Untrue Confessions

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, October 17, 2008


By Louis de Bernières

Knopf. 193 pp. $23.95

Back in the day, just getting over the Great Depression, I suppose, my mother and aunt would break into the cheap brown liquor they so loved to drink and then sit down and play piano duets: "Nola" was a favorite, and "Kitten on the Keys." It was a miracle when they hit a right note -- you might say they were the unreliable narrators of those little tunes -- but the general effect was often jaunty and full of a bleak kind of joy. They were alive, after all, they were filling in the time, they weren't dead yet.

Two unreliable narrators perform a discordant but appealing duet in "A Partisan's Daughter," a new short novel by Louis de Bernières, author of " Birds Without Wings." One of them, Roza, a native of the former Yugoslavia, has long been missing; the other, Chris, a mopey old Englishman, reciting his story 30 years after the fact, comes under the heading of "not dead yet." He's had one great adventure in his life, and he tells the reader about it in the mopiest of tones. Life has more than passed him by. You might say that life has lapped him many times in the boring marathon of existence. But yes, just once, for a limited time, he fell under the thrall of a modern Scheherazade who (to quote the Beatles) "filled his head with notions, seemingly." The storyteller was Roza, and as he listened to her, his excruciatingly dull life was redeemed by the enchantment of narrative -- and the thought of future sex.

Here I've got to stop and say that, for the second time in a month, I'm not sure whether I'm being conned by a wily author who wants to see how hard he can pull the leg of a credulous reader. In Chris, Bernières gives us a middle-age English married man, utterly without energy or personality, aimlessly wandering the streets of a gutted, potholed, rubbish-strewn, tenement-filled England. (I wonder, except for the fact that this Chris is straight and married, if he isn't a homage to "Chris," the narrator of Isherwood's "Berlin Stories," both men being like "a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking," taking in stories that will be thought about, developed and given meaning much later on.)

This particular Chris drives around in his car in the 1970s, "during the Winter of Discontent. The streets were heaped with rubbish, you couldn't buy bread or the Sunday Times, and in Liverpool no one would bury the dead. You couldn't get heating oil, and even if you had cancer you were lucky to get into hospital." On top of that, Chris's wife doesn't understand him. He calls her the "Great White Loaf." "She was one of those insipid Englishwomen with skimmed milk in her veins, and she was perfectly content to be like that." Then, voila! Chris sees from his car window what he thinks is a whore on the sidewalk with "a fluffy white fur jacket. . . . she was like a light glowing in the fog." Feeling "a buzzing in my groin," he stops the car, and asks her if she's working. She's not a prostitute, or she says she's not, but takes him home anyway, to a ghastly, falling-down slum, where she's a squatter, along with a roommate who calls himself Bob Dylan. (Nothing is what it seems, get it?) She's Roza, the partisan's daughter, and early on she says she doesn't offer sex for money, but if she did, the price would be 500 pounds.

Chris is such an innocent that he takes her at her word. Over the next months, as he visits her in her rotting digs, she regales him with stories of her life, and he, stuck in his loveless, sexless match with the Great White Loaf, pensively begins to save money for a once-in-a-lifetime one-night stand.

If he's the bass in this duet, she's way up there, improvising somewhere near the trembly treble clef. Her life in the former Yugoslavia was very hard. Her father, in particular, was a tough nut to crack. (As an anti-Axis partisan, he would be.) He pitched drunken fits and had sex with his daughter. No, he didn't seduce or rape her; she seduced him, because she loved him. (You can imagine what this revelation does to the faint-hearted Chris, who has never met a hot-blooded woman in his life.) This girl has been living life to the fullest, but then she confides to the reader that it's fun to tell poor Chris stories like that. Back in Yugoslavia, even bus rides were fun. "It was like a picnic, and everybody brought too much food, and it got shared around. Some people had wine, and they were talking too loud and telling jokes."

Poor Chris! There goes Life, passing him by again, in the great cosmic track meet of existence. Roza even had fun getting to England as an illegal immigrant. She sailed from the Mediterranean on a luxury yacht, having sex until her eyes rolled back in her head. She worked as a dance-hall girl, then got kidnapped and raped and came to this place, where she can offer Chris a cup of tea and pass the time by telling him stories.

Now is any of this to be believed? I don't think we're supposed to trust either Chris or Roza. These may be just stories told to pass the time and illustrate the book's epigraph, from Camus: that bourgeois marriage puts us in slippers and then right next to death's door. But married or not, this novel suggests, man and woman will never succeed in playing in the same key. "The Partisan's Daughter" ends with suffering and confusion all around, and our only comfort may come from the fact that none of it is meant to be "true."

Sunday in Book World

· Amitav Ghosh's epic about the opium wars.

· Ivan Doig's World War II saga.

· Life under Augusto Pinochet.

· How to burn a book.

· And why you shouldn't feed the birds.

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