This quiet, meditative novel brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of the lush and vibrant city of Pegu. A major seaport, Pegu was founded in 825 A.D. and was considered to be the golden land. Pegu's era of influence started in 1365 when it became the capital of Lower Myanmar, its greatness lasting for 270 years. Early European visitors would often mention Pegu's importance as a seaport and center for trade, and each generation of seafarers
commented on its magnificence.
Pegu overwhelms Abraham, the twenty-eight-year-old Jewish jewel merchant who, in 1598, comes to this city for a year to do business in the stone trade. A place that is synonymous with eternity, where wonders exist that could turn the "Grand Canal black with ink," Pegu proves to be a city of solace for Abraham, providing a stark contrast to the narrow, twisting streets of Venice and the dark, segregated enclaves of the Jewish ghetto.
The action in The Jewel Trader of Pegu
revolves around a series of letters young Abraham writes to his cousin Joseph back in Venice about his impressions of this strange and exotic place where exist the Gujaratis, Malays, Siamese, and all of the other "brown-faced heathens." From his ship, Abraham sees for the first time jungles so thick with towering trees that sunlight rarely pierces their branches, and a landscape that appears like a magical incantation that "an alchemist might chant."
Abraham's first impressions of Pegu are of a grand city of wide streets, a metropolis filled with giant coconut palms that fan out over the concourses.
The avenues glitter with gilded and golden spires, and here the jewel trader comes face to face with the remarkable Peguans: the tattooed men, covered from navel to knee with all kinds of wild and strange creatures, and the women, their faces painted with yellow powder and paste.
A small bald fellow by the name of Maung Win helps acclimate Abraham to this exotic new environment. A man of strong will, Win is one of only four royal jewel brokers. Because he speaks rudimentary Italian, Win is able to help Abraham navigate his first months at the royal trading house.
By selling Indian cloth, the jewel trader can accumulate a fine supply of stones that his clients, the retainers and rivals and their wives and lovers in the noble houses of Venice, will pay handsomely for.
Gradually Abraham finds himself taken with the trade as these jewels are transformed into priceless rubies and sapphires that in Venice will turn to gold and silver. For the first time, Abraham finds himself a part of the world far from the life he has known Venice. However, Abraham doesn't reckon on the strange request from Win that arrives unexpectedly and proves to be so reprehensible to his spirit and religion.
Apparently, it is the custom in Pegu for brides from good families to have a foreigner take their maidenhead, an honor to both. Win tells Abraham that the Genoese perform this service for many, and as a foreigner he is automatically obliged to so this as it is only foreigners who are protected by the good spirits. By sleeping with these girls on their wedding night, Abraham will bring good fortune to the marriage.
Abraham is appalled at what he must do, seeing the act as barbarism. When he meets beautiful young Mya, who has come upriver from a life in the paddy fields to marry a man whom she has never met, and Win asks Abraham to deflower her, events take a dramatic turn. Abraham unexpectedly finds himself attracted to Mya, but the sexual longing and the deep love that follow brings on a host of unexpected complications.
As Mya becomes his sweetheart, Abraham finds himself ever more caught up in the lives of these people even as the political instabilities of the kingdom and the accompanying social upheavals force him to make some difficult choices. As Abraham gradually opens his heart to love, his experiences of this new and foreign place portray a man humbled and slow to pass judgment on those whose legs are tattooed with birds and beasts,
their cheeks scarred with war.
Steeping his novel in both Jewish and Buddhist philosophy and spiritualism, author Jeffrey Hantover brings to life the trials, tribulations and battles of Peguan society and culture in the sixteenth century, also deeply embedding his story within the context of Abraham's journey as he writes his poetic, intensely heartfelt letters back to Joseph.
From meeting King Nandabayin, who proves to be a strange mixture of a man
ruling by command only and possessing a "softness and hardness intertwined like veined marble," to his desire to not place all of the peoples he has met onto some kind of "moral ladder," Abraham learns much about himself.
He comes to realize there are many wonders that lay deep and hidden within his heart.
In the end, it is Mya who eventually offers Abraham hope and a new form of intimacy that cures his soul and brings him forward to the pain and the cost of loving.
It is her presence that provides Abraham sudden unexpected joy in a world of straight roads and twisting paths, where life grows and thrives and the law of God and one's heart are forever pointing in different directions.