By Dimitri Keramitas
PARIS – Indian author Amitav Ghosh bemoans the fact that the novel isn’t dealing with current reality.
Speaking with readers in the French capital on the publication of La Déesse et le Marchand (the translation by Myriam Bellehigue of his novel Gun Island, Actes Sud), Ghosh debated whether this literary form is relevant or not, as he addressed pressing world issues such as climate change and migration.
Ghosh has devoted himself to these mega-concerns since the publication of his nonfiction book The Great Derangement, and he has also won acclaim for Sea of Poppies, a novel that deals with the tumultuous encounter of European and Asian civilizations in the 19th century. He is also celebrated for The Glass Palace, which has been translated into more than 25 languages.
Ghosh said that he considered the novel to be inherently conservative in form, and difficult to change. Without giving examples, he said that film was much more adaptable, but, at the same time, he acknowledged that the novel’s vivid elements - scene-making and dialogue - had continuing vitality.
For Ghosh, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the great novel of climate change. (Steinbeck’s classic deals with the migration of “Okies” as a result of “dust bowl” conditions in the 1930s that rendered much of the United States an agricultural wasteland.)
However, Ghosh said that if the novel had been written today, it would necessarily include many Hispanic characters, which would also affect the work’s language. He added that the novel form suffers from monolingualism, and that it needs to address today’s cross-pollination of languages and cultures.
He noted that in the past, the Western literary tradition was actually less monolingual.
“A writer in medieval France would have spoken two languages, French and Latin,” he noted, although he might also have mentioned regional languages such as Provençal, Occitan and Breton.
When Ghosh spoke more directly about migration, he emphasized that the underlying issues for people's movement were more complex than just climate change. He described doing first-hand research among Bangladeshi and other migrants in Italy. He said that none of the migrants he spoke to accepted the term “ecological migrant”.
“Migration is complex and there are many reasons people leave their countries. Political, religious, economic, familial,” he stated. He found that most of the migrants weren’t happy with their lot in Europe and felt trapped there.
“They felt they’d made a mistake, leaving behind their family bonds, communities, language and traditions, and would return if it were possible,” he added.
In response to a question, he said he chose Italy, as opposed to France or Greece, for his research because he was more familiar with the country and its language, and had friends there. He was able to communicate with those from his home region (he’s from Calcutta in West Bengal, while Bangladeshis are from what used to be called East Bengal, with Bengali the common language).
“One of the key aspects of the migrant experience is that those who would explain it do not speak the migrants’ language. Journalists and others don’t speak Bengali, so they interpret migrant reality in English.”
A member of the audience, also from Calcutta but residing in France and working with refugees, pointed out another aspect of the communication gap: Many refugees, when questioned or interviewed, tend to say what they imagine others, who might help them or have power over them, want to hear. The author agreed with her observation.
He added that mounting migration was perhaps the single most important factor in recent political developments. He said that migration accounted for the rise of the extreme right in Europe, for Brexit, and for the election of Donald Trump. Asked about his own country, Ghosh said that the same issues had led to the rise of Hindu nationalism.
“While there aren’t many people crossing India’s borders, there have been problems with the situation of forest people and other minorities,” he said.
Ghosh also highlighted the role that technology, particularly smartphones and social media, play in migration.
“Much migration couldn’t take place without it, (for) persons who fly into Libya or go through the Balkans. One migrant travelled from Bangladesh to Europe on foot, over a year and a half. This just wouldn’t be possible without today’s communication technology,” he told the audience.
Surprisingly, while focusing on the large-scale problems of the day and the need for the novel to deal with them, Ghosh also made a case for phenomena that surpass conventional notions of what’s real. He said people encounter uncanny, inexplicable events all the time, and called this preternatural, as opposed to supernatural. He gave an example from his novel, the temple that appears in it. When asked about this, he answered that he’d invented it, but sometime after the book was published, an American geologist contacted him with information about a temple that had been unearthed in the novel’s setting, which bore a striking resemblance to the fictional one.
La Déesse et le Marchand / Gun Island – Ghosh’s most recent novel - is phantasmagorical and originates in a Bengali folktale about a merchant who crosses (and then must flee) the goddess of snakes Manasa Devi. This might seem like indulging in magic realism, but it is actually a way to look at our current predicament, he indicated.
Photos (top to bottom): Amitav Ghosh (by D. Keramitas) and the cover of La Déesse et le Marchand (Actes Sud).
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