Cannonball Read IV: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh has taken his time to write the second part of the Ibis trilogy, but although I had long forgotten what the first part was all about, it was worth the long wait. Picking up the many strings of the narration that led a colourful cast of characters to weather a storm on the Ibis on her way across the Indian Ocean, Ghosh quickly sends them off into different directions again. While some stay behind in their new home on Mauritius, Neel and Ah Fatt make their way to Canton, in search of Ah Fatt's father, Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium trader. His story is told against the backdrop of the unfolding Opium Wars between China and Britain, although by the end of the novel, war has not yet broken out. Instead, the reader gets a taste of what life was like in Canton, the only Chinese place that allowed foreign traders to live and work in the 1830s. As in Sea of Poppies before, Ghosh is a master of evocation. He manages to include even the tiniest detail in his descriptions of the time and place of the story.
And what a story it is - dealing with botany, opium, Chinese politics, painting and family histories, all across pretty much every culture that played a part in the history of 19th century Asia. What amazed me was that although I was constantly bombarded with facts I never once got bored of them. Ghosh makes the place come to life, every detail adds another layer to the story, and yet you can never get enough of it.
For me, being the nerd I am, those parts that dealt with language stood out. Again, as in Sea of Poppies, the entire text is one big example for the multi-cultured setting of the story. Like the boatmen on the Ibis, the traders and locals in Canton use a certain form of pidgin to communicate and not get lost in the multitude of languages spoken. This is a joy to read, although it can border on hard work, given that Amitav Ghosh takes his pidgin seriously. Sometimes you have to skim and try to get the gist, which is probably as close to the real situation as you can get. In this novel, Neel acts as the character who tries to get on top of the language confusion and plans to tame it by planning a dictionary. On his webpage, Ghosh goes as far as to publish the framework of this dictionary. What a man. (Really. Hmmm.)
River of Smoke is one of the rare books that promise a lot and deliver even more. It's a wonderful, exciting story full of amazing characters and heaps of information. It will be a few more years until we can finish the trilogy, and until then, I would very much like to sit in Amitav Ghosh's study and see that nothing happens to the man while he writes. Or is that too creepy?
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