Louis de Berniÿres: An accidental hero returns

A decade after Captain Corelli, Louis de Berniÿres revisits the Med with an epic, and tragic, panorama of peace and war
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Painted in a strident maroon, with running-boards worthy of a gangster flick, the 1947 Ford Pilot buzzes down the quiet midsummer roads of south Norfolk like a hummingbird across a cowslip meadow. Somehow, Louis de Bernières' choice of vehicle fits his persona, and his fiction. It's colourful, idiosyncratic, out-of-time, but sturdy and resilient. We're on the way back to the rail station nearest to the slowly renovated former rectory where he lives with his partner, Cathy, an actress and director, when he mentions an emotional storm that struck in his late twenties. This turning-point made the young teacher - heartbroken by a failed affair, stressed-out by his job - think again about the prospect of a literary career.

Painted in a strident maroon, with running-boards worthy of a gangster flick, the 1947 Ford Pilot buzzes down the quiet midsummer roads of south Norfolk like a hummingbird across a cowslip meadow. Somehow, Louis de Bernières' choice of vehicle fits his persona, and his fiction. It's colourful, idiosyncratic, out-of-time, but sturdy and resilient. We're on the way back to the rail station nearest to the slowly renovated former rectory where he lives with his partner, Cathy, an actress and director, when he mentions an emotional storm that struck in his late twenties. This turning-point made the young teacher - heartbroken by a failed affair, stressed-out by his job - think again about the prospect of a literary career.

Or, rather, he says that in that crucible of crisis, he "remembered that I wanted to be a writer". So a novelist's progress that has thrilled and delighted armies of readers around the globe comes to sound like a minor errand recollected on a whim. In the de Bernières universe, chance and design, the big picture and the foreground detail, always intersect, always interact.

At the close of his sixth novel, Birds Without Wings (Secker & Warburg, £17.99), the Muslim potter Iskander reflects on the tragic expulsion of his Christian neighbours from the home that they shared on the south-western coast of Turkey until the early 1920s. He decides that "everything that happened was made to do so by the great world".

De Bernières, you feel, partakes of that suspicion of the "great world". Take next week, which contains a momentous day for him. He's due to take a Grade Five flute exam. He already plays the clarinet and oboe, as well as the classical guitar and (yes, of course) the mandolin, and gigs with an Oxford-based ensemble: "I only have one track on which I star, which is five minutes of variations on 'Greensleeves'." In his living room, looking out on secluded lawns, a piano stands ready for musical visitors to accompany him. "To play with proper musicians, you've got be be good enough," he says.

Something else of note happens next week. This is, of course, the release of the most eagerly-awaited novel of the year, a full decade after Captain Corelli's Mandolin started to pluck the heartstrings of millions. And so the "great world" beats a path to his tucked-away door in Norfolk, while its stocky, laid-back target improves his flute technique and frets about "the publicity machine". He laments that, "The funny thing about being a writer is that people find hundreds of ways of interrupting you, continuously."

Such as - turning up for interviews and asking questions that focus on notions of well-planned structure, rather than the serendipity de Bernières prefers. Set between 1900 and 1923, Birds Without Wings traces through its small-town microcosm the dismemberment of the decadent but tolerant Ottoman Empire, after "the hell's broth of religious and nationalist hatred had been stirred up by a multitude of village Hitlers". In contrast, says the author, "the thing about the Ottomans is that they weren't prodigiously effective oppressors. As long as you paid your taxes, you were really quite all right." The novel celebrates the day-to-day deals of a mongrel Mediterranean backwater, in which Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Armenians all rub along.

To trace the demise of this lazy, multi-cultural idyll, it switches between voices and tones that embody the ramshackle, easy-going world that new divisions will destroy. We follow the growing-up of too-beautiful Philothei and the tragic outcome of her betrothal to the goatherd Ibrahim; the curious ménage of the proud landowner, Rustem Bey, and his concubine, Leyla; the fate of the saintly imam, Abdulhamid Hodja; and the friends Abdul and Nicos, aka "Blackbird" and "Robin", whose answering bird-whistles lend the book an auditory sign of the ties that bind these vulnerable "birds without wings". In Turkey, children still blow these uncannily convincing whistles, one of which the author fetches to demonstrate - piercingly - for me.

Yet, when I ask de Bernières about the novel's cunning architecture, with its sly shifts of register and mood, he replies that, "Your question implies a greater degree of self-consciousness than I have. I just write whatever occurs to me." He does reveal that he wrote the opening of the novel long ago, then the end, then filled the middle: "The book just grew up organically in a rather strange way."

In his fiction, as in his craft-filled leisure-time of antique motor-parts and broken instruments, de Bernières loves what the French call bricolage: running repairs, on-the-spot fixes, DIY make-do-and-mend. The hubris of the grand plan repels him, in politics and art. Suitably enough, the Greek ethnic expansionism of the early 20th century went by the name of the "Big Idea" - just the kind of thing that de Bernières loathes. "I really hate and despise nationalism," he affirms. "What other people regard as liberation movements I regard as really stupid and unnecessary interruptions of a peaceful life." Those thuggish interruptors, again.

It was alien nationalism that cursed the Turkish "ghost town" de Bernières discovered on holiday in the mid-1990s: a "beautiful, melancholy place", whose desolation planted the seed of his novel. Birds Without Wings paints this remote paradise of mingled blood and mutual respect, and shows how the nationalist serpent slid into it. And, in the background, the career of the greatest nationalist of all unfolds in snappy, newsreel-like scenes: Mustafa Kemal, victor at Gallipoli, supplanter of the Sultan and, as "Atatürk", the father of modern Turkey. "He has a quality of myth about him I didn't want to disrupt," says de Bernières.

Before the calamity, make-do-and-mend suits the people of the town down to their harsh but herb-rich ground. That goes for passion as well as politics. If the doomed devotion of Ibrahim and Philothei punctuates the book, its unexpected emotional - and erotic - heart emerges in the blooming tenderness between the stiff squire Rustem Bey and Leyla: his Greek mistress, bought from a house of ill repute in Istanbul. De Bernières has been thinking "about the variety of human love - the enormous number of ways one can love, or learn to love. It struck me as possible that a woman who was bought could learn to love and respect her buyer, and vice versa."

In counterpoint to the varieties of love, Birds Without Wings delivers the hideous violence of mechanised warfare. Its 100-page centrepiece, in which Karatavuk ("Blackbird") recounts the terror, squalor and fitful heroism of the Gallipoli campaign, will have critics reaching for their War and Peace. In truth, de Bernières (who learned his craft from the works of Márquez) is too centrifugal and carnivalesque a novelist for the Tolstoy comparison. However, he makes of the carnage a mesmerising patchwork of horror, humour and humanity. "If I can tell it in someone else's voice," says the army officer's son, and Sandhurst drop-out, of the savagery that haunts both this novel and Captain Corelli, "it somehow makes it less like me being obsessed by it."

Visiting the battle sites, he found their past darkness made all too visible. "The bones of the corpses come to the surface," he recalls. "I found quantities of bones when I was there. You look on the war memorials and it says, 'Their name liveth for evermore.' And you have this totally anonymous bone in your hand."

None of the peoples of that fractured region has ever quite buried the bones of this grim era. So he did "from time to time have the sense of playing with fire", even though the novel depicts harmony as a social norm. "I'm sure there will be Armenians, Greeks and Turks who are upset by this book," he says, merrily. "The aim is to upset them all equally... I think it's quite possible I'll be assassinated at a reading one day. I don't think it'll be by a fanatic, but by a lunatic."

He guffaws, as he often does. For de Bernières, heaven can wait. Indeed, it transpires that this plan-averse improviser has his next three or four books mapped out, not to mention the flute, the guitars (and mandolins), the unrestored rooms - and the 1947 Ford Pilot. You sense that this cheerful busyness brings its own reward. And this is just the tranquil Eden that, in his novel, the townspeople lose when the murderous "great world" arrives on their doorstop. May he (and we) never live in such interesting times.

Biography: Louis De Bernieres

Louis de Bernières was born in 1954 to a family of Huguenot descent. He went to Bradfield School on an army scholarship. Briefly a Sandhurst cadet, he dropped out to work in Colombia before studying philosophy at Manchester University. He later became a teacher. The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts (1990) was followed by Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. In 1993, he was named as one of Granta's Best of Young British novelists. Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994) won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. In the UK , it has sold more than 2.5 million copies. In 2002, he published Red Dog, a novel for children set in Australia. Next week, Birds Without Wings appears from Secker & Warburg. He lives in south Norfolk with his partner.

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