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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.