'The Living Mountain': Amitav Ghosh's new fable

'The Living Mountain': Amitav Ghosh's new fable

None of this is to say that the book is light or superficial. We have contemplated parables and koans for thousands of years.

Amitav Ghosh's latest book, The Living Mountain: A Fable for Our Times, defies easy reactions. A review is supposed to describe what a book is trying to achieve, describe how the author has tried to do so, and assess whether they have succeeded. But a slim volume of 35 pages cannot be treated in the same manner as longer pieces, and a fable—by definition—has little to do with things like character development, or the novel's role of showing the decisions of normal people in extraordinary circumstances.

None of this is to say that the book is light or superficial. We have contemplated parables and koans for thousands of years. Their brevity adds, rather than subtracts, from their power. Similarly, Ghosh's short tale—a story of a dream in a novella—draws power from the elegant simplicity of its telling.

The core of it is short enough—a story of warring tribes living around a sacred, unscaled mountain, who are made servants of foreigners—the Anthropoi—who wish to scale, and mine, the mountain. Using them to provide support, the conquering foreigners start up the slopes. In time, the conquered tribes manage to conquer their very own. "A great orgy of bloodletting filled our Valley, bringing slaughter and destruction on a scale far beyond that which the Anthropoi had inflicted on us in the past." Then the conquerors among the formerly conquered also go racing up the slopes.

'The Living Mountain': Amitav Ghosh's new fable
Dubai’s book-shaped library opens to the public on June 16

As they do so, the mountain destabilises. Ruin flows down in landslides. With every step forward, disaster comes closer, but neither group can head back, or wishes to.

You could see Ghosh's tale as a simple retelling of the history of colonisation and extractive industrialisation, the twin themes that he has explored at least since the publication of The Hungry Tide in 2004. But it is a telling with no easy moral lessons; nobody is spared—not the colonisers or the formerly colonised, not the scientists or even those counselling "sustainable development". A race to the top of the mountain while the world crumbles beneath our feet is what they have all damned us to.

Ghosh is famously widely read, and maybe he had—at least in passing—become familiar with the lyrics of a 2005 song by the alternative rock band Gorillaz: 'Fire Coming out of the Monkey's Head'. In this, the "Happyfolk" live lives of peace and harmony at the foot of a mountain named Monkey, until the advent of the "Strangefolk", and their mining of the mountain, bring instability and destruction to the people and the larger world.

Like the song, Ghosh's fable leaves us with a clear view of our chosen doom. Neither provides easy answers. What they do, though, is push us to re-examine received wisdom, to question whether wisdom can even be drawn from the ones that have brought us to where we are, or whether we need to learn to listen, once again, to old tales we have long dismissed.

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