At the risk of sounding cliche, Amitav Gosh’s The Glass Palace is an important book. It’s importance begins with the subject matter – a one-hundred year span of history that unfolds in India, Malaya (now Malaysia) and Burma (now Myanmar), all countries of which most Americans, myself included, know precious little. The book addresses the impact of colonialism in the region over these one-hundred years by telling the stories of three generations of families whose lives are bound together by political change.
The sweep of history is breathtaking, carrying the reader through two world wars, and the independence movement that eventually forces the British out of the region before ending in contemporary Myanmar amidst the struggle between a growing pro-democracy movement and the notoriously repressive military government that has ruled the country since the military coup in 1962. This history lesson really is, by far, the leading character of the book. The story starts as feudalism falls, and takes us into the modern age as capitalism asserts itself and the region industrializes.
The emergence of a critical perspective among the generations, and of a post-modern worldview as the book comes to a close, is intriguing. Each generation shifts in its understanding of its relationship to history and to the structures of inequality that rule their lives, asking ever evolving questions, either in word or deed, that beg profoundly different answers. And then, the final lesson, about the futility of revolutionary struggle as we understood it in this historical period, and the need for a more humane politic that avoids the failures of modernism and its obsession with structuralism and the reductive answers to complex problems of culture to which this obsession tends to lead.
One doesn’t often read contemporary fiction that addresses such lofty ideas, especially while managing to be entertaining. In fact, The Glass Palace read like an epic movie – more cinematic than literary. At every turn one is presented with world beating beauties in spectacularly beautiful settings rife with love, intrigue, betrayal, sex and the suggestion of it, and why not? If we all looked like the characters in Amitav Gosh’s South Asia we’d be hard pressed not to hang the political struggles in the closet along with our fashionable clothes and just roll around naked with each other all the time.
Suffice to say, the cinematic aspects of the novel are a bit gratuitous and distracting, not unlike many guilty pleasures. To have left out those details in favor of creating a more earthbound cast of characters might have led to greater artistic street cred. But then, one needs a bit of relief from all of the political science and philosophy in these pages, not to mention highly detailed accounts of elephant diseases and the teak trade (yawn).
What’s between the pages is worthy of reading, but just as worthy of attention is the existence of the novel itself. Gosh is a leader among a new generation of Indian writers who are products of a western educated Indian middle class that would not have existed under the British, but who would not be likely to exist today if not for the British. What must it mean to be an Indian writer in English criticizing the British colonization of India?
Contemplating this question puts the novel in a whole new light. It as much an expression of the post-colonial historical moment as it is an examination of the history leading to it. The person who loaned me this book responded to my critique by offering that “it’s hard for an English language novel to do anything but increase the hegemony of western structuralism.” My understanding of what he is saying is that to create a western audience, one must speak in terms the west understands. In a world defined as much by power inequality as by any other condition, this ability is often the product of privilege, always bestowed at the behest of the powerful to serve their own purposes. Making the concession of speaking in the voice of the ruling class may be a necessary evil (and one to which I obviously have also conceded). Yet, when we concede, we cast a very western light upon ourselves; one whose glow tends to blind those who live in the shadows created on its periphery just as it distorts all that it illuminates but does not understand.