays… The way Machado describes the sound is wonderful and, because the result is totally counter to what we (the reader and the characters in attendance) expected, the scene is a little piece of comedic genius. And that’s quite a trick on Machado’s part.
It was a jury trial and the piano was the accused. The young girl continued to play, as if she were wringing a confession from it. The timbre suggested that of a decrepit, cracked-voiced soprano with stomach trouble. Some of the notes did not play at all. Doli joined in with her barking, a bitch’s well-considered verdict. A smile passed around the room. No one was laughing, however. The girl seemed to be playing now out of pure malice, hammering at the dead keys and emphasizing the cacophony. It was a dreadful situation.