Truth has rarely looked so plain
An intriguing tale of secrets and lies is hampered by its author’s habit of letting the facts get in the way, finds Rosemary Goring
APARTISAN’SDAUGHTER Louis de Bernieres Harvill Secker £16.99
Who is more tedious: the person who knows they are dull and does not hide it, or the one who, scared of being boring, concocts elaborate deceits and lies to make themselves look interesting? In A Partisan’s Daughter, Louis de Bernieres lets us make up our own minds. A duet between a middle-aged salesman and an alluring illegal immigrant, it is told in alternating voices, unreeling a melancholy story that took place in London, fittingly, during the winter of discontent.
Discontent is the motif of the story, but initially it seems as if the protagonists have found a way of alleviating their dissatisfactions. The first narrator, Chris, is a stolid individual, expiring in an unhappy marriage to a woman he refers to as the Great White Loaf. His costoryteller is more exotic. Roza is from Yugoslavia. She slipped into Britain on a boat with a lover, and may once have been a prostitute. Certainly, when she and Chris first meet, that’s the impression she gives, standing on a street corner in “tarty clothes” and wearing a revolting perfume she had sprayed on liberally, thinking, “this must be eau de streetwalker”. But when, for the first time in his life – honest! – Chris tries to pick up a girl he believes is on the game, she laughs with surprise that he could think this. She does, however, allow him to give her a lift home. Only when she gets out of the car does she tell him that she used to charge punters £500. So from the outset the reader, as well as Chris, is on shaky ground. Is this girl all she seems to be? Fascinated, Chris begins to visit her in the near-derelict building where she rents a room. It’s a filthy flat, but such is Chris’s desire that he ignores the grime and decay. On the surface this is a chaste affair, with nothing happening beyond the swapping of confidences, almost all of them Roza’s: her addiction to pungent cigarettes is matched only by a love of her own voice. Relishing her role as a latter-day Sheherazade, Roza unreels increasingly colourful and shocking tales to keep Chris entertained and coming back for more. She is unaware that Chris is assiduously saving £500.
Roza’s father was one of Tito’s partisans and Yugoslavia today is on the verge of collapse, as is Roza’s relationship with her father, with whom she tells Chris she had sex – initiated by herself. Drip by drip she feeds details of life in her homeland and in London. When one day Chris finds her in the public library reading up about Yugoslavia, he makes nothing of it, but the reader’s unease cranks up a gear.
There are many problems with this novel, but the most debilitating is how clunkingly dully it is told. We know we are in the 1970s, yet several chapters open with lines such as: “The next time I saw Roza there was a lot to be depressed about. The Ayatollah Khomeini was saying there wasn’t going to be any democracy in Iran.” And: “The next time I saw Rosa I was feeling uneasy because the Yorkshire Ripper had just killed another woman in Halifax.” While banality is a hallmark of the unthrilling Chris, there’s no excuse for Roza’s words being as flat as a reluctant pen pal: “I had a s*** time in Zagreb. The university was quite nice. It was a huge brown rectangle with wide corridors, and it was full of staircases. I wish I’d gone to Belgrade, though.” One is left to assume that it is as much Chris’s overpowering lust that keeps him coming back as her narrative skills. Which is a pity, because the idea behind the novel is that of