Flood of Fire
By Amitav Ghosh. Viking, 614 pp, hardcover
Halfway through River of Smoke, the second volume in Indo-American author Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, I began to experience an odd feeling of déjà vu. But it wasn’t until finishing Ghosh’s latest, Flood of Fire, that I realized why his writing seemed so familiar: his seaborne fictions, set in the time of the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars of the mid-1800s, offer a parallel-universe exploration of topics that are also central to Patrick O’Brian’s massive Aubrey-Maturin cycle.
Yes, O’Brian’s 21 novels take place decades earlier, being set during the Napoleonic Wars. The English author also works from the point of view of the colonial upper-middle class—doctors, military officers, and sea captains—whereas Ghosh’s shipwrecked subjects are indigent deckhands, Parsi merchants, and Sikh soldiers of fortune. But however perverse the comparison might seem on the surface, the underlying similarities are striking.
Both use huge canvases to paint big pictures: Ghosh’s trilogy alone stretches to over 1,600 pages. Both are obsessed with language: O’Brian with the maritime terminology of topgallant and futtock and spanker; Ghosh with the Anglo-Indian patois of koortee and pootli and tamancha. (Sadly, Ghosh stumbles when he treads on O’Brian’s turf: late in Flood of Fire one of his characters takes 15 minutes to row two fathoms, or about the distance the average tar could spit.) Both mix literary merit with cracking good yarns; Flood of Fire is a literal bodice-ripper, at least during the section in which his morally compromised mulatto antihero, Zachary Reid, conducts a secret affair with a plutocrat’s buxom wife. And neither Ghosh nor O’Brian can write a fully realized woman: their wives and adventuresses and renegade widows serve to advance the plot, but never come to life as effectively as their havildars and translators and gentleman scientists do.
These two series aren’t about psychological nuance, however: they’re about the epic sweep of history. And if O’Brian conveys much useful information about how the world as we know it was formed, Ghosh goes further, subtly insinuating that the same forces of greed, pious hypocrisy, and opportunism that shaped the 19th century are still at play today. It’s a bitter truth to swallow, but one helped down here—and in Flood of Fire’s two predecessors—by Ghosh’s dashing sense of pace, vivid language, and exhaustive research.