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« MUMMY, The Blogger | Main | The Dreamer ... And Now, The Doer? »

January 19, 2009


Ruchira, thanks for using my commentary. I checked with the text I sent you. I did intend "What a silly conceit this is!", not “What silly conceit this is!”

My tirade was written when I was pissed off with Ghosh for making the novel so hard to read (for me). I quite like him as an author, was bowled over by "The Hungry Tide", and fully intend to finish “In An Antique Land”.

Subconsciously, I suppose, I was recalling an earlier book with the identical theme by a favourite author, Barry Unsworth. Unsworth won the Booker prize in 1992 for his "Sacred Hunger", shared that year with Ondaatje for "The English Patient". "Sacred Hunger" is mostly a story of the middle passage - the side of the triangular trade route that brought Africans as slaves to America. Its large array of characters, use of colloquial and hybrid languages, and the theme itself beg comparison with "Sea of Poppies" - a subject worthy of a term paper by a student with the stamina to read 629 pages (I did, 15 years ago).

The good news is that those many pages complete the triangle, leaving Unsworth to develop other diverse themes. Is Ghosh asking too much of himself, or of his fans, with two sequels in the works? Or does he aspire to Peter Matthiessen’s streak of three books on the same subject, topped with a National Book Award for conflating those three into a fourth! I thought “Killing Mr. Watson” had said it all.

I have read at least one review of "Sea of Poppies" that has mentioned "Sacred Hunger". I would hazard a guess that Ghosh has read the book too. A throw-away line on page 109 of "Sea of Poppies" has, “Indeed I am thoroughly familiar with the writings of Mr. Hume, Mr. Locke and Mr. Hobbs.” Apropos of what, can someone please explain? The Wikipedia article on "Sacred Hunger" says, "The translator tells the children stories in a pidgin tongue which they all share, while Paris reads to them from Pope and Hume." Or perhaps great writers think alike.

There is mild praise in passing from Khushwant Singh:

Indentured service was not limited to the dark races. Pennsylvania was partially populated by Germans, who arriving in Rotterdam without funds, having paid tolls to all of the barons along the Rhine, signed indenture agreements of up to seven years, in order to be transported by British ships. The King of England, worried that Pennsylvania would become a German colony, required the indenturees to sign an oath of loyalty upon debarking. One of my ancestors immigrated thus. He signed with an X. The German American Society, (I believe it is in Philadelphia), has most of these records, so the king did genealogists a favor.

Nice review. Just finished the book last night and have to say I was quite mesmerized by Ghosh's story-telling. Last time I enjoyed history this much was while reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle novels.

Thanks for the review. I am not a fan of Ghosh and this review reminded me why (esp. Narayan's half).

Ruchira, I noticed once again your approach to book reviews where you present a mostly descriptive overview about the story/plot/setting, even how others might react to it, but stay away from saying what *you* thought was really great about it, what moved you, what really sucked, etc. The review is still a good read——don't get me wrong——but it is a curious choice and I remain puzzled why an otherwise opinionated woman should consciously prefer such a bland middle ground when reviewing novels. (Contrast that with Narayan's approach. It's clear the book shook up the man to the core, prompting him to even demand that Ghosh get a life! :-)


I appreciate your puzzled query. I am sure others have made the same observation without asking me why.

Your question could be a nice impetus to write a short post explaining my seemingly bland approach to book reviews. Or perhaps, I will undertake a complete makeover and go at them in the future with Narayan's no holds barred gusto. :-)

Thanks to both Ruchira and Narayan for this informative review. I've heard a lot about Ghosh but never read him, and will definitely make an effort once I've finished Jane Mayer's astonishing The Dark Side. I smiled at Narayan's frustration with the pedantry of the Chrestomathy. A lot of writers of BIG ambitious novels have this same disease. Pyncheon and D.F. Wallace come to mind.

And then of course there's Moby-Dick, full of endlessly detailed accounts of the ins and outs of whaling. One theory with Melville was that his obsession with material detail was a wry commentary on the impossibility of breaking through ordinary reality to the realm of the Platonic ideal, no matter how hard you explored matter. Another is that he just spent a lot of time learning this stuff and figured everyone else would be as interested as he was.

Another is that he just spent a lot of time learning this stuff and figured everyone else would be as interested as he was.

Andrew, that may be closer to the truth. I am sure Ghosh like Melville, does it for the same reason. Isn't that what most of us do during public discourse, fiction writing being one such pursuit?

I will soon write a post explaining the nature of my book reviews which Namit has brought into question. Meanwhile, you are our "literary" man here (Joe, the other English major, has chosen law and is in the process of desiccating his brain with legalese). Shouldn't you be the one writing more reviews - the kind that Namit would like to see?

As for Amitav Ghosh, if you want to take his measure, I advice you borrow a book of his and not buy it.

Interestingly, according to "Eating India: An Odyssey into the Food and Culture of the Land of Spices", the Bengali taste for posto was developed during the Opium wars.

Banerjee (Is this Biswajit?):

Indeed, posto is poppy seed, used on bagels and bread rolls in the west. But the Bengali preparations of veggies (potatoes, snow peas or the zuccini like Indian squash) generously slathered in poppy seed and hot chili pepper paste served on steaming rice are peerless! Apart from being delicious, they are particularly useful for lulling one into a relaxing siesta on hot summer afternoons :-)

I watched a PBS documentary on "The Odyssey of Captain Healy", which brought to mind his fictional contemporary, Zachary Reid, the second mate of the Ibis.  "Captain Michael Healy became the first African-American to command a ship of the United States government".
He was born in Georgia of a White planter and his common-law African wife. The father sent all his children North to be educated since, by Georgia law, wife and children were considered slaves and denied schooling. Several of Michael's older siblings became priests and nuns; one went on to be a Bishop in Maine, another became president of Georgetown University. Michael joined the US Revenue Cutter Service (precursor of the US Coast Guard) as a white man and served in the Mediterranean through the Civil War. After the war he rose to command level and became the first US official in Alaska soon after the territory was bought from Russia. He was sympathetic to the native population and is credited with bringing medicine to them and introducing reindeer from Siberia to alleviate famine caused by the over-harvesting of seals, walrus and whales.  He was eventually brought down by the system for being Irish, and therefore too low-class to continue in command.  The fact of his African mother was not known till a dozen years after his death.  Stranger than fiction!
The documentary gives much more interesting detail than the Wikipedia article and has excellent period photos and film.

This is very interesting, Narayan. Do you think Amitav Ghosh knew about Captain Healy?

The character, Zachary Reid, in the Sea of Poppies does indeed resemble Healy in his Afro-Caucasian heritage and the choice of a sea faring career. It is worth pointing out to our readers that Reid's ambiguous racial identity is a source of considerable drama in the novel, variously evoking love (from suitors of both genders), divine adoration, suspicion and blackmail.

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