Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover

The year is 1598. Abraham is a young Jew from the ghetto of Venice sent by his uncle to Pegu to trade for jewels. Mya is a young bride from a small village many days from Pegu sent by her father to marry. Through his letters to his cousin Joseph interspersed with her retelling of her story to (no spoiler here), the reader follows the adventures of these two outsiders in what is both a tender love story and a commentary on the lives of outsiders in the 15th century and time immorial before and after.

In one sense this is an historical novel with its details of 16th century antisemitism and of life in the famous Venetian ghetto - the word ghetto derives from this original ghetto - the old ghetto (Ghetto Vecchio) can still be visited in Venice today. The politics and daily life in Pegu offer a similarly vivid picture of life in south east Asia.

Another facet of the story is the conflicts and agreements among Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. Much (perhaps too much for someone looking for more action) of the story focusses on Abraham's self-examination of his Judaism compared to Mya's Buddhism. In the end Abraham makes a personal commitment against prejudgment (aka prejudice) summing up the novel's theme.
I have dropped "I was told" from my vocabulary. Until I had traveled from from the narrow streets and small squares of [Venice], I hadn't noticed ... how much we take on faith from ... those who have neither seen nor heard what they claim to know. Their opinions are cold dishes served distant from the kitchen where others have prepared them.
The Jewel Trader of Pegu, though a bit cerebral and pedantic at times, unfolds an historical picture of 16th Venice and the world of its traders tied up the timeless story of "star-crossed lovers."


Godown: In India and East Asia, a warehouse, especially one at a dockside.

Mitzvoth (Plural of Mitzvah): A worthy deed.

Pegu: A town and former capital of Lower Myanmar (Burma), giving its name to a district and a division.

Tzaddik: A righteous man.

No comments: