This is the second volume in what is expected to be a trilogy. The first was Sea of Poppies which I have reviewed here. Sea of Poppies ends with a dramatic escape at sea during a violent storm. River of Smoke starts with the aftermath of that escape. However this novel is very different from Sea of Poppies. While we do learn about the fate of some of the main characters from the first novel, River of Smoke is more about new characters. Like the Sea of Poppies there is some sense of adventure and sweep of movement as the action moves from Mauritius to Singapore and on to Canton, with a detour to Bombay. But this time the focus is much more on one person and one place.
That person is Seth Bahramji Naurozi Modi, known as Bahram, and the place is Canton. The year is still 1838. Bahram, his current travails and his backstory, dominates the book. He is a parsi, married into a wealthy and well established Bombay family. Their main concern is ship building, but Bahram has branched out into the even more lucrative business of transporting and selling opium to China. This trade is centred on the Chinese port of Canton and it is here that most of the action takes place. This opium trade, though very lucrative is illegal. It has only survived due to the connivance and corruption of local officials. However all that is about to change as the Chinese imperial authorities set about to bring an end to the trade. It is this bitter stand off which takes up most of the novel.
As with the Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh has created a wonderful cast of characters for us. Bahram of course, but many of the others are equally fascinating and colourful people. They include Chi-Mei, his Chinese concubine and their illegitimate son Ah Fatt; Zadig Karabedian, an Armenian merchant now based in Egypt; Robin Chinnery, the illegitimate son of an English painter; Fitcher, a plant collector from England and Paulette the young mamzelle from the earlier novel. In addition there are the various characters who make up the foreign compound in Canton and their Chinese counterparts.
In addition to the personal histories and adventures of these characters, the novel describes in a dramatic way the disputes between the Chinese authorities and the foreign, mainly British opium merchants. Ghosh mainly allows the representatives of the two sides to speak for themselves in a series of meetings between the Chinese and foreign merchants. It is not a pretty tale as the British immediately request a resort to force - it is through the barrel of a sixteen pounder that free trade will come to China. This is not a new story nor has it really ended, as can be seen in the military adventures of the UK and the USA to-day. It is a major triumph of the book that amidst the adventures, romances and personal tragedies, Ghosh has managed to evoke the essence of Western imperialism in such a believable and dramatic way. As one of the British merchants so prophetically puts it: “After two centuries of commerce, it is impossible that we should abandon our factories and retreat from Canton. It is here that we must make out stand; we must show the Chinese that if they attempt to curtail foreign trade they will find their boasted power shaken to pieces. Is it not time to ask what may be the consequences to this empire of the ignorance and obstinacy of its rulers? Ignorance of everything beyond China, obstinate adherence to their own dogmas of government? The answers are clear: we must remain here, if for no other reason than only to protect the Chinese from themselves. I do not doubt that it will soon become necessary for the British government to intervene here as it has elsewhere, merely in order to quell civil commotion.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.