“Gun Island” by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh (photo: Ivo van der Bent) Amitav Ghosh (photo: Ivo van der Bent)

A new kind of politics is taking over the world, leaving most of those who thought they understood the business quite baffled. Very few were able to predict the movement across the world that led to the rise of what is now described—inevitably, a posteriori—as right wing populism.

Crucially, this politics consist of both the causes and outcome of some extraordinary changes sweeping across the planet. And while it has taken advantage of the proximate causes—a swirl of refugees, the shift of global economic muscle, threatened livelihoods—to come to power, it is also, in its blind denial of the climate emergency that is upon us, and the attendant devotion to supporting rampant and reckless corporate economic activity, hastening a disaster whose signs can be seen clearly now. No one can doubt about what awaits us—even if many of us pretend otherwise.

In these times, the old templates of fiction may not be enough to arrive at the unarticulated truths that all works of art reach out for. Looking inward into human impulses and contradictions, thoughtfully contemplating the texture of the quotidian existence, portraying irony through the absurdities of relationships, and many such narrative strategies are simply not enough to engage the imagination in the greatest crisis that confronts life on earth today.

A new form, a new endeavor, a new way to look at history—global, local and personal—is required. Fusing documented events, individual recollections, collective memories, stories channeled through legends, folk-tales, symbols, metaphors and, perhaps most important, the obliqueness of language, with the journey and fate of all living creatures (not just humans), this fiction sets out to document the despair and yet offer some hope.

Climate change, present and past, is the glue in this novel.

Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2019; John Murray, Penguin Hamish Hamilton India, June 2019)
Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2019; John Murray, Penguin Hamish Hamilton India, June 2019)

This, perhaps, is the backdrop against which Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel, Gun Island, can be read. On the face of it, this work offers a continuity of many of Ghosh’s concerns in his fiction, among them memory (The Shadow Lines), history (The Ibis Trilogy, The Glass Palace), ecology (The Hungry Tide), and the inexplicable (The Calcutta Chromosome). It would not be wrong to say that all these elements make Gun Island what it is, the intersection of individual trajectories with larger forces affecting the world.

And yet, this is not a novel that can be appreciated for its delineation of character or breathtaking plot or an engrossingly rich experience that you emerge from only when it’s all over. No, it is a work that you must take a break from frequently to think about unfamiliar things, process new ideas, challenge your own understanding of life.

For those looking for deep insights into the minds, compulsions and contradictions of the three main players—Dinanath Dutta aka Deen, the rare book dealer, Cinta, the Venetian woman who is an authority on the history of her beloved city, Piya, the marine biologist who works in the Sundarbans (and has a backstory that Ghosh wrote in The Hungry Tide)—this novel is the wrong station to get off at. It is less interested in the complexities of individuals than it is in telling a larger story that affects all of us.

Climate change, present and past, is the glue in this novel, sticking together different geographies—and histories—around the world, most notably the Sundarbans and Venice. Both locations are threatened by the rising seas resulting from global heating, leading to premonitions of catastrophes that were edited out by modernist literature whose canvas was the relatively undramatic lives—except when wars raged—people led in the 20th century.

But now, history is repeating itself as the upheavals caused by the mini ice-age of the 17th century, recognized today as an outcome of climate change too, are recalled, first, in the form of the coded legend of Bonduki Saudagar aka the Gun Merchant, and then echoed in the form of migration.

Ghosh ties in the global movement of refugees in search of new lives and livelihoods as survival in their homelands becomes impossible, with climate change, gesturing at these two phenomena being effect and cause, respectively. And because he uses fiction as his vehicle, he conveys this worldview through events in the lives of the four main characters. Tipu, who reflects the changes that both baffle and obsess Deen, who turns for explanations from two ends of the continuum between uncompromising rationality—Piya—and mystical connections that can only be sensed and not analyzed—Cinta.

 

Deen, despite his global footprint, is an insecure man in search of both a prosthetic in the form of love in middle-age and purpose in life. He is not the most intriguing, attractive or complex character—and, one suspects, nor is meant to be. What happens to this slightly tiresome, if earnest, Bengali who lives in New York is, therefore, not of great interest.

But it is through his uncertainties and discoveries that the arc of discovery in this novel is played out. There is certainly a Deen in all of us, going with the relentless globalized flow of capitalist forces, enchanted by technology and its manifestation in the form of convenient gadgets, and yet uneasily aware that the planet is hurtling to its doom. Something must be done, but it is not the Deens of the world who do it.

All that this man can do, in this case, is lead the reader to an understanding which can, perhaps, be the starting point for action. Thus, Deen blunders through journeys in the Sundarbans and California before landing in Venice, where the most dramatic part of the novel is played out, bringing all the forces to a climactic confluence, and allowing us to glimpse what might—only might—lie ahead.

The world that Deen reveals for us is an unsettling layering of extreme events over everyday mundanities. Animals of all kinds, in particular, make disturbing and terrifying appearances, and nature itself is a determined force of upheaval that makes it impossible to use it as a literary device. It is the protagonist of Gun Island, and it has turned mysterious and violent, defying attempts to explain it through western forms of reason and logic alone.

 

There is much in this novel that is being mirrored by the present-day reality—or perhaps it is the novel that is the mirror. In that sense, reading the book is never quite an escape or temporary exit from the world out there, for we have no choice but to inhabit both.

“Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has accused the captain of a ship carrying rescued migrants of trying to sink a police boat,” reported the BBC. Later, The Guardian added

 

An Italian judge has ordered the release of the German captain of a migrant rescue ship who had been placed under house arrest for breaking an Italian naval blockade. Carola Rackete was arrested after forcing her way into the Sicilian port of Lampedusa on the Sea-Watch-3 carrying 40 migrants and refugees she had rescued off Libya. But on Tuesday, judge Alessandra Vella ruled that Rackete had been carrying out her duty to protect life and had not committed any act of violence.

 

This news from after the publication of the novel is eerily close to some of the events in Gun Island. As, indeed, are the Californian fires which Ghosh writes about, and which have actually broken out in 2018, and are likely to again in 2019, according to the Los Angeles Times:

 

But those burn areas are expected to nearly double in July—to around 250 acres—and balloon to 1,500 to 5,000 acres by September and October. Like last year, the worst could come in November, when experts warn that fires of more than 5,000 acres could break out.

 

As Ghosh told Scroll.in an interview, “It’s kind of disturbing really because reality is outrunning fiction in the weirdest of ways.” And by adding history, legend, and other intelligent life forms to this reality, the novel arrives at what you and I may call uncanny, but the writer prefers to term “preternatural”. “It’s clear,” he added,

 

that whatever it is, we don’t live in a world guided by reason. If we did, we would be doing something about what’s happening around us. So we have to look for some other explanation.

 

There is also Umberto Eco’s—or, if you prefer, Dan Brown’s framework of a forensic investigation through signs and symbols leading to the unearthing of a series of “aha!” moments. And yet, while following that trail in satisfying in its own right, it is not the main journey of Gun Island. To go on that journey, it is necessary to read this book, which breaks out from many classic formats of the novel to point urgently at a truth—and its underlying unknowns—that we simply cannot brush aside.

 

First published in Scroll.in. Reprinted with permission.

Arunava Sinha is a translator of Bengali fiction, poetry and non-fiction into English and books editor at scroll.in.