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Book Review: The Glass Palace

glass palace cover

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.

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

3 replies on “Book Review: The Glass Palace”

He has a trilogy, Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and a yet to be published third book tracing the history of the opium trade in China. Quite an interesting read and deals with themes of love, renewal, imperialism, colonialism etc …

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