2007, 262 p & notes
In 1912 it was said that when the real story of Alexander Malcolm Jacob was written, it would be invested with more wonder and mystery than “even in our strangest dreams we never imagined it could possess.”(p.247)
Well, it took a hundred years, but in this book John Zubrzycki has probably got as close to the “real” story as anyone else is likely to do. Mr Jacob – diamond merchant, magician and spy – was happy to embroider and dissemble about his actual origins, but for the civil servants of the British Raj who escaped to the Indian hills of Simla to escape the summer heat, Mr Jacob was a celebrity. His shop was full of gems, curiosities and wonders, he lived in a opulent mansion ‘Belvedere’ and he was sought out for his magic and mystical skills and political contacts. He appeared in multiple newspaper articles, essays, books and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (albeit, not under his own name but as Lurgan Sahib). He dealt with Indian princes and maneuvered the shadow world of British spies operating in the Far East, and yet he ended up largely impoverished, living on a rather miserly pension before his death in 1921 aged 71.
Many rumours spread about his origins – Jewish? Greek? Polish? Italian? – but Zubrzycki has tracked his birthplace down to a small town in Turkey, near the Syrian border. He was actually Catholic, but in a world obsessed with spiritualism, he attracted Theosophists and the adherents of Madame Blavatsky. He arrived in Bombay in 1865 penniless, and within 12 years had achieved celebrity status. His greatest, and as it turned out, most damaging challenge was to sell the Imperial diamond, the largest brilliant-cut diamond in the world, to Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad in 1891. Fabulously wealthy and opium-addicted, the Nizam liked gems, and Jacob undertook to bring him the diamond from Europe on approval, hoping to make a hefty profit for his efforts. But the sale ended up in court and here, if perhaps anywhere, Zubryzycki got closest to discovering what may be the truth about Alexander Jacob.
The book is framed as the author’s search for the ‘real’ Mr Jacob, and the author strolls onto the page quite frequently as he hunts for locations, searches for documents and seeks an elusive photograph of him. It certainly seems as if Mr Jacob is reaching out from the grave, sometimes thwarting some of his efforts (as in when he finally tracked down Mr Jacob’s grave only to find that it had just been destroyed), and permitting “just in time” discoveries at other times (as when he found the decrepit Belvedere mansion, just before its demolition). In this case, Australian readers benefit from the six year lag between the book’s publication in 2011 and its recent release through Transit Press in Australia, as in the meantime he found the much-sought-after photo to add a physical presence to such an elusive subject. The author has an engaging style, whipping up interest at the start of each chapter, and if he digresses it’s because they’re such interesting alleyways into which he is being drawn.
We are taken on a fascinating journey into an India of the scarcely-imaginable wealth of its Indian Princes and the rather disdainful manipulation of British colonial politics. There is a fluidity in Mr Jacob’s life as he defies national definitions and flits in the shadows of spies and diplomats. There’s little attempt- and I dare say, little scope- for any exploration of Mr Jacob’s personal life, and in this he is just as slippery and elusive as in his professional life. It’s a rattling good yarn, as Mr Jacob knew himself in his various retellings and embellishments, and you can’t help but be imbued with Zubryzycki’s passion for such an enigmatic character.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: review copy from Transit Lounge Publishing.