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Gun Island is a tale of two archipelagos. One sits in the Bay of Bengal, to the east of the Indian subcontinent, and the other at the gateway of Europe.
Their fates are interconnected in this fictional tale of East meets West, and of how climate change is affecting both regions and their local populations.
This is at least Amitav Ghosh’s third book touching on climate change. He broached the subject of ecological decline in his 2004 novel The Hungry Tide. His 2016 nonfiction work The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable was a polemic on the failure of literature to grasp and confront the realities of the crisis.
Gun Island, meanwhile, tells the tale of Dinanath Dutta, known as Deen, a rare-book dealer from Brooklyn. He chances upon an age-old Bengali fable about Manasa Devi, a goddess of snakes irked by Bonduki Sadagar, the Gun Merchant. He is rescued by the Jewish trader Ilyas who helps him find refuge in a mysterious place known as Gun Island.
A tip-off draws Deen to West Bengal in India and ultimately to the Sundarbans – a vast low-lying forest of mangroves in a delta at the edge of the Bay of Bengal. There, he goes in search of the Gun Merchant, the mystical founder of the elusive Gun Island.
Guiding Deen on his quest is Giacinta Schiavon, or Cinta, an Italian professor and historian who is Deen’s friend and mentor. The plot moves forward aided by Cinta’s knowledge of history and her spiritual encouragement.
The action is soon transported to Venice, the other archipelago of this book, which happens to be Cinta’s hometown. After a chance encounter with a few Bangladeshi migrants in Venice, Deen begins to unravel the mystery of Gun Island. The climax takes place in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean sea, with a clash of boats and ideologies.
Packed into this novel are a series of ambitious themes: climate change, the resulting refugee crisis, the mysticism of the East, and the history of Europe.
In its themes, Gun Island can be described as the spiritual sequel to The Hungry Tide. Ghosh even brings back some of the endearing characters from the earlier book set in the Sundarbans, to take the story forward.
Gun Island might also be seen as Ghosh’s attempt to answer his own call in The Great Derangement for literary fiction to address climate change.
But what sets Gun Island apart from Ghosh’s earlier books is his focus here on climate refugees and migrants. Workers migrating from Bangladesh to Venice and their accounts bring this perspective alive.
He intertwines this theme with the book’s musings on the history of Europe in one of the Gun Island’s last sequences. In it, Deen voices his thoughts about the migrants coming in through the Mediterranean to Europe.
“I saw now why the angry young men on the boats around us were so afraid of that derelict refugee boat: that tiny vessel represented the overturning of a centuries-old project that had been essential to the shaping of Europe,” Deen says.
“Beginning with the early days of chattel slavery, the European imperial powers had launched upon the greatest and most cruel experiment in planetary remaking that history has ever known: in the service of commerce they had transported people between continents on an almost unimaginable scale, ultimately changing the demographic profile of the entire planet.
“But even as they were repopulating other continents they had always tried to preserve the whiteness of their own metropolitan territories in Europe.”
In The Great Derangement, Ghosh wrote about the need to “grasp the scale and violence of climate change”, and the difficulties of using literary fiction as a vehicle for that message without being consigned to the science fiction shelf.
In a passionate passage in Gun Island, Ghosh presents what I assume are his views, through Deen.
“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,” Deen says.
“Everybody knows … and yet we are powerless, even the most powerful among us. We go about our daily business through habit, as though we were in the grip of forces that have overwhelmed our will; we see shocking and monstrous things happening all around us and we avert our eyes; we surrender ourselves willingly to whatever it is that has us in its power.”
The range of big topics Ghosh takes on in Gun Island seems too broad at times, and this occasionally affects the storytelling – impeccable in most places, at times it seems forced, burdened by the need to weave in so much.
But it is a worthy and much-needed effort, and his excellent research and strong storytelling have clearly made him a master of the genre of climate-change fiction.