Monday 11 January 2021

Guest review by Jane Rogers: THE GREAT DERANGEMENT by Amitav Ghosh


"This is the best book I’ve found in a year of seeking out fiction and non-fiction about climate change."

Jane Rogers has written ten novels, including The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Man-Booker longlisted and winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012. Other works include Mr Wroe's Virgins (which she dramatised as a BBC drama series), and Promised Lands (Writers' Guild Best Fiction Award). Jane also writes short stories, radio drama and adaptations, and has taught writing to a wide range of students.

Her new dystopia Body Tourists was published in November and is now available in paperback. For more information, see Jane's website. 

This is the best book I’ve found in a year of seeking out fiction and non-fiction about climate change. Quite apart from being beautifully written, it’s continually surprising and thought-provoking. Ghosh invokes the scientific, philosophical and spiritual traditions of the global East as well as the West, exploring ways of living in and understanding the world, which are far outside our colonising Anglo-American, Northern European, Protestant mindset. My thinking was repeatedly turned on its head.

And every idea he discusses emerges from a real-life incident. It may be an event from Ghosh’s own life, like being caught in a tornado in Delhi in 1978; or it may be historical, like the gloom of 1816, the ‘year without a summer,’ thanks to skies full of volcanic ash. The range of these illustrations reveals a staggering knowledge of history, geography and geology; this reader leaned something new on every page.

The book started life as four lectures presented at the University of Chicago, and it retains the lean essay structure, with each part pursuing a specific line of argument as to why humanity has failed to engage with the climate emergency. He calls that inability ‘the great derangement’. Why do we continue to live as if the earth’s resources are infinite? Why do we burn coal, drive petrol cars, take flights, drill for oil, heat our homes with gas and destroy trees across the world, from the Brazilian rainforest to the ancient English woodlands being felled for HS2? We know these activities will cause catastrophe for our grandchildren. What is wrong with us?

As a novelist, I was most challenged by part 1, ‘Stories’. Ghosh asks, ‘What is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? And what does this tell us about culture writ large and its patterns of evasion?’ He puts forward evidence for several explanations; I think the most radical is his suggestion that the nineteenth and twentieth century novel has closed down on communal experience and is simply interested in the narrowly ‘realistic’ day-to-day life of the individual. Since I write, and love to read, these kind of character-based novels, this felt like a serious put down. But his arguments make sense:

‘Before the birth of the modern novel, fiction delighted in the unheard-of and the unlikely. Narratives like those of The Arabian Nights, The Journey to the West, and The Decameron proceed by leaping blithely from one exceptional event to another.’  Myths, legends, epics, fables and chronicles are staples in the story-telling history of many – maybe all – human cultures. They range over vast expanses of time and space, where humans are challenged or helped by supernatural beings, intelligent animals, or the elements. Character is not central.

The modern literary novel reduces this scope to as little as one day in one place; silences the non-human; and charts ‘an individual moral adventure’. Ghosh sees nineteenth century ideas of progress, and rational control over the natural world, as feeding into this literary development. Natural disasters and sentient non-human forces have been banished to genre fiction, to Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror.

‘At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.’

I can’t help feeling he is right, though I would love to disprove him. It’s humbling to realise just how much one’s world view is determined by the time and place of one’s birth. But if he can lead readers to question themselves, then as a writer he is surely succeeding, beyond the wildest expectations of most of us. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your take on it.

The Great Derangement is published by University of Chicago Press

See also: Jane's review of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Her account of adapting Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease for BBC Radio 4

Jane's latest novel, Body Tourists, reviewed by Linda Newbery

1 comment:

Linda Newbery said...

This is next on my reading pile - thanks for the recommendation, Jane!