Books

'River of Smoke': Free Trade Amid Messianic Fervor

The illusory ideals of liberty and freedom which were called upon to justify the Opium Wars remain with us today in the resurgent ideology of neoliberalism and the imperialistic military interventions of Western powers.


River of Smoke

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length: 528 pages
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-09
Amazon

It begins with a storm at sea. Three ships on three very different voyages are caught in the grasp of a terrible cyclone.

The Ibis carries a cargo of indentured servants destined for the island of Mauritius, The Redruth is a British nursery boat loaded with plants and trees gathered from foreign shores and the hull of The Anahita teems with hundreds of chests of raw opium bound for the Chinese city of Canton. The lives of those aboard these ships converge in fateful patterns that form the basis of Amitav Ghosh’s most recent novel, River of Smoke. The second installment in Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke was preceded by Sea of Poppies, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and won the prestigious Crossword Book Prize in India.

These works are set to the backdrop of the 19th century opium trade, in which the British East India Company exported vast quantities of the drug to be sold in China, but the real subject for Ghosh are the ways in which a diverse spectrum of human lives become ensnared by the encompassing force of this burgeoning market.

River of Smoke vividly captures a critical moment in the history of global trade, as the tensions between the Chinese monarchy and the British East India Company mount to a perilous crescendo that will culminate in the devastating violence of the Opium Wars. The foreign enclave of Canton, where much of the novel takes place, is a cosmopolitan array of various international interests all vying for their portion of the vast and unbridled opportunities for trade that flow from the markets of China. The characters in the novel represent this multiplicity of national origin and social status, from the opium dealers and “sing-song girls” of Canton’s river district to the wealthy and powerful Chinese merchants and foreign traders.

At the center of it all is Seth Bahram Modi, a Parsi merchant from Bombay who has staked his life’s work upon the precious and illicit cargo of The Anahita. Bahram has risen from a life of poverty to his position as one of the most influential foreign traders in Canton primarily by importing opium from India. However, as the future of the Chinese opium trade grows dim with the passage of increasingly severe and unequivocal prohibition laws, so do Bahram’s future prospects, having gambled his honor and the entirety of his wealth upon this single shipment.

The characterization of Bahram dramatically captures the moral and political ironies of this period in world history. Driven by a deep desire to provide for his friends and family, and to emancipate himself from the class into which he was born, he finds a measure of success in an industry that is predicated on greed, addiction and the destruction of lives. As his advances begin to whither around him, engulfed by powerful forces outside of his control, it is opium, the very thing upon which he has built his fortune that threatens to erase it all.

Ghosh’s rapt attention to detail anchors the reader firmly within the world of his story which takes place nearly two centuries ago and yet mirrors the contemporary moment in vital and uncanny ways. The rhetoric of free trade that is embraced with messianic fervor by the foreign traders in Canton could have been taken directly from current discussions of globalization. And the illusory ideals of liberty and freedom which were called upon to justify the Opium Wars remain with us today in the resurgent ideology of neoliberalism and the imperialistic military interventions of Western powers.

Ghosh’s novel is never didactic, painting a complex and multifaceted picture of this period in history, particularly through the character of Bahram whose life is an amalgamation of the various political and economic forces acting upon the individuals of this era. However, River of Smoke calls upon the reader, through its novelistic vision of empathy and compassion, to remember the tragic errors of the past. And it is an act of remembrance that is beckoned through the beauty of the words upon the page, words which span across a diversity of languages and idioms, that revel equally in the wild eyed vulgarities of debauched sailors, the boastful pontifications of free market mercenaries and the insatiable wonderings of artists and travelers.

This is Ghosh's greatest gift as a writer, his ability to harness the properties of language as a means to gaze across a multitude of difference, revealing both the insidious workings of power and the scattered moments of beauty that define and unite us.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image