Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies
Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies, much like Glass Palace, is what one might call post-colonial recovery fiction, a novel that not only takes on the British colonial system with all its prejudices and injustices, but seeks to recover or reimagine the lives of people who left no records. In doing so Ghosh has created a trilogy with a large cast that represents the range of Indians and British whose lives either depended on or were disrupted by the colonial system. The novel’s scope and language are ambitious and one can easily get lost within the intertwining stories and arcane language. The question I had as I was reading the book, though, was if the history of it was enough? Sea of Poppies is richly plotted and all the threads of history and characters come together beautifully, but in recapturing the lives of the forgotten, are the characters really recovered?

The short answer is it is hard to say: the wealth of research is strong and obviously the details are quite good. And the scope the historic sweep of the novel is very accurate, something Ghosh does very well. And unlike the Glass Palace, there didn’t seem to be any dead spots in the novel—every scene was important to the story. Yet if there are no records then what are you recovering? One can recover the facts—rates of pay, living conditions—but the internal lives of the characters is much more difficult. So when one reads about the spiritual beliefs of one of the characters—especially when you are completely unfamiliar with the culture—are you rediscovering what they really thought, or what we’d like to think they thought? For the western and wealthy Indian characters, Ghosh is accurate in their portrayal. For the villagers and the Lascars, though, it is difficult to know, and, most likely, it will always be difficult to know. So the inner life is a best guess (true all inner lives are best guesses, but some can be based more closely in the actual), one that serves the story and that is not a bad thing, just a limitation.

Keeping those limitations in mind, the novel then is a fictionalization of the great colonial enterprise and if the inner lives of the characters are just guesses, the destruction of so many lives is exposed at the macro level, not in the emotional struggles but in Dickensian horror—the description of the opium plant is the perfect example and will make it clear how horrible the trade was. At times, the politics of the trade takes center stage and underscores the focus of the book. As one British characters says, “We need only think of the poor Indian peasant — what will become of  him if his opium can’t be sold in China? Bloody hurremzads can hardly eat now: they’ll perish by the crore.”

Yet for all the callousness of the British characters, it is not a harsh world in its fictional outcome. Certain characters are living in poverty and don’t have a much of a future, but there is never an overwhelming sense of impending doom or urgency, and just when one of the main characters is threatened with death, something will come along just in time to save him. Instead, Ghosh makes clear from the beginning that all the main characters will be in Deeti’s shrines, suggesting that everything is going to work out just fine. The lack of narrative tension, perhaps, is the result of so much history, not only the details, but telling the story as if it already had happened. The experience of reading is not about what is going to happen next, but where is everyone going to end up in the end, since you know it is all going to work out anyway.

Sea of Poppies is an impressive bit of writing and worth the read and I hope the rest of the trilogy is written soon. The novel may feel a little preordained as it seeks to fulfill its purpose, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting.

Amitav Ghosh at Elliott Bay Books

Last night I had the opportunity to go to a reading by Amitav Ghosh at Elliot Bay Books where he read from his new book, Sea of Poppies. He read a long and funny passage from the book the that was part political discussion about the rightness of the opium trade and part comedy of manners which ended in a hilarious description of oral sex. It sounds well worth the read.

When he took questions he made a couple of interesting points. One, unlike the maritime history of the United States, Britain, and other western countries, the maritime history of Asia doesn’t exist. Sure there are histories from the western officer class that manned the ships, but there is nothing like Two Years Before the Mast or Red Beard. There is not even an oral tradition. It is a big hole in the history. Second, he compared Indians of the 19th century to the Africans of the 17th and 18th century. Each was taken from their homeland and put into a condition of enslavement or indenturement. But unlike the slave narratives like Olaudah Equiano’s early account to the more famous by Frederick Douglas, there are no narratives of the Asian sailors. Ghosh sees part of what he is doing is to rediscover the missing history, not as a historian who has to focus on one little section, but as a novelist who can create a broader portrait of the time.

You can also hear a interview with him on NPR.