Neil Bissoondath Essay Contest

SOURCE: "Continental Drifters," in Books in Canada, Vol. 14, No. 4, May, 1985, p. 14.

[In the review below, Glover praises Digging Up the Mountains and comments on several of the stories.]

In his first story collection, Digging Up the Mountains, Neil Bissoondath reveals an impressive gift for writing prose that is precise and vivid, full of striking turns of phrase and exciting, many-fingered images.

Take, for example, the opening of his story "An Arrangement Of Shadows":

The clock struck once and it was eight o'clock.

Two pigeons, symmetrical slices of black on the blue sky, swooped and touched down abruptly on the red roof of the clock tower. The hands of the clock—broadswords of a brass long tarnished—were locked as always at four seventeen.

"All fine prose," in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, "is based on the verbs carrying the sentences." These lines of Bissoondath's are so alive that you race through them, scarcely noticing their technical virtuosity, yet they have colored the whole story—the striking, slicing, swooping, tarnishing, and locking is going on before your eyes.

Born in Trinidad in 1955, Bissoondath came to Canada 12 years ago as a university student. While his style bespeaks a sound British colonial school education, his stories reflect what one assumes is a personal sense of uprootedness and betrayal at the economic decline and social and ideological turmoil of post-independence Trinidad.

In "There Are a Lot of Ways to Die" Joseph Heaven, a successful immigrant with a rug installation business in Toronto, returns' to Port of Spain expecting "a kind of fame, a continual welcome, the prodigal son having made good, having acquired skills, returning...

DIGGING UP THE MOUNTAINS By Neil Bissoondath. 247 pp. New York: Viking. $15.95.

THE superb short stories in Neil Bissoondath's first collection are alive with movement and flight, leaving and returning, insecurity and impermanence. Peopled by exiles and immigrants, deracines and runaways - perhaps the true representatives of the mobile 20th century - these are tales of two worlds, usually the Caribbean and Canada - and of those who are stretched between the two.

Like his uncles, V. S. Naipaul and the late Shiva Naipaul, he has much to tell us about areas that have not been written about before. His stories recall theirs in subject matter, though he promises to have more range than V. S. Naipaul, and he can write plausible women characters.

The title story, ''Digging Up the Mountains,'' is set on a recently independent Caribbean island during a state of emergency. Hari Beharry is a successful businessman who wants nothing more than to tend his garden and die in his own house. But the island's former simplicity ''had been replaced by the cynical politics of corruption that plagued all the urchin nations scrambling in the larger world.'' Friends are inexplicably taken away; others are shot; there are anonymous phone calls and letters. Finally there is more violence, followed by flight.

In another story, ''Insecurity,'' Alistair Ramgoolam, a similar self-made businessman, the sort who had attended the farewell ball for the last British Governor, is trying to escape by buying a house in Toronto through his son. On this island there are policemen with guns and ''students parading Marx and Castro.'' The walls of his store have been daubed with slogans: ''Socialism'' and ''Black Communism.'' ''His life at the fringe of events, he felt, had given him a certain authority over and comprehension of the past. But the present, with its confusion and corruption, eluded him. The sense of drift nurtured unease.'' Here the pattern is like that of the title story: decent people who have worked hard are threatened by the smoldering volcano of colonial resentment and disorder. Once more the wrong people will be in charge: independence will have failed and one tyranny, usually the British variety, will be replaced by the Caribbean kind of autocracy.

What is missing in both stories is also the same: an attempt to explain and understand the revolutionaries and what their grievances and politics are, and to say how their bitter resentments came to be forged.

The shorter piece called ''The Revolutionary'' does present us with Eugene Williamson, a militant student from Trinidad attending a university someplace else. Williamson has a baby son called Tarot, admires Che and Fidel and speaks of ''the glorious, liberating path'' of what he calls ''socialist-proleterien'' revolution. But Mr. Bissoondath's contempt for his character is too obvious and the caricature too grotesque for the story to succeed. This is partly because the shorter pieces in the book often drift; they are even more pointless than the lives of his characters. Mr. Bissoondath is a better writer when he is more expansive, when he can combine his marvelous gift for mood and detail with his ability to create character and drama.

These gifts coincide in the long story ''An Arrangement of Shadows.'' Miss Victoria Jackson, a white teacher, leaves factory-gray England for the Caribbean only to find herself, years later, marooned on a stifling island where she cannot stay and which she cannot leave. Hemmed in by nationalist resentment, a rejected lover and provincial sexual hypocrisy, she suddenly finds herself an objective enemy of the island: an unwilling representative of everything she hates. She hears a dead colleague's voice say: ''Our time is long gone. We are of a different age. We are not, none of us, wanted here. We are not required. We don't belong.'' Scrupulously selecting details of light, landscape and personality, Mr. Bissoondath builds his story relentlessly to a shattering climax.

In ''Dancing'' he once more tells us what it is like to be a harried stranger. An uneducated Caribbean woman, ''just a ordinary fifty-dollar-a-month maid'' in Trinidad, suffering from uppitiness, joins her relatives in Canada. We get a terrifying, dizzy sense of what our own surroundings - automatic doors, high-rise apartment blocks, subways - are like to the uninitiated.

Mr. Bissoondath left Trinidad to study French at York University in Toronto and has taught both English and French. His scrupulousness and control mean much can be said quickly. Thus each of the longer stories seems full but not crowded, giving the sense of an embryo novel. And the novel will, I think, suit his talent.

In much recent North American writing the tone is insular, self-regarding, even self-obsessed. It is a relief then to run up against Neil Bissoondath's broad outlook and seriousness. He has startling news from a changing world to tell us. At ease writing about France and Japan, as well as about the Caribbean and Canada, he has the fresh catholicity that is a welcome feature of third-world writing today.

It is also his ability to build the pressures of political context into the attempt of ordinary people to live reasonable lives that gives his work its power, its complexity and its contemporary relevance. ANOTHER WRITER IN THE FAMILY At the age of 10, Neil Bissoondath made a startling discovery - his uncle V. S. Naipaul was a writer. ''I started reading when I was very young, but it hadn't occurred to me before then that all those people I enjoyed reading were professional writers,'' he said. ''I saw V. S. as a kind of role model. I started writing stories and I realized that what I was doing could be a profession.''

Those first stories, written as he grew up in Trinidad, were ''usually pretty bad.'' But he didn't feel intimidat ed by being a member of a literary family that also included V. S. Naipaul's brother, Shiva, who died last year. ''I don't carry the name Naipaul and that's a blessing,'' he said in a telephone interview from his home in Toronto. ''And I don't view writing as a competition. Shiva's writing was very different from V. S.'s and mine is different from theirs.'' The short stories in ''Digging Up the Mountains,'' his first book, present a dark picture of life in the third world. Yet his own childhood in the West Indies was happy. ''There wasn't a sense of threat,'' he said, ''just a feeling that there was more to the world.''

His tales also tell of demons, real or imagined, facing strangers in strange lands. But he adapted easily when he moved to Toronto 13 years ago at the age of 18 to attend York University. ''As soon as I arrived I felt at home,'' he said, adding that V. S. Naipaul had warned him, ''England was a place without a future'' and the United States ''was too big and would swallow me up.''

He is working now on a novel. ''It's nice to have so much space to explore. With a short story I'm always reining myself in.'' - Stewart Kellerman

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