Interview: Killing us softly with his song

Louis de Berniere's prose makes readers cry. But it makes him cry, too, he tells Julia Kaminski. Especially when he kills off a favourite character. Will cinema audiences weep when `Captain Corelli's Mandolin' hits the big screen?

It's no good. I'm going to have to ask him. Louis de Bernieres is right in front of me and ever since I read his novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin, published three years ago, I've wanted to know, what's with the goats? Never mind Cephalonia being overrun by Italians and Germans, why are there so many goats? "Casual and impertinent" goats, "manuscript-eating" goats, "accursed ruminant" goats.

"Goats?" asks the author, sounding genuinely surprised, as if the goats had sneaked in after he'd read the final proofs. "There are cats," he offers, by way of explanation. "And horses."

"Casual and impertinent" are not adjectives one would normally ascribe to goats, but then de Bernieres' use of language is what singles him out from lesser mortals, and from lesser writers. I canvassed some of his readers before meeting him for tea. "So evocative, so beautiful," cooed one. "So verbose," said another.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin, de Berniere's fourth novel, a story of love and war set on the Greek island of Cephalonia, has sold some 200,000 copies, marketed largely on the grapevine. Now there is a pause in the writer's busy schedule as he contemplates the prospect of a film of Captain Corelli.

"It's going to be a European film, not a Hollywood blockbuster," he says. "There won't be an artificially sugary ending, as far as I know. But there is an element of handing my baby over to someone else."

De Berniere's "baby" is something of a departure from his first three books, a South American trilogy peopled with goodies and baddies. Not that the trilogy is simplistic - far from it - but good and evil do battle daily.

De Bernieres spent a year teaching in Colombia in the early Seventies, when he was 18. Did he see the atrocities so sickeningly portrayed in the trilogy? "I was never afraid, because I saw no direct evidence of guerrilla activity. But one of our neighbours was kidnapped. She came back, eventually. It's like going on the longest camping holiday of your life. They usually keep you six months."

In The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, the first book in de Berniere's trilogy, torture is rife, and it begins by accident. The unwitting Colonel Asado sends out postcards inviting "subversives" to come for interview; the meetings begin innocently and descend into a spiral of horrific violence. "It often does start in a strangely innocent manner," de Bernieres says. "In Argentina, they really did send out postcards. That's my point about torturers being ordinary people. The sort who write love letters in their spare time."

Was the violence hard to write? "It's difficult. You have to be conscious of not celebrating it. Readers could get the wrong end of the stick. The reason for writing about violence shockingly is to make people understand how disgusting violence is, that it happens to individuals, to people you love. It's not an abstraction. It's horrifying. It's morally shocking. That's what I want to do when I write; morally shock people."

Arms dealers are definitely baddies, too. In Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, the second book in the trilogy, a "religious and humane" arms dealer takes a lead role. Someone de Bernieres knows happens to fit this description. "I used to know someone who made his living selling arms. He was a decent bloke and went to church every Sunday, and I couldn't understand the staggering hypocrisy. He was the sort of man who would let a wasp out of the window."

De Bernieres is quick to refute the suggestion that he hates the army, although he spent an unhappy few months at Sandhurst. "I'm not as anti- military as you say. In Captain Corelli, the soldiers are not the baddies, are they?" No. The Italians are gentle, compassionate, ashamed of having to invade Cephalonia. But in his earlier novels, he does give the military a rough ride. "Yes, that's true," he says, "but it's because one of the things I'm most interested in is the abuse of power."

Is there anyone who gets sympathetic treatment? Well, yes, whores do, and most of the women, and children and old people and animals.

Why are the women treated with such affection? "I grew up in a matriarchy, you see. Some people accused me of making Captain Corelli a boys' novel though, and that puzzled me. Women are just as present in life as men. Although if you're writing about a community where women are indoors all the time, that makes it very hard to write about them."

Of all his heroines, Corelli's Pelagia is the most rounded. She is adorable with a cheeky sense of humour which, combined with the wit of Captain Corelli, creates a beautiful yet far from sentimental love affair. When he brings her a gift of a goat (another one) and she rejects it, he says: "I don't care if you don't want it. Sell it if you want. But if you saw how difficult it was to get it in the taxi, you wouldn't be so hard." Eventually Pelagia accepts Corelli's gift, and he asks her: "Do you think you'll get much milk from it?" "You milk it if you like, Corelli," she replies. "Personally, I only try to milk the females."

As well as copious amounts of humour, parts of Corelli are unbearably sad. Does he realise he will make people cry? "You don't necessarily write with the idea of what effect you're going to have. When I was writing those bits, I was crying too. It's a way to express your own feelings as an author. The terrible sorrow I felt over the death of Dr Iannis. It's just as much my lament as hers. I'd just lost the character I was most fond of."

What a softie. Although de Bernieres is said not to welcome any intrusion into his private life, the way this man talks about his family and his former girlfriend belies this; how many people are this honest on a first meeting with a stranger?

We talk about why he might now live in France, the home of his ancestors - "I started a relationship with somebody who didn't want to go there. The plan fell through" - and animals: "I have a cat, Toby. He had that name when I inherited him, otherwise I would have called him something out of classical mythology.

"There were some wonderful snakes in Colombia, and lots of caimans on the farm. They lie around doing absolutely nothing. They have PhDs in apathy."

We jump to his next book, which will be set in Turkey, which reminds him: "Have you heard of camel-wrestling? They have a festival in Turkey where they wrestle camels. I'd love to go."

Is he pulling my leg? He assures me he's not. "The men are very fond of wrestling, too. Lots of olive oil, so it's really slippery."

Corelli is the sort of book you hate to finish because you're forced to leave a gorgeous other life. Does he feel like that, too? "When you've finished writing a book it's like suddenly losing a large number of your friends. In my case it's also like losing your country, because I've been writing about South America, or Greece. I'm not only friendless, I'm homeless. Sometimes the characters stay with you for an awfully long time. Dr Iannis is still around."

On this wistful note, I remind him of the time and ask if he's in a hurry because he has a lecture on Greeks in Asia Minor to attend. "It's OK, I'm not going very far," he says. Which surely couldn't be further from the truth.

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