Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2016

A Partisan’s Daughter, by Louis de Bernières

A Partisan's DaughterIt’s getting on for ten years since I bought this book and I really can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it. I love De Bernières’ books, which (like everyone else) I discovered when Captain Corelli’s Mandolin became a bestseller, and then went on to read everything else that he’d written.  Of them all I liked Birds Without Wings best: it captured so well the way it’s the little people who bear the brunt of wars. Without being sentimental or didactic, De Bernières has his heart in the right place, showing us that ordinary people are not ordinary at all.

A Partisan’s Daughter is a departure from the exotic locales used in his previous novels.  The ‘Latin American trilogy’ i.e. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (1990); Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (1991) and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992) are set in the anarchic chaos of an unnamed Latin American country which might be Columbia since the author lived there for a while.  Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1993) was set on the Greek island of Cephalonia during WW2 and the setting for Birds without Wings (2004) was Anatolia in the last years of the Ottoman Empire.  Red Dog (1999) is a children’s story set in Karratha Western Australia, a place so remote that it’s exotic even for Aussies.  But A Partisan’s Daughter is located firmly in ordinary suburban London, featuring one of the most ordinary characters De Bernières has ever created, a dull man of no initiative who forms a relationship with an illegal immigrant, a Scheherazade who beguiles him in ways he had never expected.

Chris is a middle-aged man, stuck with a wife who doesn’t love him, confined to his ordinary life by inertia and a lack of courage.  One day as he is driving down the street he sees a sexy streetwalker and on an impulse he does a U-turn and comes back to proposition her.  He is so clumsy and inept he gets it all wrong, but she laughs at him, and demands that he drive her home.  It turns out that her name is Roza, she’s from the former Yugoslavia but is now living under the radar in Britain, and while she used to be a prostitute she’s given it up.  When she tells him that she used to charge 500 pounds, he covertly begins saving up, five pounds here and there, because his life is a sexual desert and he fancies her, he really does.

But because he’s basically a decent bloke, their relationship becomes something else.  Roza, like a 21st century Scheherazade wanting to save herself from a dead-end fate, tells Chris the stories of her life, mostly starring her father, not an ordinary man at all. He was a partisan during WW2, and a disappointed Communist under Tito.  A violent man, who knocked his wife about when she wanted to be more than a breeding machine, to replace the large family he’d lost during the war.  A man that slept with his own daughter, though Roza says that she seduced him, and that she was ok about this relationship.  Chris is appalled and entranced, going round to Roza’s shabby flat again and again, while she feeds his obsession with stories that keep him coming back.

The story alternates between his narrative and hers, so it’s clear to the reader that both withhold as much as they share.  But because the narrative of Chris is being told from the vantage point of some years later than the events he relates, the reader is positioned to see things more from Chris’s point-of-view, unsure of the border between truth and lies, and wary of Roza’s freely acknowledged desire to shock.  Her nonchalance about appalling events in her history is part of that, yet at the same time, her assertions challenge the assumptions that Chris has about people like her.

I hadn’t expected that a prostitute would be a writer of poetry.  You don’t think of them as proper people.  You don’t think of them as someone who might shop in a supermarket or go for a swim.  Roza always surprised me by being a human being, just as I surprised myself by getting so enmeshed with her.  It was stupid of me not to realise that prostitutes go to the movies, and walk in the park like anyone else. (p.47-8)

Before long the reader starts to wonder how this relationship might resolve itself.  There are some small signs of change in Chris – he starts connecting with his daughter a little more than he has –  but he is still always withholding something of himself, always considering how his words will be received, always fearful of offence or misunderstanding.  And yet he becomes Roza’s surrogate, wanting to share the stories of her more exciting life although he is too embarrassed about how he knows her, ever to do it.

The tragedy of this relationship is that Chris is too trapped in the despair of the common man who lives in a vacuum to risk making changes to his life while Roza’s life motto is that a partisan’s daughter doesn’t take any shit.  Her stubborn self-destructive quest always for something better leaves little opportunity for a man to make a mistake, and Chris is the kind of man whose clumsy folly is doomed.

From what I remember of De Bernières’ other novels, there’s a pattern of love frustrated by events and by human misunderstandings.  Hot-tempered impetuous people miss the opportunity to be happy because they expect too much of life while more phlegmatic types lose the love of their life because they are indecisive, hesitant and trapped by conformity.  In A Partisan’s Daughter even the young Bob Dylan wannabee doesn’t want to risk the difficulty of a relationship; it’s the wife that Chris disparagingly refers to as The Great White Loaf who stays the distance.

Author: Louis De Bernières
Title: A Partisan’s Daughter
Publisher: Harvill Secker (Random House) 2008
ISBN: 9781846551420
Source: Personal library, purchased from Kidna Books, $32.95

Available from Fishpond: A Partisan’s Daughter


Responses

  1. Looks interesting

    • Shall I keep it for you?

  2. I’ve had this on my pile for about as long too Lisa. It was scheduled for a group I was in but then I think I went away and let it slide. I like de Bernieres too but will I get to this, now, over other books I want to read.

    • OH good, I’d love to see what you think of it:)

  3. Along with a lot of readers I’ve only read ‘Captain Corelli’, which I liked, but have never got round to reading anything else by him. This one sounds good though.

    • You know he’s got another one out now? It’s called The Dust That Falls from Dreams.

  4. Thanks for this review, Lisa. I have ‘Birds Without Wings’ on the pile to read, but this one sounds great. I love his sense of the fullness of life. A few years ago I heard him read a short story at the Byron Bay Writers Festival and he was absolutely captivating — funny, full of gusto, a real treat.

    • Hi Robyn, thanks for dropping by:)
      I’ve only ever heard him on the radio, but one thing he said stayed firmly in my memory: it was a sort of ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment, because he talked about how the success of Captain Corelli was great and he knew how lucky he was (he wasn’t whinging) – but that the pressure to attend festivals and do author talks and so on meant that it was really hard for him to get away somewhere quiet and write another book, and he knew that expectations would be really high after Corelli. It made me realise that although of course he wanted his books to sell and to make enough money so that he could write full time, what he really wanted was to write, and his success was making it difficult for him to do that.

  5. I’ve never heard of Louis de Bernières. What a French name for a British writer!

    • Apparently he had a French Hugenot father:)


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