Can climate change and all its attendant woes — food shortages, refugee crises, infrastructure collapse, economic devastation — become the stuff of literary fiction?
Indian writer Amitav Ghosh thinks it should, and in his latest novel, “Gun Island,” he tries to make rising sea levels and ominous weather anomalies the connecting thread in a globe-hopping, myth-inflected tale that unfolds 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 within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena.” He also suggested that our era of identity politics and intensifying nationalism is singularly ill-suited to deal with this existential crisis.
“At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament,” he noted, “humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.”
“Gun Island” attempts to bring a collective, cosmopolitan consciousness to a literary form more often focused on personal quests and conflicts. Still, every novel needs a set of eyes through which to see its action, and in “Gun Island” those eyes belong to a Brooklyn-based 50-something rare-book dealer, Deen Datta, who is also a lifelong student of early Bengali folklore.
Deen, on a visit to his native Kolkata, is lured into an adventure that yanks him well outside his comfort zone, taking him to Sundarbans — low-lying estuarial islands on the Bay of Bengal that are feeling the full brunt of rising seas and increasingly brutal cyclones. There, he tries to track down “a shrine hidden inside a tiger-infested mangrove forest” that may shed some light on a Bengali myth concerning a snake goddess and a gun merchant that has long puzzled him.
The cast of this folkloric detective story is rounded out by a marine-biology researcher who serves as Deen’s love interest; a glamorous world-renowned history scholar who was once his mentor; and two young men he inadvertently leads into danger.
Ghosh clearly wants to deliver fiction that awakens his readers to climate-change perils. But in focusing so heavily on well intentioned characters keenly aware of our planet’s crisis, “Gun Island” gives short shrift to key players in this downward global spiral: corporate executives whose eyes are focused solely on the short-term bottom line; politicians who put their own welfare over that of their constituents; workers desperate to make a living who become unthinking cogs in industries causing environmental depredation.
The novel has its heart in the right place. But is any work of fiction — even the grandest masterpiece — enough to change the direction our sinking ship is headed?
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.
By: Amitav Ghosh.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 313 pages, $27.
Event: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26, Grace-Trinity Community Church, 1430 W. 28th St., Mpls. Hosted by Rain Taxi. Free.