Close Reading of Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Gun Island’ (2019)

           My close reading, examines the chapter ‘High Water’ from Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2019). In this chapter, Deen and Cinta are in Venice. They visit the gentrified Punta della Dogana (Customs House Point), which Cinta remembers was a ‘dilapidated old place’[1] when she was a child. It has become ‘like every other building in the city…an art gallery.’[2] Cinta’s memory emphasizes not only an economic pattern built on culture, but furthermore, that the memory of Venice is emphasized through various aesthetic forms.

          Inside the gallery, Cinta and Deen encounter an interactive artwork, positioned ‘at the far end of the gallery’[3], galvanizing Cinta’s memory, and in addition, establishing her cultural affiliation with her hometown Venice. The artwork is titled ‘Il mostro di Punta della Dogana – The Monster of Customs House Point.’[4] The monster, Cinta explains is a centuries long legend, with sightings being reported up until the 1930s. Cinta believes it to be a giant squid, and the composition of the artwork references this, with its ‘long tentacle-like forms.’[5]

          I will read the events and meaning of the chapter in alignment with Timothy Morton’s ideas, namely ‘interobjectivity,’ and its inclusion in the function and meaning of the ‘hyperobject.’ In addition, I want to connect this with Ghosh’s own thoughts on the role of nonhumans in Gun Island and by extension, the current ecological and political problems caused by climate breakdown, which Ghosh expounds on in The Great Derangement (2016). To do this, I will include Donna J. Haraway’s ideas on ‘Terrapolis’ and the ‘Chthulucene’, which I will show are synonymous with Morton’s ideas, as they attempt to realize ecological awareness and the role of nonhumans. Morton, Haraway & Ghosh, share political, ecological and ontological concerns, and their ideas inform and collaborate fluidly with each other.

          The conversation between Deen and Cinta, and the legend expressed throughout, are intersubjective moments of Venice’s history. However, the denouement of the chapter, urges us to expand the scope to what Timothy Morton calls ‘interobjectivity.’ Morton explains that ‘form is memory’, therefore, ‘there is no difference between causality and aesthetic appearance.’[6] It is easy to connect the causal and aesthetic in this chapter: the ‘aesthetic’ is the legend itself, causally influenced by Venice’s history. The resulting artworks and galleries, are aesthetic results of the form of memory. The interobjective telling of history is literary in form, which spills into an object, an artwork representing and referencing the legendary monster.

          Connecting Morton’s ‘hyperobject’ offers depth: ‘Hyperobjects provide great examples of interobjectivity—namely, the way in which nothing is ever experienced directly, but only as mediated through other entities in some shared sensual space.’ The hyperobject, put very simply ‘refer[s] to things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.’[7] Venice itself is an interobjective assemblage, a hyperobject. We cannot see Venice in its entirety, because that entirety is inaccessible. This does not make Venice any less a thing because it is an inaccessible entirety, or entity. In the same way, we do not encounter the actual il mostro, nor the reports of people throughout history, through the artwork in the gallery; nor do we actually relive Cinta’s childhood because she can remember the dilapidated customs house. This does not make them any less real as what they are. They are summaries, aestheticized, very much objects in their own right that encounter other objects to construct history, which is the hyperobject. Histories are an assemblage of anecdote, legend, report, construction, destruction, material, thinking, acting, and encountering. Or what Morton calls ‘footprints of hyperobjects’:

    These footprints are signs of causality, and of here is both subjective and objective genitive. Causality and the aesthetic, the realm of signs and significance and sensation, are one and the same. Hyperobjects are so big that they compel us toward this counterintuitive view. Interobjectivity eliminates the difference between cause and sign.[8] 

Aligning the ‘subjective and objective genitive’ can be accomplished because interobjectivity, includes nonhumans in its impressions, in its footsteps of causality and aesthetics. Moreover, intersubjectivity—interactions between conscious beings—is not disentangled from interobjectivity. The difference is, that in an interobjective ecology, nonhumans and humans interact, as well as, importantly, nonhumans and nonsentient beings. Interactions aren’t reserved for humans with humans. This is suggestive throughout Ghosh’s Gun Island.

          What else is a city, or a person’s life, other than the interconnection of things? Ghosh understands this markedly, especially as we know that he is familiar with the hyperobject, telling us so in The Great Derangement: ‘We have entered, as Timothy Morton says, the age of hyperobjects, which are defined in part by their stickiness.’[9] This ‘stickiness’ is synonymous with Morton’s ‘viscosity’: ‘Hyperobjects are here, right here in my social and experiential space.’[10] This propinquity of hyperobjects is the reason they cannot be seen in their entirety, as Morton explains, ‘there is nothing to “get back to,” since the problem is not that things are truly distant, but that they are in our face—they are our faces.’[11] If we replace ‘face’ with ‘city’ we connect this propinquity to the habitation of people in the hyperobject ‘city’. Furthermore, human encounters with nonhumans, causally collaborate to produce aesthetic legends inside a hyperobject, spilling though the mesh-like structure of the hyperobject into ecological and political consideration. Things come out the woodwork literally and figuratively, in doing so, they reveal the ecological breakdown taking place. This is how Gun Island functions as a warning.

          I want to return to Il mostro. The ‘tentacle-like form’ is redolent of Donna J. Haraway’s ‘tentacular ones’ entangled with fiction, essential if we want to ‘tell the story of the Chthulucene.’[12] The Chthulucene is Haraway’s replacement term for the Anthropocene. Anthropocene doesn’t seem to be reactionary enough to the necessary presence of nonhumans and how, neither humans nor nonhumans, as Haraway emphatically explains, ‘nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.’[13] ‘The chthonic ones’, live in the Chthulucene, chosen for its Greek etymology, meaning ‘of, in, or, under the earth and seas.’[14] These are the il mostro of Gun Island, which live in the memory of the people and city, devour the wooden infrastructure of Venice, as well as the inside of trees in the mountains of Oregon.[15]  

          Haraway’s Chthulucene is realized within a fictional space, called Terrapolis. Etymologically, she combines terra, or earth, with polis, the city. Terrapolis encourages an intimate space to exist between humans and nonhumans, between earth and city. The opportunity to distance each other, through habitation in radically different ecologies, is dissembled and reassembled as an inevitable, shared ecology. Gun Island could be read as an example of the aesthetic space, the poiesis of Terrapolis. The novel is a poietic world, designed to express multi-species interconnection, as is Terrapolis. Haraway explains:

    Terrapolis is a fictional integral equation, a speculative fabulation. Terrapolis is n-dimensional niche space for multi-species becoming-with. Terrapolis is open, worldly, indeterminate, and polytemporal. Terrapolis is a chimera of materials, languages, histories.[16] 

By ‘speculative fabulation’ I take Haraway to mean a fiction that confounds expectations by fusing the everyday and familiar, with the fantastical, mythic and nightmarish. Ghosh’s Gun Island is a speculative fabulation.  

          Ghosh constructs a novel, where legends emerge into something observable by the characters. Cinta and Deen, after the gallery, go in search of the monster out at the Fondamente Nove, where her uncle Ruggiero would go to catch squid and cuttlefish. Fondamente Nove, the narrator explains, ‘remains to this day one of the least frequented parts of the city.’[17] This peripheral space, is ideal for the emergence of creatures. The artwork Il mostro di Punta della Dogana, was also located in a peripheral space. The monster, the tentacular one they search for, mutates, into the chthonic ones. Cinta tells Deen, ‘I will show you a different kind of monster, much more dangerous.’[18] Cinta asks Deen to shine his cellphone’s flashlight on the piling, which functions similarly to Cinta’s uncle’s lantern, which he ‘hung over the water…so the creatures would come floating up to the light, needing only to be scooped up with a net.’[19] The darkness of the pier is a permeable boundary of dramatic tension, between expectation and the emergence into the light of a destructive ‘dangerous’ or ‘chthonic’ creature, which can only be captured with the use of a tool, the flashlight. Ghosh articulates the monster’s emergence as follows:

    Turning my own flashlight beam on the piling I saw that the surface of the indentation was pitted with holes, like the inside of a book that has been attacked by termites. Then suddenly Irealized that there was something alive inside the piling, not just one but many; they were wriggling, moving.[20]

The metaphor at work here, of the book attacked by termites, expands the event, through the agency of the aesthetic. The book is devoured, perhaps even the one we are reading, as are the pilings, and Venice.  Nonhumans in aggregation and collaboration with each other, are unleashed on the world of the reader.  For this to work, the city must be a thing, a hyperobject, ‘becoming-with’ (in Haraway’s phrasing) other objects, to form ecologies: ‘Ontologically heterogeneous partners become who and what they are in relational material-semiotic worlding. Natures, cultures, subjects, and objects do not preexist their intertwined worldings.’[21] There is no alterity of things, but instead, recognition of multispecies agency to affect ‘worldings’, synonymous with ecologies, except ‘worldings’ include the activities of nonhumans. The book becomes an ecological vehicle to show us ecological problems. It mimics, or rather it re-presents a world with the purpose of revealing a problem. In the process it becomes a habitat and ultimately open to being destroyed.

          Cinta explains that the creature she pries out of the piling, which is part of a pier, which is part of the infrastructure of the city itself, is ‘a ship worm’ which ‘are invading Venice, with the warming of the lagoon’s water. They eat up the wood from the inside in huge quantities. It has become a big problem because Venice is built on wooden pilings. They are literally eating the foundations of the city.’ The damage the ship worms are causing, becomes an event which happens to Deen and Cinta. This event is one of the causal ‘footprints of hyperobjects’, which are never the directly encountered hyperobject itself, but an interobjective encounter. Ghosh, in this event, is drawing our attention to an ecological problem, a problem caused by global warming. The warming of the lagoons, is an effect, non-local to Venice. The workers of Bangladeshi origin who we encounter in Part II Venice, are refugees from a place profoundly impacted by global warming. Their presence marks the continuity of global warming from one location, to another. The impacts differ aesthetically, however the cause is the same: global warming. The hyperobject as we know, forbids us from discerning the totality, we are able to witness only temporal manifestations, at various scales. Ghosh gives us imminent access, via the resulting collapse of the pier, to the impact of a process, which global warming causes to humans and nonhumans. Tacit in this local manifestation is the implication that this is a broader ecological problem. Nonhumans are the agents, acting discreetly, until they rupture the fluidity of the human, everyday. This is what Ghosh suggests, in a more simplified form when he says: ‘Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive?’[22] Returning to this, Ghosh later states this is, ‘one of the uncanniest effects of the Anthropocene, this renewed awareness of the elements of agency and consciousness that humans share with many other beings, and even perhaps the planet itself.’[23]    

          The word ‘uncanny’ is used by Morton, when he talks about the conjunction of human and nonhumans: ‘We are made of nonhuman and nonsentient and nonliving entities. It’s not a cozy situation: it’s a spooky, uncanny situation…We find ourselves in…the uncanny valley.’[24]

Just as Cinta and Deen, slip on the swarming worms into the rising lagoon, sinking literally and figuratively into the ramifications of interobjective encounters within the hyperobject. Morton, regarding the space of the uncanny valley, explains: ‘Everything in your world starts to slip [my italics] into the uncanny valley, whose sides are infinite and slick.’[25] The hyperobject enables us to ‘slip’ between scales, moving from the zoomed-out ecological scale of climate-disruption processes, to telescoping into singular events, such as Cinta and Deen slipping into the lagoon, or the migration of displaced people. 

          The Bangladeshi migrant Bilal, one of those displaced by climate change in the novel, witnesses in part this temporal event of global warming, which is connected to the cause of his being there. Bilal is squatting in an abandoned building on the Fondamente Nove and comes to Deen and Cinta’s rescue. There is something uncanny about this. The happenstance of Bilal’s immiseration, which places him at the right place, at the right time, is indicative of the interobjective, viscous properties of the hyperobject to bring humans and nonhumans into alignment. In this alignment we can trace heterogeneous events and objects through the hyperobject.

          What Ghosh may be suggesting, is a challenge to the notion that nonhumans can’t have or create worlds. The ship worm’s habitat inside the wood of the pier, is an ecology, within the ecology of the book, which exists because it replicates a reality aesthetically, to show a reality to itself. This is because, as Morton tells us, ‘Worlds are perforated and permeable, which is why we can share them.’[26] The concept of a world is not singularly reserved for the human inhabited world. Morton explains further that, ‘human worlds are no different in value from nonhuman ones, and also that non-sentient nonhuman lifeforms (as far as we know) and non-life (and also by implication the non-sentient and non-living parts of humans) also have worlds.’[27] In this way humans form what Morton calls ‘solidarity’[28], even and especially between the host and the parasite. The host and parasite may change, but solidarity remains. Between the city pier and the ship worm, a world emerges, a world which shatters the human world. Regardless of negative impacts, it is still a form of solidarity.

          Ghosh, in The Great Derangement asks: ‘What is the place of the nonhuman in the modern novel?’[29] He answers that question here in this event in Gun Island. By extension, as the novel exists outside itself, within a hyperobject, it also asks the question to the reader, now part of it, ‘what is the place of the nonhuman in the Anthropocene?’ Its place cannot be assigned to it. It will take its place according to its own agency, in part, or so it will seem. Because as we have established, the hyperobject forbids us from seeing the entirety. So it will evade us, and it will be the continuing task of the ecologically aware author, to show us some aspect of it, or at least how to access methods for seeing aspects of it.

Bibliography

Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (Great Britain: John Murray, 2019)

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016)

Timothy Morton, ‘Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.’ Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 19.2 (2011), p. 163-190. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/431001

Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London & New York: Verso Books, 2017)

Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects : Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)


[1] Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (Great Britain: John Murray, 2019), p. 245

[2] Ghosh, Gun Island, p. 245

[3] Ibid., p. 245

[4] Ibid., p. 246

[5] Ibid., p. 246

[6] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects :Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 91

[7] Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 1

[8] Ibid., p. 88

[9] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 62

[10] Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 27

[11] Ibid., 28

[12] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chtulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016), p.31

[13] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p. 31

[14] Ibid., p. 53

[15] Ghosh, Gun Island, p. 119

[16] Ibid., p. 11

[17] Ghosh, Gun Island, p. 247

[18] Ibid., 250

[19] Ibid., 247

[20] Ibid., 250

[21] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, pp. 32-33

[22] Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 3

[23] Ibid., p. 63

[24] Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 130

[25] Ibid., pp. 131-132

[26] Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London & New York: Verso Books, 2017), p. 14

[27] Morton, Humankind, p. 14

[28] Ibid., p. 14

[29] Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 66

2 Replies to “Close Reading of Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Gun Island’ (2019)”

a penny for your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.