A Casual Brutality
The first chapter of this overwritten first novel is intense, as Raj--in Casaquemada’s airport--suffers unexplained anxiety while he awaits a plane to Canada. Once in the plane and flying, he begins writing in his notebook about what forced him to abandon Casaquemada. What he writes are the remaining seventeen chapters. This narrative’s bulk therefore consists of flashbacks to Raj’s “shattered dreams.”
Unfortunately, this autobiographical novel is overburdened with irrelevant mini-biographies of people who lead miserable lives in Trinidad or Canada (Bissoondath emigrated from the former to the latter ion 1973). The novel’s tension derives from the moral corruption of simple Caribbean people as they scramble for money a la “Americans,” the corruption equated with McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and “Dallas.” Bissoondath vilifies cliches and stereotypes, and then populates Casaquemada with philistines who are immorally affected by them.
Wordy, Raj often mangles prose: “I remained where I was, seated in the chair, wondering at my stupidity, but briefly, dismissing the questions to which, helpless, I had no answers and no file-folders full of technicalities behind which to hide.” Uninteresting, self-righteous and passive, Raj is this novel’s biggest problem. Things happen to and around him, but he does little--even his marriage happens TO him. He is supposedly a physician, but Bissoondath nowhere makes him believable as such. Raj gives his patients “pills.” Instead of convincing details germane to the profession, Bissoondath offers skirting rhetoric; for example, contemplating a cancer-patient’s file, Raj says, “I could not open the folder. It was all there, the entire report that was a signpost to a dead end. I had been through the typed pages too many times.” One time through this novel with a scalpel might have improved it.