Published earlier this year, ‘Flood of Fire’ (London: John Murray, 2015, ISBN [hardback] 0978-0-7195-6900-5, 616 pp.) is the final volume in Amitav Ghosh’s long and ambitious sequence of three historical novels known (after the books’ fictional vessel) as the ‘Ibis Trilogy’, the first two being ‘Sea of Poppies’ (2008) and ‘River of Smoke’ (2011). Set in 1839, the new novel does not disappoint, charting the linked lives of its multiple characters against the backdrop of the interaction between Asian cultures, primarily Indian and Chinese, in the phase of British imperial expansion known as the ‘Opium Wars’, culminating as the narrative concludes in the capture of Hong Kong.
Here as in the other volumes, the language dimension – an aspect which I examined for ‘River of Smoke’ in an earlier post on this blog (23 September 2011) – is of major importance, and now the trilogy is complete it would be of great interest should a suitably qualified scholar, or team of scholars, be willing to embark on a study of the ways in which Ghosh’s writing embeds Indian and Chinese terms within an English-language narrative (also to be noted incidentally is the welcome circumstance that Ghosh – when a character founds a translation/interpretation bureau in China – actually – and unlike many novelists -gets the endlessly confused difference between translator and interpreter right, at least most of the time!). A downloadable glossary corresponding to the first two volumes is to be found on the author’s official site (www.amitavghosh.com), and it is to be hoped that this resource will soon be updated to embrace the third volume.
The ‘Ibis Trilogy’ offers abundant proof that the historical novel is still alive. It is a piece of classical realist fiction, eschewing magic-realist temptations, whose twin themes – the dynamics of empire and the interaction of Indian and Chinese cultures – are testimony to the connectedness of nineteenth-century history to today’s world. Appended to ‘Flood of Fire’ is an ample bibliography which makes it clear that the trilogy is also the result of solid historical research. Meanwhile, Ghosh’s particular model of ‘Asian English’ – grammatically standard but spiced with lexical ‘Asianisms’ – may also offer a potential blueprint for the future of English as a global language: even beyond the spell cast by the narrative, this may yet prove to be the trilogy’s most important legacy. Ghosh’s readers await the scholars!