Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews John Mateer

By | 8 September 2016

Within Hare’s slavery, under intense pacification and blighted by its shaping of her consciousness, Rosie shows what initiative her condition allows by using her good behaviour as a means for a sliver of freedom. It allows her to travel the short distance to another island then occupied by Clunies-Ross, where she takes pleasure in hearing different languages, happily chatting in Portuguese with the cook, an experience which attaches itself to her nostalgic state of mind and her longing for return:

To Rosie, talking with Joao Antonio was like talking with an uncle, like talking with someone who remembered things she had forgotten but needed to know. Joao told her how to cook certain Malaccan dishes, and he could remember what the streets and markets of that old city were like. With him she could speak her Portuguese, and when he told her that it was not really Portuguese, not like the language that was spoken in great Lisbon, he would wink, knowing that she should then ask him about his Malacca, the faraway city of Lisbon.

The second book in Ghosh’s trilogy, River of Smoke, depicts a wild, almost inaccessible place in Mauritius. The remarkably resilient Deeti moves across the trilogy, from a childhood village where art is valued, to slavery, to an abusive husband, a widowed escapee
threatened with sati by her in-laws, but rescued by her lover, to becoming an indentured labourer in Mauritius, and finally, a grand matriarch who draws her story so it can be told for generations to come:

Deeti’s shrine was hidden in a cliff, in a far corner of Mauritius, where the island’s eastern and southern shoreline collide to form the wind-swept dome of the Morne Brabant. The site was a geological anomaly—a cave within a spur of limestone, hollowed out by wind and water—and there was nothing like it anywhere else on the mountain … (When she had first found the cave) she discovered that some parts of the chalky walls had been drawn upon with bits of charcoal; some of the marks looked like stick figures, made by children. When the raging of the wind made (her son) Girin howl in fear, it was these older images that gave Deeti the idea of drawing upon the wall.

Amitav Ghosh, through his voluminous research and rich imagination has presented to his readers a compelling fictional account of the opium trade and the opium wars in China. In The Quiet Slave, John Mateer has presented through the voice of Rosie what had been a sketchy, basically unknown history. Mateer illustrates why the Southeast Asian archipelago can be a writer’s dream, with tantalising bits of narrative emerging from the unknown and, as in Ghosh’s work, with records that are potent enough to foster speculation. When, at the end of Mateer’s account, Alexander Hare finally abandons his slaves, Rosie watches as their one hope of rescue sails away into the ocean. While the people around her continue to pray, their voices disappear, in a way, into history: ‘Their voices were a murmuring, like the beach when nobody is there.’

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