Emplotting the Postcolonial: Epistemology and Narratology in Amitav Ghosh's the Calcutta Chromosome

By Vescovi, Alessandro | ARIEL, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Emplotting the Postcolonial: Epistemology and Narratology in Amitav Ghosh's the Calcutta Chromosome


Vescovi, Alessandro, ARIEL


Abstract: The plot of Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome is so complex that there is little consensus among scholars on what actually happens in the novel. Following in the footsteps of Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Renu, and J. P. S. Uberoi, Ghosh dramatizes the encounter between Western science, with its accompanying epistemology, and Indian tradition. Fhe novel challenges the relentless West-driven search for knowledge, epitomized by the supercomputer named Ava, and suggests that only different epistemological premises, based on silence, can counteract Western rationalism. The novel's literary technique mirrors this preoccupation in that it tells a story from two different viewpoints, one of which remains silent throughout. Narrating the viewpoint of a silent agent raises a number of problems as to the reliability of the narrator, who properly speaking is only a "guesser." The whole narrative revolves around a foundational mystery that remains unknown to all characters. In order to do so, the implied author must write about something of which he too remains ignorant. This paradoxical condition calls for a revision of the traditional writing agents as described by Wayne C. Booth, so that it is necessary to include the figure of the archiauthor behind the traditional implied author. This may explain a reticent narrative that relies heavily on the reader's intelligence. Furthermore, my narratological reading highlights two themes formerly neglected by scholars, namely that subalterns' cosmopolitanism in the future is rooted in our colonial past and that the interpersonal transference envisaged by the novel merges different people in one body, thus challenging the Western obsession with individualism.

Keywords: The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh, narratology, epistemology, Indian literature in English

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Someone is trying to get us to make some connections; they are trying to tell us something; something they don't want to put together themselves, so that when we get to the end we'll have a whole new story.

Amitav Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome (217)

I. Introduction

The first characteristic that strikes the reader of Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery (1996) is the overwhelming complexity of its plot, which recalls highly elaborated works like those of Jorge Luis Borges or Vladimir Nabokov. An interpretation of this plot demands a narratological reading, and yet Ghosh scholars seldom rely on narratology in their analyses. I engage in a narratological reading that moves along the lines of "theorypractice" as envisaged by James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz and that was later actuated by Phelan in his Living to Tell about It. I explore the connections between themes and narrative techniques, believing that although thematic and narratological criticism are often distinct, a novel's text remains the privileged site of their encounter because no novelist or reader can shed either. Phelan argues that every narrative text presents mimetic, thematic, and synthetic aspects; the first term refers to the narrative situation and characters, the second touches on themes that are relevant also outside the narrative text (and possibly in the author's and readers' lives), and the third relates to the text as an aesthetic artefact. Most criticism of Chromosome concentrates on the second axis, while the other two are often overlooked. This neglect of the first and third axes may be due to the ambiguities of the novel's plot and the difficulty of ascribing the text to any given literary genre. While this independence from the constrictions of literary genres is often hailed as a positive aspect of the novel (Rarnraj; Piciucco), it poses major problems in terms of reading modes. Every genre shapes its reading public; we know how to respond to a detective story, science fiction, speculative fiction, historical novel, or dystopia (all of which are descriptors that have been applied to Chromosome), but we are ill at ease when it comes to a blend of all these. …

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