The Glass Palace

I recently finished Amitav Ghosh’s book, The Glass Palace, for my class on Postcolonial Literature. So, I decided to write some babblings on that today. What really becomes apparent is how the problems of colonialism are not capable of being whisked away by some Solution. Ghosh shows several different approaches to “fighting” the colonial power; notably economics, military force, and art.

I think the commentary Ghosh makes on economics is quite interesting. The books central character, Rajkumar, spends much of the book figuring out how to make money within imperial-controlled Burma and India. He begins with teak — the wood that ushered in a war — but moves to rubber once he discovers there is money to be made there. One must note that, in the rubber business, Rajkumar is effectively a slave-owner. Of course, WWII destroys Rajkumar’s business and he lives the remainder of his life as a poor man. I think here we could argue that the imperial-capitalist economic system is incapable of offering any good living to those who cannot — for whatever reason — engage in high risk investments. However, this is probably farther than Ghosh’s novel would reasonably take us.

There is an irony, I’m not sure if it’s intentional, within Ghosh’s presentation of military force. Near the beginning of the novel, Burma’s city of Mandalay is attacked by the British. The British are not aiming for destruction — they strike a swift victory by kidnapping the royal family. But there is one other swift victory found in the fighting that takes place in The Glass Palace (and there is a lot).  This short victory wasn’t actually short, but in the novel its presentation certainly is — the reversal General Aung San pulls on the Japanese. I think, to find a unity between these two, we must again consider that the problems of colonialism do not have easy solutions. Whether it is the British trying to gain authority in Burma or the Burmese trying to excercise their own authority, there is a tendency for peace to vanish. War and violence seem to rise before us at every turn.

In art, Ghosh gives us his best solution. One of his characters, Dinu, is a photographer. At one point in the novel he is married to a writer — a writer of political opposition to the dictatorship of Burma. After her death, Dinu allows his photography shop to be used as a meeting spot for locals to talk about… photos. But, there’s a catch! As Dinu tells his niece, “… photography too is a secret language” (p 438). So yeah, basically Ghosh’s conclusion is that, in order to fight ruthlessly violent power-seekers, we must be intelligent.

  1. January 31st, 2010

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