The years of rice and salt
For a 700+ page book, I really should have a lot to say – but I’m afraid I don’t, and there are 2 main reasons for that: I know very little (close to nothing, really) about Buddhist or Islamic cultures and I didn’t like the book all that much. The premise is fascinating: what if the Judeo-Christian culture would disappear; how would the world look and develop in its absence? It’s a fertile ground for all sorts of speculation and Mr. Robinson imagines a world where Christians are nearly wiped out by the plague in the 1400s and where the major civilizations are Chinese and Arabic, with Indian and Amerindian states completing a foursome of influence and power. Throughout 10 chapters we follow a jāti in 10 reincarnations, in various historical moments and geographic locations. The final part of each chapter is dedicated to the reunion in Bardo, with a short account of how each life went. In time, the members of the jāti become closer and closer – not going to far as to recognize each other in their lives on Earth, but feeling drawn towards one another nonetheless. I guess I never thought about it all that much before, but reincarnation is a really comforting concept – to know (or to believe, rather) that this isn’t all there is, that even for missed opportunities and wasted lives you get a second (or third, fourth…) chance to get it right…
But I digress.
This alternative history comes with an alternative geography, which you can check out below, on the map shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia:
The world goes through much of the same major events – just with different players and outcomes: the discovery of the New World by the Chinese; its colonization by both Arabs & Chinese leaving room for the native populations (Haudenosaunee) to survive, prosper and produce the most democratic form of government; industrialization taking place in Samarqand first, than in Travancore (Southern India); a Long War (over 60 years) that replaces the 2 world wars being fought between Islam and China (and its allies); modern science and the birth of feminism (echoing a post-war Europe) in Nsara (Firanja) and finally tackling current issues such as globalization, overpopulation, global warming etc. All these, while similar in essence to the real thing, are tinged with the prescriptions of the dominant Muslim and Buddhist religions.
The various epochs and settings are seen through the eyes of kings as well as beggar monks, of lowly soldiers, of oppressed women, of illuminated thinkers and scientists, of artists, sailors and even children. This kind of diversity in viewpoints makes for a pretty complete image of a world that could have been.
Like I said before, it’s a brilliant idea – my biggest issue is the…packaging? Not the actual cover😀 , but the narrative style and approach which are unremarkable at best and just plain boring at worst. I’m really not the one to judge here, but, as a reader, that’s what kept me from making much progress with the book. Somehow, in my mind, in someone else’s hands, this could have been a more exciting experience.