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Before my recent holiday to Cyprus, I was casting about for something topical to read, and a Greek Cypriot friend recommended Lawrence Durrell's "Bitter Lemons of Cyprus". For some unfounded reason, I assumed it was about the 1974 conflict which cleaved Cyprus in two - undoubtedly the most significant event in modern Cypriot history - and a situation that sadly remains an open wound between the Turkic and Greek Cypriot peoples.
I was mildly surprised when I started reading the book and realised that it wasn't about the 1974 invasion at all - it predates that event by a couple of decades and deals with the much earlier strife in the early 1950's when the people of Cyprus, egged on by Greece, campaigned for "Enosis" - or union with Greece - and freedom from their British colonial "masters". This fight for self-determination was to serve as the "genesis" of the much later, more well-known conflict between the Greeks and Turks which ultimately led to the 1974 invasion.
Despite a vague disappointment at picking the wrong subject matter, my reservations did not last long as I was quickly captivated by Durrell's consummate story-telling and artisan eye for describing people and places. I started the book a few days before leaving for Larnaka, but something about actually reading it in country, with a Cyprus coffee or a glass of ouzo to hand, seemed to make the experience - the sights, sounds and smells that Durrell so expertly describes - more tactile and real.
In this first person, autobiographical account, Lawrence Durrell, a down at heel writer, sets off from Venice on a tramp steamer, with the vague aim of finding a run-down house, fixing it up, and settling down to a rustic, backwater existence on the island. He lands at the port of Limassol, finds a cab driver willing to drive him up to the northern coastal town of Kyrenia (now in the occupied so-called Republic of Northern Cyprus) and sets about mixing with the locals.
Unexpectedly for the villagers and townsfolk he meets, Durrell speaks fluent Greek (he spent a fair bit of time living on the Greek mainland) - a state of affairs which confounds, delights and astounds the locals in equal measure. This enables him to quickly gain their trust and affection, and, once a suitable house is found in the picturesque village of Bellapaix a few kilometres from Kyrenia, the rebuilding of the ramshackle house becomes a community effort.
The first half of the narrative focuses on scene setting, giving life and depth to the rogues, rascals, coffee-house denizens, artisans and other assorted inhabitants of the area in which he settles, and describing the transformation of his status from "xeno" (outsider) to trusted and respected neighbour.
Running out of money to keep his building project going, Durrell takes various jobs - first as a schoolteacher, and then as an Information Officer for the colonial British government - in each case exposing him to a different side of Cypriot life and offering new insight into the hearts and minds of his neighbours. Apart from the villagers and his diplomatic colleagues, his circle of friends includes like-minded British and European ex-pats either resident in, or passing through Cyprus, and he spends as much time and effort in bringing these colourful notables to life as he does with the Cypriot folk.
The later parts of the book describe the slow deterioration of diplomatic and political relations between the three main powers with interests in Cyprus - the Greeks, Turks and English - and the completely avoidable tragedy that ensues because of Greek agitation and a complete misunderstanding of the depth of the "Cyprus problem" by the Foreign Office in London. All this is conveyed through local eyes, with local flavour. Durrell's earlier optimism understandably vanishes, and is replaced by an undercurrent of seething frustration and barely disguised anger that the powers-that-be have allowed matters to fall into such a parlous state.
THEMES & THOUGHTS
The colonial British are portrayed as benign, if annoyingly patronising administrators, marking time in a diplomatic backwater and running the sleepy little island with a light touch. Unsurprisingly, they treat the locals as nothing but a bunch of simple, uneducated and agreeable peasants who need their best interests looking after. However, despite the patrician attitude of their "masters", the locals exhibit a rather paradoxical passion for all things English, and this is a theme that resonates throughout the book.
A good example of this is the closing paragraph (and I give nothing away by revealing it here) when a taxi driver, taking Durrell to the airport, speaks of Dighenis, a local "freedom fighter" and head of EOKA - the main partisan force aligned against the British:
"Dighenis, though he fights the British, really loves them - but he will have to go on killing them - with regret - even with affection".
The book deals with a turbulent chapter of Cypriot history, but it is by no means a history book. It reads much more like a travelogue - historical incidents and events are included where necessary to give context to the actions and thoughts of its masterfully described characters. Durrell lives Cyprus through its people rather than through its places.
Although I have visited Cyprus many times, the "north" has always been a bit of a nebulous, ill-defined place for me (the border was opened only recently, but I have not taken the opportunity to "cross over"). The place names he mentions, most of them around Kyrenia, had me scrabbling for the map provided with my rental car to see if they still existed. The book certainly gave me a much-needed insight and flavour of a part of Cyprus totally unfamiliar to me.
The great tragedy of course, is that he could have been describing any part of the island, for - on a local level at least - Turk and Greek Cypriot have always managed to co-exist relatively peacefully. An exchange between Durrell and a roguish character - Sabri the Turk - who assists Durrell in obtaining the Bellapaix house (the several pages, early in the book in which he haggles with a Greek woman who has been left the property as her dowry is absolutely priceless) puts the otherwise complex issue simply:
"I was sent to you by a Greek", I said "and now the Turk sends me back to a Greek". He laughed aloud. "Cyprus is small", he said "and we are all friends, though very different. This is Cyprus, my dear".
The narrative is extremely vivid and descriptive, full of wit and self-deprecating humour. Durrell treats his subjects with genuine affection and respect, and is even-handed in his criticism later in the book when the situation reaches breaking point.
PRICE & AVAILABILITY
The book, published by Faber & Faber in paperback (ISBN 0-571-20155-5) has an RRP of £7.99, but is available on Amazon for £4.79.
The book has dated very well, and though not a "light" read by any means, it is a very enjoyable one. Originally published in 1957, some of the language is a little idiosyncratic (I had to look up some words - such as "toper" - which I had not come across before - apparently it means "a chronic drinker") but as with much in Cyprus, everything changes, and everything stays the same.
Every now and again during our two week stay, I caught a glimpse of the "old" Cyprus Durrell was writing about - in the dusty remains of a long abandoned farm house, or a toothless, sun-baked and wrinkled grandmother, dressed top to toe in black, selling apricots on a street corner, or, most memorably, an impossibly ancient old man on an equally decrepit push bike, waiting at a set of traffic lights in downtown Larnaka, with a small, steaming cup of dark Cyprus coffee, precariously perched in the centre of silver pendulum tray he was carrying in one hand.
None of this would have been quite as relevant without Durrell's well crafted narrative echoing in my head. As such, I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys excellent travel-writing, but particularly if you are planning to go to Cyprus.
© Hishyeness 2009 - previously published on ciao.co.uk under the same user name.