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How global warming has frozen fiction

Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement poses two, thought-provoking questions about how we write about climate change.

Amitav Ghosh’s success as a novelist has rather obscured his exceptional non-fiction. Time may have played a part in this; his last collection of essays, Incendiary Circumstances, was published 11 years ago, and In an Antique Land, a classic now, was published in 1992. Ghosh’s fiction works with huge canvases: The Glass Palace (2000) spanned a century of change in Burma; the eye-opening Ibis trilogy, a grand projet if ever there was one, consumed a decade of the writer’s life and dealt with the British-run opium trade between India and China and the trafficking of indentured labour between British colonies. His vision is always of the big picture across geographical and temporal boundaries, of the long, hidden prehistory and surprising linkages of what we now call “globalisation”.

One can see an early foreshadowing of his new book in a long review titled “Petrofiction: the oil encounter and the novel”, which he wrote nearly 25 years ago. There he considers why the global oil trade has produced hardly any notable work in the arts, when a previous global trade with immensely far-reaching consequences, in spices, gave rise to such a rich and prolonged period of literary production. This piece, and its central inquiry, reappears in The Great Derangement as a continuing meditation on a richly productive line of thinking.

Originating in a series of lectures that Ghosh was invited to give at the University of Chicago last year, The Great Derangement, too, begins with a simple question – why have the arts (literature and fiction in particular) been unable and unwilling to grapple with the greatest crisis facing the planet, anthropogenic climate change? – and runs in thrillingly unpredictable directions with it. As he observes: “. . . ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight . . . this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which, “Stories”, delves into literary history. Ghosh’s thesis, borrowed from the literary historian Franco Moretti, that the novel came into being “through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday”, is as much a political statement as literary-historical; the form, by definition, cannot accommodate vast scales of unheard-of weather phenomena. Because “the weather events of this time have a very high degree of improbability”, he writes, “they are not easily accommodated in the deliberately prosaic world of serious prose fiction”.

Ghosh looks into how and why this deliberately prosaic quality of realist fiction came about, and shows how the notion of probability and the modern novel are twins and what this has meant. He draws from disciplines both far-flung and seemingly antagonistic, such as literary theory and the sciences, and borrows from Stephen Jay Gould the idea of a tussle in the sciences between the geological theories of gradualism and catastrophism, with gradualism eventually winning out. The ramifications of this for the practice of realist fiction are great.

Then Ghosh introduces an unsettling notion that will not be unfamiliar to readers of science fiction, but incredible, in the purest sense of the term, to minds trained in the very rationality of which realist fiction is a cultural manifestation: the idea of nature as sentient, possessed of the ability to intervene directly in human thinking, to play with us, even. “Uncanny” is often the word used to describe weather events or ­environmental catastrophes in our time, and Ghosh argues that “their uncanniness lies precisely in the fact that in these encounters we recognise something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of non-human interlocutors”. This idea is unsurprising to anyone who has read, say, Solaris, or the more recent Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, but Ghosh’s motives and destination are different. Just when you’re starting to think, “Hang on – science fiction has been dealing in one way or another with climate change, and with sentient non-human forces, for several decades now,” Ghosh beats you to it by addressing the problematic banishment of science fiction to “generic outhouses”.

He poses two thought-provoking questions prompted by this specific discussion. First: “What is the place of the non-human in the modern novel?” And then: “What is it in the nature of modernity that has led to this separation [of science fiction from the literary mainstream]?” His inquiry eventually goes to the heart of post-Enlightenment Western thought. In ten exhilaratingly argued pages that begin with how the materialities of oil and coal have led to very different political effects in the two economies, he moves, by way of a reflection on John Updike’s 1988 New Yorker review of Abdelrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt, to commenting on the privileging of the individual over the collective that has occurred in the conception of the novel, both in theory and in practice. The connections are at once inevitable, surprising and dazzling, the conclusion unimpeachable: “. . . 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”.

In his second section, “History”, Ghosh surprises yet again. We know how industrial capitalism has driven climate change but he tells a complementary story about the important role played by empire. If the largest accumulation of greenhouse gases was caused by expanding industrialisation in the West at the beginning of the 20th century and if Asia’s contribution to this began only in the late 1980s, when China and India embarked on a period of sustained economic expansion, then the imperial powers may in fact have held back the world’s arrival at the tipping point of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide very much earlier, by retarding the economies of Asia through a strategy of handicapping the simultaneous industrialisation of the colonised nations.

This point, which may seem to be standard post-colonial fare, albeit with a twist, is not Ghosh’s endpoint, which lies more in the domain of thinking critically about a consumerist, industrial model of economy and its intellectual underpinnings. The transitions are seamless and have the effect of widening ripples, spreading to ever greater areas of knowledge and intellectual history, and serve to underline just how coherent his wide-ranging argument is.

The final, blistering section, “Politics”, deals with the reasons why “political processes exert very limited influence over the domain of statecraft” in the West, and how the processes of thinking that have turned fiction into narratives of identity, or journeys of self-discovery, have contributed to this. It may seem like a tenuous connection but it is not; rather, Ghosh has put his finger on something burningly important. He shows how “the public sphere, where politics is performed [my italics], has been largely emptied of content in terms of the exercise of power: as with fiction, it has become a ­forum for secular testimony, a baring-of-the-soul in the world-as-church”.

One of the benefits of Ghosh’s formidable powers of synthesis is his ability to keep returning us to the bigger picture; once again, there is that working on a huge canvas. The Great Derangement turns out to be not a hand-wringing, haranguing, breast-beating essay on global warming, but one of the most powerful critiques of the varied foundational systems of Western thought and the historical supremacy of Western power and culture. Sure, the familiar stuff on global warming is there – what might happen to Mumbai in the event of a category 5 storm; the hubris of building cities by water – but these are just stepping stones to a much larger, more unexpected argument about how the “distribution of power in the world . . . lies at the core of the climate crisis”.

Each page of this book contains a compressed and original idea that could be pulled out to create several theses or books: the political effects of the distinct materialities of coal and oil; the Western modernity’s insistence on its own uniqueness; oil as an instrument for disempowering the people who constitute a democracy; how the collective was marginalised in Western thinking. The Great Derangement bristles with trenchant and dense ideas, expressed with exemplary lucidity and finesse. At a time when the idea of the engagé intellectual is not just unfashionable, but in full-blown retreat, here is a book that triumphantly ­announces its return.

Neel Mukherjee’s novel “The Lives of Others” (Vintage) was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder