“Do we always want to finish a story,” asks the narrator of An Outline of the Republic, Siddhartha Deb’s second novel, “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 at a point that, in a sense, seems short of its intended destination.
Amrit Singh, a frustrated journalist at a decaying Calcutta newspaper in the early 1990s, sets off for India’s northeast on a quest for a woman in a mysterious photograph. The seven states of India’s northeastern region are usually described in tourist brochures as “picturesque,” a euphemism that accurately suggests both charm and underdevelopment. 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 realize it at the time, but the narrator has just, in the novel’s opening pages, described the book we are reading.
Amrit has stumbled upon a photo of a woman captured by terrorists and condemned to be executed; he has been persuaded by an acquaintance to track her down and write her story for a German magazine as one emblematic of all the mystery and the heartbreak of India. The assignment appeals to Amrit, promising a way out of the journalistic stupor into which he has sunk. He travels to the region, ostensibly on behalf of his Calcutta paper, hoping the story will set him free from his drudgery and breathe new life into his career. 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 journey in search of Leela, the elusive woman in the picture, takes him across the region, but it is marked by indirection and ennui, and at the end of his travels 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, which is the central problem with Deb’s narrative.
An Outline of the Republic 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 try to launder that money, bank employees who flee for their lives from those soldiers. Amrit encounters an assistant manager of a tea garden carrying a briefcase full of rupee notes intended to pay off the insurgents terrorizing his company. He meets an ecologically minded government servant less interested in politics than in birds. (“The political turmoil is quite inconsequential,” the official says. “The birds, the animals, the flora, that is what lasts.”) He has a brief affair with the journalist wife of a separatist leader. Each of these episodes is little more than a vignette, hinting at possibilities left exasperatingly unexplored. Ultimately one stops looking for a point to these stories; the stories themselves, it becomes clear, are the point. Toward the end Amrit, in improbable circumstances, meets the writer-turned-counterfeiter, who strikes him as “a whirlpool into which the images and stories and characters I had collected could be abandoned, a final destination that promised nothing more than the complete silence of an anonymous repository.” A novel, of course, is hardly an anonymous repository, and its narrator’s aspiration to silence strikes this reader as both disingenuous and maddening.
This 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.” Not far from the end, Deb writes:
There is a school of Indian philosophy that says the condition of our existence verges on nonexistence, that we are more absent than present, creating a fragile material trace at one point in space that does nothing to alleviate our utter absence from all other spaces…. [Imphal] was a town dissolving bit by bit into a state of nothingness, crumbling into an ocean of absence, with each one of us in the town seceding in his or her own way from the blinding presence of the republic.
The republic’s presence in this novel, however, is anything but blinding. Amrit hears about Malik, Leela’s patron, a “creator of order in the wilderness,” a “messenger of hope for an area plunged in darkness,” an “emissary sent from the heart of the republic to its borders”–but Malik never appears except through what others say about him, and stories of his eventual disappearance are as unprovable as the rumors about his deeds and misdeeds. Even more than Leela, he is an elusive figure, made to carry great symbolic weight and yet completely insubstantial. As Amrit wallows in the perception that even solid objects are “mere props in a dream, powerless against the overwhelming absence–of light, of sound, of people, of purpose–that lurked everywhere,” the reader has a constant sense, with the evaporation of each potentially significant development in the story, of grasping at straws in the wind.
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. Greene, in fact, figures in the only comic episode in the book, an account of his arrest, on a 1961 visit to India, by security men who ask him to prove he is a writer by writing a story for them. Indian officialdom pronounces the result “a complete artistic failure,” informs Greene he cannot be who he says he is and sentences him to write out repeatedly, “I shall not claim to be writer anymore.” But this tale, told in a tone of mounting hilarity, is untypical of Deb’s narrative, which is otherwise unvarying in its methodical pace. And for all of Deb’s evident literary skill, his characters mostly sound alike, echoing the language, vocabulary and style of his narrator.
“Do you see the story?” asks Deb’s epigraph, taken from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “Do you see anything?” It is the question Siddhartha Deb leaves us with at the end of this elegant, haunting 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 enigmatic novel fades too soon after the covers have been closed. 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 go, at a point that “makes sense” to all of its readers.