On The Eve Of Uncertain Tomorrows

by Neil Bissoondath
293 pages,
ISBN: 0886193257

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A Safe Place
by Merna Summers

A FLOCK OF PIGEONS flutters down toward the balcony of a Toronto apartment. An aging man, whose family duty it is to shoo them away, lets them settle, even though he knows they will foul the balcony. Mr. Ramgoolam figured that everybody -- even birds -- needed a safe place to land. Surely their wings would tire, he thought. Surely even pigeons, with their innate sense of direction, occasionally needed a point of reference from which they could reassure themselves of their place in the world. This need for a place in the world, both physical and psychic, is a question that recurs in several of the 10 stories in Neil Bissoondath`s new collection. It is seen in its most basic aspect in the title story, which concerns the world of the political refugee. A torture victim awaiting his Canadian immigration hearing, the main character visits a restaurant frequented by illegal immigrants. He thinks of the restaurant: It is like a closet for the Soul, built for containing dusty memories of lives long past, for perpetuating the resentments of politics long past. Here, he thinks, there is no tomorrow; here, yesterday becomes forever. The difficulty of creating a tomorrow also troubles Mr. Ramgoolam, the main character of "Security." Once a respected businessman in the Caribbean, he has come to Toronto to live with sons who have become "Canadian to the point of strangeness," and a wife who changes when she takes a job in an Indian restaurant, "stirring pots not her own." Mr. Ramgoolam has been unable to find work. Most frightening of all, though, was the realization that he too had grown away, not just from his sons, not just from his wife, but from himself He no longer recognized him self, no longer knew who Alistair Ramgoolam was. Mr. Ramgoolam`s way of creating a space and an identity for himself is to become punctilious in the performance of Hindu religious rituals he has previously ignored, to listen to Hindi radio programs, "paying full attention to the programs, not understanding a word that was said or sung." "Security" is a masterly story, one of the richest in the collection. Another fine story, "Cracks and Keyholes," introduces the reader to an assortment of characters whose lives contain less happiness than humiliation. Again, the main character is a Caribbean immigrant, and the story, told in his voice, really sings. Lenny is a man who drifts from one minimum-wage job to another, and who at the moment is washing dishes in a strip joint on Yonge Street. The time is Christmas, and Lenny, looking at the tacky and worn street decorations, reflects that "it have few things more depressin` in this world than decorations that doesn`t decorate." This is a story about people trapped in their lives, about how some lives are very hard to get out of. Lenny thinks, "It ain`t really a dog-eat-dog world, as my granma use to say. Is more a cat-eat- mouse world." The title comes from a Caribbean Christmas story. In the tropics, where there are no chimneys, Santa is said to be able to get in and out by making himself very small, so that he can pass through the cracks and keyholes. "The Arctic Landscape High Above the Equator" is set in an unnamed Latin American country, where American policy is concentrated on undermining stabil ity. It is an attempt to investigate the conflict between the sacred impulses of the individual soul and the conditioned sense of duty. A diplomat, knowing that his lover`s father is about to be assassinat ed, does not warn her because "he is too well trained for that." Present and past repeatedly illuminate each other in Bissoondath`s stories, and the meaning often comes out of the tension between them. In "Goodnight, Mr. Slade," an old man, Mr. Goldman, is being evicted from the apartment building where he has been the caretaker, to be put into a nursing home. As the story moves along, we become aware that this is the second time that Mr. Goldman has been robbed of his world. A survivor of the Nazi death camps, he finally chooses suicide over entering the nursing home, refusing, as he sees it, "to allow my life to be turned once more into nonsense," It is unfortunate that tile two stories that seemed to me not to work very well -- the ambitious "Kira and Anya" and the rather slight and inept "Smoke" -- should have been placed immediately after the opening story. Putting them so near the beginning of the book may mislead readers into thinking that this Is the best Bissoondath can do, and that would be a pity. Fine stories lie ahead. The best that Bissoondath can do is very good indeed.

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