The mere mention of opium evokes lavish dens layered with red silk pillows. Opium, the abstract embodiment of which is represented in perfumes like Yves-Saint Laurent’s Opium and Kenzo’s Flower. The poppy itself is scentless.
I read chapters of the Martin Booth book Opium: A History over the weekend. The treatise was shortlisted for a Booker Prize. While the author’s breadth of knowledge and vocabulary is evident, the book is poorly written and meandering. The sentence structures are lazy and the chapter structures are non-existent. Reading this text is like listening to a delightfully tipsy person at a party. However, after a 100 pages, it starts to wear on your nerves. Booth also includes a lot of inane details, like the ages that De Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium Eater), Keats, and Coleridge (“Kubla Khan”) were introduced to opium. It affected their art, sometimes positively, sometimes not; I already knew that.
Three hundred pages and there is no central argument or even a coherent theme. The book is very badly sourced, so while it makes lots of interesting conjectures, it’s hard to tell what’s fact and what’s speculation. Simply put, it’s poor scholarship. Booth also contradicts himself on the role of the East India Company. If I wanted to look for information on a particular subject: medicinal usages, politics, India, China, Opium Wars, or the Golden Triange, I’d be hard-pressed to find it. It doesn’t work as an overview. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as a story either, as there is no clear beginning, middle, or end. It’s just a long, rambling, and jumpy narrative. It got me confused on my own meticulous knowledge of the role of the East India Company in poppy production in India, and how the crop enabled the EIC to bring in revenue and rise to economic and political power.
I admit I am interested in a particular era (East India Company reign) and country (India). There are a lot of aspects to the topic as well as the trade. I’m also interested in finding out what’s really happening in Afghanistan – the country has become a narco-state right under our noses. Even Charles Trocki’s pretty cool book, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade 1750-1950, glosses over a lot of details which I culled from a multitude of other sources and obscure articles (microfiche, anyone?) and makes a lot of grandiose, unfounded conclusions. It appears there remains a better text to be read (and maybe even written) about opium, and in particular, the political aspects. Perhaps even a better one on the public health side.
I plan to check out these titles too:
Opium City: The Making of Early Victorian Bombay
by Amar Farooqui
Smuggling as Subversion:Colonialism, Indian Merchants and the Politics of Opium
by Amar Farooqui
Opium Season: A Year on the Afghan Frontier
by Joel Hafvenstein
Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy
by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy