SD Alternative

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” - Dr. Seuss

Amitav Ghosh, The Glass Palace

Feeling muzzy-headed but posting this anyway. I need to stop falling asleep in the afternoon. >_< I BLAME THE DRUGS. Amitav Ghost, The Glass Palace
Rajkumar was born in Chittagon (in Bengal), but his father, a clerk/translator, moved the family to Rangoon, in Burma, when he was small. After both his parents die in a plague and Rajkumar, rather than go home to relatives he barely remembers, he works on a steamer for a few years. He’s in Mandalay (the capital of Burma) when the British invade; Polly, the palace servant he has fallen in love with, leaves with the royal family for exile in India. Rajkumar then takes up with Saya John, an ethnic Chinese born in Malacca and married in Singapore, who owns a small shipping company. At the same time, Polly takes up with Uma, the wife of one of the first Indian Collectors (he was educated in England, she’s from Calcutta). Rajkumar eventually goes into the timber business and, with Saya John’s son Matthew (who grew up in New York City), he starts up a rubber plantation in Malaya, across the straits from Penang.

That’s the first half of the book. ^^; It’s a sea of places, names, dates, and events. In some ways this novel feels more like a timeline, the outline of an entire invented history, with certain scenes of particular importance singled out for description. There’s a lot time jumping and where-are-they-now summarizing, and you start to wonder where the page count is going, but then you remember that Ghosh can spend ten pages on the process whereby teak was pulled down from Burma’s forested slopes by elephants. The amount of research that went into this book is incredible, and most of it is very, very interesting. (Though less so when he starts listing model numbers, eg for cars or cameras.) Ghosh has a special interest in fluid commercial elements — in the rubber and timber trade and so on. He’s also interested in the merchant mindset, the fact that for this class of people what the business consisted of didn’t matter as much as the ability to recognize opportunity, and the wherewithal to act on it.

The novel’s biggest failing is that many characters have more interesting backstories than, well, characters. ^^; They’re not very complicated. This is exasperated by the quick pace of the novel — when reading fiction, I like to feel like the characters’ actions can be predicted or at least explained by their personalities, but in this case, with life-altering events happening one after another, and very little time in between to establish the characters’ personalities, it’s hard to say whether that was case. There were quite a few times times when Character A would propose to Character B, and I would have absolutely no idea what Character B’s reaction was/should be until two pages later when suddenly the two of them were married.

But it’s not a book about its characters’ inner lives, it’s a book about people getting caught up in historical events. And there are lots of events to go around. ^^; The fall of the Burmese throne, the Indian Independence Movement, WWII in Burma and Malaysia, conditions under Myanmar’s military dictatorship. Nonfiction history readers will like it. Another highlight is Ghosh’s commentary style, especially in the second half of the book. The real genius to his approach is that while he’ll use characters as mouthpieces to spell out familiar criticisms, he’ll also set it up so that these characters know other characters who are on the other side of the debate. The main example here is Uma. She moves to New York for several years and ends up becoming very involved with the India Independence movement, and after she returns becomes the main voice for a lot of very noble sentiments, but she faces personal difficulties because she has a friend (Rajkumar) who is one of those strong-arm, shady, exploitative businessmen types, and she also knows an evil plantation owner, and her nephew is an officer in the Indian Army. Seeing these not-bad people on the other side of the rhetoric complicates it, or at least makes it personal.

In summary: huge cross sections of peoples, places, times, and events, and lots of commentary. (In the first half: backtalk to critical Europeans pointing out their hypocrisy. In the second: more complicated issues of identity and activism.) Worth reading just for the history and historical detail, especially if you have an interest in the region. Downsides are that the characters are often flat, and the story often feels like it’s on fast-forward.