"Gun Island": When a Climate Novel Speaks to Our Sense of Humanity


Since the 1970s the field of literature has been interested in a new interdisciplinary movement called eco-criticism, which focuses on those critical writings that explore the damages inflicted to the environment by human activities. Climate change is one of the most crucial topics at the moment, and the world of written fiction cannot be exempt to talk about it. This is the reason why "climate fiction" (or "cli-fi") is becoming extremely popular.


Climate fictions deal with the symbols, narratives, and concepts through which climate change is represented and given meaning to in our society: It emerges in these fictional works that environmental changes are conceptualized through apocalyptic views that point out catastrophic natural episodes, such as floods, fires, and storms. At the same time, cli-fi novels reflect on the political and social failures in addressing climate change by inscribing it into a new narrative that proposes the current situation as tangible and concrete rather than unimaginable and unthinkable, as policymakers tend to present it. Nonetheless, as Cole (2021) suggests, apocalyptic narratives are problematic when they do not explore the possibility that collective actions can be implemented to, ideally, invert the deterioration of the environment. One good example of a climate novel, which does not sugar-coat the gravity of climate change and at the same time highlights people's power to do something about it, is Gun Island, published in 2019 by Amitav Ghosh.

A word about the author: Amitav Ghosh


Amitav Ghosh is an Indian anthropologist and writer, who is interested in themes of diaspora and travel, political struggles, and history and memory; both his fictional and non-fictional works provide a transnational lens that allows the reader to better understand the network of people and historical circumstances that link together countries, continents, and oceans. In his academic works and fictional writings, Ghosh never loses sight of the intimate human dimension of the issues he covers, above all when he reflects on the topic of climate and environmental changes.


As an Indian Ocean scholar, Ghosh is deeply concerned about how climate influences the movements of people; in his monumental non-fiction work The Great Derangement (2017) he produces an in-depth analysis of the current climate crisis. In this book, Ghosh raises critical questions regarding the natural environment, human-nature relations, and the urgent need to arrest environmental degradation, underlying how colonialism and capitalism have been feeding "the anthropocentric lifestyle that has changed cultural patterns and advanced unending desires" (Pancholi and Mishra, 2021, p. 1). Thus, worldwide overconsumption has had various effects on the climate because of its relation to carbon footprint; Ghosh claims that the deterioration led by the global carbon-dependent economy has reached such a level that even if we tried to stop emitting fossil fuels altogether, some of the climate consequences would be inevitable.


Ghosh is an eco-critical writer who is mainly concerned with environmental justice and with the close connection between ecological and postcolonial concerns. His interest in the tight bond between human lives and the natural world is masterfully explored in his fictional novels The Hungry Tide (2004) and Gun Island, in which he illustrates the necessity of re-building a syncretism not only between humans and animals but also among individuals.

Gun Island: the possibilities of a changing world


The most striking element of Gun Island is how history, culture, and nature are put on the same level. The novel follows Deen Datta, an antique book dealer who lives and works in New York but was born in Bengal. During one of his trips back home, Deen meets a relative who challenges his knowledge of Bengali and Indian folklore when he tells him the legend of Bonduki Sadagar, "the Gun Merchant". To better understand the tale, Deen visits a dhaam (a temple erected for a deity) in the Sundarban, the mangrove area in the Bay of Bengal. Here, he uncovers the full story of the Gun Merchant who, in order to run away from the persecution of the Goddess Manasa Devi, patron of snakes and all venomous creatures, had to travel across lands and oceans. It is in the Sundarbans that Deen's personal adventure starts: accompanied by marine biologist Piya, teenagers Tipu and Rafi, and later on also by his university advisor Cinta, an Italian professor, he embarks on a journey—figuratively and literally—that will take him from India to Los Angeles and Venice. This expedition challenges Deen's sense of rationality while it sheds light on the implications of capitalism for environmental change.


As previously mentioned, climate fiction is usually based on apocalyptic narratives as a way to make the horrors and the urgency of environmental changes more tangible for the reader. This element is clearly present in Gun Island since while Deen is in the Sundarbans, Ghosh briefly mentions the cyclone Aila of 2009; the author shows how the destruction caused by this climate event has been aggravated by human action, which in turn led to permanent social change in the area.


Moreover, climatic changes are in the background of Deen's travel to Los Angeles (LA) and Venice: LA is burning, with giant wildfires dreadfully illuminating the outskirts of the city, while Venice is sinking, with the canal's water dangerously rising. Besides, Ghosh depicts the impact of the ecological chaos happening across the world by pointing out the alteration of the distribution patterns of various overland and aquatic animal species: Piya is concerned for the habits of the dolphins she studies, and her preoccupation grows when Deen tells her about a venomous snake that he had found in LA's ocean and the non-native venomous spider he faces in Venice while he is in Cinta's house. As a matter of fact, the rising temperatures and the devastation of ecosystems have caused these species to migrate north. However, animals are not the only ones who feel the need to migrate: people are forced to move because of the interconnected web of colonial history, climate change, and pervasive capitalism.


This apocalyptic narrative serves as a background for Ghosh's main topic of his novel: the necessity of finding a sense of shared humanity again to build a community that is trans-species in its very constitution, scope, and legacy going beyond the fraternal human-to-human bond. He believes that only by caring for and loving other people, humanity can be able to care for and love again Mother Earth.


In Gun Island, Ghosh portrays the displacement and migration of humans and how difficult life is for those who need to leave their countries and families behind: in particular, this crucial topic and its various implications are displayed by the story of Tipu and Rafi. They are two young men who come to know each other through Deen: Tipu is smart and resourceful and wants to move somewhere else to have a better life, while Rafi has always lived in a small village in the Sundarbans without questioning his life up until that moment. The two decide to try their luck and begin their (illegal) journey to Europe by paying money to smugglers and by facing many dangers. They are smuggled from Bangladesh to Turkey via India, Pakistan, and Iran in overcrowded minibuses. However, during their journey they are stopped at connection houses—places where migrants are temporarily left by traffickers—situated close to the borders, where they are forced to pay more money to continue their journey.


Tipu and Rafi's story closely resembles what many migrants have to go through: they are willing to risk everything for chance for a better life, even if it means embarking on a perilous journey during which they have to face merciless and inhumane treatments. Besides, when migrants finally reach their final "destination", they may encounter additional problems: illegal immigrants are often not welcome, and they are left alone on a boat in the middle of the sea to wait for the help and the hospitality that (European) policymakers will not provide. In Gun Island this topic is covered by the episode of the Blue Boat, a vessel of climate refugees approaching Italy amidst great controversy: the European Union has closed off migration routes, leaving the Blue Boat's fate to Italy's right-wing interior minister. Deen and his companions jump aboard the Lucanica, one of the rescue boats organized by human rights activists, with the intent to bring help to the migrants. A few days go by and as soon as the Blue Boat arrives, it is surrounded on the one hand, by boats of activists and the media, and on the other by the Navy as well as private yachts of people who shout slogans against the migrants. This particular scene sounds as apocalyptic as the description of the climate events of LA and Venice: the atmosphere is dense with anger and fear, and the story comes out even more emotional by the detailed portrait of the terrified faces and the stories of the disenfranchised people aboard the Blue Boat.



However, as previously mentioned, an apocalyptic narrative is not completely effective if it lacks the possibility of change and redemption: in this regard, Ghosh does not deprive his characters of their agency. We see Deen, Piya, Rafi, Tipu, Cinta, and the others moving across countries, navigating oceans, in order to change their lives as much as they can. Moreover, in the moment of extreme desolation and inhumanity, they are not impassive: they decide to be part of the rescue team with other people who, like them, take to heart the fates of other humans. This shared sense of humanity reaches its peak when the admiral of the Navy violates orders and allows the Blue Boat to enter the harbour, ready to proudly suffer the legal consequences of his decision because he believes that it was the right thing to do, the only human thing to do.


The magnitude of the crises and their consequences that Ghosh paints in Gun Island enables alliances that stretch across societies and across species. Touching upon the topics of xenophobia, immigration, climate change, and deterioration of ecosystems, Ghosh creates a story that locates its protagonists within networks that foster reciprocal awareness and enable cooperative actions. The scenario is discomforting, and isolated individuals are completely powerless in it, but the strength to act comes from connecting with one another; the characters of the novel are moved to action as the crisis intensifies, joining groups and founding new ones which allow them to overcome their initial passivity (Cole, 2021, p. 15). In this way, Deen and the others (with the reader alongside them) discover new possibilities and potential socio-political projects that, based on practices of care, can overcome the existential apathy people usually feel towards complex situations such as climate change and illegal migration. Taking responsibility, caring, and acting is what brings on change.


Ghosh's message is perfectly represented by the words carved on the floor of the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, which recite Unde origo inde salus—“From the origin salvation comes”. And what else is this origin made of if not love and compassion for Mother Earth and all of the species, humans or not, that inhabits her?



References

  • British Council, Biography and List of works: Amitav Ghosh. Link: https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/amitav-ghosh.

  • Cole, M.B. (2021). ‘At the heart of human politics’: agency and responsibility in the contemporary climate novel, Environmental Politics. DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2021.1902699.

  • Ghosh, A. (2017). The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, University of Chicago Press.

  • Ghosh, A. (2019). Gun Island, Farrar Straus & Giroux.

  • Khoche, P.D. (2021). From The Sundarbans to Italy: Ecocritical Concerns in The Hungry Tide and Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh, International Journal of humanities, Law and Social Sciences, Vol. VIII, Issue I, pp. 258-260.

  • Kluwick, U. (2020). The Global Deluge: Floods, Diluvian Imagery, and Aquatic Language in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide and Gun Island, Green Letters, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 1-15. DOI: 10.1080/14688417.2020.1752516.

  • Pancholi, N., Mishra, S.K. (2021). The Era of Environmental Derangement: Witnessing Climate Crisis in Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 1-10.


Images references

  • Gun Island, (2019), book cover.

  • Amitav Ghosh, credits: Hires Ivo.

  • Migrants boat on the Italian coast. Credits: Kate Thomas/IRIN.

  • Unde Origo Inde Salus MDCXXXI in Church of Madonna della Salute, Venice. Credits: Cat Bauer.

Author Photo

Marica Felici

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