BOOKS

Snagged by the past

An author explores the plight of the exile

JOE CHIDLEY October 29 1990
BOOKS

Snagged by the past

An author explores the plight of the exile

JOE CHIDLEY October 29 1990

Snagged by the past

BOOKS

An author explores the plight of the exile

ON THE EVE OF UNCERTAIN TOMORROWS

By Neil Bissoondath

(Lester & Orpen Dennys, 271 pages, $24.95)

Neil Bissoondath’s first two books, the short-story collection Digging Up the Mountains (1985) and the novel A Casual Brutality (1988), heralded the arrival of a new and prodigious talent on the Canadian literary scene. The achievement of those works lay partly in the ability of their author, who emigrated from Trinidad in 1973, to write in richly psychological terms about such politically charged issues as the experiences of newcomers to Canada and the cycle of violence and repression in post-colonial Caribbean countries. In his new shortstory collection, On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, Bissoondath again puts that ability to use, with uneven results. Creating characters, whose lives have been severed from the past, Bissoondath, 35, renders the human dimension of social change in a manner that is at times ele-

gant and profound—and, at times, a little dull.

On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows presents the plight of the exile as a paradigm for the complex relationship between past, present and future. In the title story, Joaquin, who was a victim of political violence in his unidentified native land, struggles with the difficulties of obtaining refugee status in Canada. In Montreal awaiting his immigration hearing, he is caught between the promise of a life in Canada and the horrible possibility of being returned to his homeland. Images of torture haunt him— “the slow tearing of nails from fingers, the cracking of bone.” But the city provides little relief: it represents “a life within his sight but not, still, yet, within his grasp.” Exploring Joaquin’s confrontation with a past that he longs to forget—but which, in a very physical sense, he must put on display for the bureaucrats who will decide his future—Bissoondath voices the plea of the refugee with simple and moving eloquence: “It is not too much to ask, I believe. A simple life.”

Other stories in the collection match the title work’s keen sensitivity to language and the psychological effects of the loss of home. In “Cracks and Keyholes,” voices from the homeland haunt Leonard, a Caribbean immigrant who works as a dishwasher in a Toronto striptease joint. The memory of his strict grandmother, he says, is “always there even if she long dead, like a monkey sittin’ on my back.” For him, the tyranny of the past, represented by his grandmother, is mirrored in the plight of Joan, a Canadian stripper who hopes to adopt a more traditional life but instead descends into prostitution. Her failure leads Leonard to a sense of helplessness in the face of a past that he, like Joan, cannot escape. In “Smoke,” Francis, a man struggling with sexual insecurity and self-doubt following his divorce tries to seduce a younger woman. The story humorously details the lengths to which one man goes in order to overcome his personal failures.

In those three stories, Bissoondath creates intimate and complex portraits of his characters as they take their mental journeys through the past. But that concern with personal detail becomes oppressive in other works in the collection, obscuring the plot—and Bissoondath’s point. In “The Power of Reason,” Monica, a cleaning woman, fights to maintain control over her three rebellious sons in the absence of economic security, and of her husband, who has returned to their native country. The premise is suggestive, but the plot loses its way in the clutter of stultifying trivia about Monica’s job. She dutifully cleans the toilet (“with a brush and an abrasive cleanser”), vacuums the carpet (“so distant from the sofa and the armchairs in their updated upholstery”) and eats her lunch (“She hooks the bread off the fork with her tongue, lets it sit there growing moist in the bubbling saliva”). By the time Bissoondath describes Monica’s household victory over her sons, the tale has lost its momentum.

As well, there is a disappointing sameness to some of the stories. Part of that can be attributed to Bissoondath’s reliance on flashbacks and the recurrent theme that the past wields a powerful grip over most people. All of his central characters move along the same path—from an unacceptable present, to an exploration of the past, to a significant step forward. In “The Arctic Landscape High Above the Equator,” a nationalistic female journalist in an unidentified Latin American country prompts Ranee, her lover and a U.S. bureaucrat, to question his ideological convictions. But he discovers the true roots of his uncertainty in memories of his overbearing father and more complex, passive mother. After the political murder of his lover’s father, Ranee, unable to resolve his political and emotional conflicts, simply disappears.

Flashbacks are also central to “Security,” about an Indian-Caribbean immigrant who is struggling with his loss of economic and social status in Canada, and “Goodnight, Mr. Slade,” about a Jewish man whose forced retirement causes him to confront the memory of his wife’s death at the hands of the Nazis.

Despite its shortcomings, On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows offers many provocative moments. Although he overworks a well-worn theme, Bissoondath breathes new life into it by concentrating on characters who occupy the margins of society. Giving such people a voice is an achievement in itself. Still, On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows would have been more satisfying had it recorded that seldom-heard voice with more force, more variety—and a good deal more clarity.

JOE CHIDLEY