River of Smoke — Amitav Ghosh

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River of Smoke opens in something of a muddle and it takes a while to get into the story. Had I not committed to finishing the books I start each day, I might have abandoned it at several points. But I’m glad I didn’t. Amitav Ghosh is a modern-day Dickens, writing dense, visual depictions of a nineteenth-century world with Dickensian conventions that give the story a deeper authenticity, if not fluidity. Five hundred seventeen really, really packed pages is not a smart choice for a daily read—I’m not a speed reader so it took forever–but it was time spent in a convincingly rendered world.

The novel is the second in a trilogy detailing the time of the opium trade with China. Sea of Poppies, book one, apparently sketches the lives of compelling characters in India where the British have become poppy farmers to produce the export that enriches them in China. River of Smoke takes up where the first book leaves off but it isn’t a smooth transition. A character from book one, Deeti, who is prominent in the opening chapters of book two, just disappears along with her story and we are cast adrift in a different tale of ships in a storm, holds awash in opium sludge, and Indian Parsi merchants gambling fortunes on a single boatload of the contraband drug, all accounts heavily salted with local patois.

Language is both Ghosh’s ace and an obstacle to entry into the book. The opening chapters are stuffed with so much pidgin, patois and whatever that I had no idea what was going on and began to get a little testy at my exclusion from the story for the sake of show-off linguistic mastery. But the Babel that punctuates the entire book is actually a valuable device to establish the individual characters, contrasting cultures, and mixed-race/mixed-class society in old Canton, the epicenter of the opium trade. I got past the idioms and pidgin and learned to use some of the linguistic constructs to tell who was speaking, and to whom.

Three ships limp into Canton harbor after the storm, the Anahita, Bahram Modi’s exquisite three-masted opium hauler, The Redruth, a two-masted brig collecting specimens for the lucrative botanical trade, and the Ibis, a schooner carrying indentured servants from India to the Far East. Descriptions of the storm and the ships are detailed and the research in this and every aspect of the novel is prodigious. Modi, the opium trader, is linked intimately to China, India and the British traders so his story is an illuminating thread to follow through the book.

Ghosh has written a dissertation on the economics of opium, Chinese horticulture, the sights and sounds of the developing ports of Canton (now Guangzhou), Macau and Hong Kong (a near-deserted island in 1838 when the Opium Wars began). Modi, the Parsi trader, has a gourmand’s appreciation for a good meal in any language and he embraces China, its wonders, and one of its women with enthusiasm. His illegitimate son makes a cameo appearance in the book but I spent a lot of time wondering when Ah Fat, the son, would turn up again as he seemed important but faded out pretty quickly.

The foreign traders’ enclave in Canton is painted meticulously as is the glib insistence on Free Trade, a holy writ to the opium importers who look suspiciously like the unbridled and unprincipled capitalists amassing stupendous wealth through exploitation in our own time. Brutality abounds—some deaths are flatly announced and nuanced later; some gruesome threats are foretold explicitly. People and their motives are described minutely and that helps in sorting out the large cast of characters. Set-pieces, like an interview with the exiled Napoleon on St. Helena, are colorful and convincing. One device, the lengthy, stylized letters written by a gay artist to his childhood friend, succeeds in delivering a boatload of information about the crisis in Canton as the stand-off over opium smuggling unfolds. But the correspondence is jam-packed, pages-long and obvious in its didactic intent—that observation does pull you out of the book and remind you of a history lesson.  

Ghosh is a good storyteller—I did fall under the sway of the book and was happy I had resisted the urge to set it aside. River of Smoke—the name refers to China’s Pearl River that carried the ships full of raw opium to Canton and upriver to the interior—is history made vivid and unforgettable. It’s too much to swallow in one big gulp. But, despite my detachment from the characters, who arouse more curiosity than empathy, I wanted to find out what happens. I did learn a lot about a place I have only visited briefly and an era I knew only by name. I’m still not sure about the disappearing characters but suspect they have bigger roles in book one and the concluding volume.

One definite takeaway from River of Smoke: next time I read a book by Amitav Ghosh, I’ll give myself a week to finish it.           

 River of Smoke: A Novel  Amitav Ghosh | Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2011

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