The Jewel Trader of Pegu
In the 1590s, news reached Italy of the source of Asia’s outstanding jewels. Sailors’ tales were backed by samples, and so Abraham, a dutiful and good nephew, is sent by his uncle on the long and difficult journey from Venice to trade for the jewels that will make their family fortune. And there begins the tale of Abraham and what happens to him in Pegu, a Burmese kingdom noted for its rubies, sapphires, and spinels. Pegu, ruled by the usual foolish autocratic king, is now at war with its neighbours, and sold its jewels to foreigners to keep the king in the kind of excessive luxury he preferred.
Abraham is sombre and solemn. Born in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, losing his parents to the plague when a babe, and his wife and child during the child’s birth, he has become morose, inward-looking and philosophical. On the journey and in Pegu he writes long letters to his cousin, Joseph, and this is how we read his story, through those letters. For him Pegu is freedom. No longer forced to live in the Jews’ Ghetto, wear the yellow hat or star, and be home by sunset, he revels in the vivid and very different tropical city life. All traders are strangers and foreigners, and Abraham is just one more, not marked out for his religion. But then he finds that he is expected to initiate selected brides on their wedding night, a blow to this devout man. From that tangle of conscience and duty comes a most unlikely love.
This is a first novel of merit, a quiet and thoughtful read about different kinds of freedoms, about prejudice and about finding oneself, about culture shock and cultural differences. Watching Abraham open out like a flower in the society of Pegu, we too gain insights into what people can become. A book to reread and cherish.