Beauty and Anguish

The Unyielding Clamour of the Night

By Linda Leith

A review of The Unyielding Clamour Of The Night by Neil Bissoondath

Published on October 1, 2005

The Unyielding Clamour Of The Night
Neil Bissoondath

Cormorant Books
$32.95
cloth
350pp
1-896951-87-2

What could persuade a young man to strap explosives to his body and blow himself up along with everyone around him? Neil Bissoondath is not alone is asking such a question, but he is alone in imagining the convincing answer that is his fifth novel, The Unyielding Clamour of the Night.

Arun Bannerji is the 21-year-old scion of a wealthy northern printing family, and the novel opens as he is picking up the key to the schoolhouse in Omeara, in the despised south of an unnamed country with a history similar to that of Sri Lanka or Burma.

Arun may be a child of privilege, but something has made him different. He wears a plastic prosthesis, having been born with a withered left leg. He has come under the influence of Mahadeo, an unconventional history teacher who is now a government minister, and he has drawn different conclusions than the ones his teacher intended. He was orphaned when his parents were killed in a plane crash three years earlier. And he has foregone the opportunities offered him and signed away his inheritance, preferring the life of a village schoolteacher in a godforsaken region where the army is fighting a bloody and undeclared war against insurgents known as the Boys.

“You’re a funny fellow, aren’t you,” comments Seth, the army captain Arun meets on the train south. Arun is reading Conrad, appropriately enough, and Seth is supposedly planning to work his way through Proust, a detail that stretches credulity and strikes one of the novel’s rare false notes. But Seth is a military man, first and foremost. “Down here, you better decide who your friends are,” he warns when Arun declines a ride home from the station in the army jeep.

The children, who have been without a teacher for months, start coming to school. The little girl with one leg. The girl who has been mute since her sister was gang-raped by men with guns. The boy with no right hand. His twin with no left hand. How could one-legged Arun not be on the side of such children? Shanti is the gifted one, the one who could go far, but she is blown up with all the other passengers in the local bus.

That is the Boys’ work, but it is the army that dumps dismembered bodies into an open grave in the village, and it is the army that strip-searches Arun’s friend Anjani in an attempt to identify the bomb maker. Arun’s own father and brother-in-law are implicated in government violence, too. They have been importing instruments of torture under cover of the printing business. Arun himself, once the saintliest of men, treats a dull child cruelly.

Arun and Anjani become lovers, but then she is tortured and dies. Arun himself is attacked and his plastic prosthesis hacked to pieces. Mrs. Jaisaram turns out to be the bomb maker.

Arun hatches his plan when Seth invites him to an army celebration. Mrs. Jaisaram uncovers her materials and assembles them in the knee of the antique wooden prosthesis that Arun is now using. All he has to do is kneel to detonate the bomb.

Fully-realised characters, a situation that is only too believable, and writing full of beauty and anguish. Neil Bisoondath has excelled himself. The Unyielding Clamour of the Night is a novel of humanity and wisdom by a novelist at the height of his powers. mRb

Linda Leith is a novelist whose most recent work, "Épouser la Hongrie", is a memoir which has been translated into French (Leméac, 2004) and Serbian (Rad, 2005).

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