A 'Doctor Zhivago' for the Far East

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh (HarperCollins, £16.99)
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The Independent Culture

It should be a fundamental human right, the novelist Tim Pears assured me, that you do not have to finish bad novels that you have started reading. The truth of this axiom has come home to me with ironic force along with the critical demands of book reviewing. I was sorely tempted to give up on Amitav Ghosh's new novel, The Glass Palace, after wading through its first 200 unsophisticated pages. But I am exceedingly glad that I persevered.

It should be a fundamental human right, the novelist Tim Pears assured me, that you do not have to finish bad novels that you have started reading. The truth of this axiom has come home to me with ironic force along with the critical demands of book reviewing. I was sorely tempted to give up on Amitav Ghosh's new novel, The Glass Palace, after wading through its first 200 unsophisticated pages. But I am exceedingly glad that I persevered.

Briefly, The Glass Palace chronicles the fortunes of Rajkumar Raha and his extended family. Ghosh takes us from the British conquest of Burma in the late 19th century and the exile of King Thebaw's court from Mandalay to rural India through to the suffocating depredations of Myanmar's contemporary junta. (The military regime still detains the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.)

Rajkumar's life seems to progress with the page-turning simplicity of a Jeffrey Archer plot, as he moves with unencumbered ease from rags to riches in Rangoon's teak trade. There is little to detain the reader in the sequence of more-or-less improbable connections that bring Rajkumar to marry Dolly, an orphan attending the royal family in exile. Only two characters attract attention; Rajkumar's mentor, Saya John, an entrepreneur of Chinese extraction, and Queen Supayalat herself, her diminutive frame brimming with acerbic authority.

Amitav Ghosh's style here is exotic without being sumptuous, dynastic but not magnificent, and strongly rem-iniscent of the fantasy genre of courtly heroism. Given the author's scholarly reputation, I wondered whether Ghosh was writing a potboiler to support other, less commercial projects.

But almost halfway through The Glass Palace, the tone begins to modulate when Uma Dey, widow and Indian Independence League activist, returns from New York. Her arrival subtly ushers in the post-colonial divisions that orchestrate the latter half of the novel.

Classic early cars, new-fangled cameras and silver fuselages shimmer with a modernity that flashes ominously over the ancient lifestyles of subcontinental Asia's myriad tribes. The British Indian Army begins to splinter in the middle years of the Second World War as crises of national identity infect its ranks. Aung San's schism of troops fight first with the advancing Japanese, to liberate the Burmese from the British Empire. But then they rejoin the Allies to repulse Japan from the Pacific theatre. Two Indian lieutenants - Bengali Arjun, who is infatuated with the British trappings of army life, and his more cynical Sikh comrade, Hardaker "Hardy" Singh - play out the dissolution of personal and cultural loyalties under the pressures of combat.

In Rangoon, Uma and Dolly witness an Indian beheaded by a Burmese nationalist. Ghosh carefully unpicks the internecine hostility that imperial rule smothers. Uma's grand Ghandian ideals find themselves challenged by aggressions far more complex than a simple shrugging off of the yoke of conquest.

A Bengali newspaper runs a picture of the heads of 16 decapitated "rebels". This jolts Uma into the realisation that a peasants' revolt of sticks and stones "inspired by legend and myth" will never prevail against the overwhelming information-management and technologies of Western powers.

These stark, spare images are Ghosh's triumph. They offer a tunnel vision of how shockingly the medieval hierarchies, and the fabled "golden land" of old Burma's prosperity and peace, had vanished. Ghosh's sentimental prose, describing Rajkumar's Mandalay years and the royal exile, now falls into place. It was a deliberate pastoral which, in its crude simplicity, is sacrificed to the brutal passing of an age.

Like Pasternak's panoramic Dr Zhivago, The Glass Palace dramatically captures the dislocation of political turmoil. Ghosh might imply that love and hope prevail, but ultimately he offers little consolation for his sundered families, crushed as they are beneath the tectonic plates of world history.

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