Picked this book up at random from a store at Delhi Book Fair. I had no idea about the author or about this book, bought it totally on a hunch and a mention that it was shortlisted for Booker Prize 1997. Of course, the title The Underground Man and it’s cover looked interesting enough to me to give this book a shot.
The story revolves around an old duke who lives alone with his staff, has no family because he never married. The story starts when the duke has a few unexplained episodes of fainting coupled with weird dreams and pain in certain parts of his body that keeps moving. After being disappointed with his doctor, he sets upon diagnosing it himself. This leads him to perform a dangerous procedure on himself without any anesthesia. He survives the procedure and among all this he unearths a fact from his childhood that he had completely forgotten which apparently was the reason behind his uneasiness.
The duke has a fascination towards cartography and loves collecting all sorts of exquisite maps. He gets a map of his estate made by a Mr. Bird who also was the person to come up with a plan for his project of network of underground tunnels. The tunnels were constructed with entrances in different parts of the estate leading to the Duke’s house. Due to the Duke’s appearance – how deformed and dreadful he looked to others, he wasn’t really; added to his eccentric behavior and the mysterious tunnels project, rumors of him being monster were doing rounds. This very rumor and the Duke’s peculiar behavior later results in a tragic end.
In retrospect, I realize that the story was more or less, sad and tragic but the author’s wittiness and an amazing sense of humor kept me enthralled. The thought process and observation power of the Duke was quite intriguing, sometimes complex but impressive and somehow worth pondering. Everything had a meaning, nothing was absolutely nonsensical. In fact, the author’s strange dark humor cracked me up quite a lot of times! He somehow made the not so appealing or mundane parts of the story quite entertaining!
This fictional story is inspired by the real life of the 5th Duke of Portland and a lot of events and characters are borrowed from his story including his love for cartography and web of underground tunnels found on his estate. Author’s extensive research on the Duke’s life and his estate which included a guided tour of the same, in an attempt to get some more arcane details certainly laid the foundation for a strong plot.
I really enjoyed reading this book! It had depth, humor, tragedy, suspense, thrill and strange imaginations. An unorthodox novel with strong narration that makes you visualize every event. The storytelling talent of the author is remarkable and being his very first novel, which went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997, it’s absolutely stupendous! I would highly recommend everyone to read this book.