A review of River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Balzac (and lots of people after him) thought that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” Nowhere is that aphorism more baldly illustrated than in the 19th-Century opium trade that enriched England, Scotland, and the United States and created a score of hereditary fortunes that have left their mark on the world for nearly two centuries since. After all, when Europeans introduced China to the practice of mixing opium with tobacco in the mid-18th Century, the one-sided trade in Chinese porcelain, tea, silk, and other goods was rapidly draining Europe of silver and reinforcing China’s position as the world’s richest country. The opium trade reversed that trend. Early in the 19th Century, with the Industrial Revolution gathering force in Europe, China’s nearly two-century-long decline was underway. Meanwhile, massive profits from opium enriched the endowments of Harvard and Yale, helped build Princeton and Columbia Universities; launched the fortunes of the Astors, the Delanos (FDR’s grandparents); and bankrolled the Bell Telephone Company, antecedent of AT&T.
River of Smoke is the second book in Amitav Ghosh’s planned Ibis trilogy set among the momentous events of the massive 19th-Century opium trade between India and China. The first book in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies, set the scene with an in-depth look at the harvesting and manufacture of opium in India. River of Smoke details the life at sea and in the foreign enclave in Canton of the immensely rich men who dominated the trade, principally Britons.
Ghosh’s sprawling novel spans the years 1838 and 1839, detailing the events in South China that led to the First Opium War. The central plot-line follows the journey of a poor Indian Parsi (Zoroastrian) named Bahram who had risen to lead the trade division of a celebrated Mumbai shipbuilding company owned by his wealthy in-laws. Though not yet rich himself, Bahram has become the dean of the Indian opium traders, realizing profits for the family as great as those of many of the British and Americans but, in the racist fashion of the times, he is looked down upon as “inferior.” However, he comes to play a principal role in the traders’ increasingly tense and threatening dealings with the newly energized Chinese government, which has resolved to end the opium trade. (Bahram is the author’s invention, but the English and American traders depicted in the novel come straight from the pages of history.)
Any lover of language will find the writing of Amitav Ghosh irresistible. I certainly did. Both the dialogue and the narrative text in Sea of Poppies were enchanting. Ghosh had immersed himself in contemporaneous dictionaries and wordlists of 1830s India and Britain to reproduce the language and the vocabulary of not one but several English dialects. In fact, a great many of the novel’s characters are historical figures who left behind memoirs, letters, parliamentary testimony, and other records, and as Ghosh notes in his acknowledgments, “Much that is said in this book is taken from [the characters’] own words.” Even more colorful is the hybrid language that emerged from the marriage of English and Hindi and surfaces in dialogue throughout the book. But in River of Smoke, it’s the pidgin of 19th-Century Canton that stands out, and wonderful it is to behold!