Friday, October 5, 2012

Amitav Ghosh's "The Calcutta Chromosome": Book Review

I've been assigned a course with this as required reading, so I anticipate my students will share the challenges I encountered. It took me quite a few hours to read this three-hundred page novel, as it demands close attention. I kept notes as I went, for the chapters follow three paths in uneven and unpredictable portions: it centers around the near-future NYC of Antar, who investigates via the computer network he nicknames Ada the disappearance in 1995 Calcutta of a fellow employee of his firm. He found a bit of Murugan's i.d. card in an online archeological sift and so the hunt's on. 

Murugan, an irritating windbag who speaks in an affected hip-slang that is at least the novel's most memorable phrasing, as it crams a century of English jive and pose into a whirligig of a vocal register, finds his obsession with the real-life Ronald Ross, who took credit for malaria research earning him a Nobel Prize early in that same last century, overwhelming him, up to the mid-1990s. As a third setting, we witness Ross's discovery a hundred years before as it unfolds, with more than a little help from if not his friends than his pair of comely confidantes in Calcutta. One young woman wants to escape her suffocating home life there, and his quest to learn about the origins of the "Calcutta chromosome" and its apparent triumph of the powers of Silence over those of the Abyss (alluded to more than explained!) draws her in.

Their interest is echoed in a tangent that takes the plot into haunted territory explored by a predecessor, who goes by the pen-name Phulboni. I won't tell too much about his own embedded tale, but it does stand out as a self-contained strong point. Much of the prose, outside of the windbag Phulboni (I think he was meant to sound as such!) and the importuning, brusquely buttonholing Murugan, comes via the more sedate search conducted by the low-key, and self-effacing Antar. This accounts for the lassitude of much of the story, as his sections while moving the plot forward the most for all their domination as a central protagonist often lack the verve of the Indian characters' sharper dialogue and brasher bickering.

Later in the story, amidst a lot of medical characters from Britain and America, and many supporting roles (Romen especially) who gain sketchier mention, the convoluted plot careening between these three main time frames (and more scenes spin off of these, not always conveyed in the clearest manner, as didactic explanations must help the reader along by expository passages) may weary less attentive readers. As in such works of speculative fiction, the reasons for the cult's enigmatically symbolic ritual and the scientific legerdemain may sound more appealing the more they remain vague.

Ghosh appears to have difficulty controlling the plot although oddly (compared to many reviewers), I found the first hundred pages slower, until the explanations for the book's title entered. He does assume his readers to have enough medical wherewithal to keep up, and he may over-estimate this capacity, as many terms aren't defined, as scientists rattle off dialogue among themselves. This is natural if overhearing them, but as with any author taking us into new territory, how to keep a learned conversation convincing while teaching the ignorant about its intricacies is no easy feat for writers.

The pace remained uneven. The final section as it alternated an appealingly off-kilter conspiracy with a disappointingly hasty summation of the reasons for key elements introduced in Antar's case early on let me down. I wanted to learn more about the Europeans charged with their share of the propagation, and Ghosh is content to suggest lines to draw rather than to connect all the dots. Still, the final scenes however rushed (the chosen heroine possessed considerable sangfroid that I found hard to believe) do pack a punch as to their eerie suggestiveness, even if the revelation appears to evade verisimilitude. Those involved appear to take it in stride, while portions conveyed to those about to find it revealed confused me. But, as you expect by nature in a "what if?" work, this may be a fairly bargained if open-ended exchange. (Amazon US 7-6-12)

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