Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire

Amitav Ghosh, Flood of Fire (Straus and Giroux 2015)

flood.jpgWhen we set up a street library out the front of our house, we intended it as a way to send books from our shelves to good homes. We hadn’t thought about the reverse traffic: this book is like a gift from the benevolent Street Library deity. I loved the first two books in the Ibis trilogy when I read them for the book group some time back. When this third book urned up on our front fence I  snuffled it gleefully.

I started reading it on the plane from Sydney to Singapore and finished it after a little more than a week in London, where I’m staying in culturally diverse Walworth (or SE17, to use the locals’ preferred term). That’s an eminently appropriate way to have read it.

The flood of the title is the firepower unleashed on China by the British in what is now known as the First Opium War in the mid nineteenth century, and the vivid account of that assault, including the brutal use made of Indian sepoys, is a salutary reminder of the blood-soaked foundations of England’s prosperity. By happy coincidence I just found this in my twitter feed:

That – or at least the similar events a couple of decades earlier – is the big historical event that provides the context and is front and centre for quite a lot of the narrative, but on the way we follow the adventures of a handful of characters who sailed on the Ibis in the first book, and whose paths continue to cross in unexpected ways. There’s comedy, melodrama, romantic tragedy, a sustained bawdy episode, and always a dizzying interplay of cultures.

I love the way Amitav Ghosh incorporates his research into the narrative. To give just one small instance, after an encounter in which the Chinese forces were routed:

There were corpses everywhere, many of them with black scorch-marks on their tunics. On some, the clothes were still burning: looking more closely, Kesri saw that the fires were caused by a fault in the defenders’ equipment. The powder for their guns was carried not in cartridges, as was the case with the British troops, but in rolled-up paper tubes. These tubes were kept in a powder-pouch that was strapped across the chest. In the course of the fighting the flaps of these pouches would fly open, spilling powder over the soldiers’ tunics; the powder was then set alight by the wicks and flints of their matchlocks.

I don’t suspect for a moment that Ghosh has made this up. Along with the horror, you can sense the novelist’s exhilaration in finding such telling details. I suppose you might read it as an info-dump that distracts from the story, but from my point of view it’s an info-dump that enriches the story with a sense of historical truth.

Similarly, I relish Ghosh’s seemingly endless play with language. I’d call this inventive if it didn’t seem to be the result of arduous research into the many englishes of South, Eastern and South-east Asia. This play is everywhere, but nowhere more joyful than in the pages where a sternly moralistic mem sah’b demonstrates her vast repertoire of synonyms for male masturbation. There a re many sentences elsewhere that, if taken out of context, would be mystifying. I defy you to guess the meaning of, ‘It isn’t decent for a girl to talk to mysteries.’

I had one discontent as I read. Neeti, the character who was in some ways the warm heart of the first book, is no longer a presence. We left her on Mauritius in the second book, and this one is set entirely in India, China and places nearby. But Ghosh is no idiot. My discontent was surprisingly and satisfactorily dealt with in the very last page.

8 responses to “Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire

  1. The First Opium Wars were in the years 1839-1842. (Amitav GHOSH deals with this.) The detail popping into your in-box was to do with the Second Opium Wars (loosely?) 1856-1860). One of things which motivated my Japanese paedagogical hero, YOSHIDA Shoin (1830-1859) to want to leave Japan (he made it as far as being on board Matthew Galbraith PERRY’s flagship in early 1854) was having read in Dutch encyclopaedia brought to Japan to the Dutch Trading Factory in Nagasaki – translated by the Secretariat there before being bought and taken elsewhere in Japan – about what the British had done in what we now call the First Opium Wars – via their engineered opium trade and wars – to China – and which he and other young thinkers and strategists in Japan did NOT want to happen to their country – and that they saw their Edo Era (Tokugawa) as weak and unprepared for the western intrusion – given that the powers were already sniffing around closed off (sack) Japan. Five going on six years ago when my wife and I spent some time heart Fort Green on Dekalb Ave in Brooklyn – our literary “landlady” informed us that Amitav GHOSH lived just around the corner. I could feel that sparkle of his wordy-word play around me in that crispy edge to “fall” while we were in his vicinity!

    At present in Adelaide – some names already listened toCatherine CHIDGEY (NZ) Rachel KHONG (US) – both on memory; Teju COLE (US/Nigeria/US) beautiful language – on all kinds of issues including race; Maggie BEER, on eating well – against Alzheimers, interestingly – with Prof Ralph MARTINS of UWA; Mark Brandi (Vic) his novel Wimmera – dark secrets of small town; and Dervla McTIERNAN (Galway/Perth), Richard FIDLER (ex-DAA – Conversations with) & Karí GÍSLASON (Iceland/Brisbane), SAGALAND – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (US) on a paedphile murderer – but reflections on her own childhood abuse by grandad – etc – richly textured – , the stunning Kamila SHAMSIE (Karachi/US/-British – London) Home Fires her latest – Clive HAMILTON on Chinese pressures on Australians of Chinese background/politicians/The Confucius Institute/etc), Sarah SENTINELS (US) Choose Your Weapons) images of Abu Ghraib … John LYONS – OZ correspondent six years in Jerusalem – the Melbourne Jewish Lobby sending OZ Captains of Industry and politicians – Pyne et all – on free junkets to Israel – the multiplicity of laws and compromised Supreme Court in Israel against the existence of Palestinians in Israel and Occupied Territories!

    In the evenings so far some light relief: Dave Hughes and Kitty FLANAGAN!

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  2. not “sack” Japan – ” (auto-correct strikes again) but rather “sakoku” Japan (no exit permitted Japanese – no entry permitted foreigners) – a period of seclusion lasting nearly 250 years!

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  3. Yes, absolutely loved this book too, and the only thing wrong with third in the trilogy is that it’s the last one!

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  4. BTW Jim Kable: on my blog at https://anzlitlovers.com/category/writers-aust-nz-in-capitals/chidgey-catherine/ there’s a review of Catherine Chidgey’s amazing new book The Beat of the Pendulum. She is a major new talent, IMO.

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  5. Ruth Blumenthal

    Is the Ibis trilogy related to The Field of Poppies trilogy, also concerning the opium wars? Are they the same books?

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  6. Thanks Lisa for your links and further comments. It’s ages since I’ve checked Jonathan’s reviews/essays – I’ve been away into Canberra and Tumbarumba – to The Rock south from Wagga Wagga and to Leeton and Narrandera. Reading Nick BRODIE – historian of unbelievable youth and understanding – three major books of Australian history already under his belt – Kin, Australian History to 1787 – and The Vandemonian War! And he’s only mid-30s! Amazing!

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  7. Jim, I bought Brodie’s book at the Non Fiction festival, I just haven’t had time to read it yet!

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