The Opium Wars, Neoliberalism, and the Anthropocene

IT IS HARD to simply skim through the materials on Amitav Ghosh’s website. The information is bountiful, and the data is incredibly varied, indexing the many dimensions of his oeuvre. One is forced to pause periodically to contemplate each new facet of Ghosh’s interests and writings.

His works of fiction include The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines (1988), The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), The Glass Palace (2000), The Hungry Tide (2004), and now the recently completed Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015). Works of nonfiction include In an Antique Land (1992), Dancing in Cambodia and at Large in Burma (1998), Countdown (1999) and The Imam and the Indian (2002). His essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, and elsewhere, around the world.

His prizes and awards are numerous as well: The Circle of Reason won the Prix Médicis étranger, The Shadow Lines won the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar Award. The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 1997. Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, was the co-winner of the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2009, and co-winner of the 2010 Dan David Prize. River of Smoke was shortlisted for Man Asian Literary Prize 2011. The Indian government awarded him the civilian honor of Padma Shri in 2007.

Even though one can use the names of genres as rough descriptions of what one finds in each of the texts mentioned above — imaginative fictional worlds, creative nonfiction books and essays — once one delves into the works themselves, one finds an array of perspectives: linguistic, philosophical, scientific, anthropological, historical, and, yes, literary. Ghosh’s writings comprehend and restore a complex world that has been systematically segmented, specialized, and compartmentalized — and increasingly so — in modernity. He sees, and delivers to our vision, a large-scale, big picture.

His latest and most ambitious accomplishment so far, a set of three novels known as the Ibis Trilogy, displays this complexity. The Ibis is a sailing ship whose course over the three novels ranges across the Indian Ocean, traversing and transporting peoples, goods, commodities, and ideas. Most importantly, the trilogy explores, untangles, and reassembles the intricately and intimately connected histories of India and China, and the British imperial and colonial projects. What most binds these peoples and governments and economies is opium.

Ghosh’s trilogy is unswerving in its commitment to probing and exposing the excitement, greed, despair, violence, and ambitions that informed the opium trade, revealing to us how it fed into the best and the worst of humanity. Importantly, it makes more than a few allusions to today’s neoliberal regime.

I sat down with Amitav Ghosh in Berkeley this past summer, interviewing him in the small business center of the hotel where he was staying and then continuing our conversation over lunch at a restaurant close to the University of California, Berkeley, and during a drive across the Bay Bridge, finally delivering Ghosh to his destination — City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Not for a reading, but to buy books.


DAVID PALUMBO-LIU: I’ll just start with this. You’ve been trained in writing as a social scientist, and as a historian as well. And there are also elements of anthropology, history, science, and linguistics found in your novels; yet you’re devoted to fiction writing. What does fiction allow you to capture that you think is most fascinating?

AMITAV GHOSH: Since I was a child, I loved to read; I loved novels and I loved fiction. I knew from quite early on that fiction was what I wanted to write. And on the way I did a lot of other things as well. I happened to be an undergraduate in history, but I also worked as a journalist for a very long time and I had all these other interests. They don’t exist in different boxes in my head; they all feed into each other.

I think that’s why fiction is a very fruitful place for me to be, because novels actually have an extraordinary capaciousness; they can accommodate everything. For me, the novel is an overarching form that can provide a unified field, if you like, where you can have emotions as well as cuisines as well as trade. All of that can come together in a novel, and, historically, they have. If you think of Balzac, or Melville, or Dickens, or Zola, that is what the novel did; it was this great synthetic form that drew in all these aspects of life. I think novels are much less so now.

Why is that, or how is that?

It’s a question I ask myself a lot. I think it’s one of the effects of an emergent modernity; it starts at the end of the 19th century and it accelerates through the 20th century. There’s a turn towards interiority, there’s a turn towards a certain kind of abstraction, there’s a turn away from the non-human. You really can’t think of a 20th-century writer writing about animals in the way that Melville did. What happens in the 20th century is that the novel is drawn into the project that Bruno Latour calls “partitioning”; sort of deepening the gap between nature and culture — the imaginary gap, if you like.

Having just finished the trilogy, and given your response, I can’t help but ask: Have you ever done poetry? Would this be something you would be interested in doing? Moving from prose to poetry?

That’s an interesting question because I think poetry has in some ways responded more fruitfully to the world that we are in than literary fiction has done. I did write poetry once, but I’m talking about my adolescence. I love poetry, I read poetry, I’ve translated; so yes, poetry is something that’s been very important to me. But can I see myself writing poetry at this point? The answer is no.

Okay, fair enough. In a lecture recently, you spoke of the history of China and India that, quote, “Had no shape or form.” How does your trilogy attempt to provide that shape or form? Or how does that form become something besides history?

I think what I was trying to say is that there is actually no way of conceptualizing the relations between India and China; it’s an enormous gap in our ways of thinking about Asia and our ways of thinking about the world. But India and China have had profound impacts on each other; China, civilizationally, has had this very long influence. It’s very interesting to me that when you go into a Chinese temple, there’s often a figure of the Bodhidharma. And he is, of course, an Indian; he’s represented as dark with wild hair and so on.

This Indian presence exists even in the most unlikely contexts in China. Similarly China has profoundly impacted India in many different ways. But again, it’s not something that we think about or something that has analogy attached to it, if you like.

I like to think that my books have played a part in the creation of a new narrative.

What I admire about the trilogy is the way that you have such a diverse set of characters, the most diverse set of characters I can imagine. And yet, there’s something entirely logical about the way they interact, through different exchanges of language or commodities or flowers or opium. So I appreciate the way that you blend the human with the material, and the ways that some of your richest descriptions are of restaurants, or of food places, of markets, where there’s this bustling of vivid interactions.

At the same time — and many reviewers have remarked upon it — you have a very interesting critique of neoliberalism, within the three volumes, and of the ways in which very inhumane exchanges are covered over, or almost valorized, because they seem to be expressing another advance of the human spirit. Did you have that in the back of your mind? In other words, as you were looking at the world, the contemporary world after the tremendous implosion of the world economy as you were writing this trilogy, were these conscious glosses, or were you merely looking at the historical record?

I started writing this trilogy in 2004, soon after the start of the Iraq War; and the Iraq War was of course fought in the name of freedom and free trade and so on and so forth. When I looked at the historical material on the Opium War it soon became clear that there were many similarities and lines of continuity between that war and the Iraq War of 2003; it extends to a point where it’s almost uncanny.

With the First Opium War, too, talk of freedom was constantly in the air; there’s all this talk about overthrowing the tyrant, the Manchu tyrant. The British merchants who cheer-led the war would say: We’ll be welcomed with open arms on the streets of Guangzhou, there’ll be fireworks in the city and so on. The similarities with the discourse around the Iraq War were eerie. And not only that, the similarities extend much, much deeper. As in the Iraq War, private companies played a huge part in the Opium War, the supply chain was subcontracted out to merchants, and there was an incredible amount of corruption on the British side.

You bring that up beautifully, the ways in which, while from the outside we see a kind of homogeneity or common purpose, different qualms of conscience kick in in different ways; the characters you have invented have various kinds of rationalizations and motivations they put forward for their actions.

At the same time — and I don’t know if you would agree with this at all — I finished the trilogy not being able to find a hero or a heroine. It wasn’t like Walter Scott or any other kind of broad historical novel that has a centered protagonist that you follow. Am I misreading this or was I looking for the wrong thing?

No, no, you are absolutely right. I suppose the hero, if there were to be one, would be Zachary Reid, who was a character who really interested me. But, in that sense, this is not a story or an epic, which actually has heroes. The Opium War really changed the world; it created the conditions for what we see as today’s capitalism in China and in India. There is no heroic narrative to be attached to this; it is clear now that these processes will lead to a profoundly dystopic world.

Why did you decide to write a trilogy?

When I started working with these characters — about six months into the first book — I knew that they would engage me for a very long time. But I thought, at that point, that it would be a multigenerational series, that I would be able to follow them into the 21st century. But no, it didn’t work like that at all.

It’s such an impressive accomplishment. I mean, I can’t imagine sustaining that kind of imaginative energy. How did you do it? What sustained you during this whole thing? Besides the fact you had promised it.

You know, I started the trilogy when I was just about turning 50, or a little before I turned 50. I felt I wanted to set myself something really, really challenging. You know, Melville once said: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.” I wanted to set myself something really challenging that would push me beyond my comfort zone.

That’s interesting, because your previous novels have not been unchallenging either. They all show the same signs of meticulous research, and not just research in the most obvious archives, but in things that might not even be regarded as archives in the first place.

With this it was a different order of magnitude; the nature of the challenge was quite different. And more than that, I felt that I was working at something which was completely contrary to the way the world is moving.

I’ll end by asking you the typical question: what’s next?

Well, I’ve actually just sort of finished writing another book. I just did a series of lectures at the University of Chicago — they’re called the Berlin Lectures — and they’ll be published as a book. I finished the lectures last week.

Okay, and when will they be published?

Probably next year.

Do you want to tell us anything about it?

They are basically on the Anthropocene, and especially what it signifies for fiction.


David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University.