It would be a shame to let 2015 pass without reviewing what was the longest literary experience of the year, both in terms of page count and time committment: 1696 pages which because I listened to the three unabridged audio books translated into 60 hours of listening over a period of 6 months. (I only listen to audio books when I’m alone in the car.)
The Ibis Trilogy is Ghosh’s retelling of that infamous episode in British history, the first Opium War (1839- 1842). I still remember the incredulity I experienced when – it was years and years ago and I’m more worldly-wise now – I first heard that we fought a war to preserve our right to trade in hard drugs, so when Sea of Poppies was first published in 2008, with that beautiful dust jacket, it was added to the TBR right away. Same thing happened with River of Smoke in 2011. For some reason though, I didn’t make a start until the final part, Flood of Fire was published in 2015.
If that was a strategy, it worked well, because “reading” the three parts back to back let me appreciate the coherence of the whole in a way that may otherwise have been lost. To summarise briefly: Sea of Poppies shows the impact of the Opium trade on the little men, the people in The Bay of Bengal, who grow and manufacture the product; River of Smoke shifts primarily to the viewpoint of the traders, with growing resistance to the trade from the Chinese authorities; and in Flood of Fire all hell breaks loose!
But let’s start at the beginning and admit that Sea of Poppies was not what I was expecting at all! For some reason, I thought that most of the action would be on the Ibis – the ex-slaver – and at sea. Not so, it is a leisurely gathering together of those who finally take to sea in the Ibis in the final chapters of the book. The device allows Ghosh to explore in detail the back stories of those that find themselves on board: the officers, the crew, and the indentured Indians on their way to work in the Sugar plantations in Mauritius. And therein lies the emotional pull of this first part. For amongst the passengers are Deeti and Neel; the former, the widow of a heroin addict, fleeing death on her husband’s funeral pyre. Neel, once a wealthy rajah, is now being transported as a debtor after his creditors unscrupulously call in debts when he refuses to sell them some of his ancestral lands. Much to his disgust, he shares his cabin/cell with a filthy Chinese heroine addict, and yet, the story how Neel overcomes his prejudices, and not only helps but befriends Ah Fatt is one of the most humane subplots of the piece. Among the officers, who in the main are as beastly and sadistic as you would expect, given that they are representatives of the British Empire, is a fine, young, honourable, American, named Zachary Reid.
These people, like the IBIS, form a backbone through the trilogy. Although, given that they all set off on the voyage to Mauritius, they all end up in different places. A storm and a mutiny at sea take care of that!
River of Smoke introduces us to another ship, the Anahita, which is floundering in the same storm. She is owned by Barum Modi, a Parsee business man. Her hold is full of opium and it is crucial that this trip is successful, if Barum is to buy out his double-dealing brothers-in-law. The storm does not augur well, nor do the times. It is 1838, a year before the First Opium War, and the Chinese are beginning to crack down on the trade. Luckily for Barum the Anahita and most of his cargo makes it through the storm to arrive in Canton. As do Neel and Ah Fatt, who is Barum’s son by his Chinese mistress. This revelation allows Ghosh to inject a domestic drama – father and son are estranged – into the midst of intense commercial and political negotiations. Which are staggering in their self-righteousness and hypocrisy to say the least. Here in a nutshell is the British argument.
… the only offence cited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of Free Trade – and it is no more possible for us to be heedless of those laws that to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God’s commandments.
And yet, even though Barum is one of them, he became my favourite character in the trilogy, whereas Commissioner Lin, the bogeyman for the opium traders, became my favourite villain! Who would have thought it.
I spent the pages of River of Smoke missing Zachary Reid. I needn’t have worried. I got more than enough of him, his mistress, Mrs Burnham, and their sexual peccadilloes, during Flood of Fire. Pages and pages – or hours and hours of listening, which I couldn’t fast forward. Quite simply, too much information. In my view, a miscalculation by Ghosh – I’m not sure what the point was beyond the fact that the C19th was as libidinous as the C21st. What started as an affair of convenience though, did result in real feelings, and Mrs Burnham did the best she could to turn Zachary into a successful man of his time. She did a fabulous job and these pages see Zachary turn from a charming , honourable freshman into …..
…. a man of the times …. a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of “enough”. Anyone who tries to thwart my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must be expected to be treated as such.
Something which bodes badly for Ah Fatt. Of all the heinous acts in this trilogy, Zachary Reid’s treachery is the lowlight. Although it’s hard to condemn him. He has been remoulded by the opium trade to become a man of his time after all.
As I write this, I wonder if the Reid/Ah Fatt dynamic is metaphoric in some way …..
…. because this is where the British Empire finally strike the Chinese. The first Opium War arrives and with it battle after battle, during which the Chinese are hopelessly outgunned and completely outmanoeuvred, despite outnumbering their foe. We see the war up close through the eyes of Kesri Singh, an Indian soldier in the service of the British army (and brother of Deeti) and observed by a non-combatant in the diary of Neel Rattan, who following his stint with Barum, is now in the employ of the Chinese.
Ghosh’s narrative is incredibly detailed; the result of his prodigous research. Occasionally he forgets not to let it show and the narrative sags as a result. (The start of book two and botanic epistolary interludes.) His ambition though is to recreate a panoramic overview of the world of that time and, in that he succeeds with a multi-national cast of dozens from all social strata, detailing not only the microcosms of their lives but also their languages, specialist vocabularies and dialects. The linguistics were quite challenging as l listened – I feel sure that I wouldn’t have lost my way had I been reading. Eventually I let it wash over me – I got the gist anyway …
… and I became as fond of Ghosh’s characters as the author himself. Even if the ending can’t be a happy one for China (and Ah Fatt), things work out, as far as they can, for most who had a hard time on the Ibis in book one. For a significant number the Ibis plays a key role as she sails off into the distance at the end of book three, mirroring the way she sailed into view at the very beginning. Neat it may be, but I can think of no more satisfying way to tie up almost one million words of great historical writing.