Desperate for another fix of Opium War-based derring-do after finishing Tai-Pan, I picked up River of Smoke after spying it during one of my late-night waiting-for-the-train-at-Victoria-station-might-as-well-have-a-look-at-the-tat-in-WHSmith’s endeavours. Despite sporting a cover that would be better suited to a rejected Cecelia Ahern novel, the book managed to sucker me in with a blurb that promised an exotic location, 19th-century imperialism, and a take on a familiar situation (the first Opium War) from a different perspective.
River of Smoke follows a bunch of characters living in Canton in the years just prior to the first time the British decided to showcase their love of ‘free trade’ in China: i.e., the freedom to have life-destroying drugs imported to your country while the gunboats look on. They all live in Fanqui-town, which is a little enclave outside the main city of Canton; foreign devils, of course, are not allowed to live anywhere else in the country - which, given how they behave, isn’t an altogether unreasonable situation; as one Chinese character puts it late in the novel, they don’t want China to end up as ‘another Hindustan.’ The wily Chinese, then, have judged the British character well, and no error!
So there’s a merry community of English, Americans, Dutch, Portuguese and Indian merchants living just outside the margins of Chinese society, pretty much living by their own rules and flaunting Chinese law when it suits them. The corrupt Chinese officials themselves get rich skimming a few taels off the opium trade, and therefore are rather lax about enforcing its supposed prohibition. This uneasy situation has been going for some time when the book opens, with the foreigners unused to much in the way of attention from the Chinese law enforcers.
All this changes when the seemingly-honest and incorruptible Commisioner Lin arrives. He travels like a commoner, refuses to take bribes, and is determined to enforce the Emperor’s edicts outlawing the trade in opium. Suddenly, things get very unpleasant around Fanqui-town as the foreign Tai-Pans - business magnates grown rich on plying their killer trade – try to outdo one another in protestations that they are in fact good men trying to introduce to the barbarian Chinese the selfless notions of free trade and globalisation.
So what did I think of the book? Well, it should be noted that the above plot description probably accounts for about 40% of the actual narrative. By the time the plot actually kicked in, Ghosh had quite worn me down for what felt like a thousand pages with every possible side-track plot he could think of. The Fanqui-town residents are many, and not one side-street of their winding lives goes unexamined. Every walk-on character is treated to an extensive discourse on their family history, often going back two or three generations. Some might find that this technique adds depth to the setting, but I found that nine times out of ten it just overloads the reader with information that becomes useless immediately after if has been imparted. As much as I appreciate a well fleshed-out fictional world, the book became so much more enjoyable when the plot actually got started and I realised quite how much Ghosh had been jerking me around with these pointless plotless sidetracks. He’s like the Terry Gillingham of novelists: he really is good at what he does, but man does he need a strict editor.
There’s also the issue of food: at the drop of a hat, Ghosh is likely to abandon whatever thin wisp of plot that might be floating around and just have the characters pig out. He will then spend half a page or more describing, in loving detail, every exotic morsel of what is usually the kind of feast that Tiberius would have been proud of. Not one paratha, masala, chakki or daal-purri goes undescribed.
And that touches on another issue. Ghosh is Indian, but he’s lived all over the world, and is writing for the English market. Yet the amount of non-English words he drops into the book, without a sniff of a glossary, is literally astonishing. Writers of historical fiction are always quick to drop in a few foreign words, usually hygienically sealed in italic, as a way of adding local colour. But even as a veteran of Anglo-English literature, and no stranger to the odd maidan or jemhadar, I quickly became distanced from the story by entire pages in which I did not recognise one single noun. The use of language is a quite deliberate tactic used by Ghosh to portray the mix of cultures that inhabit Canton, as I describe below, but its over-use grates massively.
As a pedant, something that bothered me that probably wouldn’t bother most people was Ghosh’s somewhat creative use of punctuation, in particular when it comes to dialogue. In short, he frequently leaves his dialogue without quotation marks, as if he was some sort of Indian James Joyce or something. At first I tried to spot the logic behind this; perhaps he uses this technique to indicate that characters were not actually speaking English; it also occurred to me that he might only be using it for Indian characters, or just for the main character Bahram. But none of these rules are adhered to consistently as far as I could see, so this confusing lack of punctuation remains a mystery to me.
Something I did like about River of Smoke was its focus on the non-Europeans amongst the opium merchants. Bahram is an Indian Zoroastian who is just as rich a businessman as his white colleagues, and yet he finds that when it comes to the crunch, he is not considered one of them. It’s interesting to discover that Indian merchants were extensively mixed-up in the opium trade; we are so used to thinking about it as a European-dominated industry.
Ghosh has said in interviews that his ultimate goal with his books is to show that much of the world was a dynamic, globalised network of trading and learning even without the input of Europeans. The theme of globalisation is hit again and again in the book; the language, food and commodities of the characters come from a multitude of backgrounds (each of which is usually exhaustively followed up). The author is showing that even before the intervention of Europeans, the East had a sophisticated mix of cultures and trade.
And yet it must be said that the book languishes in what colonial Europeans would call ‘Oriental decadence,’ revelling in its choking, smothering richness of food and languages, and going absolutely nowhere, until the Fanqui-town Europeans take centre-stage towards the final third to deal with the threat to their livelihood and inject some actual plot to the proceedings. If by the time I came to the closing chapters I felt a few pangs of regret, it was the regret of a hostage who’s acquired Stockholm Syndrome: a massive book like this will sometimes charm the reader just because of the sheer amount of time they’ve spent in its world.
River of Smoke isn’t an adventure story, and it isn’t a fast-paced breezy read. Despite its odd and obvious flaws, its far closer to actual literature than anything else I’ve read lately. The prose style is absolutely gorgeous, and this coupled with the interesting setting, is probably what kept me reading. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the kind of book I will return to in several years’ time and enjoy much more. I certainly can see how many people would probably enjoy the book: there really is a lot to like, despite all my bellyaching. Somehow, I’m not sorry that my urge to chase the Opium War dragon led me to River of Smoke.