Review by Imran Ali Khan
Amitav Ghosh’s new book, Gun Island (Penguin, Random House), has come to us three years since his last book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, where Ghosh contemplates the dangers of climate change, “At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike”.
And it is here in his new novel, that Ghosh returns to these themes, examining them through the lens of oral narratives, new histories and migration, circling back to myths old and new.
Ghosh’s narrative, a story within several stories, begins at a temple in the Sundarbans in West Bengal. The temple, said to be constructed by the Gun Merchant as a tribute to Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes, becomes the catalyst for the narrative’s meandering prose. The legend that envelopes the temple is a story that the protagonist Deen sets out to uncover. On a visit to the temple, deep in the vast landscape of the Sunderbans, Deen is bitten by a king cobra who guards the temple. This sets off a series of strange and almost fantastical journeys that blur the borders between the natural and the supernatural, the known and the unknown, taking our protagonist across geographies and through time.
Against the backdrops of Los Angeles, the Sundarbans, Venice and New York, we are left to imagine the metaphorical interplay of the topographical locations Ghosh chooses. Each of these have been the entry point for explorers who built vast empires on the riches they have extracted from defenceless nations. With the conqueror of lands come the conquered of the land—the slaves, who were carried across the oceans to unknown lands to serve ruthless masters. The characters who inhabit the novel are now immigrants of another kind, escaping the poverty of their homes and crossing into borders in search of new homes. Gun Island tells us a story of a time long ago when a man attempted to escape the wrath of a goddess. Interwoven into this are stories of illegal immigrants, of characters in search for imagined lands, and of sea mammals whose homes are being destroyed by industry and capitalism.
Ghosh’s narrative often weaves unbelievable circumstances and uneasy junctures that the characters find themselves in. There are moments in the novel that seem predictable, moments that seem far too good to be true, crafted almost too easily. But it is perhaps the premise of the novel that allows for this blurring of the real and the unreal. In a conversation between Deen and Cinta, we hear the words that echo through the text, “In the seventeenth century no one would ever have said of something that was ‘just a story’ as we moderns do…They knew that only through stories was it possible to enter the most inward mysteries of our existence where nothing that is really important can be proven to exist—like love, loyalty, or even the faculty that makes us turn around when we feel the gaze of a stranger or an animal. Only through stories can invisible or inarticulate or silent being speak to us; it is they who allow the past to reach out to us.”
It is here, in the fractured landscapes that Ghosh draws us into the impact of climate change, that like the story of the Gun Merchant that binds this narrative. And in doing so, Ghosh also draws us into the disappearing lands as seas swell, eating through borders made by man and the irony that surrounds political borders guarded with such fear and dread against illegal migrants who dare cross them. As out characters move across these geographies, they seem to stand at different ends of a spectrum, reflecting each other in inverted reflections, allowing them to contemplate the nature of their actions and thoughts. And it is here, in the conversations that we feel an uncomfortable sense of unacknowledged doom as we stare it in the face every day.