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Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Monday, January 16, 2006

Glass Palace

On with the Amitav Ghosh novels!

Glass Palace
is an epic. Reading it reminded me of reading The Far Pavilions: How far are we going? Whose descendant is this again? How many decades just passed?

It begins in 1885, with the British occupation of Mandalay and destruction of Burma. The meaningful action ends in the 1940s and World War II, although a short run through the 1990s is necessary to tie up most of the loose ends. The main story is a love story (of course) between Rajkumari and Dolly.

Rajkumari is an orphan left to fend for himself, born Hindu in what is now Bangladesh but in Burma in 1885 at the age of 11. Dolly is a servant to the Burmese royal family, taken from the eastern Burmese Shan highlands. They meet as the king and queen are being exiled to India, the glass palace in Mandalay destroyed. Rajkumari remembers Dolly and goes in search of her, after making a fortune in lumber in Burma.

Rajkumari and Dolly marry, and their children intermarry with others along the way. A rubber plantation in Malaysia figures into the story, as well as photography, the Indian troops in the British Army, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist.

The book was a bit disappointing at first, since I was reading from the experience of Ghosh's most recent novel, The Hungry Tide, which has a spare, efficient plot and the barest number of characters necessary. In contrast, The Glass Palace is an absolute labyrint of plot and subplots, with lots of gaping spaces and characters who are developed and then disappear without comment.

Nevertheless, it's an addictive story. Why? Because Ghosh is a master at showing the material traces of history, and making these traces compelling.


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