Sunday, March 18, 2001
In Amitov Ghosh's "The Glass Palace" ($25.95, Random House, 477 pages), two unfortunate individuals meet their demise in a most horrific manner: They are squashed by elephants during the harvesting of teak.
The hallmarks of an epic are all over Ghosh's fourth novel ï¿½ a story arc of more than 110 years, dozens of characters ranging from ragamuffins to royalty ï¿½ but his lackluster prose, radical temporal leaps and an amazing amount of love at first sight leave readers feeling as if they, too, have been crunched by the novel's cumbrous pages.
Ostensibly, "The Glass Palace" tracks the history of Burma from the British invasion in 1855 through the present day. The once proud kingdom featured nearly universal literacy, a strong economy based on rich natural resources. The British and their colonial rule changed all that.
Rajkumar, an Indian orphan, arrives in Mandalay just as the British cannons begin firing. In the madness and looting that follows, the precocious 10-year-old finds himself inside the gorgeous royal palace. Here he sees the beautiful attendant, Dolly, the icy queen. And promptly falls head-over-heels for her. Unfortunately for him, though, the Royal Family and its entourage are quickly exiled to Ratnagari.
Even though he only saw Dolly for a couple of minutes, her image stays with Rajkumar as he learns the teak trade from the good-hearted Saya John.
Through a series of coincidences, Dolly and Rajkumar reunite, marry, have children and build a fiscal empire through wood. The story follows the family and its wide net of friends through countless revolutions, World War I, the invasion of the Japanese in World War II and the eventual Burmese independence in 1946.
For all of the characters, though, we only see each of them briefly, since Ghosh routinely jumps forward scores of years ï¿½ causing readers to lose crucial, explanatory character development. The impish Rajkumar, so charming and headstrong early in the novel, turns out to be a greedy war-profiteer; Uma, a widow, goes from bored wife to empowered woman to a cardboard-flat fighter for Indian independence; Dolly, perhaps no longer useful to the story, becomes totally withdrawn and virtually disappears from the book.
Character and forced dialogue aside, Ghosh does provide a nuanced, interesting discussion of the impacts of colonialism. As the Japanese invade, the Indian soldiers of the Crown wonder exactly what they are fighting for ï¿½ the same freedom that they were delivered under British rule?
As Arjun, an Indian officer, discusses the philosophical implications of his service with fellow soldier Kishan Singh, he begins to see things in a wholly different light.
"He had never experienced the slightest doubt about his personal sovereignty; never imagined himself to be dealing with anything other than the full range of human choice. But if it were true that his life had somehow been molded by acts of power of which he was not aware ï¿½ then it would follow that he never acted of his own volition, never has a moment of true consciousness." (page 373)
In these sections, "The Glass Palace" recalls the existential crisis of Andre Malraux's fine novel, "Man's Fate." Unfortunately, such moments are extremely rare in the novel, lost amid elaborate technical descriptions of teak harvests and Ghosh's endless obsession with motorized vehicles of all stripes.
The history of Southeast Asia is absolutely fascinating, filled with shifting allegiances, battles for freedom, racial tension, coercion, lush geography and cutthroat economics. But Ghosh loses such a stirring proscenium by attaching a specific ideology to each of his characters and crafting a story lacking structural integrity.
In spite of myriad problems, "The Glass Palace" does roll along nicely occasionally, especially in the Japanese invasion scenes with Dinu, the soft-spoken photographer son of Rajkumar and the headstrong Alison.
However, just when readers will find themselves wanting more, Ghosh will yank the narrative rug, leaping forward five, 10 or even 20 years into the future. This repeating motif, along with undisciplined prose, will leave readers frustrated, exhausted, unsatisfied and, ultimately, flattened.
ï¿½ Mark Luce serves on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle. He reviews regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle and Atlanta Journal Constitution. His e-mail is email@example.com.