cover image The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery

The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery

Amitav Ghosh. William Morrow & Company, $23 (311pp) ISBN 978-0-380-97585-3

Antar, the Egyptian-American hero of this richly plotted literary thriller, is a peon in a huge corporation in near-future New York. His job is to monitor his powerful computer as it sorts through the inventory of a worldwide archive of mundane objects; at the same time, the machine monitors him to make sure he devotes his full attention to its mindless, mysterious task. The terminal stalls when it comes across a damaged ID card, which on further investigation turns out to have belonged to Murugan, an acquaintance of Antar's who disappeared years ago in Calcutta. As the novel moves into the past, the reader learns that Murugan went to India to research a ""secret history"" behind the real-life, turn-of-the-century discovery of malaria's mode of transmission through mosquitoes. The path that led 1902 Nobel laureate Ronald Ross to his discovery was indirect, and Murugan is nearly positive that the English scientist was merely a patsy, a pawn in someone else's grand plan. If this sounds complicated, it is. Ghosh's novel keeps doubling back on itself, shifting from future to past, New York to Calcutta. Though the mystery at the heart of the book is sometimes hard to fathom, that hardly matters. The evocations of place and character are so eloquent that the reader is able to forgive (continually, necessarily) all nagging, basic confusions about the plot. Murugan is the real gem here; as he explains his theories about Ross to Antar, it's hard to determine whether he's crazy or brilliant or both. Like Pynchon, Ghosh (The Circle of Reason; The Shadow Lines) creates a world in which conspiracies, big conspiracies, lurk everywhere--and the people who stagger into the complex plot known as History are inevitably swallowed whole. Author tour. (Sept.)