Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Amitav Ghosh and River of Smoke

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The National Public Radio website recommended this book as one of the best historical fiction reads, and I had never heard of it, so I ordered it. I ordered it in spite of the little voice I had in my head reminding me that this was the second in a trilogy, that the first is Sea of Poppies. I was too eager. I wanted to jump right in, and the review said it could be read stand-alone. I had read Ghosh’s Glass Palace a couple years ago for book club, loved it, and was eager to read this one.

With a raging cold and no possible way I can be around humanity, it was a good time to start. Just picking up the book, it has a dense feel. Once you start, it is like being suddenly in a whirlpool, drowning in new words, characters who have more than one name and more than one identity, whirling between England, Mauritius, Hindustan, Gujerat, Hong Kong, Macau and China, whirling between cultures and professions and trades, but oh, what a ride.

CharybdisPainting

It would have been helpful to be reading River of Smoke on an iPad, where I could poke at a new word and it would give me the meaning, but in truth, you can guess a lot of the meaning of the vocabulary from the context. The seafarers all speak a language sort of like Jack Sparrow, a pidgen language filled with simplified grammar and with words from many nations and cultures. It forces you to slow down. It’s worth it. It would also be nice if you could poke on a place-name and have Google Earth show you where it is. There used to be a website called Google Books, and you could put in a book and it would show you the places in which actions in the book took place; that would be particularly handy reading this book, provide context in place-relations.

But reading slowly is it’s own reward. This book has depth, depth of character, depth of textures and senses, and depth of morality. I love a book like this where you can smell the smoke drifting over the water, where you can smell the sewer and bloated animal corpses floating outside the foreign hongs of the Canton traders, you can feel the textures of the textiles and see their colors, you can taste the exquisiteness of Macau cuisine and you can hike in a Hong Kong not yet settled by anyone, Chinese or foreign.

The scope of time covered by the major part of the story is short, although there are years of back-stories for several characters. The period is 1837-8, during which the Chinese Emperor decides to put teeth in the long established edict against opium trade to China. The edict had been in place, but not enforced, and China watched her citizens sink into opium addiction and lowered productivity. The traders were making fortunes – shiploads of money. Opium was grown in India and shipped from there to China.

When the ban against shipping opium into China is announced, many traders believe it is just another attempt to attain greater bribes on the part of the mandarins, and decline to obey. There is great debate, and while it is lively in the book, it is based on documents from that era, many of the arguments word for word. Traders stood to loose a great deal of money, in truth, it would ruin most of them to lose their shipments.

There is a side story I also like, that of the botanical trade between China and England, and the importation of many of the garden plants we take for granted today, which were unknown until sent from China. Camellia – one of which is the plant for tea, did you know that? Roses, azaleas, orchids – many many familiar plants would be missing from our gardens were it not for their introduction during this period.

Ghosh gives us disparate characters of many cultures and upbringings, and slowly weaves them together, each one tangential to all the others, some closely interwoven. It is a fascinating read, and I can’t wait for the next volume. I may have to go back and read Sea of Poppies while I am waiting.

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January 30, 2013 - Posted by | Adventure, Books, Character, Community, Crime, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Fiction, Financial Issues, Food, Friends & Friendship, India, Living Conditions, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Social Issues, Values, Work Related Issues | , , , , , ,

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