At the close of River of Smoke, the second novel in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, the ex-zamindar Neel Rattan speaks of a painting he acquired on his last visit to Canton. The painting shows Fanqui-town, the site of the Thirteen Hongs or factories set up by foreign traders on the Pearl River in Canton, in flames. As Neel points out, the picture is itself based on a dream, since the burning of the Thirteen Hongs only took place seventeen years after the picture was painted (in 1839) by Robin Chinnery, a fictional, illegitimate son of the Company painter George Chinnery. Although it cost more than he could afford, Neel says, he bought it anyway, since ‘if it were not for these paintings, no one would believe that such a place had ever existed.’ The same is true of Ghosh’s novel in some respects. Set in the period immediately before the First Opium War of 1839-42, fought by the British to secure trading rights in China, it traces a set of personal and political trajectories that would otherwise remain forgotten or ignored.
While the personal might be invented, the political is very much the stuff of history. The ambiguity of this relation between representation and reality is crucial to the work of the historical novelist, who must dream a history before he finds it, and found fiction upon fact.
Painting, ambiguously located between dreaming and seeing, constitutes a vital strand in the network of representations Ghosh creates in this novel. Deeti, a central figure in his earlier book, Sea of Poppies, is herself an accomplished painter in the Madhubani folk tradition. She appears at the start and the end of this novel, tying it into the larger plot of the trilogy, not through the linear process of narrative alone, but through vision and pictorialization: the vision of a floating ship, the Ibis, that had appeared to her in an inland village in her youth, and the images of persons, objects and places she draws on the walls of her shrine. It is Deeti, too, to whom Neel Rattan shows his picture at the novel’s close, and it is she who questions him about its contents. Framed by Deeti’s pictorial memory and her narrative curiosity, the events of the novel appear simultaneously to inhabit two modes of representation: the pictures produced by Company painters like Chinnery and his two fictional sons, by Chinese artists like the great Lamqua, or by the botanical forger who painted the mythical golden camellia, and the breathless rush of the narrative itself, borne along by the storm that blows the Ibis off-course and batters the Anahita and Redruth. Representation itself, therefore, is divided between the synchronic vision of the artist who attempts to capture her real or imagined scene in a spatial order, and the diachronic method of the story-teller, following her characters through time. The length and detail of River of Smoke might suggest that its mode is principally linear and sequential, the mode of picaresque and romance narrative. Yet the novel also makes a considered, elaborate use of something like ekphrasis, employing descriptions of paintings as well as the chatty epistolary enthusiasm of the painter Robin Chinnery to settle, elaborate, and frame our impressions of the past, to fix them in space and time. The effort is something of a struggle against the inevitable flow of time, the endless loss of the present, which all representation attempts to reverse. A typical instance is the following passage:
The familiar sound of the chapel clock was as reassuring to Bahram as the view from his daftar’s window: when he looked outside, at the Maidan, the scene was much as it had ever been-teams of touts swarming about, trying to find customers for the shamshoo-dens of Hog Lane; sailors and lascars pouring in through the landing ghat at Jackass Point, determined to make the most of their shore leave; bands of beggars standing under the trees and at the entrances to the lanes, clattering their clappers; porters scuttling between godowns and chop-boats; barbers plying their trade at their accustomed places, shaving foreheads and braiding queues under portable sunshades of bamboo matting.
Yet, despite the appearance of normality, it had been clear to Bahram from the moment that he entered the Pearl River that things had changed in China (pp. 193-94).
At the centre of Ghosh’s narrative is the viewer of this ‘painterly’ scene, the Parsi merchant Bahram Modi, a man caught up in time’s current and ultimately destroyed by it. Bahram, the despised younger son-in-law of the rich shipbuilding Mistrie family, has an extraordinary genius for business. Desperate to set up on his own, he sells all he possesses to buy a huge consignment of opium with which he proposes to make a killing in the lucrative China market. He is already experienced in this trade, having sailed several times in the past on his ship, the Anahita, to Canton, where he has fathered a son by his Chinese mistress, Chi-mei. It comes as no surprise to readers of Sea of Poppies to learn that this son is Neel Rattan’s prison companion, the half-Chinese, half-Parsi youth Ah Fatt. On his return to Canton, Bahram finds that Chi-mei is dead and Ah Fatt missing. In fact, however, Ah Fatt, with Neel Rattan, is one of the small group of convict-passengers who defected from the Ibis at the close of the last novel, and circumstances now bring both him and Neel Rattan to Canton by way of Singapore and Malacca. Ah Fatt prefers to keep his own distance from the influential Bahram, but introduces Neel Rattan to him to work as his munshi.
“…the Opium War is not Ghosh’s subject in this novel. Rather, his attention is focused upon the events that lead up to it, and upon the complicated web of human interactions that global trade produces. For in a sense this is a novel about the first great period of economic globalization, about the patterns of human migration and movement initiated by colonialism and the expansion of capital.”
It is with such visible and invisible stitches that Ghosh seals up the breaches in time and space that separate the Ibis from the Anahita, and both from Fitcher Penrose’s botanical expedition-ship, the Redruth. All three are caught in the same storm, and some of their voyagers find themselves ultimately on the Pearl River beside Canton, permitted to set foot only in Fanqui-town, where British and American traders offered their silver to the Chinese market in exchange for luxury goods like tea, silk and porcelain. It is well-known that the unequal balance of this trade and the drain on European silver holdings had already, by 1817, driven the British to the expedient of offering opium to the Chinese instead. The fertile cropland of Upper India was converted for opium cultivation, opium factories extracted and packed the drug, and the consignments were then shipped to Canton to be exchanged for Chinese goods. Opium was not new to China, but this sudden, huge influx produced a nation of addicts and dependents, a phenomenon cynically justified in the name of free trade by the British, who saw no contradiction in banning the free sale of opium in both Britain and India. In fact the opium trade was also banned in China by the Emperor, but the British and Americans, unwilling to lose their profits, consistently flouted the ban by selling their cargo offshore to smugglers who took it inland. At the time the novel is set, however, the Daoguang Emperor’s edict was being newly, and strictly, enforced by a new Provincial Governor, Lin Zexu, a man resolved to stamp out the opium trade. The climax of the novel is in fact that great turning-point of modern Chinese history, Lin Zexu’s burning of 20,000 chests of opium over a period of several days beginning on the 3rd of June 1839, following which he wrote a memorial to Queen Victoria condemning the destruction of an entire population by this pernicious drug. Initially, the British traders had hoped for compensation from their own government. When this hope was belied and the opium trade appeared to be effectively barred, tensions were exacerbated, there were minor skirmishes, and ultimately, as we all know, Palmerston took the British to war-an unjust and iniquitous war designed to protect, as the young Gladstone said in Parliament, an ‘infamous contraband traffic’.
That war, which the Chinese lost, opened up China to the West, established the ascendancy of the opium trade and the triumph of Adam Smith’s laissez faire economics, and marked one of the vilest episodes of modern world history. Ghosh’s novel suggests, by way of a dry comment from the exiled Napoleon on St Helena, the double import of that moment-for the West-as both success and threat. Napoleon is represented as making, to Bahram Modi, his celebrated prediction, ‘When China awakes, the world will tremble.’ This little encounter, placed mid-way through the novel, is one of the rare moments when Ghosh introduces what Lukacs would have called a ‘world-historical’ figure. The other such figure, in a novel largely about the personal histories of invented persons (with some exceptions like the merchants Jardine and King, and the British Representative, Captain Elliott) is undoubtedly Lin Zexu himself, a man remembered as an moral exemplar in modern China, with statues and museums dedicated to him, commemorating the burning of the opium chests.
But the Opium War is not Ghosh’s subject in this novel. Rather, his attention is focused upon the events that lead up to it, and upon the complicated web of human interactions that global trade produces. For in a sense this is a novel about the first great period of economic globalization, about the patterns of human migration and movement initiated by colonialism and the expansion of capital. Fitcher Penrose, with the orphaned Paulette Lambert on board his ship, hunting for botanical specimens to feed both the curiosity and the greed of the West, is no less an entrepreneur than the artist George Chinnery and his son Robin, producing paintings to order and training Chinese disciples to copy European styles with uncanny accuracy. Surely it is significant that the golden camellia that Penrose seeks, like the picture of Canton that Robin Chinnery paints, is an illusion, a dream that distorts but infects reality. Its vivid representation among the botanical sketches Penrose carries is a typical example of the imagination producing a world to satisfy its hunger. Plants and flowers, like tea and porcelain, silk and spices, sugar and coolies, are all commodities for the European market: knowledge itself, and botanical, mineral and agricultural knowledge in particular, growing exponentially in the 19th century, is a commodity. That the West offered, in return, the classic pharmakon, poison rather than remedy, in the shape of a drug intended to lull China into sleep, is a historical irony that struck the deposed Napoleon. Yet what flowed out of China? ‘Flowers and opium, opium and flowers!’ writes Robin Chinnery to Paulette Lambert at the novel’s close:
It is odd to think that this city, which has absorbed so much of the world’s evil, has given the world, in return, so much beauty. Reading your letters, I am amazed to think of all the flowers it has sent out into the world: chrysanthemums, peonies, tiger lilies, wisteria, rhododendrons, azaleas, asters, gardenias, begonias, camellias, hydrangeas, primroses, heavenly bamboo, a juniper, a cypress, climbing tea-roses and roses that flower many times over-these and many more (p. 536).
The tragic hero of this history of unequal exchange, if there is one, is the Parsi trader Bahram Modi. Having staked everything, to the last throw of the dice, on the future of the opium trade, he is shown to have guessed correctly, but lost his own stake-and himself.
Modi’s destruction is partly caused by his own inevitable succumbing to the lure of the drug, and partly by his inability, as a colonial subject, to sustain the loss of his investment in colonial trade. History is the story of the victors: the British, who won the war and, in the long run, profited from the re-establish-ment of the opium trade. Fiction-this moving and absorbing novel-is the story of the losers, those petty men and women who were sacrificed to the machine of profit, or who, in some exceptional cases, managed to make new lives out of the ruin of so many old ones.