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The World | DISPATCH FROM BERLIN

Germans Disappointed to Discover a Compatriot

They brood on the revelation that the mysterious 'Piano Man' is no talented foreigner, but a depressed Bavarian.

August 24, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — He came to us a mute man washed up on the beach with music in his fingers. He was lost, confused and so mysterious, possessing a gaunt charm that seemed to conceal a kind of wonderment, suggesting the human spirit, no matter how troubled, can be incandescent.

He was called the Piano Man. But who was this creature found wandering near a British beach in April with the labels cut out of his clothes? A virtuoso from the Czech Republic? An autistic genius? A bewildered French musician?

The tabloids were understandably giddy. The Piano Man may have been silent from his room in the psychiatric wing of the Medway Maritime Hospital, but that didn't mean there wasn't anything to say. The myth grew and the headlines spread. Hollywood came lurking. Finally, in a world of war and chaos, a wayward bohemian with the sketch of a grand piano in his pocket would lighten our despair.

Then came the kick in the pants.

"Piano Man Is Bavarian ... and Bogus," announced the headline Tuesday on a German public radio website. "Germany's Foreign Ministry confirmed Monday that the unidentified man who washed up on a British beach four months ago is a 20-year-old Bavarian. Apparently he's not an amnesiac -- and he's not much of a piano player either."

You could hear hearts breaking across Europe. A Bavarian? It got worse. He could speak. Then it got really worse. His piano playing was reportedly closer to "Chopsticks" than Beethoven. German and British authorities aren't saying much, except that the Piano Man received a new passport and arrived home to his parents. His odyssey reportedly began months earlier when, unemployed, he boarded a train in Paris and headed for Britain to attempt suicide.

The narrative suddenly veered in an unpleasant direction and the feeling started to spread that there'd be no Ralph Fiennes in the title role. People like happy endings, and when they don't get one, they tend to go introspective, searching for cosmic meaning.

"The mystery of the Piano Man is solved," said the British Broadcasting Corp. "But is it really? And what does the whole saga say about us? So that's it? After four months of feverish speculation

"Punishing the Piano Man?" asked another headline on German public radio, in answer to suggestions that the Piano Man should reimburse the British hospital for thousands of dollars' worth of care. Germans these days are enduring costly reforms to their socialized healthcare and are sensitive to any hint of abuse, even if it affects the British medical system.

"I appreciate that the man may have some mental problems but he should be held liable for the money spent," read one e-mail sent to the radio station. "The man was so selfish and must have known that so much money was being spent on him. Did he really have to spin it for this whole time? I hear he has two sisters and a father, they can put their hand in their pocket."

Britons wagged their finger at the press and grew philosophical.

"The media did whisk this story out of proportion," Merel Geus, of Cambridge, wrote to the BBC in an e-mail. "It made their papers sell. The more fantastic, the better. Now they feel disappointed and cheated that it was not the Hollywood story of their fancy. Well, who is cheating who? Ultimately, it is nobody's business who this man is."

An e-mail from Australia suggested the Piano Man should be glad he didn't end up in Tasmania.

"Luckily for him he was found in Britain where the authorities are brought up on a TV diet of romantic mysteries and other pleasant fictions," wrote Les Crompton. "In Australia, he most likely would have been locked up as an illegal alien and the only mystery would have been where the minister of immigration lost the key."

The e-mails, the radio banter, the perplexed news anchors, they all prattled through the day with subdued regret that sometimes magic just doesn't happen.

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