- Paperback: 200 pages
- Publisher: Picador (7 April 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780330489249
- ISBN-13: 978-0330489249
- ASIN: 0330489240
- Product Dimensions: 13 x 1.5 x 19.7 cm
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,63,136 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Surface Paperback – 7 Apr 2006
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About the Author
Siddhartha Deb was born in India in 1970 and moved to New York in 1998 on a fellowship. He has worked as a journalist in Delhi and Calcutta, and writes for the Guardian, New Statesman and TLS.
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What furthermore grants the reader a sense of perspective is the interweave of suppressed and ignored historical and social continuities alongwith the ethno racial diversity and conflicts, which have enabled a perpetuation of befuddling and bloody internecine animosities, to the point that any definitive resolution has been reduced to a hope crashing chimera.
I do not want to reveal any of the plot here because I hope against hope that people actually read Surface and try figuring out the grit and grime on their own. But then it is actually unsurprising that so few people have heard of this book, leave aside reading it. Which only befittingly reinforces the irony Deb has posited and subtly accused the rest of!
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
While the prose is wonderful the novel itself is a disappointment. The story meanders from one scene to the next as Amrit uncovers the mystery of the young woman and the conclusion is unsatisfying as the reader wonders why either Amrit or the reader made this journey to begin with.
In a filing room of the Sentinel he had found a photograph of a young woman between two armed and masked men, with a note on the back from MORLS, an insurgent group in the region, that she was a porn actress and had been shot as a punishment. Herman and he thought that, if he could find out the back story of that photograph (which we are told, on no evidence, was taken at Imphal, the capital of Manipur, the state south of Nagaland) and write it up for the German, it would make Amrit's name and would enable him to change employer.
It does not sound a very credible plan, but it is with this idea that Amrit sets out for the region and once there, in defiance of his employer on the Sentinel, he sets out on the long trek to Imphal. Deb is good at visual descriptions of the run-down nature of the area - ramshackle buildings, ramshackle buses, terrible roads, acres of flooded land, that sort of thing - the more remarkable since he tells us in his Acknowledgments that he has never been to the area himself:
"anyone wishing to replicate Amrit's journey would be hopelessly lost." Maybe so. But it would have been useful to include a map. Amrit's plane from Calcutta lands in "the main [unnamed] city of the region". By process of elimination that must be Dimapur, from where Amrit makes his way through Kohima to Imphal and then to Moreh in Manipur.
Amrit has several encounters and hears several stories along the journey. He keeps being told about an environmental project near the Burmese frontier run by a charismatic character called Malik who is said to be respected both by the Indian government and by MORLS. He falls into conversation with many people on the way who tell him stories, some of which seem to have nothing to do with the plot; the book then resembles a travelogue. In fact, apart from one brief mention on page 96 of a contact who suggested that the photograph may not be what it purports to be, there is no further clue until 50 pages later, just over half-way through the book, while he is in Kohima, when the story gathers pace: the young woman is identified, we learn what work she did and why this would have upset MORLS. But MORLS' work was not yet done; and when he finally reaches Imphal, its latest deed quite overshadowed any interest most of the locals might have had in helping Amrit to learn more about the woman in the photograph - and what he does learn about her from a relative doesn't help to solve the mystery of what happened to her, though he now thinks he knows enough about her to make him end his research and write his article. And then it turns out not to be the end of the story ... and then we don't really know what the end of the story is.
The blurb cites phrases of praise from serious and respectable journals: "remarkable journey of self-discovery", "taut with dramatic tension and teeming with vivid characters". I must say I can't agree with any of that. Pages on end seem to me just padding, while the main story is on hold. For example, together with the photograph, Amrit had removed from the filing room a printed volume of a 1946 diary written by the last British editor of the Sentinel. A part of this journal is reproduced at length; it deals with conversations the diarist had had with a British soldier who was haunted by the experiences he had had in the war, both when Japanese had invaded North-East India and the British army had been retreating and then when it had recovered the same ground in the final victorious counter-offensive of the war. It is not clear what the connection is between that story and Amrit's quest. As for the main story, this becomes quite fuzzy at the end and leaves some loose ends. The role and motivation of several characters - the German journalist or a retired Sentinel correspondent called Robiul who gives advice to Amrit - is never clear. Though the style is straightforward enough, it is not an easy book to read, and it left me unsatisfied.