04 November 2007

Fiction Then, Reality Now

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Jeffrey Hantover’s (forthcoming) The Jewel Trader of Pegu is a beautiful story engagingly written. This might be the first “JewBu” novel, a step beyond Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew In The Lotus, in which Kamenetz detailed his experience accompanying a group of American Jews who traveled to India to meet the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhists. Here, Hantover’s fictional construct allows him to create fresh insights into the challenges of human growth and cross-cultural understanding, using an epistolary form that enhances the strength of the story and the clarity of the characters’ voices. Exploring simultaneously the values and world-views of Judaism and Buddhism, Hantover uses the historical lens of foreign trade and travel to express the wondrousness of spiritual and physical freedom.

The outline of the story is as follows: in 1598, a widowed Venetian Jewish trader named Abraham makes the long journey to the city of Pegu, in lower Burma, to sell cloth and other wares, and to buy gemstones to take back to his uncle in Venice. Orphaned at a young age, and generally confined to the Jewish Ghetto by Christian society, this trip is more than eye-opening for Abraham, as he enters a world that does not care about his religion or the limitations placed on him by the anti-Semitic traditions of Europe. Writing letters to his cousin Joseph back home, Abraham reveals new aspects of himself as he discovers them, as his experiences in Pegu shift from those of a trader-tourist to someone who starts to feel more like a native. One poignant early moment finds Abraham looking in his trunk and discovering that the yellow hat he is forced to wear in Venice has become moldy and decrepit in the humidity – and he throws it away, “...with the fish bones and coconut husks.” [P. 45] In Pegu, he does not need the hat; he is as foreign as every other trader from abroad, no more and no less.

Maung Win is the royal gems broker assigned by the king to assist Abraham, to facilitate his transactions, show him around the city, and safeguard his belongings. Win speaks a little Italian (much to Abraham’s surprise) and in turn teaches Abraham a bit of the local language. Together, they conduct Abraham’s business and, in their social time, discuss and explore their different perspectives in the world, as driven by religion and by their life experiences. As the result of a complicated local ritual, Win introduces Abraham to Mya, a young Burmese woman who is about to get married. Mya is the third protagonist and the second of the book’s two key voices, presented in the form of her inner monologues, fashioned much like diary entries.

“All I know is what the Buddha teaches – we live, we suffer, we die, and we are reborn. All of us. Not you or me alone. All of us.” [P. 104] So says Win in one of his discussions with Abraham, who struggles to understand the logic in such a straightforward and unsentimental religion, because it seems to deny the kind of higher purpose he has been raised, as a Jew, to believe central to life. Eventually – as he witnesses an execution, as he sees small slights and larger affronts in the world around him – Abraham begins to realize that Win’s Buddhism is not nihilistic but life-affirming, just as Win concedes (eventually) that suffering for suffering’s sake is not always noble or desirable. Life can be complicated, more complicated than the devotions of any religion can necessarily explain.

Ultimately, Abraham learns that freedom is “something real that exists in the world. Not just an ideal. Not just a prayer at Passover.” [P. 26] In discovering freedom of movement, he starts to allow himself to explore his soul, his beliefs and his passions, and thus finds freedom of thought – and a free life. He becomes liberated in a way that he had not previously acknowledged as a possibility, and with that liberation he seems to achieve the kind of enlightenment that Buddhists themselves strive for.

At times, Hantover’s story crosses over into the saccharine, and reminded me at a few points of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist, a tale of self-discovery that also involves dreams, travel, cross-cultural religious understanding. What can be frustrating about Coelho (and surely what makes his books such big sellers) is his simplicity, that sense of an author wanting the reader to get the message, to make sure we don’t miss the point. But where Coelho traffics in the ethereal and mysterious, Hantover is grounded: what he writes about Judaism and Buddhism rings true, and his characters are not just archetypes, but people to whom the reader develops an emotional connection because of their complexity and idiosyncrasies. Moreover, where Coelho’s book is a parable addressed to the reader, Hantover’s is a literary expression of the beauty of life, even amid challenge and tragedy, and the many ways in which we humans can learn to understand ourselves and others. I highly recommend The Jewel Trader of Pegu.


Hantover set his story during a period of Burmese history we know a little bit about: an unpopular king, Nandabayin, fond of jewels and baubles, is eventually brought down by an invasion of neighboring tribal armies. In the process, the Burmese people themselves suffer more than they should, despite – or perhaps in part because of – their religion and its teachings. For more than 20 years now, the military junta that controls Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been strangling that nation’s people and testing their faith. Recent protests against the regime by the country’s monks have resulted in vicious responses from the government, which has killed many of the be-robed people that this nation of devout Buddhists consider quite holy.

Responding to a contemporary work of fiction based on its “timeliness” is generally not a good idea: a novel that is truly timely may not hold its value in the future. However, it is hard to overlook the current political nightmare of Myanmar, and the connections to the history about which Hantover writes. For example, an execution scene in the book is hard to disassociate from contemporary politics in its cruelty, and as a representation of the degree to which Burmese leaders – then and now – cannot tolerate any dissent. Like it or not, the news does make Hantover’s story rather timely. Fortunately, that only adds to its value and makes the book that much more powerful.

(Thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to review this book!)

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