December 27, 2011 by markstani
Here’s my latest review from the 2011 MAN Asian Prize longlist. Click the image on the right for an index to all reviews. I agree with much of what Lisa from ANZLitLovers said here. Lisa probably liked it a little more than me. I’d be surprised, however, if it’s not a serious contender.
In a literary world whose bestseller lists are clogged up with chick-lit and the memoirs of C-list celebs, it may seem churlish to make the chief criticism of Amitav Ghosh’s 519-page River Of Smoke that of over-ambition.
Ghosh’s novel – the second in a trilogy that began with the Booker-shortlisted ‘Sea Of Poppies’ in 2008 – is an epic by any standards: extraordinarily researched; superb in its evocation of a distant time and place.
But in the context of the literary firmament in which the critical reaction to ‘Sea Of Poppies’ has placed him, you can’t help feeling that Ghosh’s account of events leading up to the first Opium War in China in 1840 might have benefited from a more brutal edit.
‘River Of Smoke’ is set predominantly in the Chinese port of Canton, upon which ragged cast of characters eventually converge as a consequence of a terrible storm which unshackles prisoners and swamps precious cargo-holds of the so-called ‘black dirt’ – the opium that British traders have been harvesting on the sub-continent and smuggling into China over generations (generally with the tacit approval of the Chinese authorities).
As the drug takes root in Chinese society, however, a crackdown looms, threatening the livelihoods of the merchants who have grown grotesquely rich on its profits, and who see no reason why China’s reinforcement of opium’s illegality ought to be allowed to restrict their lucrative trade.
At the centre of the story is Bahram, a Parsi trader from Bombay, who seeks to land the enormous haul that will finally earn him the respect of his rich wife’s family, and enable him to finally buy their export business outright.
Bahram is a wonderful creation: a deeply-flawed character; an opium trader with ‘a large and generous heart’; a man at once covetous of and repulsed by the Club run by the gluttinous British brigade, who seek his membership in order to suit their own ends: an undercurrent of racism is implied throughout.
Bahram’s poor background lends a delicious subtlety to what is otherwise an insight into early colonialism at its worst. One British merchant, entreatied to withhold his cargo for the good of the Chinese people, retorts:
..it is not my hand that passes sentence upon those who choose the indulgence of opium. It is the work of another, invisible omnipotent: it is the hand of freedom, of the market, of the spirit of liberty itself, which is none other than the breath of God.
It itself, Ghosh’s chronicle of the rising tensions between the Chinese authorities and the British merchants, which would end in war, the Treaty of Nanking and, ultimately, the secession of Hong Kong to British rule, is a shocking, riveting and brilliant piece of work, told in a dazzling array of colloquial tongues and imbued with no little amount of irony in respect of the economic emergence of China and India today.
Had he restricted himself to that central theme, Ghosh would have had an instant classic on his hands. Where he falls a little short, however, is in the sheer scope of his novel. His cast of characters is extraordinary, yet so many are transients, each of their back-stories carefully laid bare before they disappear back into Canton’s crowded alleys. It is simply impossible to remember them all, drawn as they are into Bahram’s ever more tangled web by coincidences that seem a little far-fetched – a chance meeting, for example, in the Wordy Market, a bustling place of which the narrator asks: ‘where else could a man go, clothed in nothing but a loincloth, and walk away in a whalebone corset and silk slippers?’
The momentum of the central story is also slowed by a secondary plot which concerns another storm survivor, Paulette, who is rescued from a run-down garden by an esteemed English botanist, and charged with discovering the elusive and possibly mythical golden camellia: a flower, it is said, with more financial potential than the tea plant.
Barred from docking in Canton as a foreign woman, Paulette sets an artist friend, Robin Chinnery, the task of discovering the plant: his travails are recorded in a series of letters which pock-mark the second part of the novel. Despite the engaging conceit, however, it is here the plot peters out: Chinnery’s letters recreate a rich Cantonese street life, but otherwise serve little purpose. Paulette is rendered pretty much an after-thought, and the eventual merging of the two strands is somewhat tenuous.
If all this seems rather negative, it isn’t especially intended to be. Have no doubt: River Of Smoke is an epic, intense, richly rewarding novel, as elegaic as it is exhaustive. It is by any standards an excellent book. The abiding frustration here is that it might have been a great one.