Book Review: The Gun Island

Book Review: The Gun Island

Though a grim commentary on our current world, Amitav Ghosh’s latest, ‘Gun Island’, is a full-blooded novel with its heart in the right place, writes Shreekumar Varma

Ghosh is a wonderful story-teller. He’s also concerned about the state of the planet, and thinks everyone should be.

The weird coincidences in the book, those uncanny manifestations across time, continents and cultures, evoke a sense of foreboding. Even more so does the final realisation that this novel is actually a grim commentary on our current world.

It’s like walking out of a disaster movie and seeing the road cracking up.

The analogy is not far-fetched. In fact, it’s more like disaster overflowing the screen and reaching out to you, a traumatic 3D experience with personal consequences. They should rightfully belong in an adventure story from a darker past. That you experience them is due to the art of Amitav Ghosh. And the eerie awareness that fiction is not staying fiction.

Ghosh is a wonderful story-teller. He’s also concerned about the state of the planet, and thinks everyone should be.

His book works because he’s interested in history and the processes that send people from one corner of the world to another, some adapting, others virtually growing their own colony in an alien neighbourhood. He is interested in migrations across the ages, forced, violent or voluntary. His narrative is nuanced and carefully woven, with concern, crafting moments of suspense and surprise, evoking the grief of personal or universal loss. Whether it concerns obscure legends and graphic codes that unravel through the book, or grim environmental warnings urgently (and literally) lashing our shores. His book works because his fantasy is never far from the truth.  

Dinanath Dutta is a rare book dealer living in Brooklyn. Edging towards his 60s, he is financially and romantically at a gloomy crossroad. On a visit to Kolkata, he is intrigued by the resurfacing of the legend of Goddess Manasa Devi and the Gun Merchant. It’s a legend he’s heard so often in his childhood it has sunk deep into his consciousness. It’s also the subject of his early research paper. The goddess, unable to gain the merchant’s devotion, pursues him with snakes and ocean storms until he vows he’ll build her a shrine.

Though preparing for his trip back to the US, Dinanath (‘Deen’) agrees when a distant relative asks him to visit the shrine. The visit to Sundarbans and the shrine (that protects the locals from ravaging storms), and the encounter with two youngsters and a snake spark a journey that will take him to Venice and a horrific brush with death. Piya, a marine biologist, sparks his interest first, and then his new voyage. The story of the journey ahead is replete with dreams, premonitions, and messages from the dead, signals from a parallel universe prodding our own.

His old Italian friend Cinta, a glamorous, dramatic intellectual, returns to his life with a phone call about a dream (both reminder and prophetic) and then becomes a guiding force and witness in most of the unusual events that follow. It is she who puts things in perspective. She tells him that, earlier, “people recognised that stories could tap into dimensions that were beyond the ordinary, beyond the human even. They knew that only through stories was it possible to enter the most inward mysteries of our existence...” This is the explanatory crux of the book.

The Merchant story that straddles centuries is still ongoing. And the meaning of the story is still relevant. That times and places are connected is reiterated. The old story of people being abducted and sold as workers (slaves, prostitutes) has changed only as far as will and intent go. Now, poverty and stagnancy make them pay to be taken away - to an uncertain future, chasing a dream. A dream fuelled by the Internet and social media, but one that could turn increasingly foggy and harmful.

The story of migration is weaved into the major strand of the novel, that of the damage wrought on different parts of the world by climate change. This strand takes sinister form through unexpected visitations, a venomous snake from the sea in Los Angeles, a spider in a Venetian house, little “monsters” known as shipworms that work on wood until it is destroyed. Not to mention unusual, untimely manifestations like terrible storms and tornados, and dead zones due to chemical effluence leading to mass destruction of fish, a pod of dolphins being beached, the righteous anger and helplessness of Nature provoked.

Some of his scenes remain long after the book is done: The final scene of a shipload of refugees becoming a bone of contention, rejected and welcomed, as the activists’ ship stands by; a sweeping fire in California, and the conference delegates (including Deen and Cinta) hastily changing venues to flee its heat; the shipworms causing havoc in a dramatic and ominous scene; the sudden and traumatic appearance of the snake in the Manasa Devi Temple in the Sunderbans.

Ghosh writes his scenes visually. He invests them with internal markers that give us a sense of delight, awe or foreboding. To compare it with his earlier novels or see it as a global warming tract is to miss out on what it really offers us: a full-blooded novel with its heart in the right place.