A note - Blogging isn't free. Right now I provide gifts to my writers as a way of thanking people for writing. I would like to be able to afford to give them some sort of renumeration, even if it is small, for making this blog what it is. I'm in talks with a friend who may be able to help connect this blog, which has been in existence for one year now, with more religious communities dedicated to interfaith dialogue. Your donation will do a lot toward making that happen.
I happened upon Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy of books by accident. Seattle, Washington has a great deal of free books available in little alcoves throughout its many affluent neighborhoods. I picked up a copy of Sea of Poppies and quickly devoured it, enthralled by its characters. I read River of Smoke, its sequel, but was less impressed. Flood of Fire was a true return to form, however, possibly the best book in the series.
The Ibis trilogy is called that for the ship, the Ibis, which somehow seems to make itself a vessel by which the characters coalesce throughout the series. It takes place during the late 1830s, at the height of Britain's opium conflicts with China and its colonization of India. India is the perfect setting place for an epic novel – with a population in the billions, there are more than a few stories to tell – and Ghosh combines that ideal setting with a period setting of the height of the British empire, allowing Ghosh to take on a masterful English prose that would make Agatha Christie blush.
Ghosh provides a number of rich characters in this series – from Neel Rattan Helder, a raja who is swindled and arrested out of his home by British imperialist Benjamin Burnham, eventually escaping and becoming a Muslim who fights against the British with the Chinese, to Deeti, the widow of an opium addict who reunites with her forgotten son in the final book.
Ghosh creates his most dynamic character in Zachary Reid, however, an American who is the product of a slave owner and a slave mistress. Reid manages to pass as white and harvest a very fruitful friendship with Benjamin Burnham, the elusive villain of the book series who plays a critical albeit minute role in most of the events in all three novels. For nearly all the characters, including Burnham's wife, Burnham is a bit repellent – it is only in Reid that real admiration for the book's villain takes hold.
Reid is generally a good person – in the first book, Sea of Poppies, Reid is at first a bit apprehensive about his employer Burnham's right wing political philosophy – especially his justification of slavery. (It's only a few people that figure out he isn't quite Caucasian – I imagined in my mind him looking a bit like Timothy Noah, the South African host of The Daily Show.)
Nevertheless he is manipulated and blackmailed through much of his time in India and eventually China. People who find out he isn't quite white use it against him and he ends up spending most of the time in the second book, River of Smoke, on trial for mutiny launched on the Ibis in the first book (of which he is found innocent). He finds himself back in Burnham's employment in the third book and enjoys a raucous and at times hilarious love affair with Cathy, Mrs. Burnham – Benjamin Burnham's voluptuous wife.
His affair with Mrs. Burnham is filled with several lines that truly highlight Ghosh's great literary ability, such as “Tomorrow we will wake to an eternity of guilt and remorse. Since we have only this one night together, we may as well deserve our punishment,” said by Mrs. Burnham before her and Reid launched in to another route of love making. That line, of course, was set by the time Mrs. Burnham and Reid had finally agreed to consumate their desires – their courting involved quite a few crude remarks from Mrs. Burnham to Reid about his excessive masturbation, including, after catching him doing so, “It is a great deal less monstrous than the manner in which my modesty was outraged, at the ball, and in my sewing room. Are you not forgetting, Mr. Reid, that I am the victim in this? Would I not be failing in my duty towards my sex if I did not exert myself to make sure that no other woman suffers such outrages? Is it not a matter of public safety?” The character of Mrs. Burnham, for Ghosh, seems the ideal satire of the prim and proper feminine stereotype of that era's British novels.
Despite his success at winning her over in bed, Reid finds himself disappointed as Mrs. Burnham won't recognize even a friendship publicly, something that results in very clear behavioral changes for Reid. He starts to work out religiously and attend church, an activity that certainly is in line with his fondness for Benjamin Burnham. As he attends church after being pushed away by Mrs. Burnham, he finds himself for the first time nodding his head as the pastor talks of man's “fallen nature.”
He starts to idolize Benjamin Burnham, a man he already was close to, becoming involved in auctioneering and in actively supporting the British cause in the brewing opium wars. His behavioral change gets at its ugliest when he finds the man who Mrs. Burnham loved most, Captain Mee, who fights on the other side of the Opium Wars, and attempts to blackmail him over his relationship with Burnham.
Reid's fondness for Burnham is where Reid's character really begins to fall. Reid is fully aware of Burnham's character flaws, from his justifying of American slavery to even a coercive affair with a girl, Paulette, who Reid was fond of, but Reid continues to look up to Burnham because he sees power in him – power he wants to have himself. Ghosh writes quite clearly about the intentions Reid has in wanting to be like him as he attends one of the auctioneering events that Burnham rakes in money at: “This was one of the most thrilling spectacles Zachary had ever witnessed. That he was merely a spectator, watching from the gallery, made him seethe; he swore to himself that he too would be a ticket holder one day; this was where he belonged; there was nothing he wanted more than to be among the players, lavishing his unspent energies on the pursuit of wealth.”
Many of the story dynamics in Ghosh's Ibis trilogy clearly resemble Star Wars and not only the Star Wars most fans are fond of. Reid seems a bit less like Luke Skywalker and a bit much like Anakin Skywalker. His fondness for power resembles much Anakin's line in Revenge of the Sith to Padme, “I want more but I know I shouldn't.”
Like the Star Wars prequels, Ghosh's story is rife with deceit. Burnham plays a role much like Palpatine plays in the prequels – involved in all the destructive events that culminate in a final, destructive battle. Like Anakin, Reid is very much aware that Burnham is a deceitful man but finds the power deceit provides too alluring. Reid even allows deceit to take form with Burnham, never stopping him when he says things to him such as “We need more Free-Traders, especially young, energetic white men like yourself.”
The opium wars were definitive and cast Great Britain as the victor over a country, China, that had a much, much larger population for a century. In the course of the final book's events the Chinese military is decimated and Hong Kong becomes the acquisition of Great Britain, something that country didn't relinquish until 1997.
The opium wars take center stage as the trilogy concludes, with a pretty brutal portrayal of the Battle of Chuenpee, a battle fought between British and Chinese ships in November 1839. Ghosh does not portray the “free traders” who launched that war well, alluding fairly bluntly a similarity to the wars launched in the Middle East in order to protect petroleum (in Iraq and Syria, the latter of which had a disputed pipeline planned to be built) and opium resources (of which there are plenty in Afghanistan, along with diamonds and other precious metals). By putting him on the side of the British, we are reminded that Reid, our protagonist, is far from perfect.
Ghosh's Ibis trilogy of books is a real achievement and a masterful literary feat. While much of his narrative reflects places that film and books have gone before, Ghosh takes us on this journey all his own and in a setting not often explored so intimately. Ghosh reminds us that, whatever digital age we are in, the epic novel is far from a lost art form.