The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana|
by Umberto Eco/Translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock
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|An Unsentimental Education
by Eric Miller
In her historical romance, The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag pondered the common prejudice that attempts to distinguish the north archetypically from the south: "Every culture has its southerners. . . lazy, ignorant, superstitious, uninhibited people, never on time, conspicuously poorer (how could it be otherwise, say the northerners) ... We are superior to them, say the northerners, clearly superior. We do not shirk our duties or tell lies as a matter of course, we work hard, we are punctual, we keep reliable accounts ... Every country, including southern countries, has its south: below the equator, it lies north."
Neil Bissoondath sets his latest novel, The Unyielding Clamour of the Night, on an island nation with some kinship to Sri Lanka, among other places. This country, in keeping with Sontag's observations, possesses a polarized north and south. The army of the north, virtually an army of occupation, wages war with a southern resistance: "The south had long been captured, it still had not been conquered." The resistance favours terrorism of a familiar kind-bombs, for the most part, and extortion. The military uses attack helicopters, patrol boats and the cunning creation of an aura of complicity to implicate most of the citizenry, who can hardly help profiting from supplying the army's logistical needs. The inhabitants of the south are caught physically and ethically between the forces of the north and the southern fighters (nicknamed "the Boys"), who camp in the jungle and make raids from it. Northerners deride the ethnic populace of the south as "two-percenters", because of the small proportion of them who may-such is the munificence of the government-gain access to a good education and better prospects. Bissoondath's privileged northern protagonist Arun Bannerji decides to go south to teach the children of Omeara, a town so afflicted by war that a number of his pupils are amputees.
The few children who attend Arun Bannerji's class do so largely because, having been injured in the course of hostilities that are at once formal and informal, calculated and random, they can be spared from labour in the fields. Given its preoccupations-dismemberment is a key theme-The Unyielding Clamour of the Night is self-evidently painful to read. One grace of Bissoondath's writing, however (and this makes it a rare experience), is that the violence, though frequent and graphic, does not feel gratuitous. It pains the nerves of the reader with its plausibility; it does not titillate; and it brings home more than ordinarily the possibility of such violence happening anywhere. Despite the sanguinary events prominent in his story-a bus explodes; a schooner sinks; a man called only the Collector is hanged and his corpse left dangling for a warning-Bissoondath escapes from involving the reader in unwholesome voyeurism. How does he do it? This was a question I posed to myself.
One peculiar answer is the unevenness of Bissoondath's prose. Passages of a fine vividness are succeeded by what feel to be considerably more lacklustre patches. Often enough, this pattern imitates with strange veridicality the effects of sensational happenings on the human psyche. After great pain or felicity comes shock or lassitude; shock and lassitude rely on clichT, just as a groping hand relies on a balustrade. Almost everything that can be said about war and terrorism is, by this time, commonplace, even though the experience of war and terrorism itself remains traumatic and in essence incommunicable. When, for example, Bissoondath describes a ride in a jeep through the jungle to the site of Omeara's garrison, the reader is at once a member of the imperilled party, and party to circumstances recognizable from many preceding fictions:
"Up ahead, there was only darkness, a darkness that was deeper to either side and lighter up above. The growl of the engine filled his head. It seemed to him that he could hear every one of its internal sounds, the meshing of every cog, the spinning of every shaft, the gasp of every piston. Beyond that labour, the rugged bite of tires into the hardened earth. Wind swirled around the jeep, and soon the smell of jungle-a burgeoning of moist earth and mildewed wood, decaying leaves and the musty ripeness of damp fur-washed away the smell of sweat."
Bissoondath must negotiate the dangerous proximity of every scene he sets, and every character he conceives, to genres of literature both trivial and elevated.
The Unyielding Clamour of the Night protectively builds into itself references to "low" works such as bodice-rippers and to "high" works such as Heart of Darkness. The illiterate vegetarian butcher, Mr. Jaisaram, whose family has been intimately damaged by the war, nevertheless derives much pleasure from hearing read aloud a kitschy novel set in the Scottish highlands: "Sir Richard's heart pounded in his chest as he tiptoed down the cold stone corridor of the chateau. Suddenly somebody jumped him from behind! ... A forearm locked around his neck." The hyperbolic, violent content of such fantastical writing echoes what actually happens around Mr. Jaisaram, yet he experiences the subject matter as escapist. Here Bissoondath explores a profound aesthetic paradox.
His own novel's dominant imagery-shadows and night figure prominently throughout the book-dips and swerves from subtle to blatant. There is no ignoring the figurative register of The Unyielding Clamour of the Night: "Then she turned and stalked from the living room, shadows seeming to flow in her wake. When she returned a moment later, she was holding a book and it seemed to Arun that the shadows that had left with her had not come back"; "Even the sunshine showering them appeared all at once to be underlain by shadow"; or this fairly typical exchange between the slim, rebellious and intelligent Anjani and the nanve Arun:
"He stepped over to the open window, stared out into the darkness for a moment, then slammed the shutters into place. 'You have a lot to learn, Arun.'
'Like how not to let the darkness in."
Bissoondath calls into question the rhetoric by which generations of authors have represented the tropics. For example, Arun meditates on the discrepancy between the literary convention of "the pathetic fallacy", whereby the cosmos is made to reflect human moods empathetically, and the facts of meteorology:
"The blue sky and the dazzling sunshine made him feel foolish. Often in books the weather mirrored the lives of the characters, anguish prompting rain clouds, anger prompting storms. Somehow he had come to expect this of real life, had come to expect the atmosphere to shape itself to the events of human destiny. Yet hadn't his parents' plane exploded on a morning of great beauty, a morning made for plunging heedlessly into the sea?"
But the real heartbreak of The Unyielding Clamour of the Night lies in its representation of teaching. Not only are Arun's Omeara pupils (Saman, Shanti, Jai, Rai and the rest) characterized singly and with force; even the old-fashioned instruments of pedagogy-a bell, a cane, a slate-are personified powerfully. Arun feels inadequate in comparison to the authority of the bell:
"The hand bell was an object of great beauty. It was heavy, solid, weighty with authority. More than the schoolhouse itself, its machined oak handle, brass skirt and the lead clapper within made concrete his assumption of a responsibility that, for the first time, he felt to be beyond him. He hefted the bell, felt it tug at his arm ... The first clang of the bell was clean and sharp and, in the morning stillness, as atrocious as a scream. He fought the urge to wrap his hands around the skirt, to stifle the sound before it ate more stringently into the calm that was left to him ... After four clangs, the one blending into the other, the sound lost its edge of atrocity, became merely outrageous in the silence ... A gentle vibration rose from the wooden handle into his palm, up his forearm ... He relaxed, letting his elbow bend a little, putting a discreet enthusiasm into the action."
Typical of Bissoondath's novel is that odd noun "atrocity", applied to the sound of the bell. Real atrocities-killings and torture-occur all around the teacher Arun Bannerji, yet they do not-they implicitly should not-deprive small events of their humour and idiosyncrasy, their rhetorical right to playful flights of exaggeration. War in effect belittles domesticity and quotidian things, depriving them of their redemptive mixture of levity and gravity. Besides, Arun's charges, the children of Omeara, are direct or indirect victims of authentic violence, so that the "atrocity" of the bell's noise harmonically concurs with real circumstances. Moreover, the propagandist education that the northern government wants to impose on southern students, the "two-percenters", amounts to a spiritual atrocity. With such unpredictable shifting between the literary and metaphorical, Bissoondath's Unyielding Clamour of the Night bravely tackles issues that evoke great pain.
Eric Miller's second book of poetry, In the Scaffolding, appeared in April 2005. A collection of prose, The Reservoir, is forthcoming. He teaches at the University of Victoria.