Sail Into the Mystic
Trading poppies in Asia, 19th-century style
by Suzi Steffen
SEA OF POPPIES, fiction by Amitav Ghosh. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008. Hardcover, $26.
When I finished the last line of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, I flipped through the pages, swore and yelled, “No! This can’t be the end!”
Where was the rest? Was publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux deliberately teasing me by ripping a vital piece from the advance reader’s copy? Did I somehow get the one defective book in the print run? Argh!
Misplaced anguish, as it turns out. Sea of Poppies ends with a rain-and-blood-drenched dramatic flight into the unknown, true. But that flight is hardly the conclusion to Ghosh’s symphonic tale, merely the flourishing final note of a first movement. To switch metaphors for a moment, Ghosh’s massive and colorful scenes demand more than one huge canvas. But he sets up the trilogy well in Poppies, creating a tale filled with lively characters and language some distance beyond lively.
Then there’s the plot, with the action set in 1838 just before the British went to war in order to force China to buy the opium grown in British-contolled India. From servant to opium farmer, from a Raja destroyed by a British kangaroo court to the destitute daughter of a French naturalist, the vivid characters converge upon a ship, the Ibis. The image of the ship begins and ends the book (yes, Ghosh has something of Joseph Conrad in mind). The Ibis serves as the fulcrum around which the varied strands of the plot turn, and once everyone’s aboard, the ship intensifies the stresses and strains of societies at war both without and within.
The Ibis had been retrofitted from a slave ship to a cargo ship, but during the novel it turns back into a carrier of humans — indentured Indians bound for work in Mauritius. That means second mate, Zachary, the light-skinned son of a freed slave from Baltimore, faces complex situations in which his race and his educated bearing mix to form a potent brew of confusion about right action.
The book might seem historical. After all, it’s set in 1838. When the trilogy becomes an epic movie or three, scenes of forced poppy farming and horrifying opium factories might crowd out even the overriding darkness that comes belowdecks on the Ibis. But the sea of poppies (and the flowers’ products) proves just as current as a dinner party scene in which British men discuss their justifications for going to war and make predictions about the speed and ease of victory.
Ghosh mentioned in an NPR interview that most of the words he uses can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, but he’s clearly aware that many readers won’t understand some passages that mix English, Portuguese, Hindi, Yemeni and everything else that made up the language of the sea during the 19th century. Readers might glide over those bits, but they shouldn’t miss the postmodern glory of a glossary of sorts (The Ibis Chrestomathy) that follows the acknowledgements. The secrets hinted at and sometimes revealed there served to slake my thirst for more story — and to stoke the fires of anticipation for Ghosh’s next installment.
Amitav Ghosh reads from Sea of Poppies at 8 pm Thursday, Nov. 13, at Powell’s on Hawthorne in Portland.
Poets Matthew Dickman (Dismantling the Hills) and Michael McGriff (All American Poem) read, 8 pm 11/13, Knight Library, UO. Jordan Paust and Marjorie Cohn discuss Beyond the Law & Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law, 2:30 pm 11/14, 175 Knight Law, UO. Maryrose Larkin, David Abel and Eric Matchett read, 7:30 pm 11/15, DIVA. Sliding scale. Contributors to Walking Bridges Using Poetry as a Compass read, 7 pm 11/15, Newport Visual Arts Center. $5. Bob Welch interviews Sgt. Don Malarkey about Easy Company Soldier: The Legendary Battles of a Sergeant from World War II’s “Band of Brothers,” 2 pm 11/16, Barnes & Noble. Amit Goswami discusses God Is Not Dead and Creative Evolution, 7 pm 11/17, Gerlinger Lounge, UO. Poets John Witte and Stephanie Lenox read, 7 pm 11/18, Downtown Library. Jan Eliot discusses This Might Not Be Pretty, 7 pm 11/18, Springfield Public Library, and 2 pm 11/19, UO Bookstore.