Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh
Published in 2008
Published by John Murray

Here we have a full-fledged action-adventure novel, full of fighting and danger and valiant last-minute escapes and bad guys coming to satisfyingly violent ends and other bad guys living to fight another day. Sea of Poppies is the first novel in a trilogy, you see, and Amitav Ghosh has officially hooked me.

Every character with a narrative POV eventually ends up on the Ibis, a ship on the Indian Ocean, where each individual person aboard is probably harboring some sort of deep dark secret. If there seem to be people who aren't, that's just because the narrative hasn't seen fit to tell us about them yet.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's the 1830s and Britain rules the seas.

Britain also makes a great deal of money off of its overseas trade; it controls the production of opium in India and makes huge profits by selling the opium to millions of addicts in China. This is pure and simple exploitation on both counts; agents of the British Empire use a combination of economic pressure and hooliganism to force the Indian peasantry to grow poppies as a cash crop rather than allowing them to be self-sufficient, and when the economic overseers of China want to limit the amount of opium the country can import, Britain prepares for war.

Do we detect a whiff of politics in this story? Yes, we do, and if the preceding paragraph makes you roll your eyes at Ghosh's politics, then you'd better get ready to roll your eyes a lot. For the rest of us, Ghosh does quite a bit of riffing on his Western characters' tendency to call slavery 'freedom' and economic bullying 'free trade'.

He makes the West appear vaguely ridiculous in payback for its world-dominating ways back in the 1800s, but he includes sympathetic Westerners and bad, thuggish Easterners in his cast of characters. Of course he does. If he just wrote of evil Westerners and virtuous Asians, he's be little more than an unimaginative hack.

(That said, I did notice that of the two sympathetic Western POV characters, one is culturally more Bengali than French or English, and the other is a fair-skinned man of partially African ancestry who must hide his true heritage. One could derive the unfortunate implication that if you're both a Westerner and a sympathetic character in Ghosh's fiction, there must be a way to see you as not really Western, at least not according to 19th Century standards.)

As the title implies, everything in this book ultimately comes down to the opium trade. We begin in rural northern India, along the banks of the Ganges in 1838, where peasant woman Deeti supervises her poppy fields as her opium addict husband works at the opium factory in Ghazipur. Her husband's habit has taken its toll on his constitution, and when he becomes too weak to continue to work and support Deeti's daughter, she is thrust into a terrible family-based dilemma. (Every Ghosh novel I've read has featured a woman who is mistreated by a family she was not born into, and generally it's an older woman who orchestrates the mistreatment.) She eventually ends up in Calcutta and her fate converges with that of the remaining characters, who come from a variety of backgrounds in Indian society and from abroad.

As I said, I am hooked. Some very minor qualms:

  • I was confused by a bit of muddled motivation that makes it unclear what drives a certain person to do a certain thing. There's this young woman who's being raised by an English family, and it turns out a respected elderly judge who she finds repulsive but is chummy with her foster father is smitten with her and wants to marry her, and her foster family thinks this is just the greatest development ever. Shortly after, she runs away, never to return. She explains that the reason she ran away was that her foster father was a disgusting pervert who got off on having her beat him for ostensibly religious reasons. At first I figured she lying to make others more sympathetic. After all, she had plenty of motivation for running away already. Her foster family couldn't have forced her to marry this man, but her refusal would have made things very awkward and uncomfortable for everybody, and she wasn't in a terribly comfortable position to begin with. But I got less sure as time went on, and now I have no idea if I was meant to take her story at face value or not. I have no problem with ambiguity if it's intentional, but I don't think Ghosh meant for me to be wondering this.
  • There's this old seaman on the Ibis, and he claims to be a veteran of this epic battle, years and years ago, that involved hundreds of ships, but no one else believes him because he says the battle has the silly name of 'Three fruit house', or tri phal ghar. Okay, I get it, Ghosh is poking fun at British arrogance by puncturing Anglo-Saxon pride in one of the most storied battles in their history. But this old sailor's telling his tales to an audience of lascars from all over the Eastern Hemisphere, probably a very multilingual bunch of people, who even if they aren't up to speed on the glorious history of the British Navy are unlikely to get hung up on how a phrase sounds in one particular language. I know it's meant to be a joke, but it's unrealistic, and it took me out of the story.
  • There are lots and lots of Indian characters. Good people, bad people, fat people, thin people, serious characters, comic characters, the full range of human variation. There is one character of Chinese heritage, and once he beats his opium habit it turns out he's got wicked martial arts skills. It's not a big deal, particularly since I suspect many more Chinese people will show up later in the trilogy, but I just wanted to point that out.

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