Some four years ago, India Currents’ review of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies ended with a description of a character and a hypothesis: “And there is Benjamin Burnham, a living embodiment of the British East India Company, whose character reminds us that all great literary works have contemporary relevance. In condescending to Zachary and the Raja, Burnham uses the Orwellian doublethink of imperialism: “The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom—for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people.” To transform Mr. Burnham into President Bush, simply substitute “oil” for “opium,” “freedom of elections” for “freedom of trade,” and “Iraqi” for “Chinese.” Burnham’s words not only echo present political realities, but also foreshadow subsequent novels in the Ibis trilogy.
The hypothesis in 2008 was less about the idea of a second novel (Ghosh had publicly signaled this intent), but rather that Volume 2 would locate its focus on the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars. For this review of the second installment in the trilogy—A River of Smoke —let us begin with the hypothetical before proceeding to the hypocritical.
What if Mexico was the most potent economic force the world had ever seen? What if part of that power stemmed from the illegal transport of drugs into the United States? And, what if the traffickers of drugs smugly justified the smuggling, herion addiction, and human ruin by boldly proclaiming, “We are merely exercising the God-given right to Free Trade. After all, what good is NAFTA if we can’t bring our ‘agricultural products’ to El Norte?”
You could imagine the uproar up north in America: “How dare the Mexicans push their drugs on our children? And how dare they flaunt our laws? How can people who have sworn allegiance to the Pope behave in such an un-Christian manner?”
Too fabulous you say? Just something that fable-writers and novelists dream up? Perhaps while reading River of Smoke, you might suspend knowledge that you are reading fiction. Unlike Sea of Poppies, which read like a high-flying and sea-faring hallucinogenic dream, River of Smoke is more of a nightmare grounded in the muddy realities of opium-dealing capitalists living unsavory lives in Canton, China. Told with great acuity and with what must have been pain-staking research, this second installment has the voice of an insider—or rather voices of insiders—because Ghosh again privileges multiple points of view over a singular protagonist. The novel weaves together independent stories, creating the feeling of different, but connected, memoirs of a fascinating period of time.
The primary characters’ connections to the compelling friends from Sea of Poppies are loose and at times feel somewhat forced. An all-too-brief first chapter opens this novel through the insightful eyes of Deeti, who does not return in subsequent pages. The link is made to the earlier work which also opened with Deeti’s vision, but it is a tenuous link. The good news is that readers new to the trilogy need not have an emotional attachment to the people populating Sea of Poppies; of course, for those—like this reader—who were enthralled by the adventures of Deeti, Kalua, Serang Ali, Paulette Lambert, Jodu, Raja Neel Ratan Halder, Ah Fatt, Baboo Nobokrishna Panda, James Doughty, and Benjamin Burnham in Volume 1, the author’s loose-tight distancing technique can be off-putting. It would be as if after her engaging debut novel, J. K. Rowling decided to continue the Harry Potter series by de-emphasizing Harry, Hermione, and Ron in favor of going deeper with Ginny Weasley, Lucius Malfoy, and Dobby. Artistically, this may be a way of stretching one’s literary muscles, but from a reader’s point of view, identity with cherished characters is lost.
In this topsy-turvy novel, Ghosh disappoints with the one-sided epistolary relationship between Robin Chinnery, an insouciant painter in search of love, and Paulette Lambert, an orphan who is in search of a rare, perhaps nonexistent, flower called “The Golden Camellia.” The descriptive letters from Robin to Paulette serve to establish the setting and explain the narrative, but don’t have a substantial story within themselves; as such, it becomes a case of telling rather than showing. One never quite cares whether Robin will find his special Friend or whether Paulette will find her special Flower. And Robin’s incessant re-creation of Paulette’s name into a variant of Puggly (Pugglagola, Marquise de Puggladour, Pugglecita, Puggla’zelle, Principessa Puggliogne, Ranee of Pugglipur, and on and on) will have many readers screaming, “Enough with the silly pet names.”
To be fair, there are other characters who are more compelling than Robin and Paulette. Ghosh’s creation of the fey Seth Bahramji Naurozji Modi is a piece of exhilarating and transformative writing. This Parsi trader from Bombay is the owner of the Anahita, a ship hat carries opium from India to China. But more than the illegal haul, the Anahita carries Bahram’s dreams of a complete life. It enables him to shuttle between Bombay, where he timidly lives in the household of his powerful in-laws, and Canton, where he lives as he wants to as the leader of the Indian community. “In Canton, stripped of the multiple wrappings of home, family, community, obligation, and decorum, Bahram had experienced the emergence of a new persona, one that had been previously dormant within him: he had become Barry Moddie, a man who was confident, forceful, gregarious, hospitable, boisterous and enormously successful. But when he made the journey back to Bombay, this other self would go back into its wrappings; Barry would become Bahram again, a quietly devoted husband, living uncomplainingly with the constraints of a large joint family.” This self-made man enables us to observe the growing larger conflict. Just as the British had to choose between power and principle in their imperial quests, Bahram is asked, “Who will you choose, Mr. Moddie? Will you choose the light or the darkness, Ahura Mazda or Ahriman?”
As alive as the conflict between good and evil is, the collective story is slow in picking up speed. All narratives must have a tension that keeps the reader asking, “What’s gonna happen next?” This tension keeps the pages turning. Because River of Smoke gradually builds its conflict, the impatient reader may not wait until page 400 when Ghosh teases, “But still the predicted gale held stiff: the next few days brought instead confusing and apparently directionless cross-winds.” Sadly, such readers will miss the character development, chrestomathic dialogue, and hyper-descriptive language that propels this novel. Two pages later, the hammer falls on the opium-trading foreigners with a proclamation by the historically important Chinese Imperial Commissioner, His Excellency Lin Zexu: “Are you foreigners grateful for the favours shown you by the Emperor? You must then respect our laws and in seeking profit for yourselves you must not do harm to others. How does it happen then that you bring opium to our central land, chousing people out of their substance and involving their very lives in destruction?” After this proclamation (and the evocative use of the word “chousing”), the novel speeds down a river of smoke to its tragic conclusion. Like the hypocrisy of the British, Bahram’s self-centered choice foretells a future that is now history.
While not always moved to distant shores by the novels he reads, RCO consistently appreciates the seemingly opium-fueled creative energy required by authors of these dream states.