FLOOD OF FIRE, by Amitav Ghosh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 624 pp., $28.
Lucky you who haven't started the Ibis Trilogy, Amitav Ghosh's extraordinary series of novels about the Opium Wars. For now, the final volume is here and you can read all three books in quick succession, a historical-literary binge.
The Opium Wars (the first, 1839-1842; the second, 1856-1860) constitute one of the saddest chapters in the history of East-West relations. By the 19th century, the British had developed an insatiable appetite for Chinese products such as tea and porcelain, but the self-sufficient Chinese had little use for what England manufactured, and thus arose a huge trade imbalance.
There was, however, one British-made product that the Chinese populace craved, and that was opium. Of course no one in England was growing opium poppies -- that's what colonial India was for. Beginning in the early 19th century, the British East Indian Company forced Indian farmers to abandon their traditional crops to grow poppies and sell them to British companies who then sold the opium to China. (Opium was illegal in England.) The Chinese government, well aware of the dangers of opium addiction, outlawed the trade. Whereupon the British merchants declared that the ban constituted a violation of the sacred law of free trade and persuaded the Crown to declare war on China.
If you don't think a trade war has the potential to be a ripping yarn, you underestimate the extravagant gifts of this novelist, who was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. He has created a cast of unforgettable characters whose lives illuminate every facet of this sorry story. His evocation of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of colonial India and Qing Empire China make it hard to believe that he isn't a well-traveled 200-year-old with an amazing memory. Shipbuilding technology, the cuisine of Macau, the native fauna of Hong Kong, Indian military uniforms, Zoroastrian religious practice -- Ghosh brings them all to pulsating life.
The first book, "Sea of Poppies" (2008), explored the production of opium and how it effectively enslaved Indian peasants. All of the main characters -- including Deeti, a widowed peasant; Kalua, the "untouchable" who comes to her aid; Neel, an Indian raj who has lost his fortune; Ah-Fatt, a Chinese-Parsi opium addict, Zachary, a mixed-race American sailor passing as white, and Paulette, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist -- eventually wind up aboard the Ibis, a schooner owned by the British opium trader Benjamin Burnham.
"River of Smoke" (2011) followed these characters and delivered many of them to Canton, the center of the opium trade. In "Flood of Fire," the war's first shots are fired and we hear them through the ears of Kesri Singh, an Indian soldier who sails from Calcutta to Canton to take part in the British attack. Not only does Ghosh take us inside the British military technology and strategies that allowed them to so handily defeat China, he explains how the British managed to attract so many Indian recruits to wage war against a country with whom they had no quarrel: Even though Indian soldiers were always subordinate to British officers, the army rigidly enforced the Indian caste system. Indian soldiers didn't mind taking orders from British officers so long as they didn't have to fight, sleep or eat with lower-caste Indians.
That the British government ruthlessly exploited the caste system to dominate India is implicit in "Flood of Fire." What's explicit is the jaw-dropping arrogance of the British opium merchants.
"To blame the British for the opium trade was completely misguided," declares one Mr. Fraser. "It was misguided, even sinful [to oppose] the free flow of opium. The truth was that the best -- indeed the only -- way that the public good could be arrived at was to allow all men to pursue their own interests, as dictated by their judgment. This was why God had endowed Man with the faculty of reason."
I wondered going into "Flood of Fire" if Ghosh was going to be able to harness the disparate strands of his narrative into a cohesive and satisfying conclusion. In fact, as he rounds up his far-flung characters for the grand finale, you can hear the plot creaking a bit. (He probably needed a fourth book to really stick the landing.) But ultimately I forgive him because he's working so hard to entertain. It's like seeing the sweat on the brow of the ballerina: It may compromise the illusion of art, but it does not diminish the pleasure.