Author Amitav Ghosh's epic trilogy ends in Hong Kong

We give five stars to Flood of Fire - few writers have combined popular and literary styles in a Hong Kong-set book better than Amitav Ghosh

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2015, 8:26am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 June, 2015, 9:59am

Hong Kong has inspired some fine works of literature. Representing the populist front are James Clavell's Tai-Pan, Michael Connelly's 9 Dragons, John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman and the Dragon. More literary contributions include Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil, Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City, Han Suyin's A Many-Splendored Thing, Liu Yichang's Intersection, Timothy Mo's The Monkey King, and Jane Gardam's Old Filth.

Few writers have united these two halves - the populist and the literary, the entertaining and the intellectual - more successfully than Amitav Ghosh in Flood of Fire. By turns exciting and insightful, vividly atmospheric and unflinching in its portrayal of realpolitik, it concludes a genuinely epic trilogy about the opium wars.

Flood of Fire culminates in the creation of Hong Kong, a place that is both real and metaphoric to Ghosh. Here it is as geographical focal point: "There was a rocky protrusion at the eastern end of the bay that would serve very well as the foundation for a jetty; the promontory had been named East Point and some of the bigger British opium-trading firms were already constructing godowns and daftars [offices in Hindi] in its vicinity."

The "Ibis Trilogy" - which began with Sea of Poppies, followed by River of Smoke - may take place in the middle of the 19th century, but like the best historical fiction it shines bright lights into the darkest corners of the present. The description of Hong Kong's restless development kickstarted by British rule could almost pass for any moment of the past 150 years: "Only after the squad had departed did the seths [merchants/bankers in Hindi] notice that Hong Kong had changed in the last couple of weeks: they saw that a wave of settlers had washed up on the island's shores; they noticed also that a cluster of buildings was already under construction at the eastern end of the bay."

As Flood of Fire rushes to its end, Hong Kong encapsulates the novel's grand thematic narrative. Namely, how Great Britain conquered the world by executing a simple but devastating idea: Adam Smith's notion of "free trade" that has, in various forms, dominated the economic, political, social and geographical landscape of the past two centuries.

Like the best historical fiction [the Ibis Trilogy] shines bright lights into the darkest corners of the present

Such a big idea sounds dry in a critical summary, but in Ghosh's hands is anything but. This is partly because the events he describes are so full of human interest. There are viscerally rendered battles at sea and later on the mainland. There are numerous intersecting plots, both personal and political, that hold lives, futures, fortunes and nations hanging in the balance.

What puts flesh on the bones is Ghosh's vast cast of characters who, in Sea of Poppies, set sail on the Ibis, a former slave ship turned opium-bearing vessel. The motley crew includes Zachary Reid, his long-vanished love interest, the solitary French orphan Paulette Lambert, the divinely inspired opium trader Benjamin Burnham, and the helpless addict known by various pseudonyms: in Sea of Poppies he was Ah Fatt; now he is Freddie Lee.

This recurring cast is reinforced by several new characters, many of whom are related to ones we have met before. The likable, heroic opium picker Deeti Singh is now represented by her likable, heroic brother Kesri, a long-time Indian officer in a brigade funded by the East India Company. Indian trader Bahram Modi has died in China and it is left to his wife Shireen to break convention and discover the truth of his double (if not triple) existence.

Secrets and tensions course through the book, as they have through the trilogy. Take opium, which Britain grows in India to sell with devastating consequences to China but is illegal in England itself. In Flood of Fire, the drug is the means and the symbol of Burnham's new capital-driven world: "This is how people can be made to want: opium can stoke all desires," Zachary is told by the enigmatic semi-prophet, Baboo Nob Kissin. When Paulette refuses Freddie's offer of a pipe, she explains it is because she fears becoming its "slave". "'Slave, eh?' 'Opium will not make you a slave, Miss Paulette. No. Opium will make you free.'"

Burnham bends these ideas of freedom and slavery to his own will. For him, opium will shape a new economy defined by the God-given clarity of supply and demand. Inspired by his faith in providence and a natural order, Burnham's role as supplier is the means of his freedom and proof of it. Opium actually helps him smooth the rough edges of any moral qualms. The drug's addictive power enables him to philosophise that he is merely supplying a pre-existing and profitably unquenchable demand.

'I have become what you wanted … You wanted me to be a man of the times, did you not? And that is what I am now; I am a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of enough.' 

If opium is the material form of this new world order, then Zachary is its human embodiment. The once disingenuous ingénue who fell in love with Paulette is gradually seduced by a new and far more dangerous lover: want. The word echoes throughout the novel, catching Zachary's adulterous desire for Mrs Burnham and finally a globe-conquering avarice for money, possessions and power.

Zachary himself wields the word to Mrs Burnham's face when she asks him to explain his rapid degradation. "'I have become what you wanted … You wanted me to be a man of the times, did you not? And that is what I am now; I am a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of enough. Anyone who thwarts my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must be expected to be treated as such.'"

Running beneath this flagrant wanting is another sense of want: lack. As Zachary promises after Burnham gives him his big break: "'God willing, you shall not find me wanting.'" Zachary may believe he has won in the terms demanded by his free trade world-view, but most readers will lose sympathy for a character who until midway through Flood of Fire is admirable if flawed. If Zachary's transformation is a little crude and a little speedy, then perhaps it's because unfeeling greed can work that quickly and unsubtly.

Want of a larger and more grievous sort haunts the final pages - in the death, destruction, starvation and exploitation that is the result of the British invasion of Guangdong, which drives refugees towards Hong Kong. The hint of something apocalyptic is made overt by Baboo Nob Kissin, who claims that his role in elevating Zachary to the Man of Age is a necessary evil in a larger plot: the end of days.

Despite this Flood of Fire is neither bleak nor depressing. There is humour, thrilling set-pieces, and not a little romance. Perhaps the most unmissable irony of Ghosh's epic is that the same imperial project that he rages against is responsible for his exuberant prose.

Want of a larger and more grievous sort haunts the final pages - in the death, destruction, starvation and exploitation that is the result of the British invasion of Guangdong

The English may have ruled the waves for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but their enduring conquest (as the 21st century proves) was linguistic. For Ghosh English is a magnet that attracted words, dialects and phrases from across the globe. Glorious Anglo-Saxon nautical terms such as "gammonings" rub shoulders with expressions born in America, India and China - "dad-boggled", "bandobast", and "la-le-loon".

This reverse colonialisation hints at larger reverses to come. Within the historical story covered by the trilogy, America and China are inward-looking, cowed and ultimately vanquished, yet the vision of Burnham sandwiched between an ascending Zachary and ambitious Chinese trader Leonard Chan nods to today's dominant Chimerica axis.

Whether Ghosh finds any solace in this is doubtful: these twin superpowers have merely finished the job begun by the British. That story has produced a wonderful triumvirate of books that deserves the term masterpiece.

For this story and more, see The Review, published with the Sunday Morning Post, on June 14