15 May 2015

Smoke on the Water

River of Smoke

By Amitav Ghosh

I’ve been discontented with some of Mr Ghosh's recent offerings. The Glass Palace seemed to me overly discursive, meandering and ultimately without much point, since the story of origins he was tracing was of interest principally to him, and he failed to make it interesting to me. The Hungry Tide, with its preachy ethno-political subtext and its implausibly presented romance between an American marine biologist and a Bengali fisherman, almost put me off him for life.

It’s a good thing it didn’t, quite, because this sequel to Sea of Poppies – which was a corker, by the way, a true five-star job, cliffhanger ending and all – kept me reading, and interested, till the end, even though it was a disappointment on a number of levels.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the minimum you expect of a sequel is that it continues the stories of the characters who interested you in the first book. Well, you don’t get that here. There’s a long first chapter that tells you, inter alia, that Deeti, the escapee from suttee in Sea of Poppies, made it alive to Mauritius and found work there as an indentured labourer, and has managed to raise a large family, now in its third generation, over which she rules as a typical Indian matriarch. We are informed from time to time that Zachary Reid, the sexy young strapper from SoP, is in gaol in Calcutta or some such awaiting trial for mutiny.

But the stories we really end up following are those of other characters. One, a bit player from the earlier book, Neel the aristocratic forger, now a opium trader’s secretary or munshi, becomes an important viewpoint character as he finds a new life in Guangzhou, then known to foreigners as Canton. We also see the city and the events that unfolded there through the eyes of two entirely new characters, Neel’s boss, a Parsi opium trader, and a young Anglo-Indian painter who has just begun living and working in the city and is joyously discovering the pleasures it has to offer. This last character’s story is told in letters to another ex-SoP minor player, who spends nearly the entire novel tucked away from the action, her only purpose in the author’s scheme being to serve as the recipient for those letters (and we never even get to glimpse her reading them!)

From the foregoing, you will deduce that the author has now taken us across the water to the other terminus of the opium trade: China. And Ghosh has chosen a brilliantly fertile setting for his fiction: Guangzhou just before the first opium war. An incredible, mind-buggeringly diverse, frenetic and contradictory place, where alien cultures meet each other in profitable but nerve-racking mutual incomprehension. And he has done his research well, perhaps too well; the tide of information is as wide and unstoppable as the Pearl River, and sometimes you struggle just to take it all in. Also, I wish he wouldn’t use so many foreign words without explaining what they mean. But there is no doubt that the picture he paints is as true to life as he knows how to make it. Most of the cast of the novel consists of real, historical personages.

All this is so much to the good; but after the grand climax, which, if you know the relevant history, is entirely predictable, the novel seems to peter out as the various characters pick themselves up and move on to the next phases of their divers careers. Another volume is plainly in the works. Whether it will justify the investment of our time, and all the putting-up we have to do with the author’s rather tortuous approach to storytelling, who knows? This one was a good read all right, but it gave me a touch of indigestion afterwards.