River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Books Reviews
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Without a doubt, the most important news stories of the last decade have been geopolitical and economic. Even the recession, notwithstanding its clear domestic roots, is related to our involvement in the Middle East and Asia. The war on terror, immigration, the-world-is-flat pronouncements: phenomena like these are all part and parcel, we’re told, of a new era—one not without its birth pangs—called globalization.

These entanglements, while they assume forms and scales never before seen, all have precedents. It should come as no surprise that historical fiction might be an especially apt mode for understanding issues of our day. River of Smoke, the second book in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, ably continues a series that is easily one of the most inspired explorations of global encounters by a 21st-century writer.

Set a year before the First Opium War, the story focuses on the Eastern trade at a time when revolutions (market and industrial) were newly underway in the West. In particular, the novels restore the role of India and the Indian Ocean to the largely forgotten story of the opium trade. Played out primarily in China and dominated by Britain, the enterprise involved a host of other countries, including our own fledgling republic, and scores of migrants the world over.

The Ibis trilogy—named after the ship that sets the entire story into motion—is not relevant simply because of India and China’s recent reemergence as economic powerhouses. In fact, the themes the trilogy situates (and holds to scrutiny) in this chapter of history make the works fascinating and truly notable.

In the first book, Sea of Poppies, what comes through Ghosh’s story most clearly is cosmopolitanism, best illustrated by an unparalleled richness of language. Striving for accuracy and reveling in the wordplay, Ghosh mingles several Indian tongues with the Anglo-Indian diction of the ruling class. If that were not enough, he simulates Laskari, the lingua franca of oceangoing sailors known as lascars. These are, after all, seafaring novels, and as much as Ghosh is subverting a form closely associated with imperial writers like Conrad and Kipling, he’s also paying homage to the worldliness of Moby Dick.

Ghosh, a native of India, spent his childhood all over Asia. An Oxford-trained anthropologist, he’s intimately familiar with the study of cultures and personally acquainted with the exchanges among disparate peoples. Ghosh has long divided his time between the U.S. and India, and now in his mid 50s, he’s pronounced the Ibis trilogy his life’s project. It seems, at first glance, that he’s taken quite the departure from previous work. (Missing is the fiercely postmodern style that characterized earlier novels.) But his concerns—an engagement with history and colonialism, the shifting of borders (and memory), and the gathering of knowledge—as well the politics, remain much the same.

Several characters share the narrative spotlight in Sea of Poppies. We have Deeti, the widow of an opium addict and the driving force behind much of the action. We get Paulette and Jodu, the French and Bengali orphans, respectively, who had been raised like siblings. There’s Neel, an effete young landowner whose fortune hinges precariously on the opium trade. And there’s Zachary Reid, an American mulatto working his way up the Ibis’ ranks.

Through a complex series of bold decisions and many twists of fate, this group invariably ends up on an ill-fated journey from Calcutta to Mauritius. To say that melodrama, betrayal, second chances, villainy and hijinks ensue is to acknowledge that, for all its linguistic fireworks, the first novel’s plot comes as something of a potboiler. The joy in the novel lies in its intricate crafting and meticulous research. It certainly makes for a gratifying, if challenging, read.

While Ghosh punctuates the constant unfolding of events in Sea of Poppies with many signs of ill portent, River of Smoke proceeds at a far slower pace. Readers will notice that Ghosh chooses not to directly continue the plot from the first book, which ends on quite the cliffhanger, but charts a more circuitous route. Uncertainties surrounding the characters’ futures resolve only partially, and over time. Moreover, the Ibis’ most familiar faces recede into the background for much of the novel. Deeti, the chief protagonist in Sea of Poppies, gets her due in a lyrical, nonlinear first chapter. Replacing her is Bahramji Naurozji Modi, a Parsi businessman from Western India who stands at the center of River of Smoke.

Through the book’s many lengthy and meandering disquisitions on the opium trade, botany and art, Ghosh sustains an ominous tone, even after climactic events. The book moves slowly, if anxiously, and in this way the novel’s structure mimics the flow of traffic on the Pearl River at the port of Canton, the setting (and namesake) for most of River of Smoke. It’s the fall of 1838. The Chinese emperor has newly enforced the longstanding (and long-ignored) ban on opium. The situation in Fanqui-town, the foreigners’ enclave, grows volatile.

With trade at a standstill, Bahram has much time to reflect on his life and career. He entered the business in his early twenties, becoming one of the most successful Indian opium traders. He’d originally hoped simply to prove himself to his in-laws—and perhaps gain some distance from them—but the opium trade has offered him far more than that, providing glimpses of the life he has always wanted. A shrewd businessman, Bahram typically comes out ahead in spite of risks, but when the narrative finds him, he has put everything on the line at this particularly tenuous, inauspicious moment. As an Indian, Bahram finds himself caught between East and West in more ways than one, and his position provides a unique vantage point to the various conflicts brewing in Canton.

The secondary storyline in River of Smoke has to do with botany, in particular the search for camellias. The French orphan Paulette embarks on this quest with a British plant-hunter and gardener, though given the heightened restrictions on foreigners in this tense period, the actual task falls to Robin Chinnery, an eccentric friend of Paulette’s from childhood. In one sense, this plot provides a thematic inversion of the opium trade. In one story line, outsiders force something on China. The other has outsiders attempting to extract something from China. Each effort ultimately features a clear profit motive, a signature of many characters in the trilogy and an obvious foreshadowing of our current globalized, commercialized motivations.

Paulette may have returned for a supporting role in River of Smoke but, waylaid outside Canton, she spends most of this novel on the sidelines. We learn of her goings-on in part and indirectly, through an epistolary exchange with Robin, whose longwinded and comical letters begin several chapters. Neel is the only other character to reappear from Sea of Poppies and command much space. The once-regal landowner has escaped a prison sentence in Mauritius and become a munshi, or scribe, in Bahram’s employ, serving up the reader still another angle on the affairs of Canton.

Though River of Smoke brings a new focus and new faces, Ghosh does not lose sight of his big themes. The cosmopolitanism he celebrates in Sea of Poppies receives due treatment here too, and the peoples, languages, and foods proliferate as he shifts action from island to island. Note the Clothes-Market of Singapore, which appears geographically and, in the book, chronologically between Mauritius and Canton:

[F]or where else could a woman exchange a Khmer sampot for a Bilaan jacket? Where else could a fisherman trade a sarong for a coattee, or a conical rain-hat for a Balinese cap? Where else could a man go, clothed in nothing but a loincloth, and walk away in a whalebone corset and silk slippers?

Sounds free and easy, right? For characters of mixed parentage, who epitomize both the hope of exchange and its painful social realities, it’s generally not. Take Zachary Reid, a freedman who must conceal his background and observe imperial power dynamics. Or Ah Fatt, the illegitimate son of Bahram and a Cantonese boat-woman, who is yet another character dangling between India and China. The connection Ah Fatt finds between the two—opium—can only briefly provide solace before repeatedly threatening his life.

One character, the half-Armenian, half-Egyptian Zadig Karabedian, has more success managing his identities and shifting between cultures than anyone else. He is the respectful outsider, who takes care to learn languages, obey certain norms and thus stay out of trouble. In this regard, he’s most unlike the coarse opium traders from Britain, and far more sensitive to the dictates of his heart than his friend and confidant Bahram.

Zadig also represents the other major issue at the heart of River of Smoke: the gospel of free trade. One of the few characters who does not deal in opium, he earns his keep as a watchmaker. While he profits substantially less, he assumes less risk and retains a clean conscience. The other traders assert the “morality” of free trade despite the known destructiveness of opium; somehow, they see no conflict, no hypocrisy. Zadig shows that while trade has brought far-flung people together, the quality of cultural exchange ultimately rests on respect—and absence of force.

On New Year’s Day, Zadig goes to Canton’s Sea-Calming Tower, from which he points out the port city’s landmarks to a young friend and regales him with their legendary, increasingly outlandish, origin stories. The Pearl River, for example, is so named because a foreign jewel merchant—“whether he was an Arab or an Armenian or a Hindusthani no one knows”—clumsily dropped his best pearl into the river. “Now you’ve seen how muddy that water is? How quickly things disappear? Most things maybe, but not that pearl. It lay at the bottom, glowing like a lantern, and slowly growing larger until it grew into an island.” The listener is incredulous that Indians—or anyone else—might have played such a role in Canton’s development. Canton, Zadig responds, had not always kept outsiders at bay: That only happened when European traders began building forts on the outskirts.

Forcing “freedom” on others is but one irony Ghosh highlights. For the market to be blind, he seems to suggest, traders must make themselves blind to hypocrisy. Trade brings great potential for cosmopolitanism, and this potential stands at its highest when the terms are mutual. But the legacy of imperialism also means business carries the power to harm and alienate. Ghosh reminds us of this truth with Bahram’s appraisal of our own current lingua franca of globalization: “Really, there was no language like English for turning lies into legalisms.”

Zack Shlachter is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.

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