Can literature save the planet? This was a question looping around on the sidelines of a conference about environmental futures which I recently attended. Back home after an 8000-mile flight laced with carbon-guilt and followed by a soul-splitting jet lag, I posed the same question to a small group of friends. While some did talk about politics and mentioned ideas that novels have bred, they really didn’t have much faith in the capacity of environment fiction to wean people away from the mesmerising influence of conspicuous consumption.
Are my friends being too pessimistic? We will come to that at the end of this essay, but before we can attempt an answer to the original question, we need to ask whether writers consciously engage with such a task. This question is difficult to ignore today, when the climate demon has unleashed its fury on humanity.
Climate change, most of us would agree, is the biggest threat the planet faces today. Researchers like Jem Bendell in his Deep Adaptation paper talk about “an inevitable near term social collapse”, while the more conservative IPCC reports on the subject take on grimmer tones as the summers grow hotter. And still, as the author of Gun Island had pointed out in his previous book, there is not enough engagement from writers with this imminent threat to all forms of life on earth.
Starting in the Sundarbans
In Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh makes a spirited foray into the world of climate fiction, a category which has received scant attention from writers, especially in our part of the world – a region, which for economic and other reasons is vulnerable, and will be disproportionately affected by the unfolding climate disaster.
Written in the first person, which imparts immediacy to the narrative, this story begins in Calcutta where New York based antiquarian Dinanath Dutta, Deen to his friends, had been wintering at his family home. Quite by chance, he is introduced to the story of Bonduki Saudagar or the gun merchant, a forgotten figure straddling legend and history who is said to have drawn the wrath of a goddess for refusing to become her devotee, and had escaped to a place called “Gun Island”.
But misfortunes had followed him to his refuge. The story of this legendary trader, Deen finds, has many parallels with the Bengali verse epics about Chand Sadagar and Manasa, the Hindu folk goddess of snakes, who is also central to the gun merchant’s story. He learns that the gun merchant has a “dham” or shrine in Sunderbans, the mangrove-covered deltas of south Bengal.
In the course of these discoveries Deen meets Nilima Bose, founder of Badabon Trust a charitable organisation in the Sundarbans, and Pia Roy, a marine biologist who runs it. Egged on by Nilima, Deen journeys by boat to the deep interiors of Sunderbans where he is introduced to Tipu, the son of a trust employee and Rafi who is the last of a family of Muslims looking after the gun merchant’s shrine.
Tipu, an insolent young man, who consorted with the wrong sort of crowd in America and consequently got involved with human-traffickers, needles and annoys Deen as they take a motorised launch to the shrine. Deen says:
“Moyna’s description of her son had led me to expect an abject, morose young fellow. But it was evident at a glance that Tipu was a creature of an altogether different kind; he had the probing eyes and darting movements of a hungry barracuda.”
Tipu and Deen arrive at the shrine where they meet Rafi. They find friezes with strange symbols on the facade of the structure, which form bits of the puzzle around the gun merchant’s story. But the visit ends with an incident which almost kills Tipu.
The Sunderbans, where important events of the story take place, and some of the characters, link this book to Ghosh’s other novel about the region – The Hungry Tide. In this world of mangroves and murky waters, time is measured from one cyclone to another, from one disaster to the next.
“Sometimes said Moyna it seemed as though both land and water were turning against those who lived in the Sunderbans. When people tried to dig wells, an arsenic-laced brew gushed out of the soil; when they tried to shore up embankments the tides rose higher and pulled them down again. Even fishermen could barely get by; where once their boats would come back loaded with catch, now they counted themselves lucky if they netted a handful of fry.”
The refugee crisis
Climate related environmental strife and disaster in the Sunderbans area is the spinning core of Gun Island from which characters like Tipu, Rafi or even the gun merchant in another time, are hurled outward, into other stories, by the violent centrifugal force of climate chaos and disaster. Chased away from the punishing land they called home, these characters get drawn into other dreams, to other refuges, propelled by promises, towards other stories of life in the West, which constitute, so to speak, the surface narratives of this novel, where people like Deen, Piya, or the charismatic historian Cinta play important parts.
However, and because climate change knows no boundaries and can spring surprises and violent retribution at a place of its choosing, and also because stories connect with stories riding microscopic filaments of probability and chance, the characters of Gun Island find out how an angry planet stitches them together in the present, as it had in the past, when the gun merchant was running away from a wrathful goddess.
The trials and tribulations of Tipu and Rafi drive the plot at one level, as it travels from one continent to the next, just as the climate refugees, who are an important part of the story, taking great risks, cross land borders and oceans in search of a better life. Here in Deen, Tipu and Rafi’s stories and their experiences we perceive climate change as a hyperobject manifesting, in places far removed from one another, through poisonous sea snakes, raging wildfires, killer cyclones, freak weather, fist-size hailstones, shipworms eating up the foundations of a city and more, pervading the book with what Ghosh himself, following Heidegger and others, had characterised as the “uncanny”.
Referencing the derangement
How best can literature engage with this hydra-headed monster that is climate change? The author has himself dwelt on the challenges of representing its unpredictable and unthinkable aspects in his paradigm shifting work The Great Derangement. There, among other things, he pointed out the aversion in mainstream culture to engaging with nature, the problems of representing human aggregates and non-human actors, the poverty of language itself among several reasons. In Gun Island, Ghosh attempts this engagement, and despite a some narrative slack, presents us with a busy and brilliant work which entertains and edifies while questioning the wayward ways of humanity.
It is interesting to note how the ideas and analysis of The Great Derangement inform his writing of this novel. We find characters from the natural world – such as the dolphin Rani, a king cobra, colonies of shipworms, and spiders, among other creatures – serving the plot, leveraging non-human agency into the storyline. That brand names of consumer goods are never mentioned in Gun Island whereas rideshare services – which help reduce carbon dioxide emissions – like Uber and Ola are, connects to ideas about writing climate fiction discussed in his previous book.
Ghosh had earlier written how religious world views, because of their ideas of intergenerational responsibility, could be a better vehicle for mobilising large numbers people to counter climate change. The scene where Deen visits the Santa Maria della Salute – the church of the Madonna of Good Health – who is said to have protected a tiny corner of Venice from the plague, seems to be an acknowledgement of this ameliorative and curative potential of religion that the author mentioned in his previous work. Yet the darkness that lurks a step away from the light is never forgotten:
“She is the Black Madonna of La Salute”, said Cinta. “The Panaghia Mesopanditissa. Madonna the Mediator: it is she who stands between us and the incarnate Earth, with all its blessings and furies.”
A few years ago, while writing my own environment disaster novel which has a backdrop of climate change, I had adopted near-future dystopia as an entry point into the story, which is what many writers do. Ghosh, however, steers clear of the dystopian trope of disaster fiction, instead creating a world – not different from our own – animated by climate strife, affected by displacement and the accumulated symptoms of everything humans have inflicted on the planet.
Thus we have dolphins beaching in Sunderbans, hungry birds of prey setting forests alight and poisonous snakes and spiders appearing far from their habitats, displaced by climate strife.
The snake reference recurs in the book, tied as it is to the story of Manasa the goddess, but the scenes involving displaced creatures brings to mind another memorable work of climate fiction – Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. Similarly, a delirious Tipu or the historian Cinta, who seem to have a connection with invisible worlds, could remind us of Bethany Krall, the psychotic teenage character in Liz Jensen’s cli-fi masterpiece, The Rapture.
There are other books like Frank Schatzing’s eco-thriller The Swarm, which one might recollect while reading certain scenes in Gun Island. It is indeed exciting to note that these novels about ecological breakdown and climate change seem to be in conversation with one another, indicating common ground about the shape of the beast in the creative community while also pointing to the growing robustness of this branch of literature.
Still, Ghosh charts a different course as he engages climate despair in his fiction. Here we find a coming together of his abiding themes of displacement and dislocation alongside climate strife as he creates a polyphony of events and voices, from the past and the present, affected by the dark and unthinkable powers of climate change and the unknown.
What eco-criticism could reveal
Nilima, Rafi and later on a helmsman, Horen Naskar, give Deen some vague clues to the gun merchant’s lost story. These ,alongside the symbols painted on the shrine, ultimately bring him to Venice where the last nail-biting scenes of the book are played out. The slowly sinking city of Venice, which, like the Sunderbans, is another symbolic reminder of the rising sea levels associated with climate change, is poignantly evoked by Ghosh as he compares it, like Geoff Dyer and others had done, to Varanasi:
That there is a strange kinship between Venice and Varanasi has often been noted: both cities are like portals in time; they seem to draw you into lost ways of life. And in both cities, as nowhere else in the world, you become aware of mortality. Everywhere you look there is evidence of the enchantment of decay, of a kind of beauty that can only be revealed by long, slow fading.
Such luminous passages of absolute beauty take one back to the vintage Ghosh of The Shadow Lines of The Circle of Reason. But this is a different book for a different time, and there are not many of these contemplative moments here. Rather, the author has tried to keep the reader a little on the edge, a little wary, with a fraught plot, a restless quicksilver storyline. Perhaps this is done with the expectation of communicating the fragile nature of life itself in the face of climate disaster, possibly with the hope of nudging the reader towards action.
There is much being written in the critical and popular fields about climate fiction which provides us some tools to structure, compare and better appreciate the importance of these works beyond their immediate literary value. Gregers Andersen of the University of Copenhagen has identified five themes in climate change novels and movies among which Gun Island seems to fit best into the theme of “social breakdown”, though there are overlaps with “loss of wilderness” and “nature passes judgement” too.
The fledgling field of empirical eco-criticism is engaged in trying to gauge the impact of these works, bringing us back to the question we asked at the beginning – can literature save the planet? This we can now reframe as: Can climate fiction influence positive action away from unsustainable lifestyles?
A qualitative study of American readers by eco-critic Matthew Schneider-Mayerson has found that works of cli-fi indeed influence dialogue and behavioural change among a sizeable group of readers. He has also demonstrated that character identification and vivid settings, which readers can personally connect with, tend to have more effect and can trigger empathetic responses. Gun Island doesn’t attempt the foregrounding of any particular setting as it is focused on connectedness but the strong messaging of the story, the motivational depth of characters like Piya, stretching over two books, and the charisma of Cinta is expected to have an impact on readers.
The glamorous and brilliant Italian historian Giacinta Schiavon or Cinta is an important character in this book, who frames the novel with insight, and a connection to the unknown. A long time friend of Deen, she is the one who helps him with the detective work necessary to get to the bottom of the gun merchant’s story. She is also the person who hears voices and seems to be able to communicate with the spirit world. Cinta is present near the beginning of this book, stirring up the plotline, and she is there again in the closing scenes aboard the rescue ship Lucania – a magnetic presence, balancing the real and uncanny worlds of Gun Island.
Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. He has advocated on climate change issues at the United Nations and has recently published The Butterfly Effect, his fourth work of fiction. www.rajatchaudhuri.net