De Bernieres, Louis 1954–
De Bernieres, Louis 1954–
(Louis de Bernières)
PERSONAL: Born December 8, 1954, in London, England; son of Reginald Piers Alexander (a charity director) and Jean (a homemaker; maiden name, Ashton) de Berniere-Smart. Education: Victoria University of Manchester, B.A. (with honors), 1977; Leicester Polytechnic, postgraduate certificate in education, 1981; University of London, M.A. (with distinction), 1985. Politics: Liberal. Hobbies and other interests: Playing classical and flamenco guitar.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Knopf Publishing, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer and educator. Landscape gardener in Surrey, England, 1972–73; schoolteacher and cowboy in Colombia, 1974; mechanic, 1980; teacher in London, England, 1981–. Military service: British Army, officer cadet at Sandhurst, 1973–74.
AWARDS, HONORS: Commonwealth Writers prize, 1991 and 1992; Lannan Literary Award, 1995; Captain Corelli's Mandolin was voted one of Britain's twenty-one best-loved novels by the British public as part of the BBC's The Big Read, 2003.
The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts (novel), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1990, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 1994.
Corelli's Mandolin (novel), Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1994, published in England as Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1994.
Red Dog (short stories), illustrated by Alan Baker, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World: A Play for Voices, Vintage (London, England), 2001.
Birds without Wings (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
ADAPTATIONS: Captain Corelli's Mandolin was adapted for film by Shawn Slovo, 2001, and featured Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz in the lead roles; Birds without Wings was adapted as an audio book for Books on Tape, 2004.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Research on the Cathar heresy and the Albigensian crusade, medieval movements in southern France that declared matter evil and proclaimed Jesus' divinity, denying his human aspect.
SIDELIGHTS: In his novels, English writer Louis de Bernieres has developed his own brand of magical realism featuring little-known historical incidents and locations far from the mainstream. He told CA that he seeks to explore "issues of freedom, power, and ideology" through his writings. His magical realism moves "between vividly rendered incidents that stay within the confines of credibility, pastiches of anthropological and travel writing, and evocations of preternatural events and entities," observed Nicolas Tredell in Contemporary Novelists. The people of villages that do not appear on any maps of South America or of Greek islands overrun by World War II Axis powers—wealthy landowners, peasants, members of the military, guerrillas, drug lords, priests and defrocked priests, saints and sinners—mingle with ghosts, resurrected conquistadors, and frolicking dolphins. This approach enables de Bernieres "to engage with major issues of the 20th century—in particular, political and religious corruption and oppression—while retaining a keen perception of the pleasures of life, a sense of humor, a tempered anger, and a graceful utopianism," Tredell noted. Although the magical realistic style is not typically associated with mainstream English literature, de Bernieres's version is not a pale imitation. Tredell wrote: "His actual knowledge of the area whose literature, in its magical-realistic incarnation, he was colonizing … prevented this work from ever quite becoming cheap."
The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts tells of a conflict in an unnamed South American country between wealthy Dona Constanza Evans and some villagers, represented by British landowner Don Emmanuel, that becomes a minor revolution. Dona Constanza Evans wants to divert a river critical to the villagers, one which Don Emmanuel uses to wash his nether parts, so that she can keep her swimming pool filled. "The novel's pace is brisk," wrote Susan Lowell in the New York Times Book Review, adding: "Farcical incidents alternate with graphic descriptions of torture, ribald sex scenes with tender love stories, political satire with supernatural events." These strong farcical elements set de Bernieres apart from others writing in the same genre. As Lowell suggested: "He is funnier than most magical realists, and more hopeful—perhaps too optimistic, in spite of the grimness of his political and military satire."
In The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, a self-absorbed president and a laissez-faire military have left a power vacuum in de Bernieres's unnamed South American country. The vacuum is filled by Cardinal Guzman. Guzman "is a once-decent man corrupted my money and power, whose uncharacteristic attempt to reform national morality produces a crusade led by a pious fanatic and conducted by loot-happy brutes," explained Phoebe-Lou Adams in the Atlantic Monthly. "As in its predecessors … the improbable characters populating The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman interact in ways that are never predictable and are often truly weird," James Polk observed in the New York Times Book Review. Adams pointed out that while "the details of the action are wildly fanciful, comically grotesque, mercilessly savage, and altogether unpredictable," she believed that "the author's satirical commentary hits targets well beyond the confines of South America." In Polk's estimation, de Bernieres's unusual story just takes on a classic theme in a new way. "What we have here is the age-old fight between good and evil…. Taking more than a page from Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who has obviously taught him a great deal)," commented the reviewer, "Mr. de Bernieres … comes down hard on the side of good times and fornication." According to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly: "As the novel works to a dramatic climax, readers will join the author in rooting for the life affirming joyousness of [the village of] Cochadebajo, which is skillfully contrasted with the Cardinal's evil nature."
"Eccentric and larger-than-life characters, scenes of bloody horror and grotesque comedy" also characterize Corelli's Mandolin, according to Adams in another Atlantic Monthly review. In this case, however, de Bernieres sets his novel in a real place in the midst of an actual historical event. During World War II, the Greek island of Cephallonia was occupied by Benito Mussolini's Italians and Adolf Hitler's Nazis. The occupation and the tragic events that took place because of it have had lasting effects on the people of Cephallonia. The author explores these effects through the lives of Dr. Iannis, his daughter Pelagia, her fisherman fiancé, and the Italian captain, Antonio Corelli, with whom she has an affair. Tredell wrote in Contemporary Novelists: "De Bernieres dramatizes both the cruelties of the conflict and the possibilities of transcending them through love." In what New York Times Book Review contributor W.S. Di Piero called "a high-spirited historical romance," de Bernieres demonstrates that he "understands that history is not only a set of actions but also a style of reporting actions." Di Piero explained: "He builds Corelli's Mandolin out of different kinds of reports, composing entire chapters from letters, monologues, memoirs, speeches, excerpts from Dr. Iannis's history, imaginary dialogues, bits of mythography and, in one instance, a propaganda pamphlet." The love story unfolds against a backdrop of these reports, reports of an Italian occupation giving way to brutal Nazi domination that includes a German massacre of its Italian allies.
Corelli's Mandolin continues the story of the island and the lovers long after the war has ended, but according to Di Piero, after the World War II years, "the novel loses its momentum…. The set pieces can be stunning, but the narrative tissue binding them becomes increasingly lumpy or thinned out." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented: "Swinging between antic ribaldry and criminal horror, between corrosive satire and infinite sorrow, this soaring novel glows with a wise humanity that is rare in contemporary fiction."
De Bernieres followed Corelli's Mandolin with Red Dog, a book of fifteen related tales focusing on an Australian sheepdog. The dog's name is Tally Ho, but he is referred to as Red Dog by the locals who work in the iron and salt mines of the stories. The tales related by de Bernieres are based on the legends surrounding the real-life Tally Ho, who was memorialized with a bronze statue in Australia. In his fictionalized account, the author presents a dog known for farting and roaming around the outback making friends. Eventually being adopted by a bus driver for the mineworkers, the dog becomes a fixture on the bus with his own seat. When Red Dog is shot, the locals band together to raise the veterinarian fees needed to bring him back to health. Writing in the Spectator, Sandra Howard noted that the "story is presented in a fictional form and designed, it would seem from its youthfully doggy style, to captivate all ages, even preteens." In a review in Booklist, Benjamin Segedin called the stories a "delightful collection."
The author's next book, Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World: A Play for Voices, was originally a radio play and focuses on the author's neighbors in the Earlsfield area of London. The narrator provides profiles of the locals and they, in turn, provide their own input on the neighborhood and each other in the form of a dialogue. Howard, once again writing in the Spectator, noted: "All the voices spoke to me…. I found this little play for voices beautifully readable, tender and poetic."
De Bernieres returns to the theme of war and its impact on peoples' lives in his novel Birds without Wings. This time the author focuses on the ways in which World War I led to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the effects of the war on the people living in a small Turkish village. Although the people are of different religions and backgrounds, they live together relatively peacefully until 1914, when the war breaks out. The conflict leads to various discriminations as the empire crumbles in the late teens through the 1920s: Greek Orthodox Christians are exiled, and the Turks launch the brutal but little-known Armenian genocide. Writing in Time International, James Inverne commented: "The main plot, such as it is, is the violent sundering of these people, who had considered themselves simply Ottomans, into two fiercely nationalistic camps." In a review in the Library Journal, Mark Andre Singer wrote: "This novel emphasizes the brutalities and stupidities of modern warfare." Singer went on to note that the book includes "vivid characterization, wry humor, believable bawdiness, pathos, and trenchant observations."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Atlantic Monthly, March, 1994, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, p. 128; October, 1994, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of Corelli's Mandolin, p. 132.
Booklist, January 1, 1994, Tom Gaughan, review of The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, p. 804; September 15, 1994, Greg Burkman, review of Corelli's Mandolin, p. 110; September 15, 2001, Benjamin Segedin, review of Red Dog, p. 191.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2001, review of Red Dog, p. 1046.
Library Journal, January, 1994, Harold Augenbraum, review of The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, p. 158; July, 1994, Olivia Opello, review of Corelli's Mandolin, p. 125; September 15, 2004, Mark Andre Singer, review of Birds without Wings, p. 48.
New Statesman, April 22, 1994, Roz Kaveney, review of Corelli's Mandolin, p. 45.
New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1992, Susan Lowell, review of The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts; May 8, 1994, James Polk, review of The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, p. 6; June 5, 1994, review of The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, p. 29; November 13, 1994, W.S. Di Piero, review of Corelli's Mandolin, p. 7; December 4, 1994, review of Corelli's Mandolin, p. 70.
Publishers Weekly, December 20, 1993, p. 51; June 27, 1994, review of Corelli's Mandolin, p. 54; November 7, 1994, review of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, p. 39.
Spectator, April 16, 1994, Cressida Connolly, review of Corelli's Mandolin, p. 37; October 13, 2001, Sandra Howard, review of Red Dog and Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World: A Play for Voices, p. 59.
Time International, July 19, 2004, James Inverne, review of Birds without Wings, p. 55.
Times Literary Supplement, April 8, 1994, David Horspool, review of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, p. 21.