River of Smoke begins with the storm that struck the convict ship the Ibis at the end of Amitav Ghosh’s 2008 Man Booker-shortlisted Sea of Poppies.
River of Smoke begins with the storm that struck the convict ship the Ibis at the end of Amitav Ghosh’s 2008 Man Booker-shortlisted Sea of Poppies. Redruth, the vessel of a Cornish plant-hunter, Frederick ‘Fitcher’ Penrose, sails in to Port Louis, Mauritius, two days after the Ibis, while the Anahita, belonging to Bahram Modi, a Bombay opium merchant, encounters the same storm on the other side of the Indian Ocean.
Counting the cost of their voyages, characters from all three ships make their way to the Chinese port of Canton. It is 1838, and the emperor is determined to eradicate the import of opium, a traffic run by the East India Company. This will lead to the Opium Wars between China and Britain, but Ghosh’s interest is in the detail of life in the foreign enclave of Canton during the months of rumour and intrigue before the invasion, as the merchants debate what they should do with their cargoes of contraband anchored offshore.
Ghosh was born in Calcutta, educated in Delhi, Alexandria and Oxford, holds a doctorate in social anthropology, and his early novels, most notably The Shadow Lines, suggested a challenge to Salman Rushdie’s dazzling, insistent allegories of modern India. In his more recent fiction, Ghosh has swapped the postcolonial novel of ideas for the sweeping historical saga, and River of Smoke is the second instalment in a projected trilogy.
This form affords plenty of space for meticulously researched descriptions of 19th-century Canton, most impressively realised in the patois spoken by the city’s merchants. Bahram’s voice ‘came pouring out in braided torrents of speech, each rushing stream being silted with the sediment of many tongues — Gujarati, Hindusthani, English, pidgin, Cantonese’, and Ghosh succeeds in carrying the reader along with this stream, even in the midst of ‘innumerable sepoys, serangs, lascars, shroffs, mootsuddies, gomustas, munshis and dubashes’.
The linguistic exuberance and brilliant set pieces — the remembered meeting between Napoleon Bonaparte and Bahram on St Helena that ends the first section, or the haunting at the close of the second — occasionally come at the cost of overall narrative development. The novel seems to stall in the long middle section, while the interspersed letters from an artist, Robin Chinnery, carrying a weak subplot about the search for a fabled golden camellia, are not as engaging or credible as the main story.
However, River of Smoke succeeds through its compelling central character, Bahram Modi, who comes to represent the ethical complexities of opium, empire and trade. ‘Opium is like the wind or the tides’, he says early on, ‘it is outside my power to affect its course’. This statement is given extra weight by his position within a trade dominated by the British, and by his family ties in Bombay and Canton. His household in Canton is wonderfully evoked, and one of his devoted servants insists that, ‘in other circumstances he would have been a pioneer, a genius even.’ Here, he is an enthralling hero, of Dickensian vitality and pathos.