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An Ornery Beast

Byron Williston

Gun Island, by Amitav Ghosh, John Murray Press, 320 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1473686670

Our world is organised by boundaries. This sort of thing over here, that one over there. But what if many of these boundaries ‑ the geographic distribution of species, nation-state borders, academia’s carefully curated silos, etc ‑ were to suddenly and irreversibly dissolve? What if our age were one of uncontrollable meltings and meldings, unexpected meetings and mixings, weird couplings and erasures? Would this occasion terror and disorientation in us? Or might it open up new political possibilities, new avenues for solidarity across species, ethnicities, economic classes, academic disciplines and more?

Climate disruption ‑ as well as the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch in which it is set ‑ is proving to be just this sort of uncanny solvent. We had better come to grips with this aspect of it. Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, Gun Island, does just that. It is a profoundly dislocating and urgent exploration of what it means to be human in the age of climate change.

One of the biggest challenges presented by the Anthropocene is representing its scale. This is not simply about depicting events over unusually long time periods. A recent spate of books offers to explain the history of “everything” from the Big Bang to the rise of social media, often in under 300 pages. What they provide instead is a disconnected juxtaposition of elements, like a series of words on a page not yet fused into a sentence by the connective alchemy of syntax. The new epoch demands something different because we must now understand how all the small things of our lives have become entwined in the workings of the Earth system. How can we write or even think about this adequately?

Ghosh, for one, is undaunted by the challenge. His 2016 nonfiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable threw down a gauntlet to other novelists. Too many writers are fixated on the regularities of “bourgeois life” as though that doll’s house could never be made to collapse by something as self-evidently extraneous as the climate. But climate change’s most frightening manifestation is abrupt, non-linear change, so we’d better get used to understanding how this will restructure our lives and worlds in the most granular way. One way to do so, Ghosh claimed, is to treat nature neither as backdrop nor stage but as protagonist.

Rather than waiting for others to take up these directives, Ghosh has now done so himself. Gun Island is a narrative of crossings, mutations, transgressions, mixings. Above all, it focuses on what we might call the fact of flow in a world in which borders and boundaries of all kinds have been breached. Our protagonist ‑ whose name mutates from Dinanth to Deen to Dino, depending on which continent he is in ‑ is a lovelorn book antiquarian. Dino stumbles across a Bengali legend about a gun merchant fleeing the Goddess of Snakes, Manasa Devi. Bits and pieces of the myth have become embedded in Indian and Bangladeshi folklore and so Dino tries to connect all of it. Who was this mysterious and elusive gun merchant? Can we discover the tracks of his odyssey?

Not until Dino alights in Venice for the book’s culminating scenes do the pieces start coming together. He discovers that the merchant’s travels were undertaken in the midst of the Little Ice Age. Across the globe this multi-decadal burst of anomalously cold weather in the middle of the seventeenth century was responsible for wars, revolutions, insurrections and famines, as well as a significant uptick in witch-burnings and suicides. And much of this grim history is repeating itself now, for instance in the water-logged Venice through which Dino moves.

The late climate scientist Wally Broecker famously referred to the climate as an “ornery beast”, one we seemed to have tamed over the long course of the Holocene epoch but that is now back with a vengeance. Ghosh shows us why this beast is so frightening. Dangerous animals extending their range and refugees pouring across borders are representations of unsettling flows. These flows ‑ caused by those of saltwater, fire and disease—obscure or erase the boundaries we have constructed so carefully over the ages, and from which our sense of who we are, individually and collectively, has been drawn. What’s happening in Venice is emblematically bewildering. As Dino puts it, “how was it possible that in this most civilized of cities we should be so utterly alone and helpless, so completely at the mercy of the earth?”

The novel’s climax is set in the Mediterranean Sea, just off Italy’s south coast. A boat carrying refugees from North Africa is approaching the mainland and dozens of vessels have gone out to meet it. Things then get positively phantasmagoric. There are tornadoes ripping through the clouds and setting up water-spouts as they touch down, a multi-species migration of cetaceans plying their way through the water, a sudden display of bioluminescence put on by dinoflagelletes lighting up the depths and a massive bird migration darkening the skies. In the middle of this improbably roiling tableau are the human actors carrying out their own drama of movement and border-crossings.

Gun Island is not flawless. Ghosh sometimes buries his narrative thread ‑ tracking down that Bengali myth ‑ under too much scientific detail about, for example, this or that species’ migration patterns. The result is that the story sometimes loses its propulsive energy and we are left to wonder over the logic of unfolding events. The literary detective story and the reflection on our new epoch don’t quite hang together. This is a minor irritant. In The Great Derangement, Ghosh argued that climate change is “unthinkable”. It’s no surprise that we should be unable to represent this event in a tidy way. By putting us right in the middle of an epochal storm, Gun Island shows that we should expect more slippages in the meanings and distinctions that structure our world. Any attempt to craft new meanings and novel solidarities must first pass through that storm.

1/3/2020

Byron Williston is professor of philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. He is the author of numerous books and articles on climate change and the philosophy of the Anthropocene. His most recent book is The Ethics of Climate Change: An Introduction (Routledge, 2018). Twitter: @ClimatePhilo

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