Being a fan of Amitav Ghosh’s writing, I have acquired or at least read more or less all his novels. I have reviewed one of his early novels ‘The Shadow Lines’ in this blog.
His new novel ‘Gun Island’ is similar and yet different from his earlier novels. He weaves a fascinating story of displacement of people and animals due to disasters plaguing this world, with an air of mystery hinging on the supernatural. This keeps one glued to the book and provides a fascinating reading experience. However, it takes some time to adjust to this new style for readers who expect a more factually correct narration of history as the story moves across continents and generations. In this novel there is less factual and more fairy tale narration of the same phenomenon of movement across continents and generations!
The narrator of the novel Deen is a rare book dealer, if he may be called that. As he collects none through the length of the novel! I was hoping to hear more about rare books as I had read two novels on the theme and found it fascinating. These books were Pradeep Sebastian’s ‘The Book Hunters of Katpadi’ and Geraldine Brooks’ ‘The People of the Book’. While the former is mystery set in India the latter is a fascinating tale tracing the movement across space and time of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautifully illuminated Hebrew sacred manuscript created in fifteenth century Spain. But rare books are rare here, only the theme of the novel is rare!
Deen visits an old temple in the Sundarbans, a rich natural mangrove forest on islands at the mouth of the river Hooghly in the Bay of Bengal. He hears the story of a snake Goddess, Mansa Devi, who does not like being ignored. The snake Goddess chases a merchant across the oceans and this story, somewhere between myth and reality, fascinates Deen. He tries to unravel the mysteries of the merchant’s journey. Snakes, spiders, sea worms and dolphins appear where they are least expected, perhaps a phenomenon of climate change.
The story is about two boys, Tipu and Rafi, from the Sundarbans who migrate as climate change hits the region. Tipu is bitten by a cobra in the old Mansa Devi temple, deep in the Sunderbans, and survives. But he is visited by apparitions ever since and is apparently able to see the future. An Italian Professor Cinta does research on witch craft, inexplicable forces operating on people, and believes people of ancient times were possessed as they were more dependent on nature! She is sure that her daughter, who died in a freak car accident along with her husband, is often beside her, creating a creepy feel as the novel progresses.
Amitav Ghosh obviously is very concerned about the disasters facing us with climate change. In his very interesting non-fiction book titled ‘The Great Derangement’ he questions the arts and literature of our time for not depicting the crisis of climate change, calls it the ‘culture of concealment’. His concern shows in his earlier novel, ‘The Hungry Tide’. ‘The Hungry Tide’ focuses on the slow collapse and catastrophe awaiting the Sunderbans. The Gun Island begins in the same environment of the Sunderbans and exhibits a similar concern for the impact of climate change on the region. Islands disappear as one typhoon or tsunami after another hits the fragile ecosystem, mangroves are destroyed and the people lose their livelihoods leading to mass migration.
‘Gun Island’ revolves around two global themes, climate change and international migration of the populations in many countries, mainly due to the impact of climate change on livelihoods. As in all his novels the canvas he paints is vast, both in space and time. The novel starts in one continent, Asia, and moves to Europe, through the eyes of the international, mainly illegal, migrants. Their movement in precarious conditions is seen through Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Turkey, and the sea route to escape the collapsing economies in their countries. The migration is mainly to Europe in the hope of re-building lives in the new land of opportunity. The tale of this displacement induced migration is engrossing. The international movement of illegal migrants is facilitated by handlers, a form of mafia, whom the protagonists’ nickname jackals. New jackals appear as they move across one international border after another over land and finally land up in the “Blue Boat” in the Mediterranean Sea trying to make an illegal landing in one of the European countries.
I was reminded of a walking tour we took in Israel called the ‘The Other Tel Aviv: Culture and ood Tour’. The area we toured was where the refugee population coming mainly from Eritrea and Sudan lived and worked. We heard fascinating stories of their illegal crossing across international borders of the troubled land of Sudan, Egypt and the Sinai Dessert, where the Bedouin kidnapped them and demanded huge ransom money from the families of these men (see link below). The story of migration of Rafi and Tipu in the Gun Island sounded like a similar terrifying experience.
Unlike his earlier books, Gun Island’s overriding purpose appears to be exposing the disasters awaiting us in future. The results is that he invests less in detailing the characters, so that we are left a little bewildered by the behaviour of the main characters, Deen, Cinta, Rafi, Tipu and Piya, who considers herself responsible for Tipu’s state. Somewhere along the way rationality is lost and it takes some time to get into the mood of the novel as one is expecting something else, a logical historical account of events and people through the passage of time. But here we are taken through an intriguing mix of less fact, more fiction and even more inexplicable coincidences. But perhaps that is the charm of the Gun Island.
The title of the novel, ‘Gun Island’, also puts one out of sorts. It does not quite fit the narrative. The Gun Merchant, the mystical merchant is not a gun merchant at all! Gun Island is not an island engaged in smuggling guns! And Bengalis and Bangla are everywhere around the world! And I am not sure I figured out whether the merchant was ever brought to book by Mansa Devi the snake Goddess! Perhaps I was just overwhelmed by the intriguing storyline! In any case I would not like to unravel the mystery and spoil the fun for others who would like to read the book! It is definitely a novel I would recommend to all book lovers, fast paced and mysterious!