The Jewel Trader of Pegu, by Jeffrey Hantover is a well-written novel, almost poetic in its word imagery, told through letters written by the primary narrator, Abraham to his cousin Joseph.
The letters describe Pegu, the exotic city where Abraham arrives at the age of 28, in order to buy jewels for his uncle (in Venice) to sell. In Pegu, Abraham, who is Jewish, can roam free, without restrictions, as he had in Venice, behind the closed walls, of the Jewish ghetto. He doesn’t have to wear his yellow cap, that all male Jews were required to wear, and he can roam the streets without adhering to a curfew. We see Abraham’s inner/emotional character develop and begin to flourish, after being closed off due to the death of his wife, and due to his envrironment in Venice. His new found autonomy also brings him love, a woman named Mya, a love like he has never experienced, a love that opens his heart and senses. Mya’s caring changes him, and allows him to experience emotional freedom. This freedom also requires that Abraham fill Pegu’s cultural and societal expectations of him.
If he fulfills the expectations and cultural traditions, he will then go against his religious beliefs. His two precious items that he brought with him from Venice are a Torah, and a prayerbook. They are the gems of his life, worth more to him than any fine jewel. He is an intensely spiritual person, and Judaism and its practices are a vital part of his life. He prays daily, and he is very observant.
Therein lies the dilemma and the divide, religious beliefs versus cultural beliefs, the mores of both. Within the confines of his new life in Pegu, he tries to justify his subsequent actions, written within the letters sent to his cousin. Assimilation and acceptance are primary factors within the pages, and the issue of religion over secular living. The novel delves into cultural and religious mores, life lived from one extreme to the other, and paints the diversity of the world traders who come to 16th century Pegu in order to gain wealth.
The Jewel Trader of Pegu is predictable, it is not a book that is a page-turner, yet it is a somewhat mesmerizing and mystical novel, filled with lovely imagery of time and place. The novel contrasts two countries, their cultural and religious differences and beliefs, their lifestyles, and their similarities. It has some historical merit within its pages that flow with glimpses of 16th century Southeast Asia. Jeffrey Hantover delivers prose, which is often colorful and vivid.