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Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

First published in Great Britain in 2019; published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 10, 2019

Dinanath “Deen” Datta is a dealer in rare books and antiquities, a profession that does not help him attract the attention of women. He lives in Brooklyn but maintains a residence in Calcutta. When Deen was a student, he did doctoral research on Indian folklore, particularly the story of a conflict between a Merchant and Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes.

An elderly aunt who founded a charity asks to see Deen as he is nearing the end of a trip to Calcutta. A marine biologist named Piya helps the aunt when she is not living in Oregon. Deen is immediately attracted to Piya, but as his therapist has told him, the hope of romance impairs his judgment.

Deen’s aunt tells him a story of the Merchant as she heard it from the caretaker of a shrine to Manasa Devi that stands in the middle of the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest in the Bay of Bengal. Paralleling the ancient story of Manasa Devi’s wrath, the story tells how a Merchant took refuge in a place devoid of snakes known as Gun Island, was later captured by pirates, and struck a deal with Manasa Devi to save himself. In return for freedom and prosperity, the Merchant built the shrine to Manasa Devi.

When Deen visits the shrine, a boy named Rafi fills in more of the Merchant's story. Bad luck befalls Deen, Rafi, and a boy named Tipu during the visit. With the help of a knowledgeable acquaintance and having examined markings on the shrine, Deen later reinterprets the legends that surround Gun Island.

The heart of the story begins when Deen is asked to interpret for a filmmaker who is making a documentary about migrants in Venice. He is surprised to learn how many residents of the Venetian Ghetto speak Bangla. He is also surprised to find Rafi working in Venice. When Piya contacts him to report that Tipu has disappeared from the Sundarbans, Deen suspects that Rafi knows more about Tipu’s whereabouts than he is willing to admit.

Snakes, spiders and legends about Italian sea monsters and the possession of souls begin to trouble Deen during his Venetian adventure. Yet other monsters are a more immediate threat, including worms that are eating the wooden foundations upon which Venice is built, a threat directly rated to warming seas caused by climate change. The story also draws interesting parallels between dolphins, who are forced to search for new hunting grounds when pollutants create “dead zones” in oceans where no fish survive, and people who leave the Sundarbans because the sea no longer supports fishermen. “No one knows where they belong any more, neither humans nor animals.”

In addition to addressing the impact of climate change, the novel focuses on refugees who are trying to make their way to Italy by boat. They encounter resistance from Italian authorities. That story, like the harrowing journey that Rafi and Tipu take from India, smuggled into Iran and running from shots fired by Turkish border guards, is a timely reminder of the dangers faced by unwelcome migrants everywhere. How the developed world treats impoverished refugees is one of the novel’s key themes.

The story’s weakness is its attempt to make events in Italy echo the legend of the Merchant, including creatures converging on the refugees from the sea and air. I won’t give away the ending, but it the kind of moral climax that might be found in a parable. Gun Island is too complex to classify as a parable, but it strains to combine elements of legend with the realities of the modern world. Still, Amitav Ghosh tells a moving story in graceful prose, making it easy for readers to sympathize with unfortunate characters and to admire characters who behave decently despite their financial success.

Transplanting symbols of the legend into Deen’s life is a clever concept that doesn’t quite work. I find it difficult to invest in stories that depend on elements of fantasy while making clear that the narrative is not a fantasy. Perhaps readers who are more willing to accept the miraculous will have a different opinion. Nevertheless, for its well-developed characters and its juxtaposition of the two most pressing social problems in the modern world (global warming and hostility to migrants), Gun Island is an important and intriguing novel.


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