peteg's blog - noise - books - 2009 11 11 Ghosh SeaOfPoppies

Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies

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I've been meaning to read this book since I read a review in the Smage last year, which they pinched from The Guardian. I picked it up just now because the UNSW Library copy of Salman Rushdie's latest has apparently been subjected to a five-finger discount.

Somewhat like In an Antique Land, this novel exhibits Ghosh's talent for anthropological scholarship, flawed by a lack of discipline: the imperative to house as much of his raw material as possible, even at the expense of fidelity, plausibility or pacing, overpowered his finer judgement. He successfully captures the settings of circa 1838; the slave boat, the opium factory, the streets of Calcutta, the villas of the upper crusts, the economic situation of the Indian everypeople, and so forth are vivid. But it is too much, the period too rich a seam, with England at the height of Empire, trying to bring the Chinese markets into their sphere of influence via the opium trade, to fit entirely within even a multi-ply narrative.

Unlike the portrayal of opiate abuse in Trainspotting, the drug scenes here are brief and finesse the cliched moral quagmire of recreationalism and fatalistic destructiveness without much humour.

The narrative is occasionally discontinuous through what feels like carelessness. Whatever became of the judge with the hots for Paulette? — and was the story she told Zachary about Mr Burnham fiction or truth? Either way, I found it a tiresome piece of tawdry prurience, shocking in its unoriginality. The gomusta is the glue character, possessed by his spiritual aunt, capable of making just the right things happen at just the right time. Deeti's shrine is a cute continuity device, but it has apparently no significance beyond forward referencing.

Ghosh's romances are irritating, as his heart is not really in it. Deeti and Kahlua get unofficially hitched within a page or so of becoming free, whereas Zachary and Paulette, who are bleedingly obviously intended for mutual deflowering, barely manage a snog interruptus before the 471st page. They are young and the author treats them childishly. Some other characterisations are a bit clunky; Kahlua's transformation from bullock to Deeti's cool-headed weapon of mass destruction stretches credulity; Neel's transformation from Raja to a Jesus-like figure jangles against his occasional recurrence of snottishness.

A movie is clearly in mind: imagine! Ghosh is daydreaming of having Keira Knightley segue from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean to fill the corset of Paulette, and somehow reuniting the extras from Slumdog Millionaire to inflate the lascars and sundry unsavoury types onboard the Ibis. There'll be a couple of song-and-dance numbers to leaven the roti. Hmm, we still need some strapping young blokes for Zachary and Jodu... and who else but Michael Caine for the dragon-chasing Captain? Maybe Salman Rushdie's ex might just be perfect as Elokeshi...

I found the polyglot of the dialogue mostly easy to follow, though that may be because I didn't delve into it much. How much I missed I'll never know.

This novel terminates just over a cliff, and there does not seem to be any news yet of a followup to this, the first of a purported trilogy. Damnit, the spoon's in the flame.