Amitav Ghosh tackles climate change in his latest novel, but the burden of superfluous details and lack of ideas leave the reader unmoved
The novel is dead,” a filmmaker friend said recently. Before I quickly underlined the unfair exaggeration in his statement, irony spilled over, as having made several internationally acclaimed movies, he is now immersed in writing an ambitious novel that he believes will take at least 10 years to complete and go beyond 1,000 pages.
For nearly seven decades we have been hearing the novel’s obituaries. Most of these, incidentally, have come from its devotees. It’s obvious. The novel has crossed such frontiers in its short journey that it often leaves many writers exasperated. The anxiety about fashioning a distinct form that sets them apart from their illustrious predecessors exists in writers with an acute consciousness of the artistic asylum the novel offers.
The spectacular flaws of Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island can be attributed to a similar anxiety. Having accomplished a variety of narratives, from The Shadow Lines, The Calcutta Chromosome to The Ibis Trilogy, Ghosh now attempts to make the novel a voice for climate change, a concern he has passionately articulated in the last few years (The Great Derangement), often wondering how literature can remain indifferent to global warming.
At the centre of his latest novel is a Brooklyn-based rare books dealer Deen who, during a visit to Kolkata, finds himself chasing the myth of Bonduki Sadagar (Gun Merchant) and Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes and poisonous creatures.
Ghosh weaves history, myths and semiotics in a narrative that spans several continents, reminding of post-modern tales. It infuses some action, even an occasional thrill, but barely moves a reader. There are hardly any instances that prompt one to pause and reflect, a quintessential requirement of a novel. The novel doesn’t trade in ideas, it gets consumed in superfluous details. It’s not a novel if it exhausts itself in one reading.
Gun Island can be read as a loose sequel to The Hungry Tide. Ghosh returns to the Sundarbans with several characters of his previous novel — Piya, the cetologist, Dalit nurse Moyna and her son Tipu and Nilima Bose who prompts Deen to undertake a journey to the Manasa Devi shrine. After Moyna’s husband Fokir died while assisting Piya in her research, she takes care of Tipu, sends him to a boarding school, even takes him to the US for a few years. There’s a definite plot, and an initial pull as well.
The novel opens with a punch: “The strangest thing about this strange journey was that it was launched by a word.” The word is bundook (rifle). The reader anticipates a thrilling course, but the labyrinthine plot begins to wear down soon. The point I tripped over came when Tipu, stung by a cobra, suddenly has some ‘vision’ about Rani, an Irrawaddy dolphin that has been crucial to Piya’s research. The sequence, in the absence of any novelistic insight, appeared straight out of a comic strip. The novel seems to suggest a tragedy, but it veers towards becoming an incoherent assemblage of disparate elements.
A contemplative prose that marked some of his best works is almost absent in Gun Island. For most parts the prose is plainly informative, barely reflective or incisive. The Hungry Tide also dealt with myths but it had a distinct poignancy. To comprehend where Gun Island has faltered, one can turn the pages of the previous work for its description of the tide country: “To hear this story is to read the river in a certain way: as a heavenly braid, for instance, an immense rope of water, unfurling through a wide and thirsty plain. That there is a further twist to the tale becomes apparent only in the final stages of the river’s journey — and this part of the story always comes as a surprise, because it is never told and thus never imagined.”
Gun Island, in contrast, has just a handful of episodes that remain with a reader.
The analogy between Venice and Varanasi, for instance, the two cities that make one “aware of mortality”. “Everywhere you look there is evidence of enchantment of decay, of a kind of beauty that can only be revealed by long, slow fading.” Sadly, they are too few such instances. The novel moves from Brooklyn and Kolkata to Venice, but it’s only a hurried glance. The city rarely appears as an entity of flesh and blood — so do its characters. They evoke an initial curiosity, but lack the novelistic intensity.
From the Russian masters to James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Georges Perec, the Italian duo of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino to the Latin American giants, the novel has traversed an immense expanse. A variety of techniques from realism to postmodernism have been adopted and accomplished to a plane that a lot of contemporary novels betray a feeling that a better narrative already exists somewhere.
It’s obviously not that the form faces a fatigue, but that the reader has increasingly higher expectations of the novel. One doesn’t approach a novel with the same anticipation as one does a book of reportage or social science research. Of late, the novel has come to face another challenge from the narratives engendered by unlimited data at one’s fingertip.
Ghosh is evidently conscious of it and conjures up a tale full of historical and literary references ranging from Tarantism, the Aztecs to the Catholic inquisition. Yet, history comes to weigh heavy on the narrative and doesn’t really justify the immediate concerns of climate change and cross-border migration the novel seeks to delve into. The tide country remains parched, awaiting its salvation.
(A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla)