Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh’s work has always been concerned with the legacy of colonialism and the global connections among people of different histories and culture. In the Ibis Trilogy, Ghosh continues to explore these themes while moving away from the highly wrought style of such earlier works as “The Circle of Reason” and “The Calcutta Chromosome” to a more direct though no less complex form of narrative.
The trilogy’s first volume, “Sea of Poppies,” focused on the tumultuous 1838 journey of the British schooner Ibis; “River of Smoke” followed some of the ship’s passengers after it was caught in a violent storm. Driving much of the plot in both novels was the opium trade forced on China by the British East India Company. In “Flood of Fire,” the trilogy’s sprawling, stirring final volume, China’s determination to end the trade leads to the outbreak of the first Opium War.
“Flood of Fire” requires no knowledge of the previous books, which Ghosh deftly recalls as necessary in an action-packed narrative following four main protagonists, each connected in some way to events in the previous novels.
Kesri is a sepoy, a native soldier in the British East India Company’s army. The disgrace of his sister Deeti (an important character in “Sea of Poppies”) makes him an outcast in his regiment and leads him to volunteer for an overseas mission to force the Chinese government to lift its ban on opium. That ban led to the financial ruin and death of Bombay trader Bahram Modi, whose widow, Shireen, a minor figure in “River of Smoke,” comes into her own here. The discovery that her husband had a secret life in Canton leads Shireen to China to represent Bahram’s business interests — and to meet his illegitimate son.
The other two principals were both on the Ibis in 1838. Zachary Reid, the ship’s second mate, has just been acquitted in June 1839 of complicity in the escape of five men who murdered a soldier and an officer on board, then escaped in a longboat. Zachary believes the men drowned, greatly to his relief since they knew he was an African American passing for white. Actually (as readers of “River of Smoke” already know), they washed up in Canton. One of them was Neel, a high-born Bengali now working as a translator for the Chinese government, which is gathering information about foreigners as part of its effort to suppress the opium trade.
These four individual stories allow Ghosh to paint a vast, many-hued canvas of the diverse cultures that have shaped Asia’s development. Colonizing Westerners don’t come off well. The initially likable Zachary is led by his lust for wealth and power to gradually adopt the values of the Ibis’ odious owner, Benjamin Burnham, who describes a war in support of drug trafficking as “bestowing on the people of China the gift of liberty that the British Empire has already bestowed on all those parts of the globe it has conquered and subjugated.”
Ghosh’s acid satire of British Free-Traders’ self-serving hypocrisy, although justified by the facts, isn’t exactly subtle. Neither are the meant-to-be-comic scenes in which Mrs. Burnham lectures Zachary on the dangers of self-abuse in an overexcited manner that renders it quite unsurprising when he ends up in her bed.
There are bound to be clumsy moments in a work as long and ambitious as “Flood of Fire,” which recalls the great 19th-century novels in its capacious portrait of the diverse array of classes and customs that make up a particular society — or rather, in the multicultural world Ghosh so vividly captures, a plethora of societies. His wonderfully pungent dialogue makes palpable the mingling of cultures, freely seasoning English with Hindi and other native languages. The cruelties of India’s caste system and the insularity of China’s imperial court are more gently treated than British imperialism, but their consequences are also acknowledged.
Ghosh’s primary interest, as always, is the interplay between historic forces and personal choices. Like many other Bengalis, Neel’s father at first supported the East India Company, Neel tells his Chinese employers: “So you could say … British rule has been a disaster of our own making.” Grim combat scenes show Chinese troops overwhelmed by superior English firepower, yet as Kesri pulls his sword from an opponent who refused to surrender, he realizes, “in a lifetime of soldiering he had never known what it was to fight … for something that was your own.”
A typhoon and a climactic battle in southern China point Ghosh’s large, variegated cast of characters toward various individual destinies, but after the skies and gunpowder haze have cleared, in June 1841, the war still has 15 months to go, and the Ibis is bound for parts unknown with several key figures on board. The final paragraphs movingly return to a central image from “Sea of Poppies” and “River of Smoke,” yet there’s no denying that Ghosh has chosen to stop rather than wrap up his trilogy, leaving in transition many people to whom we have grown attached over the course of three novels. It’s a mark of his artistry that this ending, though in some ways inconclusive, nonetheless feels satisfying and right.
“Flood of Fire” teems with the unsettling complexities of real life; giving it a tidy resolution with all loose ends neatly fastened would be false to Ghosh’s vision of our perennially surprising world.
Flood of Fire
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 624 pp., $28
Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books frequently for The Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.