Can climate change and all the misfortunes that come with it – food shortages, refugee crises, infrastructure collapse, economic devastation – become the stuff of literary fiction?
Writer Amitav Ghosh thinks he should, and his latest novel, “cannon island,” tries to make rising sea levels and disturbing weather anomalies the common thread of a worldwide mythical tale set in West Bengal, Los Angeles, Venice and New York.
In his 2016 book, “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable,” Ghosh wondered why “climate change casts a much smaller shadow in the landscape of literary fiction than even in the public arena.” Perhaps, he speculated, “global warming currents [are] too wild to be sailed in the usual storytelling boats.
He also questioned whether our age of identity politics and intensifying nationalism is singularly ill-equipped to deal with this existential crisis. “[A]Just when it became clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament,” he noted, “humanity finds itself in the grip of a dominant culture in which the idea collective has been exiled from politics, economics, like literature. »
“Gun Island” attempts to bring a collective and cosmopolitan consciousness to a literary form more often focused on quests and personal conflicts. Yet every novel needs a pair of eyes to see its action, and in “Gun Island,” those eyes belong to a Brooklyn-based fifty-something rare book dealer, Dinanath Datta, who studies also Bengali all his life. folklore.
Deen, as he is nicknamed, has always sought to live “a quiet, low-key, uneventful life.” But on a visit to his hometown of Kolkata, he is drawn into an adventure that takes him well outside his comfort zone to the Sundarbans – low estuarine islands on the Bay of Bengal that bear the full brunt of rising increasingly brutal seas and cyclones.
There, he attempts to track down “a shrine hidden in a tiger-infested mangrove forest” that may shed light on a Bengali myth about a serpent goddess and arms dealer that has long intrigued him. Rounding out the cast of this folksy detective story is a marine biology researcher who serves as Deen’s love interest; a world-renowned glamorous history scholar who was once her mentor; and two young men he inadvertently drags into danger.
Ghosh throws California wildfires, Venetian Lagoon tornadoes, wild coincidences and a ghost or two into his story. As he ponders the threats to our planet, he gives us some striking backdrops (“It was just unimaginable that I walked into a cobra’s lair”) and food for thought.
“We’re in a new world now,” says the woman Deen is in love with. “No one knows where they belong anymore, neither humans nor animals.”
Ghosh clearly wants to deliver fiction that awakens its readers to the perils of climate change in the same way that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” alerted Americans to the horrors of slavery or “Hiroshima” forced them to confront the nightmare of nuclear war. Deen’s former mentor hammers home the point when she muses that “the world today shows all the symptoms of demonic possession.”
But by focusing so heavily on well-meaning characters who are acutely aware of the crisis facing our planet, “Gun Island” ignores the key players in this downward global spiral: corporate executives focus only on short-term results; politicians who put their own welfare ahead of that of their constituents; workers desperate to make a living who become thoughtless cogs in industries causing environmental depredation.
In “The Great Derangement”, Ghosh got closer to the goal: “[I]If there is one thing that global warming has made abundantly clear, it is that to think of the world only as it is is tantamount to a formula for mass suicide. Rather, we have to imagine what it might be.
Readers of literary fiction—by definition, a limited audience—can have influence beyond their small numbers. But is that enough to change the direction of our sinking ship?
“The Island of Guns” by Amitav Ghosh; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 313 pages; $27
Appearance of the author: Amitav Ghosh discusses “Gun Island” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, Seattle Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5; 206-652-4255, mairieseattle.org.