Neil Bissoondath Criticism

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Douglas Glover (review date May 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 home to share the wealth." Instead, he finds that the shantytown workers don't want regular employment, that the new politics have endowed a class of insufferable nouveau bureaucrats, that old friends have died or lapsed into despair, that even the humid, rainy climate gives the lie to his memories of an idyllic island paradise.

"Might it not," thinks Joseph, referring to the story's central image, a dilapidated mansion symbolic of Trinidad itself, "have been always a big, open, empty house, with rooms destined to no purpose, with a façade that promised mystery but an interior that took away all hope." Finally, he decides to return to Canada, fearing that, in his absence, his memories of Toronto's civility may have turned into lies as well.

Joseph Heaven is the quintessential Bissoondath protagonist, with a foot in two continents, two worlds, each shifting subtly away from him as time passes, as memory becomes hallucination. In lesser souls, this alienation can cause bitterness, a theme that Bissoondath explores in several stories: "The Revolutionary" with its shambling, scarecrow ideologue; "A Short Visit to a Failed Artist," a savage caricature of a woman-hating ("Women are shit") self-styled artist (who photocopies his face) living in a crowded, subsidized Toronto apartment; and "Dancing," which ends in an explosion of anti-white, anti-Canadian racism.

Fearlessly, Bissoondath moves off his own turf, trying his themes on other nationalities—Japanese, Russian, Anglo-Canadian—but with less success than in his Trinidad stories. In "Continental Drift" a young Canadian hitch-hiking in Europe meets two Spanish migrant laborers in a hostel and feels "life suddenly electrified." Although the author's craftsmanship is evident, it seems wasted here on a trivial cliché about "real" experience and the noble working man. (This tepid effort is balanced by a couple of striking Central American atrocity stories "In The Kingdom Of The Golden Dust" and "Counting The Wind" which, though thematically unrelated, are among the best in the book.)

Sometimes, too, a certain stridency or one-sidedness invades Bissoondath's prevailing tone of bewildered fatalism. This is especially evident when he lapses into the old authorial lie of the uninvolved narrator. In "Christmas Lunch" the "I"...

(The entire section is 22,472 words.)