Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Comments on River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Thoughts and comments on River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh Reading this book is as delightfully exotic as a bizarre in a foreign country, and I found it a completely involving experience. But, because of its complexity, diversity, and energy, I have been trying to talk about it here, for most of a week, without being able to produce anything readable or remotely rational. Technically, it is the story of a specific event that occurred in Canton, China in the 1830s. This event led, almost directly, to the beginning of the Opium war, and so it is pivotal, just as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was in 1914. But it is also the story of an extended family, the story of one man and his son, and the stories, in differing depths of characters who were joined by the this event. What makes it hard to talk about though is that it is like a pebble dropped into a lake. At the center is the story, but the ripples are it implications and the areas of consideration they create; and those range from thoughts on such personal issues as family, integrity and loyalty to the broad issues of British imperial history, current East/West relations and even our own “War on drugs”. Then there is the philosophical consideration of addiction, in all its forms, and the incredible damage and destruction on all levels that result from it. Because of my cultural experience and mindset, the setting, early 19th Century Canton, was exotic enough to seem nearly alien, and so vividly portrayed that my imagination slipped easily into the streets, houses and especially the boat community of the Pearl River. This city was the main point of trade access between China and the rest of the world, so it became a crossroads where traders and others from all over the world came into contact and interacted with one another and with the Chinese, both officially and unofficially. The British East India Company was China’s primary trading partner, though it was, at that time, a fairly one sided partnership, and the East India Company was by far the partner who reaped the most profit. There was one predominant import, and that was opium. Suppliers bought the product in India, and brought it to Canton to sell to East India Company traders, who sold it to consumers in China, who flooded the Chinese consumer market. We enter the story just as the Chinese Government has determined that opium was destroying their country from the inside, and had decided to rid itself of this poison. As so often happens, this realization took time; almost half a century and thus came too late to be resolved easily. Against this political and commercial background and inextricably intertwined with it are the very personal dramas of a father with 2 families, only one of which he can officially recognize, his son, and the story of a search for a rare plant. This book is so exquisitely written that all these different tales and characters come together seamlessly and vibrantly, reflecting the permutations of the main themes in ways which function both as comment and amplification. However, above and beyond all, this is a compelling story about “real” people and because of that, it is also totally involving and profoundly effective. The author’s prose is glorious in its vividness and lyric beauty. His characters are entirely believable, and, even though we are transported to very different cultures, they seem exotic, but never completely alien, because the author emphasizes the human dilemmas that bind us all to one another.

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