Sipping coffee in a downtown restaurant, Torontonian Neil Bissoondath was describing his recent trip to England to promote his first novel, A Casual Brutality. In midsentence, the 33-year-old Trinidad-born author was interrupted by a woman who congratulated him on his new book. “Occasionally, someone makes a beeline for me on the street, and I have a moment of panic before I realize they just want to say something about the novel,” said Bissoondath, laughing. That high profile is almost unheard of for a debuting Canadian novelist. But A Casual Brutality, published on Sept. 17 by Macmillan of Canada, has stunned the publishing world, earning $350,000 in foreign and domestic advances.
Bissoondath accepts the public recognition—-and the inevitable references to his famous uncle, writer V. S. Naipaul—with evident good humor. His first book, the 1985 short-story collection Digging Up the Mountains, earned admiring reviews at home and abroad. But it is Brutality—a powerful story of a West Indian doctor caught up in political turmoil in a fictional Caribbean island—that has placed
Bissoondath on the literary map.
The novel chronicles the return of Raj Ramsingh, a Toronto physician, to his native Casaquemada with his Canadian wife and son. It is an uneasy homecoming. The island—its independence from Britain only a generation old— is reeling from a wrecked economy and the effects of widespread corruption, racial tensions and violence. “A lot of former British colonies are worse off since independence,” said Bissoondath. “But that’s not a judgment on independence. You have to look at the lack of
political leadership and intellectual direction, at people who have plundered their own country.” espite its overt pohticoncerns, the novel transcends the conventional political thriller.
depicting Raj’s rejection of his Hindu ancestry and his resentment of the claims of his nation, the book examines the role of the individual I in society.
I Unlike Raj, BissoonI dath stayed in Canada afJ ter immigrating 15 years ago to study French at York University. The author says that he has no desire to return to his native country. “In Trinidad, you’re not just marginal if you’re a writer, you're considered crazy,” he added. “I love Toronto’s openness, and its size has given me the anonymity I needed to write.” It seems clear that Bissoondath, now on a Canadian promotional tour, had better cherish what is left of his anonymity while he can.
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