This is a complex and deeply layered novel that, as well as carrying the main storyline, addresses some important current issues – climate change, environmental degradation, impact of modern “high tech” and urban lifestyles and transnational migration (with all the abuses inherent in that). The core character, Dianath Datta – Deen – was born in Calcutta, established an early reputation for research in Bengali story cycles, was offered a job in the US and when his academic career stalled became a rare book dealer, Approaching 60, with no family or partner, his business failing, he is in personal turmoil. He decides to over-winter in Calcutta. There he is asked to explore an old shrine on “Gun Island” in the Sundarbans. He will meet a whole new suite of people: primarily Praya, a naturalist researching dolphins, and her foster family, along with son Tipu.
Travelling to the island he will meet Ravi, the grandson of the last keeper of the shrine and its oral tales. Deen will believe that the building is 17th century and links the story of the “gun master” who founded it to other Bengali story cycles. As the novel develops, he will try to track his history as a slave trafficked to the Mediterranean. Behind this is the belief that the shrine was established to Manassa Devi to appease a series of disasters the gun master faced when he would not take her (and her warnings) seriously. Her sign is the snake – or possibly spiders. The dreams and visions that will follow for characters in the modern story will resonate to this. Carry two things through the storyline: history is not about the past, it is embedded in the present, and second, humans are supposed to be different from animals in their capacity to tell stories, but they would once have closely interrelated with creatures of the natural world – possibly through dreams, intuitions and even precognition.
In the main story, Deen returns to the US where he is suffering “strange symptoms”, he plans to travel to meet old friend Cinta who will help him research the possibility of the “Gunsmith” reaching Venice, her home city. In Venice he will meet up with Rafi who has travelled down the “refugee line”. Tipu, previously with him, is missing. Cinta’s daughter is a documentary filmmaker and all will gather, as the story approaches its finale, in an attempt to meet the “blue boat” which is carrying immigrants to Italy amidst a huge political storm.
So why read this novel? Ghosh writes from a Bengali perspective with vivid depictions of place and as in this novel with an awareness of history. But he obviously sees now as a time of great change, maybe serious crisis. This is causing political and economic instability that seemingly nobody knows how to resolve. But behind this are the broad and deep international links that have been built over the centuries and the cross pressures that will ripple out from this. Is the damage irreversible on either the personal, or the greater, scale? Do we and the planet have the capacity to put things right?
To meld all these ideas (and others too) in a single novel is not an easy ask. I would suggest that Ghosh has not been entirely successful. He is a wonderful and creative storyteller, but occasionally the extent of the information around an issue he is trying to present seems unbalanced (or presented in a conversation in a not totally believable way). For me, too, it was challenging having to cope with quiet and descriptive passages and then make the leap to “issues” – albeit important ones often carrying new and interesting information. Was I satisfied with the ending? No. But I would recommend this for reading nonetheless as you might appreciate in an entirely other way.
Hilary White 4/4
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh
John Murray 9781473686656 hbk Jun 2019