Book review: Amitav Ghosh’s latest, ‘Gun Island’

You might think that the migration of dolphins fleeing disaster has nothing to do with the waves of migrants trying desperately to enter Italy, the same way that you might think that an old Bengali legend of a lethal snake goddess in pursuit of a gun runner would have anything in connection to the history of Venice — unless, of course, you were a master like Amitav Ghosh, whose vision as a migrant himself is from another height, one that is great enough to accomodate his command of history, his nerdish love of science, and his reverence for his native Bengali culture.

Granted, I am suspect: Amitav Ghosh is more than a favorite; he like a teacher to me. I have read most of his books, and witnessed his evolution as a writer, and I have remained in awe of his storytelling for years. Gun Island follows his path, a talent for wedding his diverse tastes into an amazing aventure that will leave you more knowledgeable with every page, whether it is in his knack for vocabulary, or in the pearls of history and science in which his characters are ensnared.

What distinguishes Gun Island from his previous work is that the long-time theme of migration has been taken a new level. Instead of recounting the history of the Opium War or the Colonizations of North Africa, India and Burma though the colorful characters that are either forecefully moved or on the run, Gun Island intrusively connects the past to the present as a lonely antique book dealer in the US returns to his native Bengal to lead him to an adventure with fate, connecting his old and enduring friendship with a glamourous Venetian scholar with the recent acquaintances made in the inadvertent pursuit of a Bengali temple hidden in the mysterious, water-logged Sundarabans. The encounters of Deen (anglicized Dinanath) are by no means coincidence, which is difficult to accept for the logical, scientific mind, which is also why supernatural power is also rejected when it seems to follow him from Bengal through a devastating California forest fire.

If the disparate links seem implausible, wait till you take the tour of Venice, both in the 1600s and today, to see how climate crisis has always been ravaging yet another world, and then take a cruise on the Mediterranean to witness first hand the last trek of the dalals (traffickers) bringing migrants from all over Africa and Asia to Europe. They are all connected, and that is why you must be patient with what at times might seem like clumsy dialogue and frivolous serendipity.

Few have the acumen of Amitav Ghosh, who, as migrant, has a unique comprehension of not only how the real world works, but how it is held together and torn apart by our myths about ourselves and others.

Among my favorites

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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