River of Smoke
by Amitav Ghosh
“(...) an instance when Fate had conspired with Nature to give them a sign that theirs was no ordinary journey.” ― Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke
This is the second novel in a planned trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, set in the late 1830s, on the eve of the first opium war between Britain and China. I read the first, Sea of Poppies, three years ago and enjoyed Amitav's deft use of language as he wove several tales set in the heat of the north Indian plains where the poppies grew; processed in the British opium factories and stored in the wharves of the Hooghly River. River of Smoke continues the story moving the center of the action from Calcutta to the Chinese port-city of Canton (today's Guangzhou).
The story is Dickensian in its sweep of characters who represent different classes and interests that intermingle on the edge of China each linked together by the power of Opium. The book is linked to the first novel by the Ibis, a former slave ship carrying convicts and indentured workers to Mauritius. A storm overtakes the Ibis and the Anahita, an opium carrier out of Bombay owned by Bahram, a Parsi merchant, and the Redruth, outfitted by a Cornish plantsman for botanical exploration. The storm links the destinies of the characters on these three ships. The story is filled with details about the place and time in which you, as reader, are immersed by this novel so much so that you sometimes feel that you are present in Canton, or any of the many other places that Ghosh imagines. While the book focuses on three primary ships and their clan the central characters represent high- and low-life intermingling . Through it all Ghosh conjures up a thrilling sense of place.
Suspense builds as the interests of the British, Indian and other foreign opium traders collide with growing resistance from the Chinese rulers. The conflict is brought to a climax by the appointment of a new commissioner by the Emperor whose primary aim is to put a stop to the quantities of ruinous opium being smuggled into the country. Neither side has completely clean hands and opium, like other drugs in our own era, seemed to have an irresistible power. As Bahram told Napoleon (yes, he and his aide meet the General), opium was like the wind or the tides: "A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him--his friends, his family, his servants--by which he must be judges." (p 166) In the end, Bahram finds himself wanting.
Canton in the first half of the nineteenth century was one center of globalism of the age. Ghosh's use of language continues to impress the reader as it spans English, Hindi, Parsi, Malay, and Chinese; perhaps at times it becomes overwhelming. Nonetheless the stories and characters who populate them entrance the reader. The metaphors and allusions reach from the West to the East . At one point near the middle of the book there is a reference to Gericault's masterpiece, "The Raft of the Medusa". The plight of these castaways strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for the players in the Opium trade as the events in the book take their toll as the story ends.
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