MISS PRISM: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.
CECILY: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily?…
MISS PRISM: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
The Importance of Being Earnest
THE FIRST BOOK OF AMITAV GHOSH'S TRILOGY, Sea of Poppies, left his characters so thrillingly poised on—or just off—the Ibis, a ship bound for Mauritius, that I couldn’t wait for the next book. They were all immensely engaging characters, too. Deeti, the tough, strangely fey villager; Kalua, her powerful but innocent husband; Neel Halder, the sensual, ruined Raja; Paulette Lambert, the delightful gamine; Zachary Reid, the misfit sailor—these and a host of personages around them (I can’t call them minor characters because each is fleshed out so well) carried me through the book on eagle’s wings. They also, as I wrote in these pages in May, gave me hope in the Indian historical novel.
Unfortunately for me, none of these people figures prominently in River of Smoke. The central space is taken up by Bahram Modi, a Parsi merchant trading in Canton (now called Guangzhou), who has a tenuous connection to the first book. This novel is all set in Canton, except for an introductory passage telling what happened to those aboard the Mauritius-bound Ibis. Bahram is not, for me, a sufficiently weighty or engaging personality to carry this book on his shoulders. His business acumen is boasted of, but many of his dealings in Canton seem obvious and naïve. And Ghosh does not, I think, make enough of the moral battle within him to convince me he is interesting. For Bahram is an opium trader, and this book is set in 1838-39, when China was first struggling to throw off the coils of the drug.
In some ways, the central character is not Bahram, but opium, which briefly blazed the stage in Sea of Poppies. And if you want an objective correlative, something with the flesh and sinew that Bahram lacks, the central character is Canton.
The city of Canton—or, rather, the ‘Fan-qui-Town’ or foreigners’ part of it—is described in exhaustive detail. It is energetic, enervating and occasionally vicious. In this it is like the opium trade which gave it its wealth. Ghosh’s use of background is, as usual, meticulous. Listen to Bahram convince his father-in-law of the need to diversify:
But look at the world around us, look at how it is changing. Today the biggest profits don’t come from selling useful things: quite the opposite. The profits come from selling things that are not of any real use. Look at this new kind of white sugar that people are bringing from China – this thing they call ‘cheeni’. Is it any sweeter than honey or palm-jaggery? No, but people pay twice as much for it or even more. Look at all the money that people are making from selling rum and gin. Are these any better than our own toddy and wine and sharaab? No, but people want them. Opium is just like that. It is completely useless unless you’re sick, but still people want it. And it is such a thing that once people start using it they can’t stop; the market just gets larger and larger.
Much of this book can be read as a scathing denouncement of the Baal of Free Trade and of capitalism. I do think that has grown to be one of Ghosh’s chief concerns. The deliberations of the Committee of the Canton Chamber of Commerce, dominated by the British, are carefully researched and presented, often in the original speech. The taipans’ casual treacheries and considered hypocrisy amount to practically a philosophy of exploitation. The poor Parsi, Bahram, admitted to the Committee, shares the taipans’ views but pines for what is not:
“Democracy is a wonderful thing, Mr Burnham,” he said wistfully. “It is a marvellous tamasha that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance. I hope one day India will also be able to enjoy these advantages – and China too, of course.”
“Let us raise a glass to that!”
This is excellent satire, made precisely for this year of grace 2011, and I’m wholly for Ghosh’s view of the matter. But this is a novel, not a polemic. The very achievement for which I’d fêted Sea of Poppies—the skilful fashioning of a truly subaltern Indian historical novel—is suborned by River of Smoke’s emphasis on the games people in power play. Deeti, Kalua and Zachary are missing from the cast; Paulette has a walk-on role; and Neel is unrecognisable. What use was their suffering in the first volume, if we are condemned to forget it for five years, until the third is out?
Also, as in Sea of Poppies, the vast amount of period slang, jargon and pidgin is sometimes hard to digest. It might be fun, for a north Indian, to puzzle out a sentence such as
“…the whole clan would be on the march; accompanied by paltans of bonoys, belsers, bowjis, salas, sakubays and other in-laws…” which occurs as early as the first page, or to figure that ‘dumbcowings’ is Hobson-Jobson Hinglish for ‘dhamkao-ings’, but what can I make of “it was but a geek of his face that Fitcher caught” (‘keek’ is Scots for ‘look’; a ‘geek’ was originally a performer in a circus who bit the heads off live rats and snakes) or “Fitcher was suddenly aware of a strange bedoling in certain parts of his body” when the narrative rolls on in modern English?
WHAT MADE Sea of Poppies exhilarating was the way Ghosh allowed its inhabitants to do their own thing. They took full advantage of this freedom, and swept the story along at a breathless pace. None of them was in full control of their own destiny, but within the little space permitted (by other inhabitants of the book) they ran this way and that like cornered animals, finding always just that little loophole, that breathing space. Their creator had his outline of the plot, but he did not jerk them around on strings.
In River of Smoke, Ghosh has his straitjacket ready. Perhaps it’s as well for Sea of Poppies’ protagonists that none of them will fit into it. Hence Bahram, as the sacrificial goat, his shoulders stooping beneath a yoke they are not strong enough to carry with pride. For Ghosh has not just a ruthlessly well-made story for him to bear, but all the weight of an ideology.
There is plenty to admire in River of Smoke. It is an enlightening, intelligent and entertaining book. The historical background to the European exploitation of China—cause of the Opium Wars, the ‘Harmonious Fists’ and much else that explains modern Chinese attitudes—alone repays attention. There are whole reams, or little vignettes, about Chinese painting; about the journeys of European botanists, who sought rare flowers as if they were so many Holy Grails; about Chinese customs and manners, where the consideration with which the mandarins behaved sets off the crassness of the Englishmen; about opium politics; about Chinese and European seamanship; about pidgin; and especially about food. The story about the invention of chai-garam is particularly pleasing.
Listen to this description of a dish:
It was a Fujianese delicacy and had been prepared by a chef who had been specially brought in for that purpose. It had taken two days to prepare and included some thirty condiments – crisp shoots of bamboo and slippery sea-cucumbers; chewy tendons of pork and juicy sea-scallops; taro root and abalone; fish-lips and mushrooms – a symphony of carefully harmonised contrasts of texture and taste, it was reputed to have lured many a monk into breaking his vows.
That’s why the dish is called ‘Buddha Jumps over the Wall’.
The trouble is, most of this information is served up to us without sauce. The characters don’t always live Canton; we’re told that they live it. The last two-thirds of the book consists of alternate chapters told from Bahram’s point of view, mostly about trade and politics, and letters from a young painter, Robin, to Paulette, who cannot visit Fanqui-town because women are forbidden there. (The descriptions of the stag parties, men waltzing with each other, beggars belief.)
Robin is what we would now call gay, and his letters are often too precious, though probably true to the spirit of the time:
I have yet to bring you to Fanqui-town’s landing ghat, which is called – and this is true I swear – ‘Jackass Point’ (the fabled Man-Town must, in other words, be entered through the point of Jack’s Unspeakable). Yet this suppository is no different from our Calcutta landing ghats: there is no jetty – instead there are steps, sticky with mud from the last high tide (yes, my darling Puggleshwaree, the Pearl, like our beloved Hooghly, rises and falls twice a day!)
The use of letters as travelogue, in a novel, is not new. Indeed, little in Ghosh’s technique can be called new; his is the oldest profession in the world, that of the storyteller. But in this book, unlike in Sea of Poppies, I find much to argue with him about. There is too much fortuity, for instance: Everyone seems to meet everyone else at just the right moment. The meeting with Napoleon on St Helena seems more than a little contrived, and serves no useful purpose I can think of, except to allow the Emperor to reiterate his famous remark: “It is better that China remains asleep, for the world is sure to tremble when she awakes.”
However, this is not a trilogy about China. Why wake the sleeping giant in the second book, only to restore her to her slumbers and steal away to Mauritius in the third, as we know we must?
Really, the best thing about the book is the vignettes, and the insights, but many of them are not Ghosh’s own. Some of the taipans he describes and quotes are real men. So, presumably, is the incorruptible Commissioner from the Manchu Emperor, every one of whose reasonable advances the money-mad merchants spurn. One merchant, the American Charles King (also historical), who opposes the trade, is quoted in a letter from Robin:
…the foreign trade has created, in the eyes of the Chinese, an inseparable linkage between opium and Christianity. Since many of the men who peddle the drug are loud in proclaiming their piety it is inevitable that the Chinese should draw the inference that there is no conflict between trafficking in opium and the strict observance of Christianity. It is intolerable to Charlie [King] that a simple moral principle should be clearer to pagans than to Christians.
THIS BRINGS ME TO A FEATURE of Ghosh’s writing which long compelled me to believe he is a much better writer of non-fiction than of fiction: his reliance on, indeed his obsessive need for, detailed and relentless research. His first two novels—I read them when they came out, 20-odd years ago—scarcely held me, but his travels in Egypt and Cambodia delighted me. I sleepwalked through The Glass Palace and did not try to find his Sunderbans book.
I had to read Sea of Poppies, however, for this journal, and his feel for the places he’d been in mesmerised me again. The opium badlands of the Ganga plain and the frantic, noisome joy of Calcutta came equally to life in his hands. I really believed I’d been wrong about his fiction. With River of Smoke, I have to think again. It’s intensely irritating to have to revise your opinion of an established writer with each new book
There is a theory that middle children, of three, are more middle-of-the-road, less remarkable, than their siblings. In families which are unhappy in their own way, the middle child is commonly the least wayward and the most guilt-ridden. Why, John le Carré actually says, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, “Middle children weep longer than their brothers and sisters.” Le Carré has told us so many truths about ourselves that even this may be true.
Could this hypothesis be extended to the middle volumes of trilogies? Does the middle volume suffer in comparison to its siblings? Or can its drawbacks redound to the entire family’s credit? The Victorian three-volume novel is still written, particularly in America, but is generally published in one volume these days—which may account for the high incidence of sprained wrists among frequent flyers. It is also written all at one go, unlike a set of three separate novels announced as a trilogy.
Few writers set out to work on trilogies, these days. The rule is the sequel: If the horse gallops, flog it. The telling examples are from science fiction—the Foundation series, Dune, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—and by the seventh or eighth instalment you’ve forgotten the plot. Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy is only a trilogy because Larsson died (and now we’re told of more manuscripts on his laptop).
In a trilogy, you see, the first volume gets you interested in the characters and the story or stories. The third brings everyone and everything to a satisfying resolution. What do you do in the second?
The one chance to redeem this book as powerful fiction would have been to wage the battle between Ahriman and Ahura-Mazda, darkness and light, in Bahram’s breast. Dostoevsky would have done it; it’s surely not beyond Ghosh’s powers.
For Ghosh, more than any of his compeers I have read, writes from within an odour of sanctity. An indefinable aura of goodness hangs about all his work—as it did Dostoevsky’s. His challenge, in these amoral times, is not to be afraid of it but to wield it. There is a vile belief that bad men make better artists, and artists should not be judged by the standards of common people. This is a canard spread by Bad Men who want to be thought Good Artists.
Ah hell, I’m preaching. I’ll wait for the third volume. (I’m betting it will be called either Stream of Gold or Island of Ashes.)
Finally, I own to a mischievous amusement at having caught out the usually impeccable Ghosh. In a letter, Robin says (p 369):
…just as the half-eaten meals on the tables of Pompeii are proof of the unforeseen nature of Etna’s eruption…
Hmm. Pompeii was destroyed by Vesuvius, not Etna, which is about 300 kilometres south, in Sicily. Possibly this is Robin’s error and not Ghosh’s. But are proofreaders today required to know nothing more than the alphabet?