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de Bernières, Louis

de BERNIÈRES, Louis

Nationality: British. Born: London, 8 December 1954. Education: Manchester University, B.A. (honors) in philosophy; Leicester Polytechnic, P.G.C.E.; University of London, M.A. (with distinction) in English. Career: Has held jobs as landscape gardener, mechanic, and carpenter; teacher for ten years. Awards: Commonwealth Writers prize, 1991, 1992; Lannan Literary Award, 1995. Agent: Lavinia Trevor, 6 The Glasshouse, 49A Goldhawk Rd., London W12 8QP, England.

Publications

Novels

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts. London, Secker andWarburg, 1990; New York, Morrow, 1991.

Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord. London, Secker and Warburg, andNew York, Morrow, 1991.

The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. London, Secker and Warburg, 1992; New York, Morrow, 1994.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin. London, Secker and Warburg, and NewYork, Pantheon, 1994.

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Louis de Bernières comments:

I like to read and write books on a grand scale. I am interested in situations where ordinary people are caught up in abuses of power or historical crises and events. I disapprove of "genre" literature. I have hundreds of influences, but was moved to to want to become a writer by Nicholas Monsarratt's "The Cruel Sea." I am much influence by the great Latin American writers, by Tolstoy and Cervantes, and by my studies in philosophy.

* * *

A novel by Louis de Bernières is like a series of brightly colored and boldly drawn murals that combine into an exotic epic of life, love, and struggle. His first three novels are set in an imaginary South American country and make full use of the stock resources of such a setting: political corruption and malpractice; murder, torture, and violence perpetrated by the military; revolutionary opposition, which sometimes also takes violent forms; drug trafficking and prostitution; machismo and exotic femininity; Roman Catholicism and native magic. These novels also spring large surprises; for example, a troop of conquistadores, frozen in a glacier for four centuries, who are brought back to life and have to adjust to the modern world. De Bernières's fourth novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, is set on an imaginary Greek island invaded by the Italians during World War II, and, allowing for the difference of place and time, it has many of the same elements as his earlier works.

De Bernières is perhaps best seen as a mythic populist, who celebrates people in all their variety and idiosyncrasy and in their covert and overt resistance to oppression. In The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts, the struggle of a band of guerrillas and a group of villagers against the depredations of the army culminates in the discovery of a half-buried Inca city, which they reinhabit and which becomes an intimation of Utopia; Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord sees the people of the city battling against the biggest drug baron of their country; and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman shows them resisting the drive of a new Inquisition to impose religious orthodoxy. In Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the oppressor is not only the invading Italians but also war itself, and de Bernières dramatizes both the cruelties of the conflict and the possibilities of transcending them through love.

Memorable characters people de Bernières's pages. Figures who recur in the South American novels include General Carlo Maria Fuerte, a true patriot and lover of the people, who, after his kidnap by guerrillas, learns the truth about the brutality of some of his army colleagues and exacts condign punishment before retiring to private life to pursue his interests as a lepidopterist and ornithologist; Dona Constanza Evans, the plump, idle wife of a wealthy landowner, who is also kidnapped by the guerrillas, who becomes leaner, fitter, and more desirable through sharing their strenuous life, and who eventually throws in her lot with them, not out of any political conviction but because of her passionate affair with one of the young fighters; and Remedios, the courageous and capable woman guerrilla chief, who falls in love with the leader of the revived conquistadores and presents a troubling and sometimes comic challenge to his patriarchal and feudal assumptions. Among the notable characters in Captain Corelli's Mandolin are the Captain himself, a handsome, cultured, and amusing Italian officer with whom the daughter of the Greek house on which he is billeted becomes enamored (against her will); and Carlo Piero Guercio, a brave and strong Italian soldier tormented by his homosexuality and by having to oppress the people whose ancestors exalted love between men.

In all his novels, de Bernières employs a form of magic realism, moving between vividly rendered incidents that stay within the confines of credibility, pastiches of anthropological and travel writing, and evocations of preternatural events and entities, such as the resurrection of the frozen conquistadores or the haunting figure of Parlanchina, a beautiful 19-year-old girl killed by a land mine, who continues, after her death, to appear to, and speak with, her adoptive father. The novels are told from a variety of viewpoints and in a range of voices; the third person authorial narration is characterized by an impersonal quality that makes the novelist come across as the unflinching, but not uncompassionate, recorder of all that happens.

De Bernières's novels do tend to repeat the same formula, and the move in Captain Corelli's Mandolin from South America to Greece is more a shift of setting than of theme, structure, or style. Nonetheless, he has found a way of writing fiction that enables him to engage with major issues of modern timesin particular, political and religious corruption and oppressionwhile retaining a keen perception of the pleasures of life, a sense of humor, a tempered anger, and a graceful utopianism.

Nicolas Tredell

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