Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 12, 2019

Gun Island, by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is one of my favourite authors: I read and liked The Glass Palace (2000) a long time ago, and I was transfixed by his historical fiction trilogy, Ibis. There is so much resentful agenda-driven fiction these days—but Ghosh writes big picture novels that illuminate and clarify rather than blame.

The big picture issue that he tackles in Gun Island is the state of the planet, and climate change in particular.  The point that he makes that’s new for me, is that we might have reached a tipping point where the unstoppable tide of global commerce makes it impossible to rein in emissions and prevent catastrophe.  Whereas in 1987 there was an international agreement to phase out CFCs and there is evidence now that the hole in the ozone layer is repairing itself, no such international cooperation is happening now to deal with climate change.  The argument Ghosh so elegantly advances in this novel, is that Nature is losing the battle.

But as with his other novels, it’s the human story that drives the narrative.  His central character Dinnanath Dutta a.k.a. Deen, is a sixty-something dealer in rare books.  A Bengali trading in the US, he has failed to establish any firm relationships, and although we learn little about that, it is easy to guess that his mildly pompous, diffident personality has something to do with it.  He’s not a man to step out of his comfort zone; he is always at the edges of social gatherings and conferences, more of an aloof observer than a participant.  The first person narration enables the reader to discern Deen’s own attitudes from his lofty description of Kanai:

I had just entered the venue — a stuffy colonial-era club — when I was accosted by a distant relative, Kanai Dutt.

I had not seen Kanai in many years, which was not entirely a matter of regret for me: he had always been a glib, vain, precocious know-it-all who relied on his quick tongue and good looks to charm women and get ahead in the world.  He lived mainly in New Delhi and had thrived in the hothouse atmosphere of that city, establishing himself as a darling of the media: it was by no means uncommon to turn on the television and find him yelling his head off on a talkshow.  He knew everyone, as they say, and was often written about in magazines, newspapers and even books.

The thing that most irritated me about Kanai was that he always found a way of tripping me up.  This occasion was no exception; he began by throwing me a curveball in the shape of my childhood nickname, Dinu (which I had long since abandoned in favour of the more American-sounding ‘Deen’). (p.5)

More annoying to Deen, with a PhD that he’s proud of even though he abandoned academia to become a book dealer, is that Kanai knows more about Bengali folklore than he does.  Moreover, Deen prides himself on logic and reason, which is why he is irritated to find himself intrigued by Kanai’s taunts about the ancient Bengali myth of the Bandooki Sadagar a.k.a. the Gun Merchant who is pursued around the globe by Manasa Devi, the Goddess of Snakes.  Each time odd things happen in the novel and are attributed by others to some mystical origin, Deen doesn’t argue about it since that’s not in his nature, but he interrogates himself and comes firmly to the conclusion that there is always a rational explanation even if it isn’t clear at the time.  What he learns from the journey that unfolds, is that logic and reason isn’t necessarily incompatible with legends, because legends attend to constants in human interactions.

The novel is circuitous: the threads of the theme don’t come together straight away.  So it is a bit of spoiler to say that the interesting thing about Manasa Devi is that she is comparatively powerless.  The ancient Greek gods that we are used to, are powerful.  They’re omnipotent: they get what they want.  But Manasa, who needs the Gun Merchant’s submission to retain power that she has only by the consensus of her followers, cannot make him comply.  Her authority rests on her subjects’ obedience, and her shrine in a swamp in the Sundarbans is on the route for every merchant that has sailed out of Bengal since time immemorial.

The Sundarbans are the frontier where commerce and the wilderness look each other directly in the eye; that’s exactly where the war between profit and Nature is fought. (p.9)

Ghosh’s theme is that the stable, secure world that some of us have been taking for granted is in an uncontrolled war, and the ancient trading places are its symbolic battleground.  The story takes Deen to Venice, crumbling under the onslaught of tourists and a rising ocean, and to the Sundarbans in Bengal where its people flee devastating extremes of weather to become part of the army of foreign workers propping up the lifestyle of the West.  These frontiers are linked bizarrely by the depopulation of one and the onslaught of uncontrolled migration on the other, which culminates in the arrival of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean and the clash between Far-Right Nationalists opposing refugee arrivals v. the Open-Borders Left.

Shipworm borings in a wharf piling, see coin at lower left for size comparison

These elements might make Gun Island seem like a ‘political’ novel, but Ghosh has a light touch, made all the more devastating by his calm tone.  There are two strong women who enlighten Deen: Piya is a scientist who researches the changing habits of dolphins in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, and Cinta, who is in her eighties but usefully well-connected, introduces him to the reality of modern Venice via what appears to be merely a nostalgia tour retracing the steps of the purported Gun Merchant.  Those of us who’ve wandered through the calles will enjoy the tour while also noting the city’s peril.  Venice is not just coping with the rising acqua alta but also with devastating damage to its wooden foundations from shipworms, whose habitat range is moving into the Mediterranean due to climate change.  Cinta’s confident assurance that they have plenty of time before the water rises shows that the wisdom of years of experience can’t always be relied on when Nature has been pushed too far. But there’s more to this episode than that…

Cinta tells Deen about the role of 17th century Venice in provisioning the fastest-growing commerce of the time—chattel slavery, intended for the New World.  This is not something that tourists learn in this city which trades on its history, eh? Nor do most of us realise that the cheap labour force propping up tourism in contemporary Venice is a form of modern slavery.  Foreign workers are not allowed to migrate legally to the West which hoards its benefits for those already there; these people in desperate straits are exploited on their illegal journey of hope by people smugglers; and then if/when they arrive at their destination they are kept in permanent bondage by their illegal status and their irredeemable debt.  One of the characters in this situation manages to save up enough to pay back what he owes, and is beaten up and relieved of his money because it is in the interests of his ‘master’ to keep him indebted forever. So he will always be cheap labour, always at risk of deportation if he causes any trouble.

Gun Island is exactly the kind of book I like to read.  The characterisation includes strong older women and lively young people disconcerting their elders in a good-natured way; and I like books that show older people revising their once-solid beliefs and facing up to change.  I enjoyed the settings in cultures both new and familiar to me, but what I particularly like is the way climate change is an integral part of the contemporary setting and not some dystopian future.  It’s how it is, not how it’s going to be.  It’s discomfiting reading, but it’s real.

Image credit:

Teredolites borings in a modern wharf piling. The US one cent coin in the lower left of this image is 19 mm across.  By Wilson44691 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4590648

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Title: Gun Island
Publisher: John Murray (Hachette), 2019, 312 pages
ISBN: 9781473686670
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Ulysses Books Sandringham, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: Gun Island

 


Responses

  1. It will take me a while to get to this. I like his work too, but I need to be relaxed enough to immerse myself in it.

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    • Agreed. It’s a book to savour, and it needs a bit of time and thinking to enjoy it. If I were still at work, it would have been one that I’d leave to the school holidays.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Building a city in a swampy lagoon was brilliant engineering and for natural defences, but always fraught with dangers of erosion, rot and climate depredations. I enjoyed The Glass Palace, and like the sound of this one

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    • True… but Venice is a harbinger for what will happen all along our coastlines. All that expensive real estate, with water lapping at the edges…

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      • I agree – much of eastern England will be inundated before too long unless the world drastically changes its profligate ways

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        • Indeed. I’ve checked the projections for where I live in Melbourne (an half-hour walk from the sea) and we look to be ok, at least in the first phase.
          But that, of course, is no comfort. It’s no use some people being safe and secure and others not, because quite apart from any moral issues, if things get nasty, then conflict erupts.

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          • My own opinion is that the positive feedback loop stage of greenhouse warming has already started – ie melting ice releasing huge amounts of CO2, melting more ice – and that very high sea levels are now guaranteed.

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            • Yes, but have you, like me, been nursing a faint hope that the climate change deniers would eventually be unable to ignore the phenomena that the scientists have been warning us about for decades now, and then there would be action? That life would be hellish for a while, and then gradually a balance could be restored through international cooperation? What Ghosh is suggesting is that commerce is now an unstoppable force, which like his Gun Merchant is unable to be subdued. That’s a doomsday scenario…

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              • Over the past two or three years I’ve ‘progressed’ to being a doomsdayist – see melting of Arctic, Greenland, Siberia. I guess the last faint hope is a leftish Democrat press in 2020, say Warren, combined with a Europe which must be getting increasingly angry with the rest of us, and a helpful China.

                Or there’s always nuclear winter, bequeathed to us on the way out by the present madman in the White House.

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                • Thank you for not mentioning That Man’s name!

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  3. I’ve not read any of his work, but this sounds amazing Lisa. I may have to keep an eye out for it.

    Like

    • Well, I am an unabashed fan, so I recommend you read anything you can get your hands on!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello Lisa, I follow your reviews which are always enlightening. I received a copy of Gun Island and am excited to read this new novel by Amitav Ghosh. I read The Glass Palace, a novel that stayed with me through the years.

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    • Hello Sylvie, thanks for your kind words:) Yesterday I re-read my review of The Glass Palace (which is in my reading journal not on this blog) and remembered why I liked it so much. Some writers just deliver, don’t they!

      Liked by 1 person


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