Book review / Ava Malaria

The Calcutta Chromosone by Amitav Ghosh Picador, pounds 15.99

Antar is an Egyptian living in Manhattan, a homeworker for the giant International Water Council, which absorbed his former employer, the public health agency LifeWatch in the late 1990s. He sits all day in his flat, tapping away at the terminal that links him to the Council's super-computer, Ava.

Mostly he seems to help Ava with the filing. One of the chores is to file records of every item found in premises taken over by the Council. As a rule Ava can find a slot for anything unaided, but sometimes she shows Antar a mystery object to ask where it ought to go. Once it was a snowstorm paperweight, another time a Tipp-Ex bottle (nice joke.) Today she projects a giant hologram of an old LifeWatch ID card, just discovered at a homeless people's shelter the Council has requisitioned in Calcutta.

The card belongs to L. Murugan, an adoptive New Yorker like Antar but originally Indian. He vanished in his native Calcutta back in 1995 while pursuing a pet theory about malaria. The theory being that for the past century an Indian woman called Mangala has been somehow using the malaria parasite to carry out mind-switches between bodies, to make herself immortal and to become the goddess of a deadly secret cult.

Antar recalls his last meeting with Murugan and the e-mail message Murugan sent him afterwards, which he erased without reading because Murugan was obviously cracked. He asks Ava to try and salvage the message. He wants to clear up the background research and close the file because his attractive new neighbour, an Indian lady called Tara, promised to call round this evening...

Amitav Ghosh gives this remarkable conspiracy thriller a complex and effective time scheme, cutting between Antar's afternoon of electronic detective work, his conversation with Murugan in '95 and Murugan's visit to Calcutta shortly after. Stories told by Murugan and his friend Urmila take the narrative back further, to strange events at a railway station on the Ganges floodplain in the 1930s, and to Surgeon-Major Ross's Nobel- winning work on malaria at a Calcutta hospital in the 1890s.

It is an abnormally gripping and unsettling novel, most of it beautifully written. The railway ghost-story sequence is a masterly exercise in terror which will probably be anthologised as a classic alongside Dickens's The Signalman. Essentially the entire plot of The Calcutta Chromosome is hokum, but it is earnest, genuine hokum rather than the awful, arch, knowing, post-modern kind.

The scientific basis is not too far-fetched. Malaria research is still a cutting-edge discipline because of the parasite's weird shape-shifting abilities, and the disease can have unexplained effects on the brain, which is why malaria injections were used to arrest syphilis until the 1940s. Murugan has only to add some plausible rhubarb about DNA and the possibilities come to seem almost real.

The exact nature, methods and purpose of the conspiracy remain shadowy. An incompletely solved mystery is always unsatisfactory, but a pat solution would only be more so, as it is in conventional thrillers. Besides, Ghosh manages to create a lingering sense that, if you re-read closely enough, the truth will appear, and then you'll wish it hadn't.

The book is not without its faults. Murugan jumps to his crazy conclusions far too readily, and his account of Major Ross's work, in facetious American slang, is an embarrassing way of smuggling research in through dialogue. And Ghosh's principal assumption - that Ross, a Briton, could not have cracked the puzzle of malaria transmission in 500 working days from scratch without hidden help from the Indians who'd had 5000+ years to think about it - is of course wistful wish-fulfilment on the part of an Indian-born author.

Ghosh, resident in America, writes mainly for Indian and American readers, to whose sense of self-esteem the idea of British stupidity may appeal. So we won't mention Harvey, Jenner, Lister or Fleming, let alone Newton, Faraday, Trevithick, Babbage, Baird or Whittle. We'll simply admit we don't have many novelists as good as Ghosh just now, if any.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine