Archive for June, 2010

Chopin’s The Awakening

June 17, 2010

This book was recommended me as an early, non-pretentious feminist work. The Awakening definitely lives-up to this description in several major respects. Chopin develops strong female characters and explores a woman’s lack of satisfaction with contemporary society without being demeaning. I would recommend the work for those interested in the history of feminist writing and portrayals of women. However, as a story in and of itself, the plot leaves something to be desired, especially to modern eyes. Saying more would give away too much, but overall the portrayal of a woman who’s life consists of men, children, society, and little else, hardly spoke to me.

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In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh

June 11, 2010

The frame story of In an Antique Land features a young Amitav doing research in Egypt, particularly on the lives of the 12th century Jewish trader Ben Yiju who winds up on the Malabar coast and his Indian slave Bomma. Ghosh weaves together their stories participating in the Indian Ocean trade networks of 800 years ago and his experiences living in rural Egypt in the 20th century. The end result is a compelling narrative that moves freely between worlds far apart in time and space but that consistently investigates the issues of foreignness, culture, and change in one’s life.

Ghosh devotes most of the book to his own experiences living in a small Egyptian village while conducting his research. Even for those not particularly interested in this specific topic, Ghosh has a way of describing the characters he meets that goes beyond the immediate circumstances and highlights more universal human struggles. He focuses a lot on development, opportunities abroad, traditional values, and cross-cultural (mis)understandings. These sections of the book also have an edge of travel narrative to them so that they are filled with delightful details and dense descriptions.

My favorite parts of In an Antique Land are when Ghosh slips into the 12th century trade networks of Ben Yiju and his cohort. He does something in-between reconstructing and reimagining Ben Yiju and Bomma’s stories, as he traces the pair’s travels between the Middle East and India while relating what it known of their personal and public lives. In these retellings, Ghosh offers a fantastic model for how to treat a subject usually left to dry, impersonal scholarship in a way that speaks to a larger audience. His research on Bin Yiju and Bomma appears to be real and the back of his book is full of footnotes to primary and secondary sources. Yet in the book itself he makes their stories come alive, almost thriving on what we don’t know about them that gives him room to speculate and offer multiple courses for the narrative to take.

The main source of information for Ghosh’s investigation of Ben Yiju and Bomma is itself quite fascinating and worth mentioning here—the Ben Ezra documents. Ben Ezra is a synagogue in Cairo that had geniza, i.e. a space for people to dispose of paper documents and books they no longer needed. Unlike most synagogues, however, Ben Ezra somehow never got around to burning the documents, instead allowing them to pile up for centuries, creating the greatest storehouse of medieval documents in Egypt. Ghosh spins his tale of Ben Yiju and Bomma based on stray documents recovered from this synagogue that are now scattered around the world. Going another step beyond straight-up scholarship, Ghosh also reflects on the history of Ben Ezra itself and how its documents were dispersed across and West, thus incorporating the source of his story, like himself and his own travels, into one diverse tale.