John Keay is in no doubt as to the importance of the collection of ‘desiccated barks, shrivelled berries, knobbly roots, dead buds, crumpled membranes, sticky gums and old fruit stones’ that are integral to his subject, because it was thanks to such substances that ‘man first acquired a comprehensive understanding of the geography of this planet’. This knowledge was gained, of course, in the pursuit of trade in these rare commodities, ‘none of them exactly indispensable and most of them quite irrelevant to the generality of mankind’. It is this paradox that is central to Keay’s typically droll and beautifully wrought book: the idea that something so fundamentally important should appear so astonishingly trivial.
The Spice Route: A History is published hot on the heels of Mad About the Mekong, the author’s excellent investigation into French colonial expansion in Indo-China in the nineteenth century. In his story of spice, Keay once