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River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

The second volume in the proposed Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke, is a fine follow-up to Sea of Poppies.  Amitav Ghosh dug deep into original sources for these novels and I was overwhelmed by the amount of background into the growing and transport of opium that the author crammed into that first book.  River of Smoke  continues  this trend  by following the history of the opium trade between India and China in the early 1800s.

The story follows some of the characters from the first book’s study of politics, culture and production of  opium on the plains of India as they sail to Canton, China, where the British East India Company is importing more and more opium and the Chinese are beginning to demand an end to the opium trade.

Ghosh paints a detailed portrait of early 19th century Canton. The area known as  Fanqui-town, a small walled enclave populated by an assortment of traders from all over the world, is where most of the novel takes place.  There are many ships anchored in Canton harbor, sometimes so tightly packed you can walk between them.   Some foreign ships carry trade goods, most carry opium.  Small boats travel out to these ships and haul opium to shore, others serve food and offer other “pleasures”.  The scene  Ghosh creates with his use of many languages, descriptions and dense writing is of a great open-air market filled with human activity,  sounds,  tastes, smells and the dreamy funk of opium.

What I found most fascinating about this novel is the politics of the opium business.  How the British desire for tea first started their trade with China, how the rise of opium imports fed a  growing riches for  England, India and many Chinese merchants, and how the west reacted to the China government’s demand for an end to the opium trade.  This led to a cry for Free Trade and the force of the law of “civilized nations” that is all too familiar. After a declaration from the Chinese Commissioner asking that all imports of opium be stopped immediately and that the cargo be destroyed one Trader responds:

Mr Burnham sank back into his chair and stroked his silky beard.  ‘Let us be clear about what we have just heard,’ he said calmly.  ‘An open threat has been issued against us; our lives,our property, our liberty are in jeprody.  Yet the only offence sited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of free trade – and it is no more possible for us tp be heedless of these laws than to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God’s commandments.’

‘Oh come now, Mr Burnham,’ said Charles King.  ‘God has scarcely asked you to send vast shipments of opium into this country, against the declared wishes of its government and in contravention of its laws?’

‘Oh please, Mr King,’ snapped Mr Slade, “Need I remind you that the force of law obtains only between civilized nations?  And that the Commissioner’s actions today prove, if proof were needed, that this country cannot be included in that number?’  From page 406.

Western imperialism at its best.

Too much of this history would be would be deadening but  Ghosh fills  his novel with characters that include Bahram Modi, a Parsee merchant from Bombay who become so immersed in the trade that he can’t see a way out of it,  English horticulturist Fredrick Penrose, helped in his search for unusual plants by Paulette, an orphan I met in Sea of Poppies, and Robin Chinnery, illegitimate son of the painter George Chinnery, who loves Faanqui-town because it is the one place he feels free to live the way he chooses.  I found the use and mix of many cultures and languages a joy.

There are times when  River of Smoke stalls, as merchants wait to see what the Chinese will do, to see will happen after the Imperial government closes the harbor.  Perhaps this is a taste of the deadening dream state that opium smokers fall into, a sapping of energy.  This creates a sense of foreboding as the timing of this novel leads up to the first Opium War.  In 1839 the British, threatened with the loss of the Opium trade, wrecked havoc on the Chinese coastline and forced  China to increase commerce with the west.

I cannot wait to see what happens in the finally volume of this massive, historically-based trilogy.

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