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