Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

"The Calcutta chromosome" by Amitav Ghosh (Picador, 1997)

Set in the near future, this novel starts slowly. Antar (an Egyptian living in the US) is at his computer, Ava (an AI program capable of 3D projection). He comes across an ID card of Murugan, a co-worker who disappeared decades before. The plot thickens, with framed monologues going on for several chapters -

  • Antar recalls when he met Murugan - 1995 in a restaurant. At that meeting Murugan recounts events from 1895 when Ronald Ross (who stayed at Robinson Street when in Calcutta) made a breakthrough regarding Malaria. He has a theory about Ross's assistant, Lutchman - that's he's a counter-scientist ("knowledge is self-contradictory; maybe they believed that to know something is to change it ... Maybe they thought that knowledge couldn't begin without acknowledging the impossibility of knowledge" - p.103). Murugan (bizarrely) has a hunch that in 1895 they might have been into the idea of gene-transfer. Competing theories about malaria causes are expounded at length.
  • From Murugan's PoV we follow his visit to Calcutta in 1995. He stays at 8, Robinson Street for Ross's anniversary. His landlady is Mrs Aratounian, who happens to know Urmila well
  • Urmila (a reporter) and Sonali (an ex-actress) attend an award ceremony for the writer Phulboni in Calcutta, 1995. They briefly cross paths with Murugan. A chapter ends with Urmila asking Sonali whether she knows if Phulboni (an old family friend) wrote about Laakham (which we've been told earlier is a regional variant of the name Lutchman). We meet Urmila's poor family. Romen Halder, who runs a football club, is coming round to sign up her brother. He (a builder/property-speculator with a site at 8, Robinson Street) is a friend/lover of Sonali.

These threads continue in parallel. Ross received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902, but I've no idea how much of the extensive information in this novel about him and his work is true.

Murugan tries to convince Urmila that the coincidences are part of an experiment they're trapped in. He thinks some people have "been planting carefully selected clues for the last century or so, and every once in a while, for reasons of their own, they choose to draw them to the attention of a couple of chosen people."

Phulboni's adventure at Renupur feels like a too long aside - though it help explain Laakhan, it begs more questions than it answers - altered realities. However Renupur becomes more relevant toward the end.

Sonali witnesses a ritual involving Mrs Aratounian and Romen Halder (who was called Laakham during the ritual). We learn that Phulboni is Sonali's father, and that there aren't as many independent characters in the novel as it initially appears.

Other reviews

  • Goodreads
  • James Saynor (This Rubik's Cube of a novel seems perfect for dismantling by news groups on the Internet. But some die-hard print lovers may find that it lacks emotional depth. There is no ghost in this machine.)

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