Amitav Ghosh, River of smoke (Review for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize, 2011)
I’m rather sorry that I haven’t read Amitav Ghosh‘s Sea of poppies because, while River of smoke does work on its own, I think my experience would have been richer had I read the beginning of the trilogy. This shouldn’t affect its Man Asian Literary Prize chances, but you never know.
I loved that the book starts in the gorgeous island of Mauritius which I visited for a couple of weeks in 2004. Pamplemousses Botanical Garden was one of the first sights we visited. It is full of wonderful exotic plants, particularly spices, that we hadn’t seen before. This sounds a bit nostalgic but it is relevant to a book that is, as the artist Robin Chinnery writes, about “flowers and opium, opium and flowers”.
Let me explain. The story centres on three boats – the Ibis, the Anahita and the Redruth. The first two are involved in the opium trade – one English owned, one Indian owned – while the Redruth is involved in plant collecting and trading. The novel is primarily set in Canton in the lead up to the first Opium War of 1839-1842. At the time of the novel, the Chinese are in the process of trying to ban the opium trade and consequently have forbidden foreign ships to enter the port. The result is that the traders are all in Fanqui-town (Canton’s foreign enclave) waiting for the situation to resolve in their favour, while their boats are moored in the Hong Kong-Macau area. The novel reminded me a little of Dickens, not just because of its length but also because of its large cast of characters, its plot encompassing nefarious deeds, conspiracies and adventures, the comic relief, and its socio-political themes. There is also colourful language, satire and irony. Of course, Ghosh is writing historically while Dickens was exploring his own place and time, but that’s a minor difference.
The story is told from two main points of view. One is a traditional third person story of the opium traders, seen mainly (but not only) through the life (and eyes) of the Indian opium trader, Bahram Modi. The other combines the opium story with the plant story, through letters written from a young gay artist in Fanqui-town to his botanist friend, Paulette and her employer Mr Fitcher, on Redruth. He, Robin Chinnery, describes the hunt for the elusive golden camellia, while also providing a (semi)outsider’s perspective on the unfolding events in the opium trade crisis. I enjoyed Robin’s generally cheery voice and his colourful descriptions of life in Fanqui-town but I wonder whether the novel needed this extra layer to provide this added perspective? Paulette, the recipient of his letters, is largely silent and seems to add little to the narrative.
When a novelist writes a work of historical fiction, I wonder s/he has chosen to set a story in a past time – and look to see whether there is some application to the story in the novelist’s own time. In this case there is, for Ghosh’s target is the complexities of international trade, and the hypocrisies and fallacies that are still evident in the notion of “free trade”. He shows that “free trade” is rarely free or equal to all parties. The opium trade is perfect for this with its additional moral problem involving trading (or is it smuggling – the line is a fine one) a product that is injurious and that was, in fact, banned in England. Towards the end of the novel, the traders discuss their response to the Chinese Commissioner Lin’s demand that they give up their opium cargoes. The American Charles King appeals to their “better” natures:
‘ … Are you not aware that with every shipment you are condemning hundreds, maybe thousands of people to death? Do you see nothing monstrous in your actions?’
‘No, sir,’ answered Mr Burnham coolly. ‘Because it is not my hand that passes sentence upon those who choose the indulgence of opium. It is the work of another, invisible, omnipotent: it is the hand of freedom, of the market, of the spirit of liberty itself, which is none other than the breath of God’.
Guess who wins the argument?
The most interesting character in the book is Bahram, the Indian opium trader who is only just accepted by the British traders. He is a complex character whose nature, motivations and flaws we come to know well. His flaws as a husband, father and businessman are many, but so are his strengths as an employer and friend. We feel for him as he has to make a difficult decision and wish he were a little braver, a little wiser. He is testament to Ghosh’s ability to draw a flawed but sympathetic character.
A major pleasure in the book is the writing. Ghosh is a versatile writer who can slip from the breezy, colloquial vernacular of Robin to the formal tones of the English merchants. His grasp of the period is breathtaking. I gave up “Googling” the unfamiliar words and just let them flow over me, because the context made them clear:
On reaching the enclave the lascars and lime-juicers had gone, as was their custom, straight to the shamshoo-shacks of Hog Lane, so as to get scammered as quickly as possible.
In other words, as soon as they got off the boats, the sailors went to the pubs and got drunk (by drinking too much “stagger juice”).
There were, though, occasional lapses into didacticism. They were rare but they jarred when they occurred. An example is a little aside describing the Spanish silver dollar. Mostly, though, Ghosh does show rather than tell and the novel is full of colourful detail about food and dining, art, plants, boats and business.
River of smoke is not a perfect novel but is a great read – for its description of a fascinating period in history, for its lively portrayal of characters you would recognise today, and for its exploration of issues (still) relevant now. My overall assessment? Read it.
For reviews by other team members, please see my Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 page.
River of smoke
London: John Murray, 2011