Review: The Novels of Louis de Bernières

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

Following our interview with Louis de Bernières to mark the launch of his new book of poetry, Imagining Alexandria, now is a good time to exhibit the award-winning novelist’s fiction titles.

After an early adulthood spent doing odd jobs and gathering ideas and material, in the 1990s de Bernières disgorged four novels in five years. The first three, The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (1990), Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (1991) and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992) owe much to de Bernières’ years in Colombia, where he worked as an English teacher, and contain vivid traces of the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin Louis de BernieresIn 1994 came what one can safely call de Bernières’ breakthrough novel, Captain Corelli’s MandolinOnce again, a long journey served as inspiration, this time on the Greek island of Cephallonia. As Dr. Iannis writes in the opening chapter of the novel, Cephallonia ‘rises improvidently and inadvisedly from the Ionian Sea; it is an island so immense in antiquity that the very rocks themselves exhale nostalgia and the red earth lies stupefied not only by the sun, but by the impossible weight of memory.’ Just as de Bernières’ time in Colombia produced a rich harvest of novels, so this holiday began a love affair with the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans that would open new literary pastures.

The literary world had already recognised the novel as a gem, but it was the release of the film adaptation in 2001 that catapulted it – and de Bernières – to international stardom. Great novels are rarely honoured by big screen transfers, but director John Maddon’s production of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is exceptionally inept, both as a film in and of itself and particularly as an adaptation of the text.

For one thing, it is simply impossible to squeeze into two or even three hours a story of 544 pages that begins before the outbreak of World War II, charts the occupation of the island by the Italian army and the vicious battle between Italian and Nazi troops following Italy’s switch of allegiance in 1943, then captures the chaos that resulted from the earthquake of 1953 and ends close to the modern day after the island has been partially rebuilt but emptied of many of its inhabitants. Adaptation is further complicated when these sweeping events form just the backdrop to a story of a man’s love for a woman, a father’s love for his daughter and man’s love for idiotic ideals. de Bernières recounts this tragic history using a gallery of characters, among whom four predominate. They are: the aforementioned Dr. Iannis, his daughter Pelagia, a fisherman named Mandras and the eponymous Italian Captain Antonio Corelli. The latter two fall in love with Pelagia, but only one emerges from the war with any dignity. The cast tells a story rich with history, nationalism, religiosity, tragedy and love, and does so without lagging or wallowing. Indeed, in the novel’s opening line we taste the melancholy humour and irony that makes one read on and on: ‘Dr. Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.’

Birds Without Wings Louis de BernieresMany authors would have been satisfied with a book as grand as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Perhaps de Bernières was for a time, for it was not until 10 years later that he wrote Birds Without Wings. “It’s easily my masterpiece,” he said of the novel. “It’s my attempt at War and Peace: a big book that’s about everything.” It’s a fair claim.

This epic novel opens at the turn of the 20th century in Eskibaçhe, a fictional village in what is then the Ottoman Empire but will soon, after immeasurable suffering, cruelty and stupidity, become modern-day Turkey. The story ends as the latter nation comes into being thanks to one of the novel’s main characters, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In between there is war, peace, love, hatred, birth, death, humour, holocausts and daily acts of kindness and barbarity. Told by a multitude of characters more varied and vivid than in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Birds Without Wings explores even further the deadly fusion of movements that fuel this and so many other atrocities: ‘The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race, and it shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if they were done by any other.’

In an ideal world, one ought to read this book three times: once to appreciate the characters, then again to grasp the history lessons, and finally to ponder the meaning of the word ‘nationality.’ Consider, for example, the position of Leyla, the Greek mistress of a wealthy Turkish landowner who believed her to be Circassian: ‘”We have Enver Pasha,” said Leyla, wondering which side the Greeks would take, and wondering who, in her case, “we” really were.’

Between the two colossal novels above de Bernières managed to squeeze in a brilliant novella, Red Dog. He developed the idea after seeing a bronze statue of the eponymous canine in the town of Dampier, 1500 kilometres north of Perth. Intrigued, he travelled the region for two weeks, collecting stories from locals and penning them as he journeyed

Red Dog Louis de BernieresJuxtaposed with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Birds Without Wings, Red Dog could be regarded as a bit of jovial halftime entertainment. The combination of a loveable nomadic canine and the sense of humour particular to Western Australians ensures plenty of laughter. There are also two love stories, one inter-human that forms thanks to another between man and his best friend. There are no grand historical narratives or monstrous wars, but there are quiet villains and more than a few tears. Red Dog, too, has been turned into a film, though one that De Bernières describes as “a real cracker.”

De Bernières said that after Birds Without Wings he felt he did not have to write again if he didn’t want to. Thankfully, he did not feel so inclined. Somewhere between Red Dog and Birds Without Wings on the spectrum of grandeur is A Partisan’s Daughter. In what one critic described as a ‘silk stocking of a novel,’ de Bernières takes us to the former Yugoslavia via two opposing characters. Alone in his ‘shit A Partisan's Daughter Louis de Bernieresbrown’ Ford one night is Chris, a loveless, sexless 40-something man married to a woman he describes as ‘the great white loaf.’ On a nearby street corner is Roza, a Serbian woman acting as a prostitute, or perhaps really a prostitute, or perhaps neither. She takes a shine to Chris that at first seems inexplicable, but soon takes the form of something she has mostly lacked in her young and ruptured life — friendship.

Once again the characters can’t escape the ugly and absurd forces of nationalism and xenophobia (most horribly in the form of Tito and the terrifying Ustaša), as well as the more quotidian vileness of adult males. The story even tiptoes into the taboo.

Sadly, like nearly all the chapters of her life, Roza’s affair with Chris does not end well. When I asked de Bernières about the tearful finale he said, “It comes from reading a lot of Thomas Hardy novels.”

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