GUN ISLAND by Amitav Ghosh THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an (increasingly) occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing doing a PhD project at Queen’s University Belfast with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience. Which brings me to this review of Gun Island.
There is an exuberance of intricacy and serendipity in Amitav Ghosh’s climate change novel. Like a cross between David Lodge’s Small World and Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, Gun Island takes Ghosh’s protagonist on a tour of events and locations. Dinanath Datta (Deen or Dino to friends and relatives) lurches between some outlandish coincidences in pursuit of an old myth and a very real contemporary dilemma. His journey takes him through places as diverse as the wild wetlands of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh through fire threatened California, to near flooding Venice. Along the way he jousts with academics at conferences, distant relatives at parties and a fair few venomous denizens of temples and apartment blocks.
The narrative resists the tendency to plot sprawl by maintaining a focus on our first person protagonist Dino – the approaching sixty year old Indian academic and rare books trader. However, since other people’s tales are also important to the story we get a lot of reported speech accounts of those characters’ past adventures and excitements which makes Dino at times more chronicler than protagonist. The approach reminded me a bit of Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice where the aged solicitor and executor of an old man’s estate is the protagonist relating and engaging in the life story of the young woman whose fortune he ends up being a trustee for. However, Ghosh has his Dino dabble in a plethora of lives that can get a little confusing.
A chance meeting at a party sparks a conversation about Bonduki Sadagar – the mythical “Gun Merchant” who occurs in diverse seventeenth century poetic forms and was the subject of Dino’s long ago PhD thesis. The encounter sends Dino out to examine an ancient and rarely glimpsed temple in the shifting cyclone tormented islands of the Sundabarans. In a daisy chain of connections, he meets people new and old, faces hazards and opportunities and is generally swept along by events. Dino is hard to perceive as a protagonist since he so often seems to be reactive, responding to the stimulus and experiences of others or being overtaken by another twist of fate, or simply being a nexus who connects the paths of others. There is a clumsiness to his blundering both in his personal relationships and the physical cack-handedness that draws the attention of airport security and at one point nearly has him sellotaped to a seat in plane. He feels like an observer, a passenger even, or perhaps an everyman witness, not least when he is following the footsteps of the gun merchant.
There is an intricacy of plot and language in Ghosh’s depiction of his gun merchant. Like the legend of Arthur – assembled from fragmentary references from Gildas and Nennius – Dino and his allies pick at the clues in the legend of the Gun Merchant’s long and tortuous flight from a vengeful goddess. A gradual analysis of place names and symbols through the lens of different languages and cultures turns the Gun Merchant’s odyssey from a journey rivalling Gulliver’s tour of the fantastic imagination into an altogether more real and credible migration that can be mapped onto contemporary places and their known history. That process of discovery gives a satisfying ludic puzzle element to the story. It also complements the present time dilemma of the novel, with a mother worried about her son lost in the labyrinth of people smugglers, refugees and political invective against desperate migrants.
There is at times a breathless urge to convey information and to position plot and character in the places they need to be to advance the story. In consequence my reading did not find – or did not settle on – too many lines of eye-catching prose. Though there was this observation on a venetian church.
“I saw then that the church was not merely beautiful, it was imbued with dread and foreboding; it was a cry of warning from a moment of desperation so extreme that it had turned itself into stone.”
Ghosh had written about literature’s struggle to depict the perils of climate change in The Great Derangement. Gun Island can be seen in part as his own response to the questions he raised of literature and his own bid to deliver a “cry of warning.” Making another comparison with Nevil Shute, one might think of Shute’s anti-nuclear war masterpiece On The Beach, which became an icon of the nuclear disarmament movement. (One might also think of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty mobilising the public conscience about horse and animal welfare). Climate change has struggled to find a similar singular text with weight and reach to capture public opinion and drive political action. Reasons for this vary, climate change is a complex issue of wide and varied impacts, in a world where far more works are published than before and they have to compete against the clamour of widely distributed misinformation and distraction. Gun Island is Ghosh’s contribution to a growing archive of books which – like the Avengers circling Thanos in the Infinity War – take aim at the humanity threatening monster of climate change from every angle possible.
One of Ghosh’s concerns was that realist fiction – imprisoned in the parochial settings and credible events of the individual moral journey – could not do justice to the reality of climate change. In the motifs in Gun Island Ghosh calls more on the tradition of epic poetry – the world stage, the outrageous coincidences, the invoking of myth and magical realism with portents and auguries. This is a novel that actively defies conventions of realism. In The Great Derangement Ghosh wrote about a sudden hailstorm he personally experienced in Dehli – an unprecedented extreme weather event which, even though it really happened, was too unbelievable to insert into a work of fiction. It can be no accident then, that he inserts exactly such an incident into Gun Island and uses it to make refugees out of some comfortable Europeans.
However, Ghosh does not make climate change the central spine of his story. It is instead the periphery that intrudes on the story through freak weather events, raging wildfires and animal migrations that put Dino in the path of a variety of displaced venomous creatures. While Ghosh’s recognition of the creeping non-human impacts of climate change would satisfy one of Goodbody’s four challenges for cli-fi, this is a story built about people, or more importantly built about how they are connected. The story condenses around the plight of a boat of refugees crossing the Mediterranean towards Italy. The boat is shadowed by a flotilla of coastguard ships from various nations intent on denying the refugees entry, while a squadron of Italian navy vessels lie athwart their hawse instructed by right wing political masters to deny the refugees succour or access to Italy. An array of small boats of rightwingers launching abuse at the battered and overloaded blue boat add all too credible colour to the book’s denouement.
But ultimately Gun Island – in both form and content – shows itself to be a book about connections. How we are connected to each other and to our past by bonds of humanity and threads of fate. Our present crisis is a product of three hundred years of accelerating use of fossil fuels from the time of the Gun Merchant and it is one which involves all of us.
Within its pages, sometimes in exposition, other times in dialogue, Ghosh makes many pithy observations on contemporary global issues.
When threatened at sea, Ghosh highlights the funding of hate..
“It’s not surprising, I suppose, since right-wing parties have so much money now. They may even block us or ram us.”
When listening afresh to the once reassuring sound of church bells
“It was as if a voice were crying out from the past to remind the world that the limits of human reason and ability became apparent not in the long, slow duration of everyday time, but in the swift and terrible onslaught of fleeting instants of catastrophe.”
“Everybody knows what must be done if the world is to continue to be a liveable place, if our homes are not to be invaded by the sea, or by creatures like that spider. Everybody knows and yet … we go about our daily business through habit, as though we were in the grip of forces that have overwhelmed our will.”
Ghosh speaks of forces that have overwhelmed our will, as though referencing a kind of demonic possession. But what then is the contemporary demon? Perhaps social media, corporate misinformation, and a complicit press. After all, what else besides demonic possession could persuade people to take lethal doses of horse dewormer rather than an FDA approved vaccine. Ultimately – like the TV show Years and Years – Ghosh conjures a somewhat hopeful ending based on a new global awareness focussed through the lens of The Blue Boat’s plight. But Damascene conversions are harder to achieve in reality than in fiction – especially at scale.
In Ghosh’s narrative the blue boat of refugees becomes an explicit symbol
“Across the planet everyone’s eyes are on the Blue Boat now: it has become a symbol of everything that’s going wrong with the world – inequality, climate change, capitalism, corruption, the arms trade, the oil industry.”
Looking at recent events in 2021 it is hard to argue with any of the wrongs that Ghosh included on his list. He is scathing about the people smugglers who preyed on the passengers on the Blue Boat, but it is the legal framework that creates these people. In so many recourses to legislation, making stuff illegal does not stop it happening. Consider prohibition era in America, the pre Roe vs Wade (and arguably Texas after the Heartbeat law) situation around abortion, or the drugs environment in Portugal before they legalised drugs and virtually eliminated the drug problem. Making certain things illegal (particularly without any commensurate social support/education) does not destroy the demand but instead forces people into more risky and more costly unregulated routes. Organised criminals are the ultimate free marketeer capitalists. Rejecting all forms of regulation in pursuit of personal profit, they are libertarianism in its final form.
Ghosh also takes aim at the worship of the past, when Dino is in conversation with a migrant worker in Venice.
“Think of all the people who come to see Venice: What’s brought them here but a fantasy? They think they’ve travelled to the heart of Italy, to a place where they’ll experience Italian history and eat authentic Italian food. Do they know that all of this is made possible by people like me? That is we who are cooking their food and washing their plates and making their beds? Do they understand that no Italian does that kind of work anymore.”
In Brexit Britain – short of care home workers, crop pickers, HGV drivers and now vets, there is a bleak resonance around the line “no Italian does that kind of work anymore” as Ghosh punctures fantastic (deluded? Inaccurate?) assumptions from the past imposed on the present.
In the midst of the connections that Ghosh draws, funnelling his narrative down onto that battered Blue Boat of refugees, there is perhaps one more underlying theme, somewhat ironic given the book’s title and its focus on two different but linked islands thousands of miles apart. In short, my final takeaway from Gun Island is that “no man is an island” not in time and not in space. We cannot be and should not be isolated from our past or from our contemporary context. We must be and feel and act collectively, rather than sigh as apathetically powerless individuals. However much reactionary forces hoarding their profits might seek to divide, distract and deceive us, we must join together. As Ghosh notes
“…considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth, it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over.”
It should be a preoccupation of readers as well as writers!