[4] Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

Book Cover: [4] Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

BOOK: Gun Island
AUTHOR: Amitav Ghosh
YEAR: 2019
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Temperatures reach a record high of 54°C in Death Valley. Wildfires rage once more in California. Four-thousand-year-old ice collapses into the Arctic Ocean – nearly half of the last fully intact ice shelf gone within a couple of days. Heavy monsoon rains lead again to devastating floods in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, impacting millions of people and putting the region on the brink of humanitarian crisis. What’s this got to do with fiction? According to author Amitav Ghosh, a great deal. In his 2016 non-fiction book The Great Derangement, Indian author Amitav Ghosh writes that climate change is a crisis of culture and a crisis of imagination. He provocatively argues that literature is failing to grapple with climate change, an omission that future generations may well find morally reprehensible.

The fourth book in the LAX LAB climate fiction book club is the novel Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh. If the realism of the climate crisis is too much for authors and readers to bear, Ghosh suggests through this work that mythology and the fantastical may be a viable alternative. In Gun Island we meet Deen Datta, a dealer of rare books in Brooklyn. On a visit to his hometown Kolkata, Deen becomes reacquainted with the old legend of gun merchant Bonduki Sadagar. Through Deen, we travel from Brooklyn to Kolkata to Los Angeles and Venice, meet snakes and goddesses, and are plunged into a world of mystery, adventure, and Bengali folklore.

The novel speaks to the connectedness of our world, how our relationships to space and time are intertwined with the carbon economy. Through this imaginative narrative emerges insight on the climate crisis, refugees and human migration, the forces of nature, and how old legends might help us confront and re-imagine the challenges of our present situation and precarious future.

Folklore and mythology
Human migration

[Spoiler alert! If you have not yet read the book, you may wish to turn back.]

We travel the world with rare book dealer Deen Datta, visiting: Brooklyn, Kolkata, Los Angeles, Venice, the Mediterranean Sea, and the rivers that lead to the Bay of Bengal. Through Deen, we learn the beguiling legend of the Gun Merchant Bonduki Sadagar and the goddess of snakes Manasa Devi whom he tries unsuccessfully to evade. As we uncover the mysteries of this 17th century tale from Bengali folklore, we also meet the 21st century reverberations of climate change as they manifest in different ways and places. We encounter the lush mangroves and rising waters in the Sundarbans in India, where increasing storms and the changing landscape is forcing migration. We watch encroaching wildfires in California, observe mass die-offs of marine life and the shifting territories of species, and witness the displacement of people from their homelands. Gun Island is filled with unlikely coincidence and the narrative takes on aspects of magical realism. We meet snakes, spiders, dolphins, whales, and a cast of characters that often seem just a little bit mystical.

I offer the following two provocations to inspire our discussions:

Provocation 1: Possessed by systems

Gun Island is an especially timely read, as flooding in India and Bangladesh causes devastation yet another year, wildfires rage once again on the west coast of the United States, the refugee crisis remains ongoing, and we are collectively facing a global health crisis and a moment of hyper-connectivity due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Gun Island reveals the interconnectedness of people and place, past and present. These interconnections are part of the climate crisis. Impacts and crises are entangled in the narrative of Gun Island, showing how the climate crisis is an ecological and humanitarian crisis but also a crisis of systems. While untangling the mystery of the Gun Merchant, our narrator Deen struggles to make sense of his experiences. His friend Cinta explains that we live in a world of impersonal systems that leads to these personal struggles, that ‘the word today presents all the symptoms of demonic possession’. Cinta tells Deen: ‘you are waking up to things that you had never imagined or sensed before … some unknown force has given you a great gift’. (p.236-7)

What systems feature throughout this novel? How are they presented and challenged?

How does Deen awaken? And just what is he awakening to?

(How) have you been awakened through this story or other stories?

Provocation 2: Just a story?

Gun Island is allegorical for the ways that it distills the complexity of climate change through narrative and the use of symbolism. Allegory is used in literature and other art forms as a way to convey complex ideas and real-world issues. Much like the legendary Gun Island is an island within an island, the novel Gun Island is a story within a story. By intertwining a Bengali myth with the present day, author Amitav Ghosh is showing us the power of stories in the face of climate change. Deen believes the Gun Merchant is just a story and it is Cinta once more who helps our skeptical narrator to understand why stories matter:  ‘Only through stories can invisible or inarticulate or silent beings speak to us; it is they who allow the past to reach out to us … You mustn’t underestimate the power of stories. There is something in them that is elemental and inexplicable … It is only through stories that the universe can speak to us, and if we don’t learn to listen you may be sure that we will be punished for it.’ (p.140-1)

How are the legend of the Gun Merchant and the book Gun Island allegorical? How is symbolism used in Gun Island to this effect?

What does this story tell us about climate change?

What should we be listening to in the story Gun Island?


Author website
Amitav Ghosh

Articles, essays, and other non-fiction
'Pilot whales Tasmania: Almost 400 die in Australia's worst stranding'
BBC NEWS, 23 September 2020

‘Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh review – climate and culture in crisis’
Alex Clark, The Guardian, 5 June 2019

'COVID collides with weather disasters to affect millions worldwide'
Thomas Frank, Scientific American, 25 September 2020

'California wildfires erupt from wine country to Los Angeles, damaging Santa Rosa and displacing thousands'
Andrew Freedman, The Washington Post, 29 September 2020

‘Death Valley just recorded the hottest temperature on Earth’
Concepción de León and John Schwartz, The New York Times, 17 August 2020

The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

'Collapsed Arctic ice shelf adds 'exclamation point' to dire climate trends, say scientists'
Hannah Paulson, CBC News, 7 August 2020

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Tales of India: Folk Tales from Bengal, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu by Svabhu Kohli, illustrated by Viplov Singh

Music and other audio
Indian Chill (Spotify playlist)

Evergreen (2018) by Calcutta

Emma Arnold