River of Smoke begins in Mauritius. An old woman is carried up Morne Mountain to a family shrine, where she and her Kreol clan, La Fami Colver, will pay tribe to their dead. Twenty-seven pages later, these tangential characters fade and we are introduced to the main actors, some of whom are connected to the clan, most not. Reading this second volume in Amitav Gosh’s masterful historical trilogy is much like spending time at a vast family reunion: at first the characters blur, but after a few days, strong personalities step out of the crowd and by the end, an intricate tapestry begins to take shape.
“A fine novel on the shelf of literature about historical events viewed from the perspective of ‘the other’, it is devoid of both flag-waving and empire bashing.”
This is one of the best books I’ve read in ages, an engrossing, important work of fiction woven around the opium trade of the early 1800s, when tons of the highly addictive harvest of poppies (the basis of heroin) were exported from India to China by Indian and British ships and sold to the Chinese. Individuals, families, entire swaths of the population were destroyed by addiction. In return, the British bought tea, china and other luxury goods. The British got involved with moving opium because it was the only product the Chinese wanted, and they needed to balance their trade. Chinese mandarins helped by pushing the drug throughout China. A nefarious deal. Suffice to say, the hideously destructive drug was illegal in the UK.
Most of the action takes place in Canton Harbour, where British and Indian merchants and their staff await permission to unload their cargo. Ghosh offers a vivid picture of how the system worked and the struggle of Chinese imperial powers to abolish the trade. A slow moving train, it builds to a powerful climax.
An anthropologist, Ghosh was born in Calcutta and has a vast knowledge of history, language and culture. I can’t remember ever reading a book with so many unfamiliar words, and yet the treads holds. You do get used to reading over new words, and learn to be satisfied with context, because they are not to be found in a dictionary. The grand design, three major plotlines, bulges with characters. The one who emerges to command sympathy is a Parsi merchant from Bombay, Bahram (Barry) Mistrie, who risks his wife’s family fortune on one last big shipping deal before retirement. He’s one of the main perpetrators of the trade. His personal story is engrossing and ultimately heart-breaking. One small part of Ghosh’s genius is his ability to embrace the bad guy in an evil system and reveal a convincing tragic hero.
“The British rhetoric on free trade, circa the 1830s, sounds eerily contemporary.”
A fine novel on the shelf of literature about historical events viewed from the perspective of ‘the other’, it is devoid of both flag-waving and empire bashing.Instead, a white-hot account of how the great unfurling of the British Empire affected the unwitting agents of ‘progress.’ It is also a timely comment on the drug trade, which today is a far greater international force than politicians or business leaders care to admit. The British rhetoric on free trade, circa the 1830s, sounds eerily contemporary.
♦ ♦ ♦
The Childhood of Jesus, by the Nobel-prize laureate J.M. Coetzee, is unsettling, sometimes annoying, but ultimately quite dazzling in ways particular to this South-African born writer. Whereas Amitav Ghosh is lush to the verge of excess, Coetzee is notoriously terse, prone to mystification. I didn’t pause over a single metaphor; he uses almost no adjectives.
The plot concerns an emotionally dry, middle-aged man named Simón who meets a young boy, David, on a boat journeying from an unnamed destruction. They arrive at a work camp where inhabitants have been stripped of normal human emotions, cleansed of memory (except for literature and philosophy). David takes a job as a dockworker, and sets out to find the boy’s lost mother.
“All parents will at some time or another identify with Simón’s struggle. We are all, at some point, the adopted parents of a little Jesus – a unique child who acts and thinks in mysterious ways.”
He doesn’t find her, instead, selects a young woman and gives the boy to her. Together they form a thoroughly dysfunctional pair of guardians. The link between the troubled David and the historical Jesus is never mentioned. Although the novel implies a grand design, the resolution is surprisingly domestic. All parents will at some time or another identify with Simón’s struggle. We are all, at some point, the adopted parents of a little Jesus – a unique child who acts and thinks in mysterious ways.
No room for metaphors, this book is a metaphor.
♦ ♦ ♦
Istanbul native Orhan Pamuk is an acquired taste (Nobel Prize, 2006). I’ve been reading through his oeuvre steadily in recent years, starting with Snow (his international breakthrough) then Museum of Innocence, a funny, lively, erudite monster of a story about a man’s life-long obsession with a woman he woes and loses, all too soon. He saves every scrap of tangible evidence of their relationship – from matchbook covers to fingernail clippings – and finally builds a museum for the evidence of love. Taking obsession too far? Pamuk went on to open just such a museum in his beloved city – an homage to the book.
I’ve just finished reading his 1990 novel, The Black Book, in a new translation by Maureen Freely. If there’s any doubt about the debt novelists owe to their translators, Freely’s work puts an end to it. The prose is beautiful, liquid, utterly believable. Her afterward note on the difficulty of Turkish grammar is crucial to a true appreciation of Pamuk’s importance as a writer who is at once profoundly personal, original, and a builder of elaborate bridges between East and West European civilizations.
“Reading Pamuk, you’ll want to go to Istanbul, and not. His version of the city surely must tower over mere reality.”
The Black Book is, again, about a man’s obsession with a woman. I’m starting to think Pamuk is really writing one very long work containing all of his books, an idea that might well someday be taken up in one of his novels, which often have at their core an identity crisis, a mind game. Each scene feels spontaneous, as though the whole tale rolled out of his typewriter while he as hanging on for dear life.
The plot: a youngish man, married to his cousin, a woman he has loved since childhood, wakes up one morning to find a farewell note from her at their bedside. Later that day he discovers his cousin, a famous Istanbul journalist, has disappeared. He is certain the two have run off together and are hiding somewhere in the city. The 400+ page book is a story of denial and terror, his search for the pair, his struggle to keep her disappearance from friends and family, meanwhile taking on not only the persona of the famous man, but his job. Breathless, and beautiful. Reading Pamuk, you’ll want to go to Istanbul, and not. His version of the city surely must tower over mere reality.
Marianne Ackerman’s fourth work of prose fiction, Holy Fools + 2 Stories, will be published this fall by Guernica Editions.