The current issue of the business e-paper livemint.com features a conversation in which the writer Amitav Ghosh discusses the influences behind River of Smoke (John Murray, 2011), the second installment of his critically-acclaimed Ibis Trilogy.
When the interviewer asks Ghosh about his earliest reading, the novelist acknowledges an important literary debt:
I’ve been a voracious reader — and I’ve been greatly influenced by Gabriel García Márquez, James Boswell, and so many others — but it’s interesting you ask what I was reading in my 20s. For one, Lawrence Durrell, who wrote The Alexandria Quartet. I love those books. And now that I think of it, this trilogy reflects my reading of him. Each book is a different book, yet they play off each other.
The first work in Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy — Sea of Poppies (John Murray, 2008) — was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
After being asked by The Hindu (20 June 2011) to elaborate upon the discontinuous relationship between Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, Ghosh responds by turning once again to Durrell’s writing for a precedent:
Yes, absolutely. Although these books are part of a trilogy, it is not a continuation. Then I would be writing the same book, and I don’t want to be writing the same book all the time. I never thought of it as a linear series. What I had in mind was something like The Alexandria Quartet. Although the books are linked thematically, the relationship is much less direct.
Almost two weeks later, Ghosh gives The Hindu (2 July 2011) further thoughts about The Ibis Trilogy‘s debts to The Alexandria Quartet:
“Though River of Smoke is billed as book two of The Ibis Trilogy . . . each of these was intended to be read as a book in its own right,” said author Amitav Ghosh, introducing his new book at its Delhi launch here on Friday.
The book, published by Penguin Books, is a sequel to the author’s best-selling Sea of Poppies. The author unwrapped a copy of the book, sharing the dais with author and essayist Mukul Kesavan.
Talking about River of Smoke, Mr. Ghosh said he was inspired by The Alexandria Quartet written by British writer Lawrence Durrell, because each of the four books of the tetralogy had a “tangential relationship with the other.”
Ghosh follows up on his ideas about the Art of the Tangential in an interview with Sify:
I never intended for these to be continuations — even in structure, or anything. You know, I was really thinking more along the lines of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, where the books have a tangential relationship with each other, and so each of them will have its own form, its own characters, its own logic, and I think you can start anywhere.
When they’re all done, each of them will be a book in its own right, and they can be picked up and read, and then you could go back to the other books.
And here we find the interviewer at rediff.com picking up and running off with the previous queries about a connection between the works of Amitav Ghosh and Lawrence Durrell.
You mentioned recently that the books are not linked in a linear manner but thematically, like Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. What did you mean by that?
I don’t want (the books) to be a series of episodes connected in a direct way — not like, say, Star Wars. Each of these books is a novel in its own right. Even though Sea Of Poppies is the first, I don’t think it should necessarily be the first to be read. And the way it is played out with River Of Smoke, it’s leading many new readers to Sea Of Poppies.
The jacket blurb of River of Smoke describes the second novel in the trilogy as follows:
In September 1838 a storm blows up on the Indian Ocean and the Ibis, a ship carrying a consignment of convicts and indentured laborers from Calcutta to Mauritius, is caught up in the whirlwind. When the seas settle, five men have disappeared — two lascars, two convicts and one of the passengers. Did the same storm upend the fortunes of those aboard the Anahita, an opium carrier heading towards Canton? And what fate befell those aboard the Redruth, a sturdy two-masted brig heading East out of Cornwall? Was it the storm that altered their course or were the destinies of these passengers at the mercy of even more powerful forces?
On the grand scale of an historical epic, River of Smoke follows its storm-tossed characters to the crowded harbors of China. There, despite efforts of the emperor to stop them, ships from Europe and India exchange their cargoes of opium for boxes tea, silk, porcelain and silver. Among them are Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant out of Bombay, his estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt, the orphaned Paulette and a motley collection of others whose pursuit of romance, riches and a legendary rare flower have thrown together. All struggle to cope with their losses — and for some, unimaginable freedoms — in the alleys and crowded waterways of 19th century Canton.
Ghosh once again cites The Alexandria Quartet — see this 5 June 2012 interview from The Guardian.
Amitav Ghosh’s author website.
Amitav Ghosh’s WordPress blogsite.