Book review: Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh
Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh, Penguin Hamish Hamilton Books
A disclaimer is necessary: I am a huge fan of Ghosh, and positively devour each book of his with avid interest.
But that in no way impinges on my statement that GUN ISLAND is a terrific read, packed with information, and that info is delivered so effortlessly, the reader absorbs it with equally little effort.
However, this needs to be said: the book is better read as a work on climate change and conservation rather than the piece of fiction it is. A pattern emerges within a few pages itself, whereby the reader is fed calibrated doses of info about the environment, global warming,climate conservation. Actually, the characters, Deen, Tipu, Rafi, Cinta, all of them, are actually less engaging than the issues the book puts forth.
There are points made on virtually every other page. We read how very hard life is in the Sundarbans, with the young and the restless just waiting to sneak into Bangladesh and eventually, overland to Europe from there.
How despite the mass evacuations as cyclone after cylone hits the area, the sea always prevails, invading new places each time, swamping fertile tracts of land with salt water, rendering them uncultivable, generally wreaking untold devastation on the land and its denizens.
We learn how human trafficking (the people moving industry, one character calls it) has increased manifold and how men are sent off to join labour gangs, how women are increasingly turning to prostitution, but away from their villages and in the cities.
Fishermen no longer catching enough fish to eke out a living, wells dug co9ntaining arsenic in the water. We read of the mass beachings of Irrawady dolphins at Garjontola island in the Sunderbans.
We learn of fish kill, thousands of dead fish floating to the surface or washed up ashore. Of how a river`s pools, whirlpools, braids, striations revealed that there were innumerable streams contained within its course. Of oceanic dead zones, vast stretches of water with very low oxygen content created by chemical effluents. And of course, those zones are now spread out over thousands of miles of ocean.
Then we go over to Los Angeles, along with the protagonist Deen, a rare books dealer, to witness the ravages of a quick moving wildfire that’s burning up everything in its way. We learn that the remains of a wildfire are no means a wasteland, that some species of birds like hawks, eagles and other raptors find the loss of tree cover easier to hunt surviving reptiles and rodents.
After which, we go to Venice, the Banadiq in Byzantine times, which name was derived from al- Bunduqeyya…and so, we have our Gun Island.
In Italy, we learn of the wretched life of the refugee, the immigrant, how they are put to hard labour, how they are held captive in farms in Sicily.
Here is Ghosh`s succint summing up of human migration:
The right wing opposers to immigrants are actually afraid : that tiny vessel represented the overturning of a centuries-old project that has been essential to the shaping of Europe. Beginning with the early days of chattel slavery, the European imperial powers had launched upon the greatest and most cruel experiment in planetary remaking that history has ever known: in the service of commerce, they had transported people between continents on an almost unimaginable scale, ultimately changing the demographic profile of the entire planet. But even as they were repopulating other continents, they had always tried to preserve the whiteness of their own metropolitan territories of in Europe. The entire project had now been upended.
Off the waters of Venice, strange things happen. There`s a blue boat bringing refugees to Italy. Shoals of whales and dolphins keep breaking surface around the Blue Boat. Storms of birds fly in circles above the vessel. There`s a venomous spider visitation. There`s a monster in the lagoon. There are shipworms eating up the wooden pilings from inside…. and the city of Venice is built on wooden pilings.
It`s as if Dan Brown and George Monbiot collaborated with Amitav Ghosh on this book. Spooky things happen but almost immediately, the reader is given a rational explanation for what just happened.
And in the end, it all comes together, the magic, the realism, the sadness, the quiet happiness. Ultimately, the book is an allegory for all that ails us.