River of Smoke [Amitav Ghosh]

Here, unable to retrieve the word he needed, Allow broke off to take a small pamphlet out of the sleeve of his gown. This was not the first time Bahram had seen someone consulting this booklet, so he knew what it was – a glossary called ‘Foreign Devil-talk’

The second book of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke follows Ah Fett, Neel and Paulette into the hongs of Canton and the hills of Hong Kong. The Emperor is trying to ban opium imports and the small enclave of Canton feels the noose about it’s neck as the merchants square up to a nations ruler in the name of free trade (oh, and vast profits).

River of Smoke is hugely enjoyable, for me, much more enjoyable than Sea of Poppies, the first book. In that the language was baffling and incomprehensible and although it’s still the latter, it was less baffling, even with the introduction of the pidgin used in Canton between the Chinese and the traders.  But it was necessary, to introduce the characters, to push the narrative out into the river, so it could be swept by the current, and that’s exactly what happens in River of Smoke.

George Chinnery, on the other hand, had earned fabulous sums of money while in Calcutta and his household was as Chuck-muck as any in the city, with Paltans of nokar-logue doing Chukkers in the hallways and syces swimming in the istabuls, as for the bobachee-connah, why, it had been known to spend a hundred sicca rupees on sherberts and syllabubs in one week.

The main character in the narrative is arguably Bahram, the father of Ah Fett.  An opium trader who allows us to view the inner workings of Canton’s traders and committees. His generous heart, he takes on Neel as his munshi at the request of Ah Fett, is at odds with his business head as he sails with one last shipment.
Meanwhile Paulette meets Fitcher Penrose, a nursery owner from England with whom she sails on the Redruth to Hong Kong as he goes in search of an extremely rare flower.  En route they enlist the help of an old childhood friend of Paulette’s, Robin Chinnery. The painter sails to Canton, and as Paulette is unable to go as no women are admitted, he writes letters to her relaying the goings on in the enclave and his search for the flower on Fitchers behalf.

The breadth and depth of Ghosh’s research is incredible. Canton is painted in bold and detailed strokes in his narrative, a bustling hive of commerce, where the men of industry have tiffin, attend the club for dinner, and make their own entertainment, such as waltzing with each other. But like Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns, the traders all refuse to Kow-Tow to the Emperors demands to cease trading. They refuse to believe the severity of the situation, all the while blustering about free trade until Commissioner Lin is sent to end the smuggling once and for all.  The tension slowly builds as rumours fly regarding the Commissioner, followed by proclomations and edicts from the Mandarins, until Lin arrives and acts decisively.
Bits and pieces are leaked through Robin Chinnery’s letters and slowly the story of Neel and Paulette intertwines, one watching from the hills of Hong Kong, the other in the eye of the storm.

The prose rolls along at a pitch perfect pace with an epic amount of detail that never bogs it down. The meeting between Bahram, Zadig Bey and Napoleon was a great inclusion and of course the book was not without it’s humour.  After the slow start of Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke powers up to full speed, roll on book three!

Far be it from me to reproach you for your spontaneity, Puggly dear, but you must not always assume that it is safe to transpose French expressions directly into English.  The English equivalent of baton-a-foc, for instance, is definitely not ‘foc-stick’ – it is ‘jib-boom’. And no dear, nor were you well-advised to tell the baffled bosun that your intention was only to compliment him on his skill with ‘the mighty mast that protrudes from the front’.


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