Book Review: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

The Book
For Valentine's Day this year Jared gave me Amitav Ghosh's new book.  River of Smoke picks up right where Ghosh's prequel Sea of Poppies left off.  There's enough continuity between the two novels that Jared was concerned, "It sounds just like Sea of Poppies.  I was hoping I got you the right book!"  And it is, packed with opium eaters, British merchants addicted to profits, and mysterious flowers promising to make botanists wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

Ghosh is clearly enamoured enough with his first book's motley crew of characters to write them through another novel.  This time, though, he splits his characters up geographically so the story is a bit more plausible (there's simply no way you could get that many different types of people together on a single ship headed to Mauritius in his first novel.  I'm all for diversity, but come on, let's be slightly historically realistic!).  The majority of River of Smoke is set in Canton's Fanqui-town, or foreign enclave, just before the outbreak of the Opium Wars between the British and Chinese.

Canton During The Opium Wars
Canton is a rollicking place, ridiculously cosmopolitan, and stuffed to the gills with men chasing money and illicit substances. Women are not allowed anywhere near the foreign factories.  My favorite character Paulette, a French orphan and trained botanist, is therefore left to search for plants on Hong Kong, a wild and windswept place devoid of inhabitants.  While she searches for new species, she sends her childhood friend and artist, Robin, into town to track down the provenance of a mysterious golden camellia seen only in a painting that came out of Canton decades earlier.  It promises make her and her boss, a stuffy and cantankerous British botanist, ridiculously wealthy upon its introduction to Britain.  Robin details his investigations and exploits in Canton in letters to Paulette, including visits with famous Chinese painters of the day and his introduction to Canton's rather lively gay scene.

Opium Poppy
But the flower most everyone is concerned with is the opium poppy.  A unique assortment of British and Indian traders are poised in Canton's harbor, ships loaded with tens of thousands of chests of opium, when the Chinese government decides to ban the sale of the drug in China.  What ensues is a fascinating repartee between the Chinese government's view that addiction disrupts the harmony between heaven and earth and a slavish British adherence to Adam Smith's invisible hand.  Along the way we discover, surprisingly to the Chinese, that the British will do anything and betray anyone in their quest for profit.  It's comically horrific to watch the Chinese realize with astonishment that the British government will regulate and restrict the use of opium in Britain due to its addictive and degenerating qualities, but still threaten the Chinese government with military action in order to sell the same dangerous drug in China.  It's a painful and difficult discovery of British arrogance and racism.

Opium Factory
It will not be until 1910 and the loss of  more than one degrading war until the Chinese will finally convince the British government to stop forcing the trade of opium in China.  Meanwhile, opium became one of the economic cornerstones of British India.  The opium used to subjugate China came from Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, and the Indian farmers who grew and collected opium often became addicts themselves during cultivation.  I have read at least two volumes of reports by the British government detailing the growing problem of addiction amongst Indian farmers; clearly the government was aware, and worried, about the spread of opium addiction.  Yet during British colonization of Burma, the British introduced opium by both sale and cultivation.  This lead to the development of Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle of opium, which was the biggest producer of opium in the world until Afghanistan took the lead.  Today half of Burma's economy comes from the illicit sale of opium, and the military dictatorship, propped up by opium profits, remains the world's second largest opium producer.  China, meanwhile, still has some of the most draconian laws against drug trafficking in the world based on their historical experience with opium.

One small flower brought about stunning European profits and the full-scale colonization and subjugation of several Asian countries. There is some discussion that the soma plant mentioned in the Rig Veda is actually opium.  And I suppose without opium we'd never have the poetry of Keats or Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Even Louisa May Alcott was an opium addict.  Opium is also a part of our local color; the drug was first introduced to the United States through San Francisco's Chinatown.  Despite its history and prevalence, however, I do wonder if Emily Blunt understands exactly what's behind the name of the product she's currently hawking...