If there’s one thing that fiction attempts to remind us, it’s that life, in all its treachery and difficulty, is still worth living. This is the Oprah Book Club feel-good mentality, the message flogged tirelessly in so many of the books that fuel Western civilization’s relentless optimism.
Neil Bissoondath’s The Unyielding Clamour of the Night is not one of these books.
However, if you’re interested in a slow-roasted narrative, one that exposes the brutality of daily living in a country fraught with civil strife and marked by an oppressive government presence, then Bissoondath’s latest work could be your bedside read. Throw in a prosthetic leg, a few lynched dogs and a butcher who loves Harlequin romances, and you’ve entered the bleak, deftly navigated world of Neil Bissoondath.
Arun, the novel’s central character, is a member of an affluent and educated family of the civilized north. He rejects his inheritance and moves south to fill a vacant teaching post in the town of Omeara. At a farewell dinner, Arun senses, over the clink of crystal glassware, that his disapproving family is toasting him to doom, “as if he were going into exile in some unstable foreign land.” Omeara acts as the backdrop of a clash between ever-present military forces and guerilla rebels dubbed “the Boys”—though the rebellion’s cause is only sketchily alluded to. Instead, Bissoondath focusses on the personal narratives of the townspeople Arun encounters and Arun’s emerging political consciousness.
The sensitive, democratic Arun, a man of unwavering idealism who loves literature, makes an unlikely hero. This may be the point Bissoondath is making: radical political acts are not born out of a bloody glory but out of an undeniable necessity for change. The sensationalized CNN construction of suicide bombers tends to evoke Jerry Bruckheimer flashiness. Bissoondath instead offers a localized example of the kind of revolution that can affect one individual.
The novel could not be timelier. Arun’s story is woven against a backdrop of civil insurgence in a country that hints at war-torn Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Burma. Purposefully elusive, the nameless country is meant to embody any small developing nation prey to a massive chasm between the state and its people. Admittedly, the storyline is essentially given away at the beginning of the novel. When Arun meets Ajani, the town butcher’s daughter, we know they will become lovers. When he gets to the schoolhouse and finds out that the children he is meant to teach have been victims of brutal war crimes, we understand the sinister implications of the invasive military presence.
In short, Bissoondath lays down his hand early. The events unfold in the predictable and tragic manner we expect. This would normally be infuriating, if the manoeuvre was not so striking in its bleak inevitability. In admirably restrained fashion, Bissoondath blurs the lines between violence and necessity and, in a bold step, manages to humanize a suicide bomber. Yet any knee-jerk moralism, the kind typically found in cautionary tales, is refreshingly absent from this book. Thanks to the nearly excruciatingly sluggish pace of the novel, we are evidently meant to ponder the ethics of this choice ourselves.
The Unyielding Clamour of the Night is classified as “Mystery & Thriller” on Amazon.com. This normally connotes, to me at least, a trashy, fast-paced, purely plot-driven paperback, the kind that might be found next to People magazine at the drugstore checkout. Though this could just be an online marketing ploy, such a suspicious pairing only reveals an all-too-predictable reaction to its content. The “mystery” might have to do with contemplating why a member of the bourgeoisie would strike out as a suicide bomber.
While the idea for the novel did come to Bissoondath before the attacks of September 11, this method of questioning is not new to him. Born in Trinidad, Bissoondath immigrated to Canada in 1973 to attend York University. All of his books before this one address in some way the themes of dislocation and immigration. His controversial collection of essays Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, in particular, is a scathing critique of identity politics in Canada from the perspective of an immigrant. Bissoondath is obviously comfortable addressing taboo subjects.
The Unyielding Clamour of the Night does not victimize or glorify suicide bombers. The book remains unapologetically open-ended—a saving grace in this (ahem) post-9/11 world. Bissoondath has succeeded in crafting a sedated fervour in his book that is perfectly suited to such a contentious topic. Besides, as one of his characters says so succinctly, there is “no crap about express trains to paradise and herds of dancing virgins as a reward.” This is a calculated and diligently executed tale.
Michelle Sterling is a Montreal-based writer. She is preparing for the winter by eating frosted cupcakes, purchasing ridiculous fur hats from church bazaars and reading Wuthering Heights.