Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, Gun Island, explores many of the writer’s recurring motifs, but at the heart of the novel is the theme of illegal migration and refugee crisis, displacement and renewal.
Gun Island follows a Brooklyn-based rare books dealer as he tries to make sense of an ancient legend of the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. Set in Kolkata, the Sunderbans, Los Angeles, New York and Venice, the novel engages with Ghosh’s fascination for etymology (which blossomed in the Ibis trilogy) and how words in different languages inform our sensibility and understanding of the world. “At the heart of the story of Gun Island, there lies an etymological mystery, a derivation that points to the deep and inextricable intermeshing of cultures and civilisations over the ages. This is why etymology fascinates me: like sailors, words, too, are travellers, and tracing their journeys is like describing voyages of adventures.”
This particular adventure proceeds at a fair gallop, with a series of what appear to be unlikely coincidences linking crucial events and the lives of the main characters. Ghosh makes a case for chance, randomness, and the uncanny. “Storytellers invest a lot of ingenuity in trying to make the improbable seem probable. And if it should happen that improbable events turn out to be connected to each other, then we have the emergence of something altogether different: the uncanny. And the uncanny is very much a feature of our times. To give you just one example: There is a scene in Gun Island where a museum in Los Angeles is threatened by rapidly moving wildfires. You may have read in the papers that such an event actually occurred last year, during the California wildfires, and you might think that the scene is based on a real-life event. But the truth is that I wrote that scene before it had happened — at the time it was fiction… One of the uncanniest aspects of our times is that fiction can barely keep pace with fact.”
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