Louis de Bernières writes two kinds of books. There are the broad, widescreen epics (Birds Without Wings, Captain Corelli's Mandolin and all those early ones with titles involving nether regions and coco lords) and then there are the seemingly prosaic miniatures (Red Dog, Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World, Labels). His new novel manages to have all the depth of the former with the brevity of the latter. It's a sublimely funny and moving book that will keep fluttering around in your thoughts long after you've finished it.
On the surface it's an account of a mismatched, not-quite-love-affair set in 1970s Archway. Chris is "the man in the shit brown Allegro". He's 40, stuck in an arid marriage to the "Great White Loaf" out in Sutton and coasting along selling pharmaceuticals. His one attempt at procuring a prostitute goes awry when he kerb-crawls Roza, a feisty Yugoslavian. She's not on the game but instead of being outraged, her own loneliness propels her to offer him a tentative friendship.
"Roza seduced my spirit and unleashed on me the stories of her life," states Chris. "At that time I only wanted to sleep with her, really, but when you're fascinated by a woman you'll settle for her stories, because that's how you stay en route." In Roza's squalid house, during the grinding Winter of Discontent, she regales him with anecdotes of Belgrade life, her father's exploits with Tito's partisans and her traumatic sexual adventures. This odd couple set-up allows for some fine comic banter. When Roza quotes the Rolling Stones with a chorus of "I can't get no satisfaction," Chris stuffily responds: "That's awful grammar."
It swiftly becomes apparent that Roza has a touch of the fabulist about her and that Bernières is as interested in examining our need to tell tales, and the consequences of doing so, as he is the nature of desire. Any deception becomes immaterial to the reader as its dramatic spell takes hold. The implication is that our fictional lives alone are worthy of great emotional reactions.
All the author's pet themes are present: the happy farce of sex, the comforting qualities of music, cats and dogs and, most importantly, our nebulous grasp on the past. Bernières has always underlined the senselessness of nationalistic fervour. Here he expertly chronicles Yugoslavia's drift into the fog of "Balkan Alzheimer's". "In that region," states Roza, "it isn't ever possible not to live a hostage to history. They're all possessed and tormented by it. It takes the logic and humanity out of their souls and gives them heroic stupidity." Was there ever a more concise summation of the madness of the Balkan wars?
Bernières is adept at evoking mongrel communities in which a rag-tag of types rub along. Out of a forgotten cranny of north London he's shaped a haven from a world where rubbish is piling high, Callaghan is slipping from power and a madman is letting rip up in Yorkshire. Into this shelter he skilfully develops a touching and believable human relationship, even if it is forged from lies. By the time I'd finished this sleek little novel I'd laughed out loud numerous times and, eventually, cried. That's as true a testimony to a book's loveliness as I know.Reuse content