Lisa St Aubin de Terán: Stronger than fiction

Lisa St Aubin de Terán's new subject is a global revolutionary with a life even more astonishing than hers. Marianne Brace catches up with an adventurous spirit
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When Lisa St Aubin de Terán travels in Africa, people don't ask her for money but for the book she is reading. "They can't get books," she explains. The author is drinking coffee in her publisher's London office. Gone are the antique silk coats and trailing ball gowns for which Lisa became renowned when she rustled onto the literary scene in the early Eighties. She's wearing a faux leopard-skin jacket over a black sweater and grey trousers, with a bright scarf for the sister whose funeral she attended yesterday.

When Lisa St Aubin de Terán travels in Africa, people don't ask her for money but for the book she is reading. "They can't get books," she explains. The author is drinking coffee in her publisher's London office. Gone are the antique silk coats and trailing ball gowns for which Lisa became renowned when she rustled onto the literary scene in the early Eighties. She's wearing a faux leopard-skin jacket over a black sweater and grey trousers, with a bright scarf for the sister whose funeral she attended yesterday.

At 16 Lisa married a Venezuelan aristocrat twice her age whom she met on the street. She has traipsed around Italy with three political dissidents-cum-bank robbers. She has farmed sugar in the Andes on a plantation the size of Scotland, and then spent a decade restoring a crumbling palazzo in Umbria. Locked in a marriage with a violent schizophrenic, Lisa kept a gun under her pillow and went on the run with her small daughter. Her life has been as fabulous as fiction. So when she claims she wants to set up libraries in Mozambique, who knows? With Lisa, anything seems possible.

Now in her fifties, she is not bothered by ageing, but by lack of time: "I feel like there's a great deal more to do." Providing libraries is just one of many projects she plans. "If writers got together, between us we could make a huge difference. We all have access to publishers and could contribute a little stock of books each year." Libraries seem particularly appropriate. The youngest of four half-sisters, Lisa learnt to read absurdly young and at five was tackling George Eliot: "I was voracious". Her mother worked with maladjusted girls. Her father was a Guyanese academic who - like Lisa's mother - married four times.

Just as books were hugely important to young Lisa, libraries were where the subject of her latest novel gained much of his education. He is the revolutionary Oswaldo Barreto Miliani, codename Otto. "He was able to get access to books in the middle of nowhere. Without the library, Otto would have had a different life."

With Otto (Virago, £15.99), Lisa revisits Venezuela, a country whose impact on her writing has been considerable. She has constantly reworked material from the time when, as a teenager, she became La Doña on the hacienda. The pull has been both cultural and genetic: "I'm English but I'm not English. I'm South American but not." Spot Lisa in the street and you would be hard pressed to place her. (She's a blend of Portuguese, Dutch, Carib Indian, African, Brazilian, Venezuelan, West Indian, German, English, Irish, Scottish, French.) Her diffidence seems Anglo-Saxon; her sense of humour, Latin. "I laugh at calamity - if somebody spills their coffee or falls down the stairs." She adds, smiling, that "it's very unfortunate socially."

It has taken her 13 years to bring Otto to life. A cousin and comrade of her first husband, Jaime Terán, Otto has already featured in The Slow Train to Milan, Lisa's delightful autobiographical novel about the couple's fugitive years in Italy. They met when Otto was in his mid-thirties, a member of the Venezuelan guerrillas wanted by Interpol. Lisa was 16. "We didn't get on too well. At the beginning Otto was very impatient and downright rude." To the radical militant, Lisa's political apathy seemed "criminal". For Lisa, he came as a shock. "Everyone had always gone: 'Lizzy's a prodigy, she's so clever.' Otto said, 'You're so stupid'."

Otto hated Lisa's penchant for donning Edwardian costume and drawing attention to the group. Lisa, meanwhile, was not aware of the dangers, could not understand her companions' wild way of leaping from Tube trains just as the doors were closing. By the time Lisa left Venezuela, however, Otto was her best friend and has remained so. They see each other whenever possible. "At one point he had a wonderful job in France with the Ministry of Defence but then got throat cancer." Thinking he was about to die, Otto asked Lisa to record his life story.

Born into an ultra-reactionary Venezuelan family, Otto was a socialist, a communist and finally a denouncer of communism. A cowardly, bookish boy, Otto became an action hero by default. His life reads like a history of armed struggle in the late 20th century. He has been to every hotspot - Algeria, Cuba, Chile - and known everyone from Che Guevara to Carlos the Jackal. In addition to his role as a revolutionary, Otto worked as an academic and critic, counting Sartre and Mann among acquaintances.

In Paris, Lisa and Otto started taping his story. Otto didn't die. The following summer he arrived in Umbria to make more recordings. His memory proved astonishing in recalling details from 40 years before: the name of the pensione where he stayed, who slept in the next room. Lisa had wanted to fashion a straightforward biography but her publisher persuaded her fiction would be better. Fiction allowed artistic licence. "I thought with a novel if there was a tiny bit that wasn't accurate, it wouldn't reflect badly on Otto. Otto doesn't make mistakes."

For four years, Lisa delayed starting the book. This was partly because her private life was in turmoil but also because of the enormity of the task. The novel spans 70 years on several continents, involves a battalion of characters and many historical events, including the 1968 Paris riots and the American-backed coup in Chile in 1973. "I didn't feel equipped. I needed to get much more grasp of political events and the economic background." Lisa had never read Heidegger or Sun Tzu. "Before I could write I had to sit down and read. For years. It educated me."

When Lisa first encountered Otto she heard myriad rumours. Getting to know him, she realised he was the victim of some shameless Latin American myth-making. "It was finally brought home to me when he was staying in Umbria for three months. We spent every day together. Our biggest adventure, as two non-drivers, was walking to a bar to have a coffee. One day the postman delivered a Venezuelan newspaper. It said there had been a tremendous crime-wave with bank robberies and hijackings. Every single eyewitness linked Otto to the crimes."

Otto has the sometimes rambling, repetitious quality of eyewitness accounts. The details, however, are intriguing. There are stories within stories, political anecdotes, historical facts and poetic quotations. It's a diligent attempt at ventriloquism, although as a novel it feels a bit uncooked.

The two friends have always conversed in Spanish. "It's the Spanish of the Venezuelan Andes," Lisa says. In her seductive début Keepers of the House, she tried coaxing Andean speech rhythms into English. "Those early characters are already talking with a version of Otto's voice - slightly grand and formal. There's something incredibly distinct about the way people there speak and think."

Otto does have the luck of the devil, managing to cheat death several times. He stated that he "flowered" in gaol. But as well as giving economics classes to his fellow-inmates, Otto was being pressed for other information. There's little, however, about the torture he endured. Why is that? "Otto himself managed to reduce what were many years of torture to something minor. A couple of times when he has been drunk he's talked about water torture. But I felt there were some details which were too intimate."

One incident that does make it onto the page occurred not long ago. Otto glimpsed one of his inquisitors shopping in a supermarket. Not able to place him, Otto gave the familiar face a friendly wave. When he remembered the stranger's identity, he felt broken. "I asked myself what kind of pitiful wreck I had become to have sought comfort from the recognition of the despicable (and sadistic) bastard who had been my torturer."

Otto has been one of the more constant men in Lisa's life. Now he's immortalised in her novel. "He once said to me, 'We should be together for a year.' A year? A year? You bastard, I don't think so," she laughs. "I realised subsequently a year tends to be the honeymoon period." And who knows where a revolutionary will find himself in 12 months time?

Biography: Lisa St Aubin De Teran

Born in 1953, Lisa St Aubin de Terán was brought up in Clapham. A scholarship girl, she abandoned her studies to wed landowner Jaime Terán and spent seven years in Venezuela. Later married to the poet George Macbeth, in 1982 she published her first novel, Keepers of the House, winning the Somerset Maugham Award and a place on Granta's 'Best of Young British Novelists' list. The Slow Train to Milan, winner of the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize, followed. She moved to Italy with her third husband, painter Robbie Duff Scott. Her work includes seven other novels, the memoirs The Hacienda and Memory Maps, short-story collections and poetry. Her new novel is Otto (Virago). She has three children and a grandson. Now living in Amsterdam with her partner Mees Van Deth, she runs a film company and has set up the Terán Foundation in Mozambique.

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