THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN
Novel of the peripheral
"`Do you see the story?' asks Deb's epigraph, taken from Conrad's Heart of Darkness. `Do you see anything?' It is the question he leaves us with at the end of this elegant and yet ultimately unsatisfying novel."
"DO we always want to finish a story," asks the narrator of Siddhartha Deb's second novel, Surface, "or do we prefer to stop at a point where the story still makes sense to us?" The question goes to the heart of this book a novel about the elusiveness of meaning and the slipperiness of stories, which stops, alas, at a point that did not quite make sense to this reader.
Amrit Singh, a frustrated minor journalist at a decaying Calcutta newspaper in the early 1990s, sets off for the northeast on a quest for a woman in a mysterious photograph. Amrit sees mainly the poverty and bleakness of the region, the violence lurking beneath the surface, the widespread "feeling of things about to collapse". He portrays a forlorn land, one "forgotten by the world," populated by people who are "provisional, uncertain ..., their personalities determined by the whimsy of immediate acts, so that no story taking place in that region was ever quite complete, no individual a rounded figure, and the outline of the region itself was traced by blurred, fluid boundaries that shifted back and forth with each fresh incident." The reader does not realise it at the time, but the narrator has just, in the novel's opening pages, described the book we are reading.
Amrit has stumbled across the photo of a woman captured by terrorists and condemned to be executed; he has been persuaded by a German acquaintance to track her down and write her story as one emblematic of all the mystery and the heartbreak of India. The assignment appeals to Amrit as offering a way out of the journalistic stupor into which he has sunk, and he travels to the region, hoping the story will change his life. But Amrit is a somewhat frustrating narrator, all too content to while away his time in seemingly pointless activity, a writer who sees experiences as "merely transient moments flitting by as they transformed themselves into memories." His search is marked by indirection and ennui, and at journey's end he finds himself on a "spot on the periphery where I [had] found myself without knowing how I had got here, as if I had sleepwalked my way to the edge of the republic." Sleepwalkers rarely tell the most compelling of stories, and this remains the central problem with Deb's narrative.
From the margins
Surface is a novel of the peripheral. It is set in a peripheral region, tucked away in the farthest reaches of the Indian republic, neglected and strife-torn. It is told by a peripheral narrator, at the margins of his profession, suspended from his job by a once-prestigious newspaper itself descending into failure and irrelevance. It features a succession of peripheral characters, their lives lived on the edges of anything that could remotely be considered central to the region's affairs. Even its plot is driven by a peripheral device, a photograph of an obscure figure that prompts an unlikely commission from an unknown foreign publication, leading the protagonist into a quest whose fulfilment never seems likely and may itself be peripheral to the author's concerns.
But at the edges of the republic, the narrator finds stories stories of intelligence officers who want to be writers, writers who end up counterfeiting money, soldiers who attempt to launder that money, bank employees who flee for their lives from those soldiers. The novel is full of vignettes that hint at possibilities left determindedly unexplored. Ultimately, one stops looking for a point to these stories; the stories themselves, it becomes clear, are the point.
But the sense of a voice self-consciously advertising its own irrelevance, dealing with subjects doomed to the status of marginalia in the Great Indian Narrative, permeates the novel. On a long bus journey, even "the road ... seemed indifferent to us and our passing presence." As each potentially significant development in the story evaporates, the reader is constantly left grasping at straws in the wind.
A gift of phrase
And yet Siddhartha Deb is a highly intelligent writer, with a gift of phrase and a lovely sense of light and shadow in his descriptions. There is, in his prose, both beauty ("incidents flickering and dying out like fireflies in the dark night of the region") and wonder ("the pale dusk seemed suspended, afraid of the emphatic certainty of the coming darkness") as well as insight ("a withered watchfulness ... I associated usually with traders and politicians and bureaucrats, people who made a success of their lives through the observation and exploitation of the weaknesses and fallibilities of others"). Deb writes with a thoroughness of detail and a precision of style that recalls Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene.
"Do you see the story?" asks Deb's epigraph, taken from Conrad's Heart of Darkness. "Do you see anything?" It is the question he leaves us with at the end of this elegant and yet ultimately unsatisfying novel. Conrad's next line, which Deb does not quote, goes on, "It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream." As with most dreams, this elusive novel fades too soon after the covers have been turned. But the author's talent is undeniable, and one looks forward to its application to a story that will finish where it set out to, at a point that "makes sense" to all of its readers.
Visit the author at: www.shashitharoor.com
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