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Book Review: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

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Of all the evils done under the guise of “Free Trade,” some of the most insidious were those carried out by the unofficial mercantile arm of the British Empire, The East India Tea Company. Beneath that seemingly innocuous banner more acts of piracy, looting and pillaging were carried out than by anybody sailing under the Skull & Crossbones.Yet perhaps the worst crime that can be laid at their feet was the development and propagation of the opium trade. In spite of stereotypes depicting Chinese as nefarious purveyors of the drug, it was not native to their land; instead, it was deliberately introduced to the country by English merchants. Yet it wasn’t just the Chinese effected by this practice, but those in the British colonies of India and its neighbours — what is now Afghanistan, for example — where the poppies from which opium is made were grown who suffered, and still suffer today, from the repercussions of this trade.

For not only were farmers convinced to turn over acres of valuable agricultural land to the cultivation of poppies — at who knows what long term cost to the land’s potential for other crops — countless others were convinced to tie their lives to the process of manufacturing and selling opium. From those who worked the harvest all the way up to merchant families who invested in opium in the hopes of reaping profits by selling it in China, every level of society in British South East Asia became ensnared in the opium trade. in spite of the fact THAT possession and selling of opium were both illegal in China, there were enormous profits to be made by those willing to make the outlay required to bribe officials, pay smugglers and purchase the product.

However, the Chinese governments weren’t about to let a small group of foreign merchants reap enormous profits by enslaving their people to drugs without a fight. In the late 1830’s the emperor finally decided enough was enough and decided to act against the opium trade in his country and in doing so precipitated what has become known as the “Opium Wars.” Crying their rights to “Free Trade” were being curtailed by a foreign government, British merchants whose cargos were forcibly impounded backed up their demands for restitution with the guns of the Royal Navy. It is into this tumultuous period of history that we are tossed in Amitav Ghosh’s latest release, River Of Smoke, the second book of his Ibis Trilogy, (Sea Of Poppies was the first book) which will be published by Penguin Canada on Tuesday September 27 2011. While only one of the four story lines we follow through the course of the book deals directly with the opium trade, as all four centre around China, and specifically the section of the city of Canton where foreigners are allowed to dwell and the major trading houses have set up shop, each of the characters we meet are impacted by the events of the day.

Like a wonderful multicoloured tapestry Ghosh has woven a story made up of a series of vibrant threads made from a multitude of materials. The tale which unfolds before us is another chapter in the history of a vast multicultural and multiethnic family whose progenitors seem to be a mix of the mix-blood illegitimate children of Europeans, former indentured servants and escaped convicts from European colonies in South East Asia and points further East. Now settled in Mauritius, La Fami Colver (they speak a strange mix of Creole, Hindu and pidgin ((which means trader)) English from China) have kept a pictorial record of how the lives of its founders were bound together by fate, and in particular a hurricane in September of 1838 that struck three boats: the Ibis carrying convicts and indentured servants from Calcutta to Mauritius, the Anahita carrying a cargo of opium from India to Canton and the Redruth sailing from Cornwall to China in search of rare botanical specimens.

While both the Ibis and the Redruth carry those who would end up being part of the La Fami, it’s the Anahita, its cargo and the merchant whose fortunes are riding upon the opium in its hold who end up at the centre of the story. Bahramji Naurozji Modi had been born to a poor rural family, but through a strange twist of fortune ended up marrying into one of Bombay’s wealthiest shipbuilding families. It was he who convinced his father-in-law to begin using the ships they built for trading ventures. As none of the other family members had the slightest inclination to travel — or interest in trade, for that matter — it was Bahram who took care of everything. He found the investors to pay for the opium his boat carried, escorted it to China, found the buyers and was the face of the family business in the foreigners enclave in Canton.

It’s mainly through Bahram’s eyes we watch the beginnings of what will become known as the opium wars. However Ghosh doesn’t limit us to the one perspective as the events overtake all foreigners even if they have nothing directly to do with the opium trade. Neel, a young wealthy man convicted of embezzlement had escaped from the Ibis along with Bahram’s illegitimate half Chinese son Ah Fat, and when both men turn up in Singapore at the same time the Anahita shows up, Ah Fat arranges for his friend to be hired as his father’s personal secretary. Those on board the Redruth are forced to rely upon the letters of a friend for information on both goings on in Canton and the location of a rare plant they hope to take back to England. One of the ways the Chinese  attempted to curtail the opium trade was by allowing fewer and fewer foreigners to travel in their territory. Only people with special permits were allowed to travel up the river from Hong Kong to Canton, and they weren’t being handed out to those looking for rare flowers.

Ghosh has done a masterful job in not only making each of his characters fascinating studies and interesting people to spend time with, he has also managed to bring the strange exotic world of the foreign enclave in Canton vividly alive. Crammed within a few square blocks a cross are traders from almost every corner of the world. Outside the enclave they might never have had anything to do with each other, but here all of the constraints society would normally place upon them have been suspended. Race and colour are of no matter as money and influence are the great equalizers. Each of the many traders have created second lives for themselves in China, up to and including taking wives and fathering children who they treat with equal devotion as their “real” families. While Bahram might only live there for six months or so every ten years, his is no different from the British traders who live there permanently.

While Ghosh’s descriptive abilities allow us to create intricate portraits of people and locations, it’s his agility with languages which gives River Of Smoke an extra level of verisimilitude. From the strange mix of words spoken by the family in the opening pages of the book, the scattering of pidgin appearing like exotic fruit in amongst the bland English of the trader’s everyday speech, the conversations between the merchants and their Chinese partners, to the bombastic rhetoric of the ardent British free traders, each person we meet is given a voice as unique as their character and a language or dialect to match. While this might present a bit of a challenge to readers initially, you can usually work everything out within the context of a sentence, it makes for a far more interesting read than if he had opted have everyone speaking in one voice.

Lurking at the centre of all this splendour though is the dark heart of the opium trade. The majority of the traders in Canton are there to exercise their right to sell what ever products they want for the most profit they can earn. That the product in question is opium and its sale is illegal in China (and most of their home countries as well) is irrelevant. Like “Free Enterprise” exponents down through the ages they decry Chinese edict against the drug trade as government interference in their “God given right to trade” but have no hesitation about turning to their own government for assistance when their profits are threatened. By incorporating real historical figures from the period and drawing upon their speeches Ghosh manages to make his points about these people and their practices without breaking stride in his storytelling. The only disquieting note being how little these speeches have changed in the past century and a half or so.

River Of Smoke is a wonderful mixture of people, places and story that captures a moment in history like an insect snared in amber. All the details are there for the reader to see and appreciate. While the trade in opium, the policies of the British government which encouraged it, and those who made obscene profits from attempting to addict an entire nation to the drug, were reprehensible, one can’t but help echo one character’s regret at the passing of the foreign enclave in Canton which served as home to those involved. Instead of the usual ghettoizing of people by race, language or skin colour which occurs when various representatives of humanity are forced into close confines, here, for whatever the reason and for however brief period of time it lasted, something different was born: an international community alive with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of each of its representatives with a universal language allowing them to communicate across cultural and social boundaries. While Ghosh goes to great pains to make sure it’s not depicted as a perfect world, those few square blocks in Canton were an example we’d do well to emulate more often.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.