April 17, 2020KR Reviews

On Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019. 320 pages. $27.00.

The myths of our ancient history are riddled with strange natural occurrences. The storms that blew Odysseus off course, the earthquakes in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Biblical flood. But what if rather than allegory, these texts are describing real events? In Gun Island, the latest novel from Amitav Ghosh, such strange occurrences are not only possible but not even all that rare. In this case, however, it’s not simply through humanity’s experience with the divine creating these moments, but also the effect mankind has had on the world through climate change. As a new entry in the growing genre of ecological fiction, Gun Island deftly showcases the natural disasters familiar to us in myth in a new light, a harbinger of the new world we’ve created.

The novel follows Dinanath “Deen” Datta, an Indian American living in New York City who deals in rare books, on a globe-trotting adventure prompted by a single word: “bundook,” the Bangla word for gun. While at a party in his birth city of Kolkata, Deen is confronted by a “distant relative” who asks him to weigh in on an uncommon version of a story very familiar to Deen. The tale is of a merchant, whose attempts to flee the Goddess of snakes called Manasa Devi lead him on a global quest, before he finally relents to the will of the Goddess. Deen likens this story to that of Homer’s Odyssey.

In the version told by his relative, the merchant goes by the name Bonduki Sadagar: “The Gun Merchant,” and this version of the story is connected to a local shrine, buried deep within the heart of the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Deen initially dismisses his relative’s suggestion of going to see the shrine, but soon finds himself there, and thus launched into a grand adventure of his own that takes him from New York City, to the Sundarbans, to Venice, and into the Mediterranean, tracing the steps of the fabled merchant.

Along the way, Deen meets a cast of characters, from the scientist Piya, who studies cetaceans; the Venetian history professor Cinta, who serves as a mentor to Deen; the snarky and enigmatic Tipu; and the itinerant worker Rafi. The characters drift in and out of the novel as they move in and out of his life, depending on where in the world Deen is. The novel’s characters, like its moments, have a way of popping up in just the opportune time, or in the place you least expect them.

As you might expect, the novel itself feels like the sort of clue-laden myth the book centers on, in the form of the Gun Merchant fable. It’s satisfying to see the characters put all the pieces together, and find their next step. Ghosh is adept at weaving a tapestry out of the cast of characters, the information we’re given about this variant of the mythos, and the realities of the fast-changing world in which both we and Deen live. The writing is, for the most part, lively and nuanced, barring a few interactions where Deen serves as the layman usually responding to another character’s suggestion of a less rational explanation for the situation in which they find themselves.

Deen is far from a passive protagonist, and yet often the events set in motion seem just out of his grasp. He’s pushed along by situations that one could just as easily attribute to “mere chance,” or global warming, or the wrathful vengeance of a Goddess scorned. As is often the case, the answer is perhaps between all of these. While this leads to many beautiful and dynamic moments throughout the novel, there are times where the effect comes across a bit too heavy-handed, leaving the reader to feel a bit out of the loop.

The book feels far faster than its 320 pages, and the plot moves along at a clip. At one point, Deen and another character discuss an event near the beginning of the book, and mention that it occurred nearly two years ago. I couldn’t believe that much time had transpired. All this to say it’s a pleasurable and breezy read.

Gun Island is part of an emerging and increasingly important category of ecological fiction, and the effect of global warming is profound and stark. We hear of cyclones and other natural disasters of historic strength, mass beachings experienced by the characters on a scale not seen before. We see the flooded landscape, as water pushes further into the Sundarbans threatening to reclaim them altogether. Deen has more than one encounter with a dangerous creature, moving into new territory as their habitat shifts with the temperature.

Nowhere is this felt more strongly than in the section of the book set in Venice. Venice, the sinking city, its failing wooden foundation slipping into the mud, serves as a microcosm for the environment at large. The city’s viability becomes more tenuous as we push the climate farther and farther. Soon, the pier may crumble under our feet.

Yet, Gun Island’s worldview is largely a positive one. In a culture saturated with tales of impending or passed apocalypse, of survivalism and ruthlessness, Ghosh paints a picture of compassion and community. It’s no longer a question of whether or not we’ll alter the climate, but by how much. In rising tides and temperatures, in shifting climates and stronger storms, in mass migrations and divisive politics, Ghosh looks towards intimate moments and small gestures. He knows sometimes the kindest thing is a few words in a shared language, thousands of miles from home.