Trilogy of Dope

July 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Hey dudes. How’s your summer coming? I trust you’ve been surviving without regular updates to The Oldest Jokes in the World (if you’re having trouble coping, I hear keeping up with the developments at slashserial.com helps). I hope I won’t offend any of you dedicated readers when I reveal that I’ve spent a good part of this summer reading paper books instead of blogging.

It’s been especially bad over the past few weeks because I’ve been consumed by the sort of book that engrosses you until the world (or, at least the internet) seems lifeless in comparison: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. The good news is, though, that now that I’ve emerged on the other side of the cover, I want to get out in the world and tell everyone about it.

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The second book in Ghosh’s yet to be finished Ibis trilogy, it is the follow-up to 2008’s Sea of Poppies.  That first book of the trilogy is easily one of my favorites of the past ten years. Exploring the effects of the Opium trade on the Asian continent in the first half of the 19th Century, the novel had a huge cast of colorful characters from every country and caste: British sea captains, Hindi widows, disgraced zamindars, Chinese junkies, and mixed-race sailors.

Incredibly, this second book in the series adds even more characters, as we abandon the sea to follow developments in the opium trade in Canton and Hong Kong; the characters from last book remain in the action, but the focus now is on a new set of players, just as lively and believable as those I grew to love in the first part.

This huge cast of characters and cultures allows Ghosh to employ an incredible diversity of craft, as well; these novels really do everything I want a novel to do and more.  As The New Yorker pointed out in their review, the novel is “At once intimate and epic,” able to illuminate huge historical machinations by closely examining the thoughts and emotions of a disparate and dynamic collection of individuals.

Even better, at least as far as this blog is concerned, it is at once smart and funny, high and low brow. With so many cultures coming together in the opium trade, there is a wealth of language in the world being described, as cultures clash against each other with misunderstanding while occasionally merging into new ways of life and pidgin dialects. The amount of detail Ghosh puts into making these distant worlds seem real and sound true is a compelling feat of historical research. Instead of relaying this knowledge with dry sobriety, though, he often uses this massive vocabulary to make dirty jokes.

While Sea of Poppies let loose some of the best fart jokes in literary history, River of Smoke had a great running joke about a French girl offending cooks by saying their kitchen smelled like a creperie. Or consider this dialogue between a group of Opium magnates: Bahram, the novel’s great fallen hero, and the free-trade obsessed Mr. Slade:

This piece of news did nothing to sweeten Mr Slade’s humor. With a quiver of jowls he issued one of his cryptic pronouncements: ‘Well, if our Achilles is to sulk in his tent, I suppose he can not be without his Patroclus.’

‘”Patroclus”?’ Bahram followed in puzzlement. ‘What is “Patroclus”? Some new kind of medicine, is it?’

‘I suppose some would call it that?’

‘But what about Charles King?’ said Bahram. ‘Why is he absent? Is he taking Patroclus also?’

‘That possibility,’ said Mr Slade gravely, ‘cannot be dismissed, certainly. Ab ore maiori discit arare minor.’

‘Baap-re! What does that mean, John?’

‘”From the older ox the younger learns to plow.”‘

‘My goodness!’ said Bahram. ‘It is unbelievable! Time is running away and they are busy ploughing and all?’

If you’re as lost as Bahram, you can learn about Achilles and Patroclus on wikipedia—a luxury no one had when our cultures were first coming together. In watching Mr Slade keep Bahram out of the joke in the scene above, we begin to suspect that he has no real interest in communing with him, sharing cultures and ideas on an equal footing, but is simply using him for further profits and power.

Interestingly, it is through scenes of misunderstanding like the one above that we begin to understand what it must have been like to live in those first explosions of globalization; I’ve written before about how jokes have an ideal listener and can work to help include (or exclude) someone from a conversation. The jokes in these novels made the world and its words—daftars, zamindars, and lascars—seem realer and more vibrant to me than any definition could.  You leave these novels feeling like you’ve not only gained some understanding of the cultures discussed, but what it means for them to confront and enrich each other.

I feel this trilogy is truly the best thing going in literature right now, and am going to start the countdown as soon as a release for the conclusion is announced. If it takes Ghosh the same amount of time to get it out as it did the second, we can hope for it in 2014–which should give you plenty of time to get caught up by then.

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