Reading Journal: "A Partisan's Daughter"

Louis De Bernières, A Partisan's Daughter. Alfred A. Knopf 2008. Hardcover. 193 pp. $23.95. I purchased my copy for 40% off during the River City Books going-out-of-business sale.

After the cinematic sweep of De Bernières' Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1995), A Partisan's Daughter seems like a one-act play. The novel is set in a crumbling house in a down-and-out district of London in the 1970s. Over coffee and cigarettes, Roza, an illegal immigrant from Yugoslavia, tells her life story to Chris, an unhappily married, middle-aged pharmaceuticals salesman. As Chris listens to Roza's sad and often brutal stories, he wrestles with his feelings for her. "I never lost the sexual attraction I felt for Roza, even long after we became friends," Chris explains, early in the novel. "If anything, it increased because she began to touch my heart."

De Bernières is interested in the difficulty of knowing another person, and in how stories create sympathy between people. He's also interested in the tangled history of post-war Europe. The personal—the relationship between Roza and Chris—is tangled up with the political—the ethnic tensions simmering in Yugoslavia under the tight lid of Tito's dictatorship, and the drift of Great Britain toward the conservatism of Thatcher. Is the complicated and fragile relationship between Roza and Chris somehow a commentary on the situation in Europe near the end of the Cold War? Is the world made up of scarred and disappointed strangers, for whom sympathy is always overpowered by lust?

Roza's stories are larded with details about post-War Yugoslavia, but De Bernières is also careful to mark the progress of Roza and Chris's relationship with references to contemporary events in Britain. I first noticed this in chapter eight, which begins: "I came by on the day that Airey Neave was killed by the IRA, and found Roza in a penitent mood..." In chapter eleven (titled "The Betrayal"), Chris comes to Roza's house, and the door is answered by "the Bob Dylan Upstairs" (the BDU), a young man who's obsessed with Bob Dylan. The BDU is wearing a black armband because Dylan has just sold out by recording a religious album (1979's Slow Train Coming). In chapter thirteen, the BDU comes to the door again: "When I next visited, the door was answered by the Bob Dylan Upstairs, who by now had stopped wearing his black armband, but was still very morose. I'd just learned on my car radio that President Bhutto had been hanged in Pakistan, but I was right to assume that it was something else that was bothering the BDU." In fact, the BDU was depressed about a minor romantic disappointment.

Chapter 18: "The next time I saw Roza there was a lot to be depressed about. The Ayatolla Khomeni was saying that there wasn't going to be any democracy in Iran. Everyone was still on strike for preposterous pay rises, and the only good news was that Idi Amin had absconded. Everyone was sing some bloody song that you couldn't get out of your head called 'I Will Survive,' but not many of us reckoned we would. Seeing Roza cheered me up, though."

Chapter 19: "The next time I saw Roza I was feeling uneasy because the Yorkshire Ripper had just killed another woman in Halifax."

Chapter 20: "Mrs. Thatcher came to power..."

Chapter 21: John Wayne dies.

Chapter 22: Muhammad Ali retires.

It seems as if the personal—our romances and relationships, our taste in music, our interest in sport and celebrity—is more real than the distant backdrop of political history. I'd like to think that as skilled a novelist as De Bernières isn't clumsily using these references simply to mark the passage of time. Is he saying something about the shallowness of Western culture, and the increasing isolation of the West from the concerns of the rest of the world? Is he saying something about how we perceive history through the lens of our own personal experience?

Chapter 25: "I came back just after Wimbledon fortnight. I remember feeling a bit sorry because Chris Evert had just been beaten by Martina Navratilova. It was only because Chris Evert was quite pretty. I wouldn't have cared otherwise. I've known for a long time that I'm quite shallow, but I'm reconciled to it. I get consolation from the thought that everyone probably is."

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