Boldly written, in-depth account of an expatriate aesthete’s dalliance with opium.
Journalist Martin (The Art of Opium Antiques, 2007) builds this unusual memoir around a clever conceit, making literal the similarities between collecting and addiction. Following a San Diego childhood marked by his urge to collect “anything that caught my fancy” and a stint in the Navy, Martin became a Bangkok-based writer of travel guides who first collected textiles before developing a then-obscure specialty: finely crafted opium accessories from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when usage was both widespread and decried in Asia, America and France. Since then, opportunities to smoke opium have become rare. Organized crime diverts most poppy harvests toward heroin production, and Asian governments crack down upon any resurgence as an embarrassing historical slur. Through his collecting fervor, Martin eventually met a few devotees who had access to pure opium, or chandu. Since he by then possessed a unique collection of antique paraphernalia for the smoking ritual, he developed friendships that led first to extravagantly decadent smoking sessions, which via opium’s unique intoxication seemed to them deeply intellectual, but then to his own out-of-control addiction. He was bemused to find both opium’s wondrous qualities and the terrors of dependency much as they were depicted in his research. Ultimately, running out of both money and connections, Martin successfully negotiated the painful withdrawal at a Buddhist monastery. The author’s writing is capable and clear; though some of his opiated reveries can seem pretentious, he captures modern-day Southeast Asia—and the surreal risks of pursuing such experiences there—in vivid, concrete terms. While his depiction of addiction’s hazards is original and harrowing, his intellectual forthrightness seems nervy in the current political tenor, making the book stand out among recent memoirs.
Ambitious and thoughtful work, successfully fusing the personal and social by raising complex questions about drugs, addiction and contested cultural narratives.