THE JEWEL TRADER OF PEGU by Jeffrey Hantover
road to my novel began in July 1989 when I moved from New York to Hong
Kong with my wife and four-year-old daughter. We planned to stay four
years and remained twelve. My wife came to run the office of an
international auction house and I, an underemployed writer who had left
a successful career in social service four years earlier, came with no
prospects to a part of the world I knew little about and had visited
People assumed, because my wife was an expert in Chinese art, that I
also knew something about Asian art. I kept quiet, smiled politely, and
soon found myself the art and antiques columnist for the Hong Kong
Tattler, a magazine read more for its society party pictures than its
prose. In 1991 the American owner of a local gallery asked me to
accompany him to Vietnam to interview artists and write the catalogue
essay for a major exhibition of contemporary Vietnamese art. In that
invitation lay the seed for The Jewel Trader of Pegu.
Trying to learn as much as I could about Vietnamese history and culture
– of which I knew almost nothing - I cast my research net broadly. I
came across Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680 by the
Australian historian, Anthony Reid, a work full of contemporary European
travelers’ observations on life in kingdoms and cities that are now only
exotic names and backwaters. In the section on marriage customs I was
intrigued by this simple sentence - “In Pegu and other ports of Burma
and Siam, foreign traders were asked to initiate brides.” Though he then
had no name or nationality, the central character of the book was born.
What would a European trader do if faced with the demand to perform this
rite alien to his own beliefs and culture?
On one of my trips to Ho Chi Minh City, bouncing along in a pedicab I
saw a crowd of young men by the side of the road. One man stood separate
from the others, most of whom crouched on their haunches as men do in
Asia. He had short, dark curly hair, unlike the straight hair of most
Vietnamese, and his skin was darker than the others: he looked to me
like an Amerasian – the son of an African-American soldier and a
Vietnamese woman. I knew then my European trader would fall in love and
have a son.
Other assignments kept the trader confined between the lines of note
cards and my journal. At some point in those years, he went from being
an Elizabethan Englishman to a Venetian Jew named Abraham. Pegu with its
broad avenues, its gold leafed pagodas and palaces, its polyglot
exoticism stood in contrast to the Venetian ghetto’s narrow alleys and
damp gray stones. Freed from the physical confines of the ghetto and the
expectations of others – Jews and gentiles – and confronted with a
culture and faith so different from his own, would this young man
change? I could map out the physical journey he had taken, but I didn’t
know where the inner journey would end.
For a decade I turned away from prose to write poetry, and though the
note cards yellowed, the memory work of my poetry made me better able to
give voice to Abraham – to let him tell his story more directly. When I
finally returned to the world of Pegu, I felt an urgency to tell the
story. I had created characters but had left them living in limbo. I was
haunted by the words of the Jesuit travelers that are the epilogue of
the book and was afraid that if I didn’t write their story, Abraham and
Mya would be buried in the silence that had fallen upon Pegu.
But I still struggled with how to make Abraham’s voice heard. Robert
Bonfil in Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy gave me the key to unlock his
voice. Letter writing, Bonfil wrote, was one of the most frequent forms
of literary expression among Renaissance Jews: letter writing was a
pillar of a child’s primary education, and children wrote daily letters
to their fathers, even if they lived in the same house. It was the
custom to write letters to relatives and friends about the day’s events,
about ideas – about everything. Late at night, the wind rustling the
palm trees outside his wooden house, Abraham, first alone and later with
the woman he loved sleeping nearby, could now break his silence.
Now I could find out what Abraham would do. Now I could find out what
choices he would make.
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