Sea of Poppies
By Michael Reid Busk
Two distinct types predominate among the winners of the Man Booker Prize, awarded annually to the best novel published in the British Commonwealth or Ireland. The first is elegiac, understated, quintessentially English in its honey-drip pacing and minute revelations, the province of authors such as Ian McEwan, Alan Hollinghurst, and John Banville. The second is the postcolonial romp, a mash-up of wild conceits, low comedy, and sharp social criticism, as exemplified by Salman Rushdie, Yann Martel, and Arundhati Roy. If the first group is the literary equivalent of Belle and Sebastian, the second is M.I.A., and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, a Booker finalist last year, shares the Sri Lankan artist’s brash, earthy joie de vivre.
Set in Victorian India on the eve of the Opium Wars, the novel follows a literal motley crew aboard the slave-ship Ibis, a cast as wide-ranging in color as it is in caste. Center-stage are a young freedman from Baltimore who through a concatenation of circumstances is made second mate, a socially progressive French orphan, a Raja fallen from riches to rags, and a quietly heroic Hindu widow.
Like the great Victorian novels which are its forebears, Sea of Poppies is a well-paced pleasure, a highbrow page-turner. More importantly, it is a work of moral fiction, and although all of its characters are the victims of circumstance, the strands of this plot are braided together—for good and ill—by the characters’ own choices, and despite the miles and years that separate us from the world of this novel, the issues surrounding these choices are fiercely contemporary: drug addiction, multiculturalism, the gravitational pull of tradition, the black cocktail of greed and ideology that the West has not stopped pouring down the throat of Asia.
But this book is not some colonic for the soul: Sea of Poppies is fun, and it’s the sort of book that makes you remember that fun is the evolutionary reward for learning. With the care of someone who assembles ships in bottles, Ghosh recreates nineteenth century India through a polyphony of solecism-laden dialects, vivid descriptions of Calcutta’s mansions, alleys, and quays, and the slow fictional construction of the Ibis itself. Although most of the book is arranged cinematically, with numerous quick cuts between the parallel narratives, Ghosh shows off his craft in a few outstanding set pieces, including a tour through an opium factory and a descent into the grimiest cell of a Calcutta prison. Some of the most gripping language he saves for the final third of the novel, after all the characters have, through various choices and twists of fate, found themselves aboard the Ibis en route to the island of Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar. But this is only the beginning: Sea of Poppies is the first book of a projected trilogy, and it concludes with a cliffhanging shakeup merely a quarter of the way into the journey.
Besides this unavoidable lack of conclusion, another element that might keep a reader away is Ghosh’s extensive use of pidgin in dialogue and his refusal to substitute English approximations for Hindi or Bengali terms. Although these increase the novel’s verisimilitude, the pidgin makes some conversations frustratingly opaque, and the untranslated terms are nearly impossible to keep track of, but to his credit, Ghosh appends the book with an extensive glossary. The novel’s only deeper issue is that, as in the Victorian novels from which Ghosh has learned so much, some major characters are both uncomplicated and unchanging: here it is true mostly in regard to the plucky heroes Zachary and Paulette, the freedman and French orphan. Their post-racial, post-sexist attitudes are as noble as they are improbable, but regardless of their plausibility, these ideas and the characters in whose heads they reside seem unlikely to change in the two subsequent novels. However, in a time when most contemporary novels create apparently moral characters only to deflate them into hypocrisy, the throwback goodness of Ghosh’s courageous protagonists should perhaps be considered more charming than simplistic. Because, sometimes, it’s all right to be charmed.