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Divining Comedy

Amitav Ghosh’s new novel is set amid climate disaster—yet it steers toward the mythic and the comic

It was a mercifully pleasant late-July day in Brooklyn, sunny but not oppressively hot, when I arrived at the home of the famed novelist Amitav Ghosh. This July, one will recall, was the planet’s hottest month ever recorded, and the month before was the hottest-ever June. Brutal heatwaves cascaded across continents, and nowhere more brutally than in sweltering India, Ghosh’s homeland. The headlines from the Subcontinent were especially grim—lethal heat and floods, cities of millions facing critical water shortages. Climate dystopia in the present tense.

Humanity’s climate catastrophe has a way of bringing the heretofore improbable, even unthinkable, into our newsfeeds and our everyday lives. In 2016’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh argued that because of this often disorienting sense of the uncanny in our experience of climate disruption (A five-hundred-year storm every year? Chennai running out of water?), the forms of the modern novel, or what counts as “serious” literary fiction, are inadequate to our unprecedented planetary situation. As are, it’s become all too clear, our political forms.

So when I learned that Ghosh’s new novel, Gun Island (due out September 10), would be his first in which global climate disruption figures prominently, I knew we had to talk. And the novel itself, I’m happy to say, does not disappoint. Set in present-day Kolkata and the wilds of the Sundarbans, as well as in New York, L.A., and Venice—and narrated by a somewhat hapless, slightly neurotic antique bookseller named Deen, a middle-aged Bengali living in Brooklyn—the story centers on the harrowing journey of two young migrants whose world is increasingly destabilized by rising seas and intensifying storms. Woven throughout, meanwhile, is Deen’s seemingly deranged, at times madcap quest to decipher a mystifying Bengali folktale about the so-called Gun Merchant and the Goddess of Snakes, the meaning of which may hold the key to understanding both past and present. Readers of Ghosh’s earlier novel The Hungry Tide will recognize the Sundarbans setting, and some of the main characters, but Gun Island is not a sequel. In fact, it’s unlike anything else Ghosh has written.

Our conversation took place on July 25, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Wen Stephenson: Were you already at work on Gun Island when you started writing the lectures that became The Great Derangement?

Amitav Ghosh: No, I had no thought at all about Gun Island when I was writing The Great Derangement. I had no idea.

WS: That’s interesting. I mean, it’s fun to see an author lay out such a strong argument, as you did in Great Derangement, and then say, well, I suppose I should take up my own challenge here and write a “climate novel.”

AG: I must say, when I started writing Gun Island, it did sometimes seem to me that it was unwise to create a challenge of that kind for myself. I can’t say that it cramped me or worried me in any way, but as you know very well, once one starts thinking about this climate stuff, it just permeates everything; you can’t get away from it. It’s just so completely all around you.

But you know, the thing I feel that was the real challenge was to respond to it in fiction. And it is strange, actually; it’s not easy to do that.

WS: I’ve read a few climate novels, but I don’t think of Gun Island as a work of so-called “climate fiction.”

AG: It isn’t at all.

WS: Yeah, climate is simply part of the fabric of the world in which the story takes place, an unavoidable part of our reality.

It intersects, thematically, with The Great Derangement and the questions you’re asking there about the modern novel and what kind of fiction can respond to the enormity of climate change.

AG: I completely agree. It’s not that I have anything against climate fiction, I’ve enjoyed many books—but, no, I don’t think of my book as being climate fiction, because climate fiction is generally speculative, it’s about the future, or tends to be, but my book, if anything, is about the past.

WS: Well, the past and the present, of course, and the relationship between the two.

AG: Yes.

WS: So, this whole question of what kind of book Gun Island is—I mean, I can’t help feeling it’s designed very deliberately to confound expectations.

AG: [chuckling] Yeah, you could say that. I mean, yes and no. I think of it as being a book about the realities of the world we live in. It’s just that. Especially my reality as an Indian, a Bengali, living in America, living in the world. All of that.

WS: Sure, and it also intersects, thematically, with The Great Derangement and the questions you’re asking there about the modern novel and what kind of fiction can respond to the enormity of climate change. The story in Gun Island has this kind of dizzying, vertiginous effect—one starts to feel as disoriented as Deen, the narrator, by about mid-way through. And there’s a playfulness to the plot and the language. There’s this comic, almost satirical element to it. And then the story goes on to embrace the fantastical, the absurd, the miraculous, the mythic, the fabulous. It’s like it’s designed to make the sober, serious literary critic go, “What?! Is this Amitav Ghosh I’m reading?” All of which raises the question, what kind of book is this?

AG: [chuckles, smiles, shrugs]

WS: It struck me that you wrote a climate novel that’s a comedy—and I mean that in the old, proper sense—and not a tragedy. Although there are certainly tragic elements, very moving. So what kind of a book did you write?

AG: So, yeah, all of that is exactly what it was. And it was kind of giddying. I felt that I was throwing myself somewhere without a net. In that way, it was incredibly exciting, because I really parted company with so many of my own novelistic practices—which is a hard thing to do, you know, at my age, after having written so many books.

WS: Right, what I think of as full-dress historical fiction.

AG: Right, absolutely. So it was kind of scary and exciting. I persuaded myself by writing The Great Derangement that we can’t confront the reality of today using these standard forms of the novel. We can’t do it using any standard forms. I mean, basically, we’re seeing the collapse of everything we believed in, everything we trusted in. We can’t use those forms anymore. They’re gone. They’ve exhausted themselves. And especially, you know, the novel as it comes to us from the twentieth century has completely exhausted its impulses, in the same way that modernity has exhausted its impulses. We have to look beyond, we have to try to find something else. And I suppose I part company with others who write about climate and so on. They have the tools to speculate about the future; they know about science especially, that kind of thing. I don’t. I know about the past. And I know about the present. So I can only use what I have.

WS: I want to talk about Deen, the narrator, Dinanath Datta. He’s an antique bookseller with a PhD, and he has this kind of old-fashioned, antiquarian voice, the voice an antique bookseller.

AG: That’s right.

WS: He seems like a kind of parody or satire on a certain type. You set him up as very rational, or he thinks of himself as very rational. He prides himself on not being at all religious, not into any hokum. Myths are “just stories.” To me, he’s the kind of reasonable, bourgeois intellectual who really can’t assimilate the sheer craziness and seeming irrationality of the time that we’re in. And if that’s the case, I can’t help thinking he did grow out of The Great Derangement and the argument you make there.

AG: In a sense you’re right, absolutely. You see, in the first place, he is the kind of person that I knew in India in school and college. You know, secular. Very, very rational. And he’s in fact exactly that kind of person out of whose rationalism our disaster grows. I mean, he’s exactly that kind of person who, today, really, they’re incapable of changing their habits of thought, you know?

WS: In The Great Derangement, you critique John Updike’s characterization of the modern novel as an individual moral journey. Is this a sort of satirical bildungsroman? “The Education of Dinanath Datta?” Or perhaps the “re-education”? I feel like he has to unlearn a bunch of things.

AG: It’s really unlearning, and I think that’s where we all are. When we look at this world that we’re in, we suddenly realize that there’s so much we have to unlearn, that’s been taught to us, a certain form of bourgeois reason, if you like. So, yes, that’s certainly the case with him. Deen is, how shall we say, an honest witness—one who’s honest enough to change as he goes along.

But I don’t in any way think of this as being a satire. Because one of the things which has really made, especially, the late twentieth-century novel absolutely incapable of coping with what we have, is an overburdening of irony.

One of the things which has really made, especially, the late twentieth-century novel absolutely incapable of coping with what we have, is an overburdening of irony.

WS: This novel is also journalistic at times, in a good sense—as in, keeping the story grounded in the present, in the factual world. Especially in the latter part of the novel there are sections where it’s almost like you’re doing a documentary, with these kind of extended interviews with the refugees and migrants.

AG: Well, you know, I was a journalist, and I’ve done a lot of journalism in my life. And I spent a lot of time in Italy, traveling through the whole migration system, interviewing these migrants. Because I think one of the things which is really weird about this whole migration crisis that the world is in—I mean, it needn’t be a crisis, but it’s become a crisis as it were—is that all the reporting is done by white people, who don’t know the languages. And if you actually speak to migrants in their own language, the picture is somehow—it’s not that it contradicts what’s being reported, but it supplements, it gives you a completely different view of their world, really. And because of my circumstances, I speak four of the languages which are very widely spoken within migrant communities: Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic.

WS: In addition to the research in Italy, did you go back to the settings of The Hungry Tide, the Sundarbans, and to Bangladesh, the world that your character Tipu is involved in, with the dalals, the connection men? Was that new territory for you?

AG: Yes, and it was completely new territory for me. It was really fascinating, a complete education for me. I was talking to these kids, and they are just kids, and I suppose I’m at a point in my life now where they feel they can be very frank with me, because I’m like a grandfatherly figure almost. So they would speak to me very frankly, and it was fascinating. You see, one of the things that’s happened is that this whole western system of dealing with refugees and migrants, actually pushes them into circumstances where they have to tell certain stories.

WS: Right. In the novel, Tipu is expert in crafting these stories.

AG: And that really exists. There are people who make money by writing migrants’ stories for migrants. In Italy, they have a series of interviews, and then they have the thing which they call the incontro, which is the sort of interrogation.

WS: Right, and certain kinds of stories work, and others don’t. It doesn’t help that your home was destroyed in a flood, that’ll get you nowhere, but if you are running away from persecution, or sexual assault. . .

AG: It’s sex, religion, or politics. Those are the three narratives that work.

WS: Which raises this point, that there is no legal definition of a “climate refugee” at the international level.

AG: There isn’t. But I do know that in Italy, one or two people have been admitted as environmental refugees. There is a precedent, there are a few.

WS: As you say, there are things that would’ve once been unthinkable that are now not only thinkable but probable. It occurs to me that you could have titled the novel, “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.”

AG: [laughter] I suppose I could. But I prefer this title.

WS: And yet Deen experiences a kind of derangement.

AG: Yes, but we all do now, don’t we? We all constantly experience these weird, weird things that happen. I mean, like my writing that chapter [about the L.A. wildfires], and then it actually happening. And you know, that bit about the poisonous snakes on the beach [in L.A.] is actually happening, the snakes are turning up. It’s strange. These sort of uncanny things that are happening all around us.

WS: So, with this idea of the uncanny and unthinkable in mind, there’s an important question here about the role of mythology and religion, ancient mysterious stories and folklore, which is of course at the heart of the novel. What’s the relationship, in the book, between the actual folktale—the Merchant story, which is based on a real thing, as we know from The Hungry Tide—and our present predicament?

AG: You know, after I finished writing The Great Derangement, I felt that to look to late-twentieth century literature for any form of response to what we are facing today is useless. It offers no resources. It’s so much centered on the individual, so much centered on identity, it really doesn’t give us any way of thinking about these issues. So, I decided that I must take this premise seriously, and I must go back and read pre-modern literature. And I’m fortunate that I can read pre-modern Bengali literature. So I started reading these stories, and you know, it’s really remarkable how aware they are, how responsive they are to catastrophe, disaster, to the stuff that’s happening around them, even though it’s not at all in a realist vein. But it’s there. It’s omnipresent. And it really teaches you that what has happened, what modernity has done is, literally, made this work of recognition impossible.

I don’t know if you saw this, but two or three years ago there was this terrible disaster in Genoa, a flash flood killed a lot of people. Italy is absolutely beset by climate change in horrible ways. And I was following it, out of interest. I think, once upon a time, if that had happened, they would have held a mass. They would have had some sort of commemoration. As it happened, this thing was just forgotten. You know, I think this is the thing. We are no longer even able to say to ourselves, this happened. It’s real. It happened. And part of that is the logic of probability. We say, oh, it happened, it’s just chance, what can we do? Whereas at a time when you thought that, say, there was something other manifest in the events that were happening around you, you took them more seriously.

With this idea of the uncanny and unthinkable in mind, there’s an important question here about the role of mythology and religion, ancient mysterious stories and folklore.

You know, I was just reading this very interesting thesis on India in the seventeenth century, and it’s very interesting, because of the Little Ice Age, people were suffering terribly. But the Mughal emperors responded immediately. For one thing, they commissioned all these paintings of catastrophe and disaster. So there was a way to at least reckon with what was happening around you. And you contrast that with Hurricane Sandy. Where’s the memorial to Hurricane Sandy? So many people died, so many terrible things happened.

WS: And so the story at the center of this novel, the Merchant folktale, has to do with a person fleeing from catastrophe, from drought and flood and fire, cast loose on the seas, sold into slavery. There are all these parallels to the journey and the predicament of the refugee today. It’s like, at the heart of all this is the all-but- forgotten story—the myth, the history—that somehow underlies our present reality. How do you see that?

AG: You see, one of the things which is so problematic about the world, which is again unraveling, is this idea of time as a progression. You know, that time is always taking you toward, as Obama used to say, “the right side of history.” Whereas anyone who looks at the climate stuff knows that, no, that’s the one thing that you can’t say. And so what do you substitute for that? It has to be some sort of cyclical idea of time, and disaster, catastrophe. That’s a part of it, if you like.

But also, you know, all these things—really we can only believe them in stories. And we do believe them in stories. At least we used to, once upon a time. With, again, the modern novel, we have this probabilistic idea of what happens, or what can happen. So I do feel that one has to break with that, and look at the world in a different way.

WS: Is that because there’s a certain kind of meaning, or knowledge, that’s accessible through these sorts of stories that we’ve lost touch with?

AG: Well, if you look at this figure in the folktale, the goddess of snakes, what does she stand for? It’s especially clear in the actual writing of the text, she actually stands for someone who gives voice to those who have no voices, that is, the nonhuman. And in fact these figures have always existed. In Italy you’ll see so many, like the Madonna of the Garden, or Saint Francis of Assisi, who spoke for animals and who said he could communicate with animals.

One very, very important book is Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Because that’s what he’s trying to do, he’s trying to provide a voice for trees. So, in a way, again, we’re trying to unlearn all that we’ve learned, all that modernity has taught us—that trees don’t have voices, that other beings don’t have voices, that the Earth has no voice, the Earth has no life, that we’re the only sentient creatures. And as soon as you begin to think about sentience, and the question of voice, you confront the question of meaning, intention, in the nonhuman. So for me, I think, in a literary sense, the real challenge of our time is this. For me, it’s not disaster or whatever, it’s really how do we work our way back to an idea of sentience in the nonhuman.

WS: There’s this important Latin quotation in the book: Unde origo inde salus. “From the origin, salvation comes.” Of course, it’s inscribed in a mosaic in the nave of an iconic Catholic church, Santa Maria della Salute, in Venice.

AG: See, the Madonna della Salute, she is Madonna the mediator. I mean, who is she mediating for? It’s the Earth. She is speaking for the Earth. And the fact that this saying is right there, what is it telling us? You know, Elon Musk believes that our salvation will come from the future. I don’t think so. I think, if there is going to be any salvation, it’s going to come from history, it’s going to come from the resources we have as humans.

WS: What does “salvation” even mean now? What does it mean to you now? Given what we’re facing, what would it even be?

AG: I think one very important aspect of it would be simply to acknowledge how wrong we’ve been about everything. Just that. That we acknowledge that the dominant ideas and culture of our time have been wrong about everything.

WS: Everything?

AG: Almost everything, I would say.

WS: You’re referring to the liberal, technocratic, capitalist paradigm, even going back to the Western Renaissance and Enlightenment?

AG: Yeah, but I wouldn’t even call it Western. As I argued in The Great Derangement, what happened at that particular moment in time, in the fifteenth, sixteenth centuries, it was a global thing. It wasn’t just the West, we now know. It’s so striking that, for example, moveable type was invented in Korea thirty years before Gutenberg. As human beings, we are so closely interconnected, especially the Old World was so closely interconnected, that I don’t think anything happened in isolation.

This knowledge, these realities, came to be suppressed under the history of Western triumphalism. But that wasn’t the reality. So I don’t think we can actually attribute it to the West.

That’s why the indigenous cultures of the New World are so important. I think we all recognize this increasingly now, but you know, they lived through the end of the world, the end of their world, and found ways of surviving. And I think it’s from them that we have to learn now.

We’re trying to unlearn all that we’ve learned, all that modernity has taught us—that trees don’t have voices, that other beings don’t have voices, that the Earth has no voice, the Earth has no life, that we’re the only sentient creatures.

WS: Someone asked me what I most fear losing with climate catastrophe. And it came to me, what I most fear losing is our humanity, as in, how we treat each other, as the world around us descends into instability and chaos, a situation ripe for all the worst forms of political evil—as we’re already seeing. And so it seems one of our primary tasks—and I know this word is loaded—is to hold on to our quote-unquote “humanity,” which I take to mean our capacity for compassion, for solidarity, for love of neighbor. And that includes our capacity for solidarity with the nonhuman.

AG: So we shouldn’t call it “humanity.” Call it “compassion,” if you like.

WS: Sure. And I feel like this idea is very much in this novel. Do you share that fear of losing this capacity?

AG: Let me say, first of all, that I like that you called the book a comedy, because I think what you mean is that it doesn’t end in dystopia and violence, and so on. And that part of it is also founded on the research I did in Italy, because I met so many—we hear about Salvini, but what we don’t hear about are the innumerable Italians who really reach out to these migrants. Look at all these young Europeans, how they’re really putting their lives on the line to go out to those migrant boats. This woman who guided that rescue ship into the harbor the other day, she’s a hero. And you know it is the case that there was an Italian admiral who said, my God tells me that I have to rescue these people.

And I think a lot of the time this compassion does come from Catholicism. It absolutely does. You can ask the migrants, the people who come out to help them first are people connected with the Church. And in that sense, I think that what Pope Francis has done is really unbelievable. You know, Salvini is a big figure in Italy, but no one is bigger than Pope Francis. I mean, everywhere he sets foot, he’s beloved. And he’s not even Italian. The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, he’s actually declared Palermo an open city. He’s an amazing man. I find it a very moving thing in Italy, these people whose stories we often don’t recognize. There is that compassion, if you like, that’s out there. It is there.

But I think one part that we should not forget is that along with this compassion and everything, in Catholicism as in all religions, it is also necessary to recognize the human capacity for evil.

WS: Of course. I want to come back to this question: When we talk of holding on to, what I’m calling our humanity, there’s nothing about us that’s more human than our stories, and storytelling. Does holding on to our humanity, in some ways, mean retrieving or preserving our connections to the past through these old stories?

AG: Absolutely. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a friend of mine, one of the things he always says is that whenever you see people talking about the future, or making speculations about the future, you always know that’s a projection of power. All we really know about are the past and the present.

WS: Early on in The Great Derangement, you’re talking about fiction and literary culture but you could just as easily be talking about politics and political-intellectual culture. You write, “Indeed it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals.” And I’m thinking, you could also say that political writing that deals with climate change, in a serious way, is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously by serious political journals. That is, until very, very recently.

AG: Until just last year, I’d say, 2018. But even now you have prominent Democrats saying this can’t be the main issue. It can be recognized as an issue, but there are bigger issues.

WS: Right. And yet, when one really comes to grips with the climate science, one realizes that to be serious about climate is to be radical.

AG: That’s right.

WS: In fact, even revolutionary. But until very recently, the left has been almost completely absent on climate change. It’s almost as though the implications of climate science are too radical, even for radicals. What do you make of that?

AG: I think it’s very important. It’s absolutely true that the left—and you’re talking about the American left, but I can tell you that in India, the left never even took local environmental questions seriously. Even after the Bhopal tragedy.

WS: But I feel like we have to ask ourselves, do any of us really take climate politics seriously? It’s easy for me to say, so-and-so isn’t serious because they’re not radical enough. But am I radical enough? I mean, our survival is at stake. A rational response would be a truly revolutionary politics, when we consider what is actually happening, and the amount of time we have to deal with it.

Whenever you see people talking about the future, or making speculations about the future, you always know that’s a projection of power.

AG: I must say, I find Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion incredibly invigorating.

WS: And yet they’re only an extension of the kind of activism we’ve already seen. It’s not truly radical. It’s not revolutionary.

AG: Let me just say, I feel a lot of sympathy, especially for the people you wrote about in your book, and these young activists, my heart goes out to them. But you know, the thing that I can’t forget, because of the part of the world that I’m from, and that I think a lot of people involved in this often forget, is that this is not in the hands of the West anymore. This is going to be decided in Asia, and Africa.

WS: Absolutely. Although, if the United States and Europe were to embark on a crash program to decarbonize their economies by 2050, that would have some effect on the trajectory that China and India take.

AG: It would. But look, America’s addiction to fossil fuel energy isn’t just technological. It’s strategic. It’s through energy that America controls global strategy. If renewables could be adopted at scale, the whole strategic calculus of the world would be completely upended.

WS: Again, it’s unthinkable, right? But revolution is very often unthinkable to those in the historical moment in which it occurs. There are people right now who are absolutely certain that there’s nothing to be done, that it’s over, that all is lost, that we’re doomed. But, actually, there’s a lot of uncertainty still. We don’t know the future. We don’t know what is still possible. The human element, the political and social part, is highly uncertain. We actually don’t know.

AG: Absolutely. We don’t know.

WS: And how one responds to that uncertainty is everything.

AG: That’s right. It’s how bad it will be. This is what it’s about.

WS: And for those who really believe the situation is politically hopeless, it’s as though there’s a failure of imagination, as though they’re incapable of imagining anything other than the political status quo, as if they don’t know history. And maybe this is just my own reading of Gun Island, but there’s something wonderful to me about a story in which almost anything is possible. Because it actually is.

AG: I completely agree with that sentiment. My book is not about despair or doomism, or apocalypse or dystopia. We don’t know how things are going to turn out, but you know, if we recognize that we are in this catastrophic moment, there’s so much we can recoup. There are so many aspects, as you said, our compassion, our humanity, that we can recoup.

WS: I suppose I feel a moral obligation to remind everyone that so much is still possible.

AG: I feel that obligation very much myself. Especially because I come from that part of the world where so many people are vulnerable. And I can see what’s happening to them already. I see it. And that’s what it is at this point: it’s a moral imperative.