Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

START with Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

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I recently wrote a book review on River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh, which held me spellbound, so riveting that I had to order Sea of Poppies, which is actually the first volume of the trilogy. I had heard a review of River of Smoke on NPR and although it was written as the second volume in a trilogy, it can be read as a stand-alond.

Yes. Yes, it can be read as a stand-alone, but it is so much easier, I can state with authority, if you read them in order. Once I started Sea of Poppies, I also discovered an extensive glossary in the back, several pages, a list of the words, annotated with suggested origins, and it adds so much color to an already brilliantly colored novel. Much of both novels uses words from many cultures, and words that have been formed by another culture’s understanding of the words (some hilarious). If you like Captain Jack Sparrow, you’re going to love the polyglot language spoken by ship’s crews from many nations trying to communicate with one another. It can be intimidating, but if you sort of say the words out loud the way they are written at the beginning, you begin to find the rhythm and the gist of the communication, just as if you were a new recruit to the sea-going vessels of the early 1800’s. I loved it because it captured the difficulties encountered trying to say the simplest things, and the clever ways people in all cultures manage to get around it, and make themselves understood.

Sea of Poppies starts in a small Indian village, with one of the very small poppy gardens, planted on an advance from an opium factory representative, thrust upon the small farmer, with the result that most small Indian farmers converted their entire allotment from subsistence foods to poppies. Ghosh walks us through an opium processing factory, which is a little like walking through the circles of hell. We meet many of the characters we will follow in River of Smoke, and learn how this diverse group bonded into one sort of super-family through their adventures – and misadventures – together.

It is an entirely engrossing work. Sea of Poppies was short listed for the Man Booker award, and was listed as a “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and The Economist. The theme is the opium trade, leading to the Opium Wars, with China, and is a chilling indictment of how business interests manipulate a population’s perceptions of national interests to justify . . . well, just about anything, in the name of profit.

The theme is woven through human stories so interesting, so textured, so compelling, that you hardly realize you are reading history and learning about the trade, cultures, travel, clothing, traditions, religions, food, and motivations as you avidly turn the pages.

I can hardly wait for the third volume. Get started now, so you’ll be ready for it when it comes out!

March 3, 2013 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Financial Issues, Friends & Friendship, Gardens, Health Issues, India, Language, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Political Issues, Social Issues, Travel, Women's Issues | , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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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.

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 | , , , , , , | Leave a comment