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

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

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

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