SEA OF POPPIES
By Amitav Ghosh
Viking Canada, 470 pages, $29
Canada is one of the six Western countries that consume nearly 80 per cent of the world's morphine, and the illegal opium trade in Afghanistan has more than doubled since Canadian boots hit the ground. We already have a general interest in opium. Thanks to the varied strengths of Amitav Ghosh's new Man Booker-short-listed novel Sea of Poppies, we can pursue that interest while also reacquainting ourselves with the best lessons of postcolonial literature. Ghosh's sprawling, populous novel
uses Britain's 19th-century opium empire to pose lasting questions about ambition, identity and belonging.
Set in and around Calcutta just before the outbreak of Britain's mid-19th-century Opium Wars with China, the self-assured and nimble Sea of Poppies fuses the best work of Ghosh's substantial career. His The Shadow Lines ingeniously maps the fusion of two different and dependent cultures. Ghosh's seamless, non-didactic use of history and knowledge for entertainment (that increasingly rare literary ingredient) helped win him the Arthur C. Clarke Award for The Calcutta Chromosome. In Sea of Poppies, this Oxford PhD turns his considerable intellect and prankster's eye to the atrocities of England's racist and exploitive opium trade.
There are about 10 major characters in this busy but purposeful novel, each of them affected by opium. Deeti, a child bride turned peasant farmer, has been pressed into shifting from sustainable mixed farming to growing opium poppies. Her first husband is an opium addict who works in the enormous English opium factory to which her second husband, Kalua, spends his early days hauling the local harvest.
Englishman Benjamin Burnham has both hands deep in the profits of a multinational narcotics empire policed by the British flag. He's a self-justifying piece of exploitive sanctimoniousness who admits that pushing opium onto the Chinese - creating addicts to create profits - finances the British empire. His garrulous wife goes to bed each night with a dose of laudanum. Paulette, the young French woman he adopts financially, takes a while to understand the real purpose of the private English bible lessons he offers her. Burnham legally frames the raja Neel Rattan Halder, a young husband and father who has inherited land and servants, but also debts. Neel's surprising legal fate entwines him with Ah Faat, a Chinese opium addict who is the illegitimate child of a diasporic Parsi financier. Completing this multicultural cast are Zachary Reid, a child of both sides of American slavery, and Jodu, an Indian boatman who grew up as a quasi-sibling to Paulette while his mother was her ayah.
In paraphrase, Ghosh's plot may seem designed to dramatize the opium trade, but Sea of Poppies is in fact intricately woven and resolutely entertaining, with escalating action and the self-motivated interaction of crisply demarcated characters. Ghosh spares us the stark catalogue of suffering too many North American writers portray in historical novels of colonialism, avoiding the maudlin premise that profundity rises with the body count. Reading the dynamic, energetic Sea of Poppies is like playing three-dimensional chess. Each chapter or scene advances a plot and then is followed by a new chapter or scene which advances another plot. Not only that, the various plots combine, and they do so to raise resonant questions. At the heart of this novel - the first in a trilogy - are inquiries into how and why people are bound to one another, to what extent an adult can change, and one's obligations to fellow citizens.
Sea of Poppies has precisely the scope, complexity and breadth that film cannot adequately address. Although Ghosh masters many of film's narrative techniques - action over description, vivid tableaux, comic dialogue - he works steadily within a density and multiplicity best suited to the novel. Ironic indictments abound. The community of English conquerors are called to Sunday service by the firing of a cannon. Their hour of piety follows a work week engineering the poisoning of "lesser races."
Playing both sides, Ghosh also uses his relentlessly unspooling story to question whether England's racist,
elitist exploitation of India and China succeeded because the lands colonized were already racist and elitist.
Ghosh succeeds in individuating his large cast, but some characters aren't portrayed as intimately as others. He's better at portraying evil than good, and his men are more complex than his women. In life, adult women may cry over what to wear; art struggles to legitimize such a scene. This gender gap is exaggerated in romance. Zachary is simplistically good and Paulette is drawn to him inexplicably. Deeti's Kalua, the quiet, strong man with a heart of gold, risks cliché. One hopes the rest of the trilogy will deepen and vivify the cast.
This elaborate, revelatory novel returns one to the joyous childhood discovery of narrative, with its accretive past, its rich present and its promising future, while simultaneously posing complex, adult questions about how we should live together in a crowded world.
Darryl Whetter teaches writing at Dalhousie University and is the author of the novel The Push & the Pull.