Amitav Ghosh — Indian born and educated, at home in New York — is our epic novelist of empire, then and now. River of Smoke is part two of his trilogy on Opium, the narcotic fuel of the British Empire in the 19th Century. Reading it, you have to wonder if he isn’t writing by loose analogy about Oil, trade and world domination in the 21st Century, too. About us, that is.
An aggressive imperial theology of “freedom” and free trade is among his links or parallelisms. In River of Smoke, opium trader Ben Burnham is sanctifying Britain’s mid-19th Century Opium Wars that forced Indian opium and mass addiction on China:
“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.”
Just yesterday it seems, George W. Bush was justifying the US invasion of Iraq:
“God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.”
Three years ago Amitav Ghosh told me he’d written Sea of Poppies (2008), first in the novel series, in a fury against Bush’s war. He wrote River of Smoke in Obama time, and still he is playing with resonances between centuries and characters, real and conjured. In conversation again, I’m presuming to suggest I can see what he’s up to: he’s keeping an anthropologist’s wide-angle diary on 2011 and transposing much of it back into a Melvillian setting on the high seas and in the traders’ quarter of Canton around 1838.
In the Age of Obama, the war rhetoric is cooler but the wars go on. So the new book is full of mixed bloods and cultural crossings. The main character is a Indian Parsi named Bahram (not Barack), but like Barack he’s driven by ambition into the muck and mire of his trade even if his heart isn’t in it. Bahram is the first brown man in the all-white Chamber of Commerce in Canton, which doesn’t finally accept the outsider. He’s a very decent man who introspects on the morality of selling dope and seems about to renounce it when he puts himself into a deep opium dream and …
Amitav Ghosh is up to much else, including endless delicious variations on creole dishes and pidgin phrasings — the hybridization of peoples and cultures in an earlier round of globalization. China is a central preoccupation in River of Smoke, as it is in our world of 2011. One class of Ghosh’s English cast is pushing opium on China. But there’s another great enterpriser, Fitcher Penrose, who’s making a lively business getting plants out of China for commercial development in England. Azaleas, chrysanthemums, wisteria, hydrangeas, and many more flowering plants originated in China, plus rhubarb; and there’s a fantasy cure-all Golden Camellia that Penrose & Co. are hunting down -– all to suggest the fabulous breadth and depth of China’s historical-cultural treasure. Then and now, Amitav Ghosh seems to be asking how we will come to see China not as a faceless mass of people, or as a factory, but as a civilization.