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A Partisan's Daughter - Louis de Bernieres

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Author: Louis De Bernieres / Genre: Fiction

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      23.03.2010 15:57
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      The author calls this a love story.

      A forty-something Englishman picks up a young woman in her late twenties he takes for a prostitute. She tells him that she once was one but that she has 'retired'. She allows him to visit her, however, for a cuppa, which he does frequently for some years. She talks, he listens.

      This is it? Yes, more or less. I imagine Mr de Bernières deciding to write a boy-meets-girl story, to enliven this genre that has been milked for what it's worth since people started telling stories to each other round the fire in the caves he decided to create starkly contrasting characters. On the on hand there's Chris: bland and gullible, trapped in a boring job as a pharmacy rep and a stale marriage with a woman he calls to himself 'a great loaf of white bread ... with all the passion and fire of a codfish'. He's got a full-blown midlife crisis but never wonders if he may be responsible for the situation, too, and if there's something he can do about it. He's got a masochistic streak and wallows in self-pity.

      On the other hand there's ex-prostitute Roza who turns out to be an illegal Serbian immigrant, with a slinky, exotic outward appearance, an un-English temperament, a debauched sexual past and a sadistic streak.

      What kind of stories does she tell him? She grew up in a village outside Belgrade as the daughter of one of Tito's partisans, she talks about the village, her family, her friends, her studies, the history and politics of Yugoslavia and the Balkans, but above all about her sexual encounters - always watching if Chris looks suitably shocked and tortured. If he doesn't, she gives him some more gruesome details until he does.

      I imagine Mr de Bernières thinking to himself, "What do readers want? What do I have to put in so that the book will sell well?" Of course, the answer could only be "Sex and Crime." So he made a list of all atrocities that can happen to a woman from (in alphabetical order) abortions to beatings to incest to rape, ornamented with some lesbian love and then made Roza tick off the topics in her tales. The recount of events from the history of Yugoslavia give Roza's tales a reputable basis - or do they?

      A Partisan's Daughter belongs to a genre I generally like, namely, the mixture of political events and engaging personal stories, either love stories or thrillers. If an author knows their trade well, it's not possible to say if the real life background is there to anchor the story in reality or if the story is there to make whatever the author wants their readers to learn more readable and digestible.

      So it's Tito's Yugoslavia here? If you read quality newspapers and watch news on TV regularly, Roza's tales have no informative value. If this book is your first encounter with the country, if you have to study a map to learn where in Europe this country is situated, then you may gather a piece of information or two. But the description of the life in a Balkanese village? Forget about it! What we learn here is true for any jerkwater village from Portugal to Russia. The references to Yugoslavia are only included to spice up the story. The many historical and cultural references to England in 1970 when the story is set have no function, either, the story doesn't depend on them.

      What about Roza's story then? Certainly, the reader sheds a tear or two for this poor woman's plight? Not me, I don't believe a word of what she says. Strangely, the author inserts several remarks to arouse the reader's suspicions, the strongest being that Chris finds Roza in the public library reading a book about the history of Yugoslavia. This discredits her whole story-telling efforts, of course. Why does he think we'll fall for her nevertheless?

      The narrative structure doesn't help to convince the reader, either. At the beginning Chris presents his story as a memoir written in old age. It's regularly interrupted by first-person accounts in Roza's voice. Has he imagined them? If not, how has he come by them? In one chapter both talk in short alternate monologues, has he imagined that, too? Is the Roza woman a spawn of his imagination?

      If Roza is real, why and to which end does she tell her stories? She's afraid Chris won't come back if she doesn't woo him with her "to be continued". But she knows from day one what would make him come back and maybe even stay, he's crazy about her and has only one wish, namely, to go to bed with her. He only endures her tales - for years! - but really doesn't give a fig about Yugoslavia and her past.

      It's all very odd and I imagine Mr de Bernière scratching his head when he had manoeuvered himself into a cul-de-sac road. He then constructed an ending that shoves the responsibility on to the reader who's invited to go on thinking for themselves. No, thank you, I'm not going to do the author's job for him. The Partisan's Daughter is a disappointing read, fortunately a short one. The paperback edition has 288 pages in rather big print.

      Off to the next book which will definitely not be one written by this author.


      ---


      P.S.
      Please don't mention that de Bernière's other novels are better. I'm not interested.

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        16.06.2009 12:17
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        "A story of human sadness"

        Louis de Berniers never fails to move me and while this is not his best work it is remarkable in its ability to truly understand what People are like. It's a baffling journey through the unlikely relationship struck up between a sad, lonely, middle aged man, Chris, and a sad, lonely young woman, Roza, who have been brought together in the most unlikely fashion.

        Chris, who is apparently not the kind of man who picks girls up, on impulse and thinking that Roza, a young Yugoslav girl living in Archway, is a prostitute (which indeed she once was) clumsily attempts to proposition her. They form a curious attachment and during Chris' frequent visits, Rosa spends her time smoking filthy cigarettes in her equally filthy basement telling Chris stories (of dubious veracity) of her life, her sexual awakening and development, and her journey towards becoming the person he knows.

        Chris, whose interest in Roza is always explicitly sexual despite the feelings he eventually develops towards her, is a docile audience sharing little of his own life with her largely because he has so little to share. The poignancy of his stories is all the greater because of this and I felt equal waves of compassion and pity towards this quite unremarkable man, for all that he had, for that he had wanted to have, and for all that he had failed to achieve in ways very different to that I felt for Roza who, despite being a pitiable and pitiful character, I could never decide whether to trust.

        Without wishing to give anything away, the manner in which he behaves towards the end of the book is predictable, frustrating, heartbreaking, and utterly, utterly human. It may not be a fairy tale ending but it highlights de Berniers' complete understanding of human nature.

        De Berniers is a master at drawing his reader in. The stories Roza tells are often banal and ordinary. Stories about the ordinary lives or ordinary people. There is not the soaring intellect and philosophy that is characteristic of so much of his other work, this is just a book about ordinary people, one of whom has had a very ordinary life, the other (if she can be believed) a quite extraordinary one. But both have reached this point as a result of the decisions they made, of the opportunities they took and those they failed to take, and it draws you in utterly.

        I'm no literary reviewer, and I don't want to give anything away. But I really encourage anyone and everyone to read this. It is essentially a story human loss, of love and a love affair that never realises itself, and of the foolish things People do for, and because of, love.

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          26.01.2009 07:29
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          A modern day Arabian Nights with a Balkan twist

          Stuck in a boring and loveless marriage to a wife he now calls "The Great White Loaf", medical rep, Chris, finally decides - after years spent considering it - to pick up a prostitute. Driving around North London one night he spots Roza ands pulls up along side the pavement. Roza isn't a working girl, though, but something about Chris and his sincere apology makes her get in the car anyway and ask Chris to drive her home. Touched by Chris's embarrassment Roza decides that he's not like other men and as she gets out of the car she makes an open invitation for Chris to drop by for coffee, but not before telling him that he couldn't have afforded her anyway - when she WAS a prostitute she used to charge £500.

          A couple of weeks later (having started hiding a fiver away here and there behind his wife's back) Chris knocks at the door of the ramshackle house that Roza shares with a bunch of drop-outs, hippies and would-be actors. So begins a compelling and heart-warming relationship that hinges on Roza's repertoire of weird and wonderful tales from her childhood in Tito's Yugoslavia to arriving in London at the end of the 1970s - when the story is set. At first Chris is there because he wants sex with Roza but soon her stories have him hooked and after he has been with her he goes to the library to learn more about the events and places she's told him about. Roza, starting to become quite attached to Chris, thinks that it is her stories that keep Chris coming back and tries to make them as interesting as possible. But if Roza really is from Yugoslavia, why does Chris bump into her in the library reading a history of Yugoslavia and why doesn't Chris ask her about it?

          The first thing that struck me about "A Partisan's Daughter" is that it is more like a long short story (if there can be such a thing) than a novel. Chris and Roza are the two main characters; only one other actually appears as a real part of the story, a young mechanic who lives in the room above Roza's, and who Roza also tells her stories to. The narration is shared, by way of alternating chapters, between Roza and Chris. This keeps the pace lively and lets you see Chris's reaction to Roza's stories immediately as he responds in his own chapter after each of her stories. We also get the story from two perspectives which can be comical at times but more often is quite touching because, as perceptive and street wise as Roza thinks she is, she really doesn't see what she is doing to Chris who, in turn, continues to believe that Roza is a prostitute he can buy just as soon as he has that £500.

          Roza and Chris couldn't be more different. Chris has a grown up daughter and spends his days driving round the south-east selling medical products; the joy has long since disappeared from his marriage and he believes his wife's raison d'etre is to spend the money Chris earns. Roza is frank and confident, an immigrant from Yugoslavia who predicts the breakup of the country long before it happens. She's not conventionally beautiful but to Chris she is gorgeous. Roza's character is more interesting and complex but that of Chris is a bit predictable and one dimensional, probably intentionally.

          I found Roza's stories utterly compelling; Yugoslavia is my subject but I loved the way she combined tales of growing up in a village near Belgrade with accounts of her family members and some of those rites of passage events that could happen to kids anywhere. You can't help but raise an eyebrow at some of her tales but there is one thing that cannot be questioned - Roza is a brilliant storyteller. It's worth reading "A Partisan's Daughter" for Roza's accounts of growing up in Serbia, her subsequent time at university in Zagreb and the story of how she ended up in England, even if the rest of the novel has some flaws.

          One of the problems I had was the way Chris responds to some of Roza's tales; it would spoil the book if I was to say which stories in particular but there are some tales that are quite bizarre and Chris doesn't react to them in the way I think most people would. I realise he is obsessed with Roza but his refusal to examine - or perhaps his failure to even get an uneasy feeling about what she is saying - some of her more shocking stories seems to me totally unrealistic.

          I also felt that the setting was overworked. The constant references to events in the news, uncollected rubbish on the streets and the advent of punk music were too much. In particular the mentions of Chris's "shit brown Allegro" seemed to me the mark of an author trying too hard.

          The setting is, I feel, still important, though. In Britain Mrs Thatcher is about to take power, in Yugoslavia Tito is soon to die. These days we don't consider forty to be old but Chris considers himself out of touch with young people, he doesn't know what music they like and he finds the lives of the young people in Roza's house quite exciting and exotic. The clash of cultures between Roza and her housemates and Chris and his suburban life is a reflection of what is going on in Britain at the time. The Conservatives might be about to take power but the youth subcultures are stronger than ever -the two are as opposite as Roza and Chris. In one very comical scene the young man living upstairs tells Chris he is wearing a black armband because Bob Dylan - after spending years singing songs that criticise religion - is now writing songs that promote it.

          Finally, the ending - the biggest disappointment in the book, and something I feel Louis de Bernieres tackles in a most predictable, clumsy and amateurish way. From Chris's narrative I think the ending was heavily sign-posted throughout the book but I did expect a write of this calibre to do something a little less obvious.

          Roza's stories - a modern day Arabian Nights - are the high spot of "A Partisan's Daughter" but how addictive you find them may depend on how interesting you find the history of Yugoslavia. I liked the overall idea of the book but I felt that it could have been executed better. Readers familiar with some of De Berniere's other novels may be disappointed with "A Partisan's Daughter" because it lacks the descriptive brilliance of works such as "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" focussing more on dialogue.

          For all my criticisms I read this book from cover to cover in a few hours, charmed by Roza and her tales and desperate to know what she'd tell Chris next. As much as this, I loved the way there is always a nagging doubt about Roza and her stories. Is she genuine? Did all this happen? Is she even from Yugoslavia? De Berniere's is never so direct as to openly suggest that it's all a charade but he leaves penty of little signs to indicate that we should at least consider the possibility that Roza is not what she says she is.

          Highly recommended

          224 Pages

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