January 25, 2005

Fever Dreams: The Calcutta Chromosome

by PAT CUMMINGS American Digest Book Editor

Amatav Ghosh: The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery

In The Calcutta Chromosome, author Amitav Ghosh has written a fever-bright mystery story about an historic event.

In 1898 in Calcutta, Sir Ronald Ross* solved a riddle: how is malaria transmitted?

"Malaria was the cold fusion of his day, the Sunday papers were scrambling to get it on the covers. And it figures: malaria's probably the all-time killer among diseases. Next to the common cold it's just about the most prevalent disease on the planet..."
Into the historical tale that traces the intense competition between Pasteur in Paris, Ambrose Laveran in Algeria, and Ronald Ross in India, Ghosh introduces the mystery: a LifeWatch worker named L. Murugan investigating (in 1995) how Ross came up with his idea.

Half-stunned I look around
And see a land of death—
Dead bones that walk the ground
And dead bones underneath...
-- Ronald Ross, In Exile

Murugan's desire to learn how Ross was inspired gradually moves from simple curiosity to fevered intensity. In the process, he stumbles on something he terms "anti-science." Murugan conceives of this as a conspiracy, in which communication of ideas cannot take place by the normal methods of transmission. In effect, ideas are infections transmitted by an as-yet-undiscovered vector.
Seeking His secret deeds
With tears and toiling breath,
I find thy cunning seeds,
O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing
A myriad men will save.
O Death! Where is thy sting?
Thy victory O grave?
-- Ronald Ross, In Exile
Now Ghosh moves us even deeper, into the enigma of what happens when this fever takes hold. By the time the story begins, Murugan has been missing for decades. His LifeWatch ID shows up as a catalogued artifact on ADA, an archaeological sorting system run by Antar, a programmer in New York City. Antar's recognition of Murugan's ID card may be his first bite from the data-Anopheles.

Will Antar discover what happened to Murugan? Or will he, too, catch the fever, be infected by the meme -- and like Murugan disappear? Ghosh has given us a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. Don't expect a clear-cut revelation. It may be, after all, only a fever dream.

*Sir Ronald Ross won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1902 for his proof that the female Anopheles mosquito transmits malaria in the serum injected when it bites.

For a more straight-forward account of scientific competition in a hot arena, see the excellent Race for the Double Helix.

Pat Cummings, constant reader, also reviews books at his site Paper Frigate, and at Blogcritics as well. He can be emailed here.

Posted by Vanderleun at January 25, 2005 8:57 AM
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