Actually, before I review the new de Bernieres, I need to mention Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; its rise to superstardom due, not to literary critics, but to word-of-mouth recommendations. I’ve read it three times now – I still find the verbosity of the initial three chapters a trial – but I do genuinely love the book as a whole – even that ambiguous ending. I admire writers who don’t give readers the ending they crave.
At Glasgow’s Aye Write! festival De Bernieres made much of the fact that the reviews of A Partisan’s Daughter in England had been good, while those in Scotland had been bad. The Times with creative imagery said “This is a silk stocking of a novel: fragile, light, of little practical purpose – and yet possessed of surprising tensile strength.” While Scotland on Sunday warns us to “Kerb our enthusiasm for loathsome predator“. De Bernieres jested that the loathsome quote would make a good blurb and would guarantee millions of sales!
Sounds like A Partisan’s Daughter has the makings of a classic marmite novel. So does this English woman in Scotland love it or loathe it?
It was a book of 4 quarters. I thoroughly enjoyed the first 50 pages – the setup in which Chris meets Roza, having mistaken her for a “bad girl”. I certainly was not expecting to laugh out loud as often as I did. And given that the things that made me laugh were both roundly criticised by the Scotsman and not read by de Bernieres at his event because he couldn’t face their “sordid realism”, perhaps I should tame my wicked sense of humour. Then again not – the images conjured by the narrator’s wife who reminds him of “a great loaf of white bread, plumped down on the sofa in its cellophane wrapping” skimmed milk in her veins, are indeed cruel but apt. I, the proverbial great white whale on a beach, can just see it.
The second 50 pages in which the rhythm of the piece establishes itself with Chris ostensibly listening to Roza’s stories and thinking only lustful thoughts pale in comparison. In the third quarter Roza’s stories become increasingly shocking – for the sake of it – I don’t believe a word she says. By the last 50 pages De Bernieres has backed himself into a corner with only one available exit.
De Bernieres categorises A Partisan’s Daughter as a melancholy love story. Love? No. Lust, yes. Also disappointing is his handling of the time setting. The winter of discontent – I remember it only too well. The parallel with Chris’s unhappiness is obvious. The text is peppered with historical and cultural references – I don’t like Mondays, the death of Airey Neaves, the lack of bin collections, the rat-infested streets. However, the action doesn’t depend on them, De Bernieres playing the social context mostly for laughs.
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. Everyone was still on strike for preposterous wage rises and the only good news was that Idi Amin had absconded. Everyone was singing some bloody song that you couldn’t get out of your head called “I will Survive”, but not many of us reckoned we would.
What of Roza’s tales of Yugoslavia, at the time of her telling a whole, but a pressure cooker, simmering with tension and ethnic emnities, waiting to blow its top upon the death of Tito. Don’t expect the historical re-enactments of Corelli, nor the tragic panorama of Birds Without Wings. The tales of Yugoslavia are nothing more than vignettes, enlightening vignettes maybe but the history is ultimately sacrificed to seedy tales of Roza’s sexual history. Or clumsy satire in the form of a carthorse called Russia “because it was very big, a complete liability, and always going where it wasn’t wanted”.
I wonder if I’m being too harsh on Roza but I am as alienated from her as the male reviewer in the Scotsman is from Chris. Chris’ brand of misogyny may be unpalatable but I suspect there are still plenty of non-fictional specimens out there. On the other hand, I don’t believe in Roza, from her first entrance to her exit. I don’t believe in her either as a character or even as a figment of Chris’s imagination. That’s a real problem when half of the novel in written in her voice. I wonder how the real Roza – a Serbian woman de Bernieres met while living as a Bob Dylan Upstairs in a “hard-to-let” property during the 70’s – has reacted. I wouldn’t be at all flattered.
I realise that I am not appreciating this novel as I should; ignoring the underlying metaphors that are Roza and Chris: Roza, the predators in Yugoslavian history, the Yugoslavs themselves, sowing the seeds of their own defeat; Chris, the litter and rat-like infestations in the life of the average middle-aged British bloke.
It appears, to my chagrin, I am one of those that de Bernieres expects not to like his novel. But then again I never developed a taste for marmite.