Man­dolin man

Louis de Bernieres’s new novel be­gan in the ex­otic tales of a chain- smok­ing Yu­goslav flat­mate, writes Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

LOUIS de Bernieres didn’t en­joy the 1970s. A folk- mu­sic- lov­ing wannabe hip­pie, he hated punk. He was dis­gusted by Bob Dylan’s con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity. Bri­tain’s long Win­ter of Dis­con­tent de­pressed him. He fret­ted about the Cold War, mark­ing time un­til the A- bomb dropped. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one thought we wouldn’t be here much longer,’’ he of­fers wryly on wait­ing for the apoc­a­lypse.

The mil­lion­aire au­thor of Cap­tain Corelli’s Man­dolin was back then liv­ing in a dingy shared house­hold in Arch­way, north Lon­don. Wide­spread strikes meant streets were heaped high with rub­bish; heat­ing oil, like bread and am­bu­lances, was hard to find. The son of an army of­fi­cer and a Wren, the Sur­rey- born de Bernieres was briefly an army cadet be­fore drop­ping out to live and work in Colom­bia; af­ter a stint study­ing phi­los­o­phy at Manch­ester Univer­sity, he’d de­camped to Lon­don to train as a teacher. ‘‘ It wasn’t the best time to be in Bri­tain,’’ he says.

In Arch­way he found com­fort in a gas fire and the sto­ries of a fe­male house­mate, a chainsmok­ing Serb who loved to rem­i­nisce about her coun­try, her fam­ily, her­self. A cap­tive au­di­ence of one, de Bernieres soaked up her tales of Tito and the anti- fas­cist re­sis­tance move­ment; her ex­par­ti­san fa­ther, dam­aged and made an­gry by war;

il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, seedy Lon­don host­ess clubs, men with no morals at all.

‘‘ Af­ter she left to do teacher train­ing I had her voice go­ing through my mind for months,’’ says de Bernieres, 54, sit­ting in the liv­ing room of his re­stored Ge­or­gian rec­tory in Diss, Nor­folk, com­fort­ably di­shev­elled in jeans, checked shirt and socks in need of darn­ing. ‘‘ In­stead of writ­ing my teacher train­ing es­says I wrote my first ver­sion of Roza’s story.’’ He pauses as his three­year- old son, Robin, wan­ders in wear­ing a Darth Vader mask, the first of sev­eral at­ten­tion- seek­ing tac­tics. ‘‘ I have strug­gled with it for years ever since,’’ he adds, be­fore gen­tly telling Robin to go and show his mother.

A Par­ti­san’s Daugh­ter is de Bernieres’s sev­enth novel. It should have been his sec­ond. But al­though his 1990 de­but, Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord , was part of the South Amer­i­can tril­ogy that led to him be­ing named one of Granta’s best young Bri­tish nov­el­ists in 1993, his agent had re­jected the man­u­script. De Bernieres rewrote it, and rewrote it again, spo­rad­i­cally, when the mood took him, be­tween writ­ing his 1994 best­seller Cap­tain Corelli’s Man­dolin ( a bit­ter­sweet story of love and war set on the Greek is­land of Cephalo­nia dur­ing World War II); his 2002 chil­dren’s novel Red Dog ( about a West Aus­tralian sheep­dog); and 2004’ s Birds With­out Wings ( an­other bit­ter­sweet story of love and war, set this time in a mixed faith Turk­ish vil­lage dur­ing and af­ter World War I).

Oh, and be­tween what some may call hob­bies but what are re­ally parts of a whole: Tin­ker­ing with his vin­tage cars. Tend­ing the veg­etable gar­den out­side the wooden sum­mer­house in which he writes. Pro­duc­ing plays with his ac­tordi­rec­tor part­ner, Cathy, mother of Robin and their yet- to- be- named two- week- old daugh­ter. Play­ing a range of mu­si­cal in­stru­ments: flute, oboe, clar­inet, pi­ano, classical gui­tar and of course, man­dolin. Per­form­ing with an Ox­ford­based ensem­ble. Res­cu­ing and re­pair­ing bro­ken in­stru­ments; a junk shop gui­tar sits patched and re­strung in a cor­ner. In the room next door, Robin is bang­ing a Brazil­ian march­ing drum.

As de Bernieres kept on rewrit­ing, the book grew big­ger. ‘‘ At one stage it was enor­mous,’’ he says with a shrug. ‘‘ The trou­ble was, there wasn’t a plot. Just all the things, one af­ter an­other, that Roza said had hap­pened.’’ Roza isn’t her real name; he won’t tell me what is. He doesn’t know where she is. ‘‘ I think it was around about draft four that my ed­i­tor said, ‘ Louis, I think you’re ob­sessed with this wo­man.’ I wasn’t’’ — though maybe he was, once — ‘‘ but it gave me the idea to bring in some­body who is.’’

In the fi­nal, sev­enth, slim ( 212 pages) ver­sion of A Par­ti­san’s Daugh­ter we meet Chris, a med­i­cal sales­man trapped in a love­less, sex­less mar­riage to a wo­man he has nick­named the Great White Loaf. Chris’s hum­drum English­ness is at odds with the ex­otic Balkan oth­er­ness of Roza, a big- boned twen­tysome­thing he mis­takes for a pros­ti­tute and who, though she isn’t one, gets off an Arch­way kerb and into his car any­way. So be­gins an un­likely friend­ship hinged on need­i­ness, one that ques­tions the na­ture of love (‘‘ Can you fall in love if you’ve been cas­trated?’’ Chris won­ders) and cuts a ragged line be­tween truth and fiction.

De­ter­mined to keep Chris in­ter­ested, to keep him com­ing back to the dingy Arch­way digs she shares with the BDU ( or Bob Dylan Up­stairs, a Dylan ob­ses­sive who dons a black arm­band when Dylan finds God), Roza is an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor. Her tales of a Bel­grade child­hood of­fered colour­ful es­cape from Bri­tain’s grey re­al­ity. Her reve­la­tion that she lost her vir­gin­ity to her fa­ther, a one- eyed man who would rant dur­ing thun­der­storms, shocks and in­trigues Chris. Her de­scrip­tion of be­ing bru­tally raped by a host­ess club client makes him cry.

Whether Roza is telling the truth is up to the reader to de­cide. De Bernieres has his own take. ‘‘ She isn’t a real per­son, re­mem­ber,’’ he cau­tions, laugh­ing, when I won­der whether Roza’s fa­ther’s is­sues are be­hind her ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der. ‘‘ One thing I love about Dylan’s early songs ( is) that they were imag­ist or sym­bol­ist and you had to work out what the story was your­self,’’ he says. ‘‘ I like the idea of a reader do­ing that.’’

He pro­ceeds to quote the whole of the 1965 Dylan track Love Mi­nus Zero/ No Limit , with its puz­zling but ef­fec­tive takes on pawns with grudges and ravens with bro­ken wings. ‘‘ He was prob­a­bly stoned when he wrote it. But it’s the per­fect imag­ist song be­cause ev­ery­one who gets to love it at­taches their own mean­ing to it.’’

The big themes — love, hon­our, war, death — that swirl through the South Amer­i­can tril­ogy, through Cap­tain Corelli’s Man­dolin and Birds With­out Wings , tug at the edges of A Par­ti­san’s Daugh­ter . ‘‘ They’re less up- front, which was in­ten­tional. But I’ve al­ways been a po­lit­i­cal re­al­ist, even in my mag­i­cal re­al­ist ( South Amer­i­can tril­ogy) days. I thought there were things to be said about this dread­ful time, at the end of ( prime min­is­ter Jim) Cal­laghan’s time, when it was just so de­press­ing to be Bri­tish.

‘‘ The wo­man told me that when Tito died, Yu­goslavia was go­ing to fall apart,’’ he says softly. ‘‘ She knew it was go­ing to hap­pen. It’s one of my re­grets about not get­ting this book pub­lished ear­lier.’’ Still, it might have been longer com­ing. In 2004, thieves broke into the sum­mer­house and stole his lap­top com­puter, along with all his gar­den tools. On it was the fifth draft of A Par­ti­san’s Daugh­ter ; he hadn’t got around to print­ing it out. The theft was widely re­ported in Bri­tain’s lead­ing news­pa­pers. Fu­ri­ous, de Bernieres of­fered a £ 1000 re­ward for its re­turn, then spent a few months ‘‘ gar­den­ing and shop­ping and things’’. The lap­top was even­tu­ally dis­cov­ered in a ditch a few vil­lages away.

‘‘ The po­lice were go­ing to sell it at auc­tion, then they re­alised it was mine.’’ He laughs his high- pitched laugh. ‘‘ I just re­sumed writ­ing. It was all in there, al­gae and all.’’

De Bernieres is al­ready work­ing on his next book, a fat Europe and Bri­tain- set his­tor­i­cal epic that starts in 1892 and fin­ishes a cen­tury later.

It was the orig­i­nal Roza, he says, who re­ally got him in­ter­ested in Euro­pean his­tory, just as his par­ents sparked his ini­tial in­ter­est in World War II ( Cap­tain Corelli is ded­i­cated to his par­ents, ‘‘ who in dif­fer­ent ways fought the fas­cists and Nazis’’). His fret­ting over the Cold War was en­demic to his gen­er­a­tion. Youth cul­ture may have passed him by (‘‘ I felt ex­cluded when I was still only 24 or some­thing’’), but the weight of the world was heavy.

‘‘ When the Cold War ended and the Ber­lin Wall came down, I just sat in front of the television weep­ing. It was like be­ing let out of jail. It can’t have been nearly so bad for an Aus.’’ Aus­tralia, he says at one point, is where he’d live his life over if he was a young man start­ing again. ‘‘ You weren’t in the shadow of the bomb. On top of that, we had this pe­riod of so­cial tur­moil.’’ He shakes his head, sighs.

‘‘ I wanted to set the book back then be­cause that’s when I knew Roza, and there hasn’t been much writ­ten about the ’ 70s yet.’’

More than any of his other nov­els, A Par­ti­san’s Daugh­ter is the book de Bernieres was com­pelled to write. He didn’t ex­pect that any­one would like it, he ad­mits, though he is pleased that they have. ‘‘ It’s rather dif­fer­ent than pre­vi­ous things I’ve done,’’ he says, as Robin re- en­ters with one arm in his coat, gum­boots on the wrong feet and a plea to dig in the sand­pit.

Isn’t it good to oc­ca­sion­ally con­found ex­pec­ta­tions? ‘‘ As long as you don’t dis­ap­point peo­ple, like Dylan turn­ing to God,’’ he says, scoop­ing his son on to his lap and play­ing some noisy per­cus­sion — com­plete with wob­bly ah- ah- ah vo­cals from Robin — on his back.

‘‘ But then I guess Dylan must have found a brand new au­di­ence,’’ he muses, smil­ing. ‘‘ He shifted his fan base side­ways, some­how. Of course he came back later and did lots of amaz­ing stuff.’’

And with that de Bernieres puts his son’s other arm in his coat and we all go out­side to play. Jane Corn­well is a lit­er­ary jour­nal­ist and broad­caster based in Lon­don.

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