Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke (John Murray 2011)
Before the meeting: After Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mountains of mundane detail, we wanted our next book to be one that spins a great yarn. Someone proposed the sequel to Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which we’d all enjoyed. There were no dissenting voices, so River of Smoke it was.
We’d forgotten that in his own way Ghosh is just as given to piling on the detail as Knausgaard. Especially in the first half of River of Smoke, hardly a paragraph is without its cluster of glittering facts or shiny words. A glossary would have to define a seemingly endless variety of boats, buildings, functionaries, items of clothing, financial processes, scientific equipment, dubious activities, plants, religious rituals and so on as they are named in Bengali and other Indian languages, Cantonese, Portuguese, Farsi, regional Englishes, Cantonese pidgin, Mauritian Kreol, and so on. And then there’s a wealth of historical anecdote: we see Napoleon at Longwood on St Helena; we hear of escaped slaves on Mauritius who committed mass suicide when they saw troops approaching their hiding place, unaware that the troops were coming to tell them that slavery had long since been abolished; we learn the origins of chai, and much much more. The effect isn’t intimidating: Amitav Ghosh is like a child let loose in a linguistic and historical lolly shop, and wants us to share his delight. The writer he most resembles in this love of the source material is Neal Stephenson.
As you would expect, River of Smoke starts out putting us back in touch with the main characters from Sea of Poppies. But pretty much as soon as they’ve been reintroduced most of them drop out of the picture, some never to be mentioned again, and those who remain gradually withdraw from centre stage to become relatively minor figures – the munshi (secretary cum newsgatherer) to a major character, the recipient of letters from another. The characters we engage with most strongly are new: Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium trader, and Robin Chinnery, artist, homosexual romantic and writer of long, flamboyant letters. Possibly the main character is fanqui-town, the brilliantly evoked, exhilaratingly diverse Babel on the edge of Canton where foreign traders were allowed to live and work in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The opium trade, whose viciousness was graphically evoked in the first book, is the most profitable activity of the fanquis, and the novel traces events leading up to the First Opium War in 1939: the Emperor is no longer turning a blind eye and a new, incorruptible man arrives in Canton to take definitive, dramatic action. According to Google the historical war didn’t turn out well for the Chinese and the trade continued for decades, but River of Smoke ends just before the war proper begins and that outcome isn’t at all obvious.
At the group meeting about Sea of Poppies, someone said he enjoyed the ripping yarn and learned a lot of history but wasn’t engaged in the way he wanted to be by a novel. For all its delights, River of Smoke was like that for me. The tension is real, the stakes are high, and I trust that I’m being told a true story – but sometimes it’s as if the novelist was swamped by his research and forgot that he cared about his characters. There are longish extracts from actual documents issued by the Chinese authorities and the fanqui opium traders, for example, which are fabulous to read, but leave our characters with little to do but react or comment from the sidelines.
Maybe the book suffers from the Middle Book Syndrome – in the first book the world and characters were new. In the third book we’ll find out how everything is resolved. In this one, we just have to get from Book One to Book Three. It’s a bridge rather than a stand-alone, and so not completely satisfying.
After the meeting: There were seven of us, of whom five had read the book.
Two people reported being on holiday and experiencing a powerful resistance to submitting to the world of the book – one ploughed on despite the resistance, the other followed his bliss after 20 pages or so.
The man who liked the book most described it – accurately – as very visual. At a level of simple pleasure it was the linguistic fireworks that appealed most to me. Someone else was most moved by the painful sense of history.
None of us were wildly enthusiastic about the epistolary chapters, tending to find the flamboyant Robin Chinnery a bit on the tiresome side.
Someone arrived with multiple tabs open on his iPad web browser: paintings of Canton’s foreign factories in the 18th and early 19th century, maps of historic Canton, etc. It turned out that a number of us had been to Wikipedia to look up the Opium Wars, and to see if various characters were real (many were). Amitav Ghosh’s web site has the Chrestomathy, mentioned in passing in the book, which is an odd linguistic document compiled in old age by Neel, the zemindar turned munshi who may well turn out to be the central character of the trilogy.
Attitudes to the as yet non-existent third volume ranged from eager anticipation to ‘meh’. I’m close to the eager anticipation end of that continuum.
[As I was about to upload this, I checked and found that Amitav Ghosh is on Twitter, which prompts two remarks. First, I hope Twitter isn’t distracting him from his writing, and if it is I apologise for adding to the distraction. Second, I was delighted to see that someone on Twitter actually drew the world’s, and Ghosh’s, attention to something that I kept to myself all through our meeting – ‘fanqui-town’ sounds very like ‘Funky Town’. Ghosh’s response was three exclamation marks.]