And, indeed, they rather buried me.
The Glass Palace is Amitav Ghosh’s epic novel of love, family, sweeping history and the mutability of power. Published in 2000, it is 552 pages long, very much a widescreen novel (to use a phrase coined by John Self) and for me at least more melodrama than literary fiction.
It’s also, unfortunately, a book I didn’t find particularly successful. In fact, I got bored. Accordingly, for those looking for a more positive view on Ghosh (albeit a different novel), there’s an as ever excellent John Self review of Sea of Poppies here.
The Glass Palace is, in essence, Dickensian. It is immensely readable, the first couple of hundred pages absolutely zipped by and even after I’d lost interest it remained a very easy read. It is also a novel of real scope, ambitious in its way, and deeply concerned with social issues. It covers over a century of Burmese and Indian history, and in the course of that history addresses matters as diverse as the teak industry, the morality of imperialism, the long and short term effects of colonisation, and the realities of power and powerlessness.
It is also, however, Dickensian in its tendency to melodrama and to sentimentality, and is at times rather wearyingly obvious. The novel opens with a gruff yet kindly woman who takes in a quick witted orphan boy that I immediately guessed would have a great Copperfieldian destiny. I was right. Indeed, it was rare that I expected a particular outcome and was wrong. If I had been wrong a little more often, I would have liked the book more.
The central character is that orphan boy, an Indian named Rajkumar who is working at a food stall in Mandalay, just outside the walls of the Royal Palace. Within, the court await news of the outcome of recent conflicts with the British. They receive reports of glorious victories from their ministers, but hear the sounds of approaching cannon and soon see the arrival of dispassionate ranks of marching Indian soldiers. It is 1885, the year the British deposed the monarchy and absorbed Burma into their Empire, and in one of the finest passages of the book we see the sudden transition of authority from the court to the British. Everything polite, ordered, but the realities of power unmistakeable.
This is how power is eclipsed: In a moment of vivid realism, between the waning of one fantasy of governance and its replacement by the next; in an instant when the world springs free of its mooring of dreams and reveals itself to be girdled in the pathways of survival and self-preservation.
As the novel progresses, the story branches out. Rajkumar leaves Malaya to become a worker in the teak industry, leading to (genuinely fascinating) descriptions of the traditions and dangers of Nineteenth-century teak production. At the same time, we follow the court into exile to Ratnagiri, an isolated town in India where they have a fine view but little else. Rajkumar is a born entrepeneur, brilliant and driven. His sole tragedy, beside the death of his parents, is that as the royal family left their palace he fell in love at first sight with one of the queen’s handmaidens – Dolly, who is now living with the exiled monarchs in Ratnagiri. Dolly is spectacularly beautiful, patient and wise. Rajkumar does not know whether he will ever see Dolly again, though it comes as no surprise that of course he does.
Also in Ratnagiri is the Collector, a man of Indian extraction but who has won high position for a man of his ethnicity in the British run Indian Administrative Service. The Collector is Oxford educated, sees the British way as the civilised way and dreams of a European style marriage of equals with his unhappy wife Uma (who becomes fast friends with Dolly). The interaction of Dolly, Uma, the Collector and the royal family is in microcosm a study of the treatment by the coloniser of the colonised, the king’s attempts to live within the limits of his now foreshortened world often frustrated by a paternalist administration that wishes to protect him for his own good. Imperialism does not just occupy the lands of the conquered, it occupies their minds too.
Generally, the novel’s themes emerge naturally through the characters. Ghosh though is not always content with leaving points implicit, occasionally just directly telling the reader what to think. The following quote is an excerpt from a paragraph long authorial description of what may be read into the queen’s smile (a lot it seems), and for me is a modern voice directly commenting on the novel’s theme in rather a crude way:
A hundred years hence 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.
The difficulty with this, beyond it coming dangerously close to being a lecture, is that by being so blunt it also becomes arguable. I’m no defender of colonialism, but I’m not sure the British can be wholly blamed for the present state of Burma. Singapore, Malaysia and India were conquered too after all, and are doing rather well these days. Ghosh is a good enough writer not to need this sort of blatant intervention, and could usefully trust his readers and his writing a little more, his points are already fairly hard to miss.
As the novel continues, the imperial theme continues to dominate. The demands of teak production (and, later, rubber production) wreak environmental havoc. Through Rajkumar and others (many approving or oblivious), we see the land exhausted for the benefit of its new masters. More subtly, each teak logging camp has its own British overseer – a young man who ensures the native workers carry out their tasks – and so is its own colonial state. This was probably my favourite part of the book, the descriptions are rich, the sense of the camps – temporary villages which like the trees themselves are each the same yet each fractionally different – vivid. There are some off notes, a campfire ghost story which I thought added nothing save colour for its own sake, but in the main I’d happily have read a whole novel set just in these settlements, among the near indentured workers, their elephants and their overseers.
Rajkumar grows rich, chiefly by becoming a small imperialist himself, going to India and coming back with poor villagers misled into working in dangerous conditions in Burma. Rajkumar, like the British, has little sympathy for those he exploits. He is a man driven by the need for success, like the Collector he adopts the values of the British, though here their avarice rather than their culture. Dolly and Uma continue their more domestic dramas, with Dolly’s quiet wisdom enabling Uma to grow and become more independent. Uma’s has one of the novel’s better character arcs, her growth over the book organic and one of its few unexpected elements. Her argument with Rajkumar, in which they attack each other’s philosophies, constitutes one of the novel’s best passages (which sadly I can’t quote for fear of spoilers).
There’s a lot of plot in this book, of which I’ve summarised only a fraction. As the novel continues, it follows the characters’ lives and those of their friends, their children and their friends’ children. Decades pass as the characters argue, trade, love, marry. Colonialism recurs in the form of the Japanese occupation, the British defeated just as they defeated the Burmese, maintaining their colonial distinctions to the end with evacuation trains marked for Whites only.
From the war we go to Indian independence, post-independence politics and even the Burmese democracy movement. Everywhere, there is scope, the sweep of history, great events and in the midst of it all the characters who are each beautiful, passionate, brilliant people. I longed for one of them to want to open a bakery or to become an accountant, sadly not, there is no room here for small people.
And that takes me to one of The Glass Palace’s key flaws, there really aren’t many decent characters. Rajkumar, Uma and a young Indian army officer in the twentieth-century by the name of Arjun (who is faced with agonising issues of loyalty, as the Japanese advance and he has to face questions as to what and who he is fighting for) are the only interesting ones in the lot. Dolly is beautiful and wise, but not convincingly human, the Collector is credible but hardly deep, others are similarly unsatisfying. As in much science fiction, the characters are there primarily to allow the story to progress. They are a vehicle, not a destination.
As I noted above, in the main the story and themes are expressed through the characters, but the price paid is that each of them has only room for a handful of traits (shy, brilliant photographer say, or free spirited and beautiful, to take two examples). The result is that many of them just aren’t that convincing. Worse yet is the tendency to cliché, all the men are brilliant, all the women beautiful (save Uma, who is brilliant), everyone is exceptional and special.
As the novel continues, the problem with characterisation gets worse. Even Aung San Suu Kyi when she appears is described as “beautiful almost beyond belief”. Really? Is it not enough that she is a fighter for democracy in a corrupt regime who has spent years of her life for her cause, must we also suddenly make her breathtakingly beautiful too? Would her work not otherwise count? There is a triteness to this, a simplicity of thought which is fair enough in an airport thriller but less appealing in a Booker nominated novelist, a problem made worse by the predictability of most of the character’s fates which by and large reflect their thinly sketched traits all too neatly.
There are other misjudged notes, such as when Dolly has a psychic experience. Given the novel has an omniscient authorial voice this is presented as simple fact and for me it was a bizarrely jarring episode. An event which fits well enough I suppose into a middlebrow family saga, but which I struggled with in what was ostensibly a serious novel.
All that said, The Glass Palace is by no means all bad. Ghosh has a definite talent for description and metaphor – the title of this blog entry for example is a line regarding the king’s room in Ratnagiri, where he will live out his exile. Equally, in the following passage the evocation of grief and its savage bleakness is for me very effective:
The station at Sungei Pattani was as pretty as a toy: there was a single platform shaded by a low red-tiled awning. Dion spotted Alison as the train was drawing in: she was standing in the shade of the tin awning, wearing sunglasses and a long black dress. She looked thin, limp, wilted – a candlewick on whom grief grief burnt like a flame.
‘You want the pain to be simple, straightforward – you don’t want it to ambush you in these roundabout ways, each morning, when you’re getting up to do something else – brush your teeth or eat your breakfast…’
Equally, Ghosh sometimes does use the space he gives himself to good effect. Indian troops serving British masters are introduced as a minor element, hundreds of pages and decades later we see them again but from their own perspective. Ghosh trusts the reader to note how much they’ve changed. Here, a character in the 1880s speaks of the Indian troops that serve the British:
‘For a few coins they would allow their masters to use them as they wished, to destroy every trace of resistance to the power of the English … How do you fight an enemy who fights from neither enmity nor anger, but in submission to orders from superiors, without protest and without conscience?’
Sixty years or so later, an Indian officer still under ultimate British command speaks to one of his men, another Indian, of those earlier troops:
‘But your father and grandfather were here,’ Arjun said to Hardy. ‘It was they who helped in the colonisation of these places. They must have seen some of the things that we’ve seen. Did they never speak of all this?’
‘They were illiterate yaar. You have to remember that we’re the first generation of Indian soldiers.’
‘But still, they had eyes, they had ears, they must occasionally have talked to local people?’
Hardy shrugged. ‘The truth is yaar, they weren’t interested; they didn’t care; the only place that was real to them was their village.”
But by about page 500 the pacing of the novel falls apart, picking up a little after a detour to 1990s Myanmar but generally feeling like a tidying up of threads and putting away of deckchairs. There are some rather dull soliloquies on the Burmese democracy movement, a little sermonising, and a remarkably irritating final couple of pages.
The Glass Palace is a broad novel, but not a deep one. It has many good elements, anyone looking for a sweeping Gone with the Wind style historical epic should find much to enjoy and it is genuinely intelligent on the lasting psychological impact of colonialism. It suffers though from a crudity of characterisation, from at times being simply too obvious, and in all honesty from just being longer than it needs to be.
In parting, it is perhaps worth mentioning that Tan Twan Eng’s novel The Gift of Rain has some degree of thematic overlap with The Glass Palace. Both speak, among other things, to issues of loyalty, patriotism, the legacy of colonialism and the nature of power. The difference, for me, is that The Gift of Rain addresses those topics while retaining depth of character. The Glass Palace by contrast is well researched, clearly something of a labour of love for Ghosh, but the history leaves too little room for the humanity.