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