Kings Fall Apart

by Kenneth Champeon, May 11, 2005 | Destinations: Myanmar / Mandalay

In praise of Plutarch, classicist Edith Hamilton once wrote, "Most good writers are admired; only a very few are loved." Hamilton then listed some writers falling into this sad, unloved category, beginning with stately Gibbon and ending with monstrous Hemingway. "All these have seen in a very great degree men's misery and meanness and spiritual poverty...but they have not seen them as lovable, they do not even like them. But there are writers who love mankind and in return mankind loves them."

Hamilton considers only Western writers. And in the West, the idea that you should love mankind became popular only after a certain unsociable Jew began preaching a version of Asian religion. Compassion has deep roots in Asia and this is reflected in her literature. The bluff, individualistic, dynamic West views mankind much as an adolescent views his parents, as something to be criticized, manipulated, overturned. The subtle, collective, static East views mankind as a parent views an adolescent, as something to be guided, endured, loved. I first encountered Amitav Ghosh in the op-ed pages of a politically liberal magazine ("Imperial Temptations", The Nation, May 27, 2002). He was expressing his unease with America's increasing tendency to think of itself as an empire, and he was especially worried about political liberals advocating benevolent intervention in foreign affairs. "History shows us," he wrote, "that the road to empire is all too often paved with good intentions." The op-ed stood out for a number of reasons. It was admonishing liberals and Americans on their own turf, and it did so with an even temper uncharacteristic of political writing, which is usually inflammatory, ad hominem, chronically shocked. And it was well written without being ostentatious. Where had I heard this voice before?

Suddenly I made him. He was an Orwell. That is, a decent, humble, clear-thinking and careful novelist, who occasionally feels the need to wander into the noisy agora and speak truth to palaver. And in both writers is a placid acceptance that their advice will probably go unheeded, men being what they are, which is ignorant, short-sighted, vain - adolescent.

Like Orwell's Burmese Days, Ghosh's most recent novel The Glass Palace is set in Burma under the Raj. But Palace focuses on the empire's subjects instead of the empire's administrators, and it is more about personal struggle than about imperial rule.

The novel begins in the late 19th century with the British ouster of the Burmese royal family from the historical capital Mandalay and the "glass palace" that had been the royal home. The family is banished to a remote district between Bombay and Goa. Thus begins the deterioration of Burma, "the golden land" where no one starves. By the novel's end in 1996, Burma is Myanmar, which for four decades has suffered under one of the world's most repressive and incompetent regimes.

Ghosh pulls no punches. General Ne Win, who seized power in 1962, he calls "bizarre, maniacal", and he characterizes Myanmar's present leaders as power-hungry illiterates. No doubt his book failed to get past Myanmar's testy censors. But the royal family was little better. Ghosh points out that the Queen ordered the murder of seventy-nine princes, including infants and the infirm, to shore up her husband's power.

Ghosh draws the inevitable comparison between the fate of colonized Burma and its independent neighbor Siam. Both blessed by natural abundance, the two nations could be scarcely more different today. The Burmese Queen blames the Europeans. "A hundred years hence," she declares, "you will read the indictment of Europe's greed in the difference between the kingdom of Siam and the state of our own enslaved realm." She does not mention non-European complicity: two-thirds of the British invasion force that conquered Burma were Indian sepoys. Ghosh also remarks upon the forethought of Siam's King Chulalongkorn, the first Asian monarch to visit Europe for raisons d'etat, and contrasts his proactive posture with the effete nostalgia of Burma's last king Thebaw. Of course, the difference between the two countries' development has demographic roots as well. Burma's ethnic divisions impelled the Rangoon government to squander its resources in the suppression of countless insurgencies; even the colonial government of India, Ghosh notes, spent 60% of its revenues on the military. Meanwhile relatively homogeneous Thailand could direct its resources to more constructive causes like education.

Yet Ghosh is not without hope. The book closes with a depiction of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's long-suffering but serene opposition leader, who was recently released (again) from house arrest. Like Gandhi before her, Suu Kyi is a political force buoyed by her contempt for politics, which she believes "cannot be allowed to cannibalise all of life, all of existence" - for "what could be more trivial" than politics?

In this spirit Ghosh has written a political novel in which politics play a fairly minor but disruptive part. The author's love of mankind is palpable, so by Hamilton's logic he is worthy of not only admiration but also love. His optimism is profound. But it is an Eastern optimism - a sublime patience, an inner power - not to be confused with the pitiless boosterism of a Babbitt, smiling on the outside but suffering within. Ghosh's characters squabble, commit suicide (one of them Ophelia-fashion), kill each other, lie, plunder, profiteer, mutiny, philander. But for most of them life's messiness is no reason to relinquish life. In a starving baby's cry for food Ghosh hears the "primeval sound of life proclaim its determination to defend itself." And the baby lives, grows, has a son of her own.

Stylistically, Ghosh is conventional. Like most contemporary writers, he often succumbs to a breathless American diction, containing ambiguous, colloquial constructions that make sense only when skimmed. At times the dialogue fails to move the story along, as if the author is using the characters to figure out what will happen next: "What?" should almost never appear as dialogue. His sexual symbolism is rather transparent, corny even, but in a way that should be familiar to Bollywood fans. Two would-be lovers flirt while holding a nautilus; the man "ran his thumb along the edge of the mother of pearl mouth, over the line that encircled the swelling body, to the tiny nipple-like point that topped the mound."

Occasionally Ghosh betrays his influences. A reference to the salutary effects of the Mediterranean on colonials comes from Forster; a "soft-spoken" Sikh solider who hums Hindi songs while working is reminiscent of the sapper Kip from Ondaatje's The English Patient.

Ghosh is more traditional than his predecessors but he is also more ambitious. The Glass Palace spans three generations, three continents, two world wars. Its family tree is a Gordian knot. What he has attempted is nothing less than a War and Peace for 20th-century South and Southeast Asia, a task that might have overtaxed Tolstoy. If Ghosh has failed in this attempt then one can only say that he is not a god, but a - lovable - human like the rest of us.

- The End -

Review of Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace, Harper Collins, 2001.

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