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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Calcutta Chromosome

Amitav Ghosh

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To purchase The Calcutta Chromosome

Title: The Calcutta Chromosome
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995
Length: 311 pages
Availability: The Calcutta Chromosome - US
The Calcutta Chromosome - UK
The Calcutta Chromosome - Canada
Das Calcutta Chromosom - Deutschland
  • A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly entertaining novel that spins too far into the mystical

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor B+ 8/1/1998 Paul Rosenberg
The Lancet . 21/12/1996 Sandee Brawarsky
The Nation . 29/9/1997 Amitava Kumar
New Statesman A 6/9/1996 Shirley Chew
The NY Times Book Rev. B 14/9/1997 James Saynor
San Francisco Chronicle A 26/10/1997 Abbas Milani
The Spectator . 24/8/1996 Michael Hulse
TLS A 2/8/1996 Phil Baker
World Literature Today A+ Winter/1997 Sudeep Sen

  Review Consensus:

  Most at least impressed by aspects of the book, and some very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "As pure fiction, the book succeeds brilliantly. (...) But as a novel of ideas -- which science fiction at its best usually is -- The Calcutta Chromosome is less successful. (...) If Ghosh intends to critique science by imagining an alternative way of knowing, he needs a firmer grasp of what science is and a less vague presentation of his alternative." - Paul Rosenberg, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Woven together in short chapters, the tales hardly include a detail -- clay figurines, old newspapers used to wrap fish, a glowing orange light, for example -- that is not part of the larger mystery. The connecting threads become clear in the final pages. (...) Ghosh beautifully represents the texture of Indian life. And through Antar, the author hints at the dark side of our cyber-future." - Sandee Brawarsky, The Lancet

  • "Even while calling into question the claims and certainties of Western science, The Calcutta Chromosome finds redemption only in the tyranny of the secret society and its mysterious, mystical silence." - Amitava Kumar, The Nation

  • "With its dazzling and haunting mix of science fiction, the history of malaria research, thriller, ghost story and postcolonial allegory, Amitav Ghosh's new novel is -- like his previous work wonderfully clever as well as a good read." - Shirley Chew, New Statesman

  • "Ghosh's tone is more earnest: he seems to be intent on producing a thriller with overtones of profundity. For the most part, he succeeds in presenting a finely carved mystery -- mesmerizing, although a bit rigid. 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." - James Saynor, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A)n engrossing tale that is at once a work of science fiction, a medical mystery, a fascinating history of malaria research and a parable about the arrogance of English colonial power in India. (...) The plot unfolds like the involution of a hypertext, and the novel's clever subtext -- which pits India's age-old wisdom and faith against Western science and England's colonial arrogance -- is scintillating." - Abbas Milani, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The Calcutta Chromosome is probably more commercial than Ghosh's previous work, but it is a rich and satisfying novel. Ghosh's post-colonial thematics are understated but integral, as the colonial master is manipulated by the servants he hardly notices, and Ghosh plays off Western discourses of knowledge against a priestess's "counter-science" of silence." - Phil Baker, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)he novel is equally brisk-paced from its very incipience. The narrative, with its wonderful host of characters, swerves, twists, and loops with sharp-edged velocity. Not only do the diction and plot lend themselves well to such a sustained pace, but so does the superimposed shift of scenes, motives, and intent." - Sudeep Sen, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Calcutta Chromosome is a multi-layered novel, presenting different storylines from different times. The idea, of course, is to have them merge neatly in the end: Ghosh does bring them together, but not nearly as nicely as one might hope. Too bad, but at least there's some decent entertainment along the way.
       The Calcutta Chromosome begins in the near-future, in New York, where Antar works for the mega-organization the International Water Council. The IWC had swallowed up Antar's previous employer, an NGO called LifeWatch ("that served as a global public health consultancy and epidemiological data bank"). Now he works from home, linked up by computer, doing drudge work.
       Ghosh offers a mild dystopia here. Antar's New York is a more desolate, decrepit, and impersonal one than the present-day city, but Antar can still find convivial souls and his life isn't all too bad. Ghosh doesn't expend much energy on working out a vision of the future, and didn't put too much thought into it. Antar's computer, known as Ava, is a pretty neat thing, able to speak in any dialect and do a good number of things, but otherwise Ghosh's future sounds out of date even these few years after he wrote it. His Internet is still expensive and slow, for example. And Antar's friends discuss "some new scam for saving on subway tokens" -- when it must have been clear even in 1995 (when the book was first published) that the subway token would soon be phased out, replaced by a more flexible electronic card system. (Tokens are still in use in New York, but for years the preferred system has been the so-called MetroCard.)
       Ghosh's quaint lack of imagination about the future is only appropriate, because the focus of the book is on the past. The past first drops into Antar's lap -- or rather: appears on his computer screen -- in the form of a piece of an ID card from another LifeWatch employee, L.Murugan. Murugan went missing in 1995 in Calcutta and, as it happens, Antar met him before then.
       Murugan was obsessed with Ronald Ross, who had received the Nobel Prize in 1902 for his work on malaria. With that the three timelines are set, and the novel shifts back and forth between them: there is Antar's present, as he investigates the ID card and what might have happened. There are the events leading up to Murugan's disappearance in 1995, which include his discussions with Antar and then his adventures in Calcutta. And there are the events from the late 19th century, as the malaria-discoveries are being made (these events are largely -- and confusingly -- related by Murugan, though often based on accounts and letters from that time).
       It is complicated -- and it gets more so. There are different casts of characters: few in New York, more in Calcutta, and a whole slew in 19th century India.
       Ross' malaria-related discoveries are the key. It turns out the discoveries are surprising, as is how he came to make them. And Murugan thinks there is more to them too -- the Calcutta chromosome, for one. The steps of Ross' discovery were also remarkably fortuitous: they almost seem to fall into place for him, and this is where Murugan focusses his attention.
       Murugan wants to follow Ross' trail -- and that of some of the mysterious figures around him. That, of course, snarls him in complications as well. And Antar, following Murugan's trail ... well, it's pretty clear where that is going to lead.
       The malarial theories and what Ghosh does with them aren't bad. Ghosh has some clever ideas, and the stories meander along quite entertainingly for the most part. There are other figures in Calcutta -- a journalist, a writer, and others -- who play larger roles, and some of the story comes together quite nicely. Unfortunately, however, Ghosh eventually settles for hokey mysticism rather than anything more soundly scientific, and the book tapers off to its predictable but unsatisfying conflation.

       The back and forth and mix of stories is just a bit much for Ghosh to handle. It becomes a narrative mess -- unnecessarily so, too: it's simply a case of bad craftsmanship, as these strands certainly could have been woven together more elegantly. Ghosh writes reasonably well, but not particularly so (at least in this novel): it is the stories that keep the reader interested.
       Much of the novel, and many of the stories are entertaining, and for most of the way it is a quick, compelling read. But much of Ghosh's dénouement -- which one can see coming after a while -- disappoints. The book does not live up to the promise it occasionally shows.

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The Calcutta Chromosome: Reviews: Amitav Ghosh: Other books by Amitav Ghosh under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature under review

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About the Author:

       Indian author Amitav Ghosh currently lives in New York.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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