Amitav Ghosh (2011) River of Smoke John Murray, London; 592 pp.; ISBN 978-0-719-56889-3
This novel follows on from the marvellous epic Sea of Poppies, which followed the fortunes of a group of people eventually brought together on the Ibis, a ship carrying indentured labourers and some prisoners to the island of Mauritius. However, River of Smoke is not a sequel in the conventional sense and can be read and enjoyed without having read the earlier book.
The story opens decades after the Ibis was caught in a storm and five of the men on board escaped, presumed drowned. Deeti, now the aged matriarch of a family in Mauritius, oversees an annual pilgrimage to a shrine in the mountains where she has painted scenes from the Ibis and vivified memories of her long lost husband, one of the five escapees. Neel, who also arrived on the Ibis, joins in the ceremony and begins to recall events that followed on from the storm.
Neel and Ah Fatt were among the five men who escaped from the Ibis and the novel follows their fortunes as they head to Singapore. There they meet Ah Fatt’s father, a merchant named Bahram Modi, who employs Neel but leaves his son behind as the ship heads to Canton. Bahram’s ship was also caught in the storm and some of its opium cargo ruined, but there is still enough on board for Bahram to become a very rich man and he has staked his fortune and reputation on being able to sell the drug in the Chinese market.
The illegal drug trade, selling opium to the Chinese, was the creation of British merchants who had to find some way of redressing Britain’s trade imbalance with China. The British were too fond of Chinese goods – tea, silk, porcelain – and were plunging their country into debt as a result. You can see the modern parallel. Opium was the ideal solution: it could be produced very cheaply in British India, the customers became addicted so forfeited their capacity to make a free choice, and the trade was illegal in China, so the profits were enormous. Some of the merchant houses that grew sleek and fat on illegal drug dealing in the nineteenth century remain pillars of the commercial establishment today.
The mendacity of the European and American merchants drips from the pages of this book. Bahram is the odd man out, a wealthy trader from a Parsi family in India who is included in the merchants’ circle because of his money but also because he is useful in the battle with the Chinese government. The Chinese are adamant that they want to stamp out the drug trade while the merchants are equally adamant that ‘free trade’ must prevail. But while Bahram is a useful pawn in the game, he is in the end an Indian, and the ever-present racism means that he will never be truly accepted. When push comes to shove, he is expendable.
The behaviour of the Chinese is, unlike that of the merchants, civilised and just. Their crusade against the drug trade is appreciated by some of the less avaricious in the foreign enclave, but greed is dominant and greed does not abide civilisation or reason. Much of the novel plays out the battle between the drug cartels and the Chinese authorities. The result is a pyrrhic victory for the Chinese, for the result as we know from history was the Opium Wars – western enforcement of an illegal drug trade and the creation of mass addiction in China.
Neel becomes a go-between in the clash between foreign and Chinese interests. He is torn between the wrongs he sees in the trade on the one hand, and his deep loyalty to Bahram, whom he sees as a decent but tragic man, on the other.
Interwoven with this theme is the story of Paulette, another character who once sailed on the Ibis, and Robin, her childhood friend. Paulette’s father was a renowned botanist but his death left her destitute. She is taken on by ‘Fitcher’ Penrose, an old friend of her father, to go and trade plant specimens in China. Penrose has grown wealthy from plant nurseries in England and from the trade in plants between the Americas and China. The nineteenth century was an extraordinary time for the movement of plant species around the globe, assisted by botanical gardens set up by the colonial powers. Tea changed the culture of Britain just as rubber altered the face of south-east Asian agriculture, and crops like sugar saw the movement of thousands of labourers from their homelands to distant shores.
In contrast to the drug trade, the trade in plants carried out by Penrose and Paulette shows that links between China and foreigners did not need to be exploitative or destructive. The work of the plant traders shows shared interests and pleasure in the beauty and utility of flowers and other shrubs. But even here the pervasive corrosion of the opium trade eventually exacts its toll.
Much of the story in Canton is related in letters written by Robin to Paulette. Robin is an artist and determinedly homosexual. His interest in Chinese art and painting techniques is mediated through his friendships with Chinese men. Many of the merchants, including Bahram, have second families with local women and this was a common feature of colonialism, as it is with transnational businessmen today. Robin is idealistic about his relationships, but those of the merchants are often characterised by a cruel preference for reputation over affection.
As the battle between the drug dealers and the Chinese government comes to a head, the lives of Neel, Bahram, Paulette and Robin are thrown off course, as were the lives of many who sailed on the Ibis at the end of Sea of Poppies. Neel many years later finds Robin’s letters to Paulette and these along with his own memories help him to recreate this extraordinary saga.
River of Smoke is a long, complex and strongly written novel. It uses the argot and saltiness of nineteenth century language to good effect, and brings to life the physical surroundings in which the characters live and work, and the strange microcosm of a trading enclave on foreign soil. The world is full of risk and opportunity, and how people deal with these and the consequences of their decisions reveal both good and evil, bravery and cowardice.
Amitav Ghosh has promised to continue writing about the characters from the Ibis, and it will be interesting to see which ones appear in the next instalment. The story in River of Smoke is rich and absorbing. Read it, and if you have not done so already, set yourself afloat in the Sea of Poppies as well. You will be well rewarded.