Saturday, April 14, 2012

Amitav Ghosh's "River of Smoke" (Steak Knives?)

I keep returning to Amitav Ghosh, and he never disappoints.  While nothing since 'In An Antique Land' 12 odd years ago has paralleled its enjoyment, River of Smoke was as immersive and impressive a book as I've read in some time.

This second installment in Ghosh's intended Ibis Trilogy had me anxious from the outset. There's a tension in moving through long-narrative fare, tracking many characters over extended time, geography and divergent plot lines.  You get nestled comfortably into the personalities and direction, only to have the next installment re-shuffle the deck.  I was eager to settle back in.  While the focus and shift in characters was choppy and unclear at first*, he eventually settles into his new narrative paths without leaving the rich seam of (re-cast) continuity behind.

The Ibis Trilogy traces out different facets and of the 19th C. opium trade, with Canton as the locus of this installment (moving away from Bombay and India as the setting for Sea of Poppies, where the opium is produced and shipped out).  Gateway to all international exchange with China, it becomes the blockade to run for opium merchants/smugglers.  The characters all experience the outbreak of the first Opium War from different perspectives, interests and levels of intimacy, providing a tense and rich historical backdrop for the tale.  This and the broad cast of characters from far flung corners of the earth also act as reminders of how advanced globalization was even at this time, and the place of the opium trade in nurturing and accelerating this process.

19th C. Canton, with what I assume to be Fanqui town (based on the various flags) in the distance beyond the harbour.  This foreign enclave was where the non-Chinese merchants were housed, denied access to much of the rest of the city.
Ghosh's ability to map his story over the real history of this period creates a gratifying read on both levels.  The context of the time is quite an indictment of Western trade practices and relativism.  China, completely uninterested in any Western goods or manufactures, is soaking up cash selling tea and other exotic necessities flowing in the other direction.  To correct this colossal trade deficit, the British and other empires trafficked in opium, a great product for repeat business.   While they found an eager market for the drug among many Chinese, the local government was far less enthusiastic about the toll it was taking on the people, and the now reversed flow of gold leaving their shores for London and elsewhere.  China demands a stop to the smuggling, and Western merchants/dealers essentially thumb their noses in return, citing the irreproachable principles of free trade to justify their status as unwelcome pushers.

Too much of this is bad news for China.
Without diving too deeply into a plot recount, much of the focus of River of Smoke is on Indian trader Bahram Modi, with a boatload of opium he's unable to land and sell in the face of growing Chinese resentment and enforcement.  Taking a large gamble with promise of immense reward, if he's unable to move his cargo, he will be completely ruined.  The character's long love affair with Canton brings depth and pause to the larger debate around opium trafficking without minimizing it.  We feel Modi's urgency and desperation grow as the political tensions increase, and it's hard not to empathize with his various predicaments, both self-inflicted and imposed.  It was this plot thread that held the most appeal for me, pulling me along throughout the book.

I'm anxious to see the third installment, of course.  Ultimately, it's how this grand narrative rounds out that will determine the full place of this second volume, and it's potential for greatness.  Pending resolution to the trilogy, this fine volume can only rate a steak knives.

The author.
* I had to revisit a wiki summary of the plot for Sea of Poppies" to refresh my memory, as it had been months since reading it, and the cast and story lines are thick.

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