Tuesday 6 December 2016

Review: Fiction: River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

John Murray, £20

Published 16/07/2011 | 05:00

Do you understand the meaning of 'pus-pus', 'palki', 'paltan', 'bonoy', 'belser', 'bowji', 'sala' and 'sakaba'?

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If you came upon these words in the first page of a book wouldn't you be tempted to throw it across the room? My answer to the first question is, like yours I suspect, an emphatic no! But to the second I'd say, like Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, "Go on, go on, go on. . ."

River of Smoke is the second volume in Amitav Ghosh's trilogy about the opium trade in the 19th Century. This book begins in Mauritius, but it then moves rapidly to India, China -- and Cornwall.

The central character, Bahram, is a drug dealer from Bombay. In our eyes "drug dealer" is a scumbag in a tracksuit. Bahram is far from that: he's extremely intelligent, a member of an upper-class Parsi family and his trade is highly respectable -- that is if you think respectability and British imperialism go hand in glove with each other.

Ghosh doesn't. What he sees in the glove is an iron fist. And it's hard to disagree with him: Britain actively encouraged a plague of drug addiction in China and fought the First Opium War between 1839 and 1842 when the Chinese government tried to put a stop to it.

Since one of the results of that war was the creation of Hong Kong, we're not talking about a minor incident of gun-boat diplomacy.

Not many readers will know about this history. That's a big problem with River of Smoke -- its 522 pages are bursting with background information and some of the time you're bound to say to yourself, "I don't know what's going on here".

Nor is Ghosh satisfied with the complexities of the politics of opium. He also has a sub-plot about botany. If that seems even weirder than the weird words quoted earlier, think of all those plants in your local garden centre which you take for granted but which were imported to Ireland from China and India in the 19th Century.

Ghosh is determined to show imperialism wasn't just rape and pillage. Along with a wriggling snake-pit of sub-plots, River of Smoke presents the reader with a huge cast of characters. Amongst them is Robert Chinnery, the son of George Chinnery who had a major reputation as a portrait painter in Ireland in the early 1800s.

Although the characters are Victorian, when it comes to sex they don't behave like Victorian prudes are supposed to: drawers are dropped, shirts are lifted, men dance with men, and all in all, if I may use a word that originated in the east, there's a lot of hanky-panky going on in this book.

The bawdiness, the fun with language, the eccentric characters, the exotic scenery, the fascinating history and Ghosh's biting but non-moralistic take on British imperialism continually tempt the reader to go on reading.

Be warned, though: it's a slow boat to China.

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