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Haunted by the memory of desire

A Partisan's Daughter A Novel Louis de Bernieres Knopf: 196 pp., $23.95

November 09, 2008|Nick Owchar | Owchar is deputy book editor of The Times.

"Remember," George Bailey learns at the end of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," "no man is a failure who has friends."

It is as fundamental as breathing or eating -- a desire for camaraderie. Don't we all want a set of boon companions to draw strength from along life's journey? I'm certain that such a desire has been a part of every utopian experiment or exclusive club since Jason and his band of brothers boarded the Argo. It's also a strong chord plucked on the strings of "Corelli's Mandolin," Louis de Bernieres' novel of love and fraternity on a Greek island in the midst of World War II. De Bernieres' other novels evoke communal visions as well: "Birds Without Wings" shows us the failure of people to overcome cultural differences and recognize one another, while his Colombian trilogy pokes fun at the stereotype of backward South American countries where everyone knows everyone and dictators have cruel, village mentalities.

In his latest, "A Partisan's Daughter," De Bernieres gives us Christian, a lonely, middle-aged salesman whose marriage is loveless and empty -- he cruelly refers to his wife as the "Great White Loaf" -- and who briefly finds a connection with Roza, a Serbian woman living in a run-down London building in the 1970s.

When Chris first sees her on the street, she seems to him a beguiling, urban goddess wearing "a fluffy white fur jacket. She had litter whirling about her in the cold wind. . . . I felt a lurch of attraction." But his feeble attempt to solicit her -- he's never approached a prostitute before -- is rebuffed. What Roza really wants is a ride home.

From this awkward beginning their friendship grows, as West meets East; in all his English blandness, Chris is smitten by Roza's Slavic strangeness -- her "Gypsy eyes, her hair . . . black and shiny," her accent and the smell of cigarettes encircling her. But such romantic impressions give way to an even more romantic, and then harrowing, story of her life. She relates her father's wartime experiences as a decorated fighter in Tito's Yugoslavia. But we can't ever be sure what is true and what isn't: Over many weeks, she tells stories of incest (impatient, apparently, at being a virgin, she enticed her own father into her bed), difficult student days in Zagreb, insults endured and given, prostitution and a particularly brutal rape that causes Chris to break into sobs.

Yet how much can we trust her? She admits at one moment that "I needed Chris to stay interested in me." And at another, Chris finds her in the local library reading a history of Yugoslavia: Would that be necessary for someone from the Balkans, someone who, Chris says, should have its history in her blood?

I'll admit I was disappointed not to find another "Corelli's Mandolin" in "A Partisan's Daughter" (I know, it's cruel to want writers to repeat themselves). The denizens of Roza's condemned building -- "do-it-yourself revolutionaries, hippies, musicians" -- never blossom into an alternative family for her and Chris. Still, I was caught up by Roza's storytelling and hoped that these two desperate people might somehow find more together than chats over coffee, even at the expense of the Great White Loaf.

As anyone who's read De Bernieres knows, however, such hopes are never resolved in simple ways. More often, his stories are about missed opportunities, and here, as well, a misunderstanding separates Roza from Chris -- a moment of frustration and stupidity on Chris' part -- and all that Chris is left with is a longing that won't go away. The novel, told from his point of view in old age, very clearly shows that some desires never fade. Chris can still smell her hair and the aroma of bitter coffee and cigarettes. "You can be ignorant and stupid and go through your whole life without ever encountering any evidence against the hypothesis that you're a genius," Chris says early on. His entire experience of Roza seems designed to prevent him from having any such delusion.

Long after their interlude is over, she still troubles his days and nights. She is still very much with him, but is that really so tragic?


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