Sunday, 3 June 2012

River of Smoke

I have just finished reading River of Smoke by contemporary Bengali Indian writer Amitav Ghosh which I highly recommend.

River of Smoke (2011) is actually the second book in the Ibis trilogy, the first being Sea of Poppies (2008), which was short-listed for the Man Booker prize. I don’t think it matters if you have not read the first book. I haven’t, but will do so now. The third book of the trilogy is yet to be written and will be eagerly awaited.

This is historical fiction, with most of the action being set in 19th century Canton in the years of the 1830’s prior to the first Opium War. The main character is Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium trader from Bombay. There's a "cast of thousand" other characters too, all involved in some way with trade and China.

Three boats feature in the action – the Ibis, the Anahita and the Redruth. The first two are involved in the opium trade and the Redruth is involved in plant collecting and trading.

The novel includes some historical characters such as the famous Hong Kong traders, William Jardine and James Matheson, who were involved in the opium trade and others like George Chinnery, the English painter whose colonial subjects included many from India and China.

Ghosh's descriptions of  life in Fanqui town Canton, where the traders operate, seems quite authentic. Apparently by the end of the 19th Century one third of the population of China were smoking opium.... incredible. And some of the major trading houses had build their wealth on this trade. A bit like the slave trade. Ghosh's novel is not at all didactic, but shows you the complexity of the trade and the myriad of players involved at all levels and across many countries.

There is more about the book in this review in The Guardian :

"Amitav Ghosh's two latest novels carry us deep inside the opium trade in the 1830s. River of Smoke is the second volume of a proposed trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies, published in 2008, took us along the Ganges and to Calcutta, where the poppies are grown and the opium processed. River of Smoke follows the story through to Canton in China, where the opium is sold. The Chinese authorities are trying to prevent illegal imports of the drug, which has inflicted a plague of addiction on the Chinese population while making empire-sized fortunes for the irrepressibly shameless traders, mostly British."

See some more reviews of River of Smoke here

More about Ghosh’s other novels and work are to be found under his entry in Wikipedia 

I have just started reading Ghosh's very first novel Circle of Reason, written in 1986. I'll hopefully post a short summary/review of that later this month :0

No comments: