title: River of Smoke
author: Amitav Ghosh
publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York
year of publication: 2011
reviewed March 14, 2012
hardcover (also available as paperback & e-book)
Complex and beautiful, River of Smoke takes the reader back to a time when the tiny, greedy, uber-violent nation of Britain ruled much of the world and still had difficulty distinguishing between trading and piracy. Building slowly from a side show in Mauritius, its central plot follows the fortunes of an Indian merchant, Bahram, who has decided to risk his family's fortunes on a vast cargo of opium for the Chinese market.
Bahram's story line alone would have sufficed for a major novel, but it is just one of many wisps in the complicated plot. Smoke is worth breathing for its rich vocabulary, a melange of words from an array of linguistic groups. The names of characters reflect this, as do the names of the foods they enjoy. Savoring new words, readers can get an introduction to pidgin, the common language of Asia ports.
For florists, gardeners, and art lovers, too, there is a subplot: the search for a rare Chinese flowering plant rumored to convey longevity. This involves botanical illustrations, gardeners, more than one painter, and some love affairs.
Bahram has done well as an opium trader. He knows that technically he is a smuggler, that taking opium to China is illegal, but in the past the corruption of Canton officials has made the practice easy and yet still highly profitable. Now a new Emperor, for the benefit of his people, is determined to stop the opium trade, which is destroying the culture and economy of China. Bahram's shipment, which was to finally win him great wealth and respect in his home community, is first decimated by a storm in transit. Then it sits in the waters near what will become Hong Kong, unable to be sold.
In the end Bahram prefers the pipe dreams induced by opium to his shattered dreams in life itself.
I wonder how much most Americans know of the aftermath of the events that take place in Smoke. The first of the Opium Wars followed, in which the British attacked China and secured a treaty allowing them to trade freely in Chinese ports, and continue to sell opium is vast quantities. China, the richest nation in the world in 1700, was a hallowed-out shell by the time the British (and Americans, and Dutch, French, Germans, Russians and even Japanese) had worked their "free market" magic. Many American fortunes were made in the opium trade, notably those of the Forbes family and the Delanos (later of Franklin Delano Roosevelt).
In the jungles, the oceans, and in human culture too, new life cannot come into existence until something old dies, making some room, providing fertilizer by its decay. Today the opium (now heroine) trade runs the other way, hallowing out not so much nations as susceptible segments of a global society, supplemented by a vast array of newer drugs, diversions, and human luxuries. The Chinese people are, for now, back on top, hopefully wiser for the experience of having spent over a century down-and-out, trying to work their way back to prosperity and to understand how they could have allowed a small group of English (and Scottish) gangsters to cause so much misery and death.
River of Smoke is a sequel to Sea of Poppies, which is set in India, and which I have not yet read. I did read and review The Calcutta Chromosome. Amitav Ghosh now has 9 published novels.