Amitav Ghosh, “River of Smoke” (2011) – The best part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy is its immersiveness in the worlds connected by early nineteenth century globalization, especially the areas around Calcutta and Canton, the two geographical loci of the story. In “River of Smoke,” the second volume, we spend most of our time in Canton on the eve of the First Opium War. Ghosh doesn’t so much throw away many of the characters from the first volume as much as puts them aside to concentrate on a few, old and new. A disgraced former raja becomes a functionary for Bahram Moddie, a Parsi opium trader and arguably the central character in this sprawling book. As a Parsi in Canton, Moddie exists in several worlds at once: the Parsi community in Bombay, the traders quarter in “Fanqui Town” (the enclave for outsiders the Chinese allowed to exist in Canton), he dabbled in the actually Chinese part of China (having a son with a Chinese woman), and he exists in the space between the three, where he’s not Chinese but not European, even if he’s a respected player in the same trade as they.
He’s staked everything on one big opium shipment, and wouldn’t you know it? The Manchu regime finally appointed a mandarin serious about stomping out the opium business, Lin Zexu (a real figure). Lin starts seriously interfering with the trade and refusing to be bought off, the Europeans want war to open things up, Moddie and his functionary are caught in the middle. Like it’s predecessor, this one was a lot of fun. Two slight criticisms: there’s a lot about various plants, and one character basically spends her whole time on a plant-based subplot which goes nowhere; andone of the viewpoint characters is a gay painter, which is cool, but Ghosh writes him as contemporary white male gay, including having his letters swishily emphasize words in italics, etc. It’s a little gauche and takes you out of the story some. In all, though, a worthy follow-up. ****’