Reading Siddhartha Deb’s Surface, I felt the rare thrill of seeing a talented writer working closely with the template of a revered book that’s more than 100 years old, and still managing to bring something new to it - reworking its themes and ideas in a different setting. The older novel shifting beneath the translucent surface of Deb’s book is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and more than once while reading Surface I was tempted to stop midway and give the Conrad a quick re-read. But Deb’s novel was gripping enough in itself to stop me from acting on that temptation.
In Surface a mercenary journalist, Amrit Singh, working half-heartedly for a Calcutta newspaper, travels to the north-east mainly to investigate a photograph that points to the possible killing of a porn actress by insurgents. But Amrit becomes intrigued, and then obsessed, by the talk he hears of an "alternative community" known as the Prosperity Project, located somewhere in the heart of this wilderness, and run by a visionary named Malik: "A creator of order in the wilderness. A messenger of hope for an area plunged in darkness." Everything in the novel now starts to converge towards this mythic figure, and Amrit’s journey increasingly starts to resemble the journey of Conrad’s protagonist Marlow, travelling through the African jungle in search of the enigmatic ivory trader Kurtz.
In Conrad’s novel, Marlow’s journey ends with an understanding of how a once-great man was corrupted by forces beyond his comprehension; of civilisation destroyed by the cruelty inherent in nature. In Surface, we eventually learn less about Malik and the forces that might have made and unmade him. But the similarities between Conrad’s Kurtz and Deb’s Malik are startling: from the words used by admirers to describe the two men - "remarkable", "extraordinary", "genius" - to the presence of a woman who never loses faith in the fallen figure despite all evidence to the contrary. And, in what is a telling nod to the earlier book, Deb even uses the line "Mr Malik. He’s dead" - an echo of one of literature’s most famous four-worders: "Mistah Kurtz. He dead", which is associated not only with Conrad but also T S Eliot, who used it as the epigraph for his poem "The Hollow Men".
I wasn’t all that surprised by the Conrad influence on Siddhartha Deb’s book. I’d interviewed Deb around three years ago when his first novel The Point of Return was being launched, and while the interview wasn’t a huge success (I was a bit of a greenhorn then and my questions were maybe a couple of rungs further up the Sensibility Ladder than "How do you get the idea to write a novel?") one of the things I gathered was that Deb was a big admirer of Conrad (and Faulkner, Melville and W G Sebald among others). And I remember noting with interest that his email ID had the domain name secretsharer.net ("The Secret Sharer" being a Conrad story).
Heart of Darkness was written around 1900 and published a couple of years later. So much has happened in the intervening hundred years; the world has opened up so much more than it had in several centuries previous, and it’s easy to be deluded into thinking we now know everything there is to know about the planet - that no region is inaccessible, that there are no dark places left. But as recent fiction has shown, that’s far from true. A few months ago we had Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide shedding light on the Sunderbans, a region so little is known of. Surface is another important reminder, one that also fills an important gap: that of quality fiction set in the pockets of darkness in northeast India.
Update: and here's the published review. Lots of overlapping, naturally.
And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.
- Marlow, speaking on the banks of the river Thames, in the opening pages of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902)
The ghost of a 100-year-old novella shifts beneath the surface of Siddhartha Deb's new book, which is why it's remarkable that Surface is itself such a fresh read. For his story, which takes us into the farthest reaches of northeast India -- a region most of the rest of the country knows so little about -- Deb draws from the template of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, an allegory of civilisation overcome by the cold barbarity present in nature. But Deb's style is so direct and eloquent that his story is never less than gripping on its own terms.
As the novel opens, the narrator Amrit Singh, a discontented journalist, is being sent to "the region" on a minor assignment. Amrit works for The Sentinel, a Calcutta newspaper with an editor named Sarkar (all of which will be of interest if you're looking for real-life parallels). But he's jaded and trying for a last shot at escaping the squalor around him. An accidentally discovered photograph, which points to the possible killing of a porn actress by insurgents "to impress upon the people the importance of desisting from corrupt activities encouraged by Indian imperialism", begins to seem like Amrit's ticket to a better life; he makes it his agenda to find out the story behind the image and sell it to a foreign magazine.
As Amrit's journey takes him deeper into unknown terrain, he hears tales of corruption and hopelessness, sees signs of decay (a glass atrium left unfinished, cracked and broken highways). But soon a sliver of light seems to appear: Amrit becomes intrigued by talk of an "alternative community" known as the Prosperity Project, located somewhere in the heart of this forbidding place, and run by a visionary named Malik, described as "a creator of order in the wilderness" and "a messenger of hope for an area plunged in darkness". Soon everything in the novel starts to converge towards this mythic figure, and Amrit's journey increasingly starts to resemble the journey of Conrad's protagonist Marlow, travelling through the African jungle in search of the enigmatic ivory trader Kurtz.
In Conrad's novel, Marlow's journey ends with the apocalyptic revelation of how a once-great man was corrupted by forces beyond his comprehension; of civilisation destroyed by the cruelty inherent in nature. In Surface, the journey is a little more important than the destination; the ending is more unresolved, we never learn too much about Malik and the forces that make him tick, only enough to see that surface appearances are deceptive. But the similarities between Conrad's Kurtz and Deb's Malik are striking nonetheless: from the words used by admirers to describe the two men -- "remarkable", "extraordinary", "genius" -- to the presence of a woman who never loses faith in the fallen figure despite all evidence to the contrary. And, in what is a telling nod to the earlier book, Deb even uses a line that directly references one of literature's most famous four-worders: "Mistah Kurtz. He dead".
The connections are enough to suggest that like Conrad, Deb is indicating the foolishness of expecting the rules of civilisation to apply to a place that is frozen in time. In fact, despite the ostensible realism of his narrative, Deb leaves little hints to suggest that his protagonist has entered an almost unreal place. At one point, Amrit is mistaken for a soldier named Rajinder, and a little later he finds himself sitting with a group of people discussing the same soldier's tragic story. At another point Amrit has Malik's visiting wife as a travelling companion, and no explicit comment is made on this coincidence. Malik's status as a larger-than-life figure is repeatedly emphasised, as in his wife's unsettling description of how they first met.
Many passages have a strongly cinematic feel to them, notably an intense account by a man Amrit meets early on of a dream he had. Even a brief early scene set in a cemetery where a murdered lieutenant is being cremated has an element of theatre about it; at various times during the narrative it feels like a hidden stage will collapse and everything will be revealed as a nightmare.
Surface is set sometime in the early 1990s -- an important detail, since a world without the Internet, or even computers, adds to the sense of the protagonist being cut off from the civilised world. Or perhaps it wouldn't have mattered, for the region most of the story is set in seems unyielding anyway -- impervious to the changes wrought by technology. In his short career as a novelist, Deb has shown interest in places without definite markings or borders (his first book, The Point of Return, had as its epigraph the Herman Melville quote "It is not set down in any map; true places never are"). Within India, he couldn't have chosen a much better region to set his story in. Like Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide, published a few months ago, Deb's book is a reminder that dark places do still exist, even in a world that seems so shrunk by technology that it's easy to imagine there are no hidden corners left.
Surface sometimes reads like reportage, like travel writing shedding bits of light on an untraversed region. But it is, first and foremost, an engrossing novel that fills an important gap: that of quality fiction set in the pockets of darkness in northeast India.