Monday, March 31, 2008

A Partisan’s Daughter by Louis de Bernières

This is a timely book to have read in a week when The Times (28 March 2008) has published the recent figures revealing the high rate of marriage breakdown in the UK. The article begins with these sobering words: “Are you going to a wedding this weekend? Nearly half the happy couples you see walking down the aisle will divorce before they reach their tenth wedding anniversary.”

Louis de Bernières launches his new novel with an equally eye-catching opener: “I am not the sort of man who goes to prostitutes.” But…

A Partisan’s Daughter is a reflection on relationships. Chris, a middle-aged English suburbanite who works as a traveling salesman to pay his mortgage and drives ‘a shit-brown Allegro’ resigns himself to the way that the fire has gone out of his marriage: “But isn’t this what invariably happen? The trouble is that sooner or later, at best, your wife turns into your sister.” He refers to his wife throughout the book as ‘The Great White Loaf’ because “she reminded me of a great loaf of white bread, plumped down on the sofa in its cellophane wrapping.”

Chris follows the typical male tack of blaming the plumping up and plumping down of partners, not only upon his Missus but upon the entire gender she represents: “I don’t think that most women understand the nature of a man’s sexual drive.”

This novel could very usefully be offered as part of a Pre-Marriage Preparation course for it presents vividly the dilemma of almost half the (British) married population who could echo the bewilderment of Chris when he says, “When we married I had no idea that she would turn out to have all the passion and fire of a codfish. How many of us get clamped into that claustrophobic dreary celibacy that stifles ‘the great fire inside them’.”

He continues his lament about relationships when he views religion as being like a highly-secure chastity belt:

“I sometimes wonder whether the reason that puritanical religious types are so keen on marriage is their certain knowledge that it’s the one way to make sure that people get the least possible amount of sex.”

So what’s wrong with going to see someone you think is a ‘bad girl’ when you’re not getting enough from ‘The Great White Loaf’? The woman Chris begins to visit is an ex-prostitute—an exotic Serbian from Belgrade who is now living in England. In contrast to ‘The Great White Loaf’, Roza has pizzazz. She is provocative and shocking. Her stories about life and love Chris finds exciting and irresistible—“It was like being friends with a cobra or a cougar.”

The storytelling and focus on a relationship are such major parts of this book that the action takes place almost entirely in one room.

The book focuses the reader’s attention on the elements that make for a good relationship. What is the ‘kindling’ that ignites a vibrant relationship and what are the ‘logs’ that keep the fire burning? The novel raises questions about whether one can satisfactorily distinguish sexual obsession from love or as de Bernières asks through Chris, “If you had no sexual impulses, let us say, or if you had no hormones, would it be possible to fall in love? Can you fall in love if you’ve been castrated?”

The title hints that the book is about Serbian politics but it is also about lifestyle, living adventurously and it contains some wonderful theological reflections like this description of Chris’ relationship with God:

“God and I have an agreement to leave each other alone. I don’t bother Him and He doesn’t bother me. If we meet in the street we raise our hats and smile and give each other a wide berth.”

So does our relationship with God mirror our human partnership? Can it nurture our human love or is religion just a clamp and a maker of Great White and Brown Loaves?

Most aspects of de Bernières’ literary style in this book work. One creative technique is where a chapter is written through the eyes of Chris to be followed by the next chapter that describes the same event in the words and feelings of Roza. However, there are some parts of the plot (these are best not given away in a review!) that seem forced and farfetched.

Louis de Bernières tells this story with pace, suspense and with a twinkle in his eye. Most importantly, it is a story that is evocative, as it subtly challenges partners to be honest about their expectations and to discover the difference between having a fuck and forging a fulfilling friendship.

This book should be enjoyed by people in a union of love, especially if they want to pass the ten year mark with passion, zest and genuine respect.

Louis de Bernières, A Partisan’s Daughter (London: Harvill Secker, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dhs 98.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of A Partisan’s Daughter.