River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh, John Murray, RRP£20, 528 pages
Any good historical novel should teach the reader some history as well as sweeping him or her along with an unfolding narrative. Few do this as well as Amitav Ghosh, a Bengali-born professor of comparative literature who puts his considerable learning at the service of his powers as a great storyteller.
Ghosh’s books have regularly reminded us that globalisation is not a discovery of our own times. He has taught us elsewhere, for instance, about the links between the medieval merchants of the Nile and India and about the Burmese timber trade of more recent days (this was the backdrop to his finest novel The Glass Palace). Emigration and commerce are the tides on which his characters are carried this way and that to adventure, tragedy, fortune and disaster.
River of Smoke is the second volume in a planned trilogy that began with Sea of Poppies, published in 2008. Ghosh’s story links the opium fields and factories of the Ganges and Calcutta with the trafficking of indentured workers to the sugar plantations of Mauritius and the smuggling of opium up China’s Pearl River. These are not stories out of which the British emerge well. The principal casualty in River of Smoke is a Parsi merchant whose sad verdict on the value to future generations of Indians of his own labours and that of his peers in the days of the East India Company is clear: “Was it just … so that these fellows could speak English, and wear hats and trousers, and play cricket?”
Where Sea of Poppies ended – with this reader gnashing his teeth at the curtailment of so enthralling a story – so River of Smoke begins, reintroducing many of the same cast of characters in Macau, Canton and Hong Kong on the eve of the opium wars. Neel, the raja wrongly convicted of forgery in the first book, holds centre stage and the wicked Calcutta trader, Burnham, his assistant, Baboo Nob Kissin, Paulette the botanist and several other old friends join us again.
At the heart of this story is the opium trade and the heroic efforts of the Manchu emperor’s commissioner, Lin Zexu, to stamp it out. The terrible damage done by opium to its Chinese addicts is justified by the businessman, Burnham, in exactly the sort of language used by traders at the time. “It is not my hand,” he says, “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.” The British traders’ racism and hypocrisy and their constant habit of associating the free market with the divine order are exposed by the young American, Charles King, the only westerner to emerge here with any credit.
Occasionally, Ghosh’s tale sags for a moment under the weight of his own scholarship. This is particularly true of the author’s somewhat self-indulgent use of the period pidgin, creole and patois slang that he has studied. Without one’s own lexicon, to hand a passage like the following is incomprehensible: “[George Chinery’s] household was as chuck-muck as any in the city, with paltans of nokar-logue doing chukkers in the hallways and syces swarming in the istabbuls.”
This is a very slight criticism of a book whose conclusion again left me panting for the next volume in this trilogy about a period described elsewhere by Ghosh in both India and China as the “long night of the colonial experience”. At least for Hong Kong, the colonial story ended better than it began.
Lord Patten, now chairman of the BBC Trust and chancellor of the University of Oxford, was the last governor of Hong Kong