If Gun Island can at times feel a touch breathless – a detailed description of the habits of Irrawaddy dolphins, for example, giving way to an emergency dash in search of a rare anti-venom treatment, with mysterious symbols scrawled on the side of a shrine thrown in – then its underpinning is solid. Amid the freak cyclones and oxygen-starved waters comes the story – or stories – of migration across the ages; tales of escapology, of deprivation and persecution, of impossible yearnings for a new world that bring us, inexorably, to the terrified refugees on the Mediterranean. Which is, perhaps, Ghosh’s essential point; a shaggy dog story can take a very roundabout path towards reality, but it will get there in the end. It has to, or we’re all doomed.
Perhaps this is the role that fiction can play at this critical moment, Ghosh appears to suggest, not just a warning voice, but one that facilitates “dialogue” between humans and animals. The ambition and complexity of Ghosh’s novel means that at times it can feel weighed down by information. This is particularly true of Cinta, on whom much of the burden of explication falls. More subtly worked in is Ghosh’s theme of linguistic migration: “the American-sounding Deen” was once the more Indian “Dina”; the word “bundook”, which is “gun” in Hindi and “rifle” in English, is related to the Byzantine name for Venice and the Arabic for bullets and guns.
An arresting insight is offered as the characters become disoriented by life imitating fiction. For traditional Hindus, such as the Sundarbans’ mangrove-dwellers, it is a given that events are fated by a higher intelligence. Rationalists reject this, but their own belief in chance is, in turn, a faith that can be thrown into crisis when events take on uncanny patterns. Meaningful coincidences drive the plot of Gun Island, pushing Deen towards madness. “This is all chance,” he desperately tells himself, “and the words had the effect of a prayer.”
Gun Island has a kindred soul, a literary sibling, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (2015), in which a retired German classicist, as lonely and as cloistered as Deen, becomes involved in the lives of young African migrants to Berlin. There are important differences: Erpenbeck’s novel is quieter, perhaps less ambitious, and is told in a slightly distant third-person voice. But both she and Ghosh reject easy narratives of despair or redemption. And they remind us of the possibilities of fiction – of how to write a humane and rigorous novel of right now.
It’s hard to think of a literary novel since Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair that abounds so unashamedly in miracles. Both books challenge notions of what is plausible in realist fiction. If it is a failure, then it fails beguilingly.
Gun Island is a rich and rewarding novel that reaffirms the transformative power of topographical and human connection, and registers the rhythms of the quiet and the unquiet life.
Gun Island blends Bengali folklore, the historical and present-day links between India and Venice, climate change, the refugee crisis, the power of storytelling and the supernatural in a tale that sometimes wobbles under the weight of such a load... Flitting across continents, Ghosh deftly summons up a pungent sense of place, whether in the mangrove swamps of Bengal or the misty, cobbled streets of Venice. The past lurks convincingly in the present. However, you can’t help feeling bashed over the head by all the talk of cyclones, wildfires, oceanic dead zones, dolphin beachings and flooding crises. And with such a host of characters representing opinions or merely in place to move the plot along, the narrative, and particularly the dialogue, are often stilted. As such, sadly, Gun Island is more a fusillade of finger-wagging than a display of sniper-like precision.
Spanning several continents, this novel is stuffed to bursting with ideas about climate change, migration, the interconnectivity of past and present and the way ancient stories can have a powerfully imaginative impact on an individual consciousness.
But it’s also a fussily written, hydra-headed mess of madly proliferating, credulity-stretching plot points.