The Partisan’s Daughter by Louis de Bernières

There’s a slow food movement; maybe we need a ‘slow read’ movement. The idea of reading Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ in a few days is like flying coast-to-coast and then being asked how you liked the Grand Canyon. And I’m sure you could read a book of poetry in a few hours, but would you have a clue what the poet was getting at? Sometimes it takes several readings or even a lifetime to absorb all the meanings of a single poem. Or even a song. Did you get the lyrics of Bruce Springstein’s “Born in the USA” the first time you heard it? Or, like Ronald Reagan during the 1984 presidential campaign, did you miss the point entirely? (The Reagan campaign wanted to use the song1 during campaign rallies.) I’m convinced that we need to slow down and read with the same energy, the same intensity – or nearly so – that the author put into the book in the first place. What was the author trying to say? Why did he or she pick this particular topic and devote a year or more of his or her professional life to write about it? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s necessary to read a book twice, once for story and once for meaning. The story carries me along, page after page, while the meaning often remains hidden under the radar. Once I know where the story’s going, only then am I able to search out its meaning and begin to reach the depth of understanding the author intended. This was certainly the case with Paul Auster’s book, ‘Invisible’ (which I reviewed earlier this year.) In fact, having completed ‘Invisible,’ one reviewer wrote that after reading the final chapter he was certain he had misread the entire book and would have to read it again! That’s how I felt when I finished ‘The Partisan’s Daughter.’

Link to lyrics to ‘Born in the U.S.A’

Review by Paul Schlieben


Maybe, as I become a better “slow reader,” I can accomplish both in one pass. Of Course, most people are happy to be entertained, so they don’t spend much time thinking about a book once they get to the end. “OK, that was fun; now on to something else.” Thinking takes time and effort. Face it; we live in a world of interruptions; the chime that says, “You got mail” or ring-tone of our cell-phone. Most of us just don’t have the time to make the effort to read carefully – too many emails, tweets and FaceBook distractions. Me? I’m retired; I’ve got the time to connect with what the author was trying to say, to ferret out the hidden meaning behind the story. It’s a luxury and a joy! But how many of us are going to persist and reread a book to search out its hidden meaning? And what if there is no hidden meaning? What if there’s nothing but story? When do you know to stop? Fortunately, that’s hardly ever the case. In the case of ‘A Partisan’s Daughter,’ I read it twice. Unlike ‘Corelli’s Mandolin’ and ‘Birds without Wings,’ two of Louis de Bernières’ other books that are among my favorites, ‘The Partisan’s Daughter’ is one of the more difficult books to review since it’s a story that entangles you in the shadows of conflict and dislocation rather than in the center of it. In ‘Corelli’ and ‘Birds,’ de Bernières immerses the reader in the lives of a vivid assortment of characters on the cusp of historic conflicts – personal, romantic, political, religious, cultural and military – in a region of the world that for centuries has existed at the nexus of east and west: Turkey and the Balkans. (Turkey remains an important ally for this very reason.) It is impossible not to learn a great deal of history from reading de Bernieres’ books. Before you know it, you care a great deal about the lives of his characters and, by extension, your understanding and sympathy for those touched by that history is expanded, and you understand more about what is going on in that part of the world today. Taking place in London during the “Winter of Discontent” (1978-79), ‘The Partisan’s Daughter’ -- much shorter than his earlier works – is both a comic and doleful story about a brief, unconsummated affair between just two people – Chris, an unhappily married and sexually frustrated English pharmaceutical salesman, who refers to his wife as the ‘Big White Loaf’ – “She reminded me of a great loaf of white bread, plumped down on a sofa Review by Paul Schlieben

with its cellophane wrapping.” – and Roza, a 26-year old Yugoslav refugee and selfdescribed former prostitute (was she, or wasn’t she? We’re never quite sure) living in a crumbling London squat in a neighborhood slated for demolition. Her father is a ‘partisan’ of Tito, the former Yugoslav leader2. After completing his rounds as a pharmaceutical salesman in his ‘shit-coloured Allegro’, Chris passes Roza, and, mistaking her for a prostitute – not unreasonably, given her appearance; by her own account, splashed with “eau de streetwalker,” and made up “like some vamp in a French novel…” – impulsively, Chris makes a quick u-turn and stops to timidly proposition her. But Chris is a neophyte. Having grown tired with her own game, Roza feigns confusion, pretends to be surprised, “I called cab,” she says, in an accent Chris can’t quite place. Chris is embarrassed and apologetic and his “ears turn red.” Nevertheless, she opens the door and accepts a ride to her flat, where she suggests that he might return for coffee sometime. As she gets out of his car, Roza says, “So Chris, you never been with a bad girl before?” “No I haven’t.” “That’s what they all say. No one man has ever been with a bad girl before, not one. Never never never. … When I was a bad girl, I never took less than five hundred pounds.” At the outset, Roza felt a familiar sympathy and connection with Chris, and established a provocative, playful pattern of teasing, inadvertently planting the seed that would end up destroying their relationship. Or, in Roza’s words, told years later, “…I regretted telling him that I was really worth five hundred pounds. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the most destructive thing I could have told him.” Chris returns to visit Roza again and again, “in a house where there was wiring hanging off the wall, there were stair treads missing, the carpets were congealed with grease, and there wasn’t a proper roof…” But not for sex. He drank coffee and listened to her stories, which she seems compelled to tell, and retell – stories at once tragic, shocking, teasing, and very possibly true. Stories of her childhood in Serbia, of her cat, Apple; a pet linnet (bird); of a brief adolescent lesbian fling with Natalja; of a decade-older brother, Friedrich; of a horse called Russia (so called because “it was very big, a complete liability and always going where it wasn’t wanted”; of an dead man in a hayloft; of Miss Radic, a teacher who taught her about sex and love, telling her “not to


Review by Paul Schlieben

get a disengaged heart… She meant I should keep them together;” of a shocking event just prior to her departure for college in Zagreb; of her Croatian college lover, Alex, and her Bosnian friend, Fatima; of her Serbian father, a proud and defeated Tito Partisan; of her divorced mother who “decided to get old as quickly as she could and … just wanted to dry out and disapprove of everything. That was her pleasure, to disapprove of everything;” of Francis, on whose sailboat she is smuggled into England; of “Berzanzi’s Pusycat Hostess Club;” and of her imprisonment and rape by the “Big Bastard”… I should explain this: told some twenty years later, the narration shifts between Chris to Roza, as if they are retelling a love story of regret – mutual and sad. Chris’ retelling is infused with immense regret and guilt; tortured by his own drunken behavior and a missed opportunity to make a life with Roza – but, tellingly, he never learns her last name and, after it’s over, spends a lifetime searching and wondering what has become of her. But Roza’s life is one full of contradictions. We’re never quite sure who she is or if her stories are true. In the final chapter, after she has abandoned the London squat, letters accumulate. “This one’s for Dubrovka, and this one’s for for Josipa, and this one’s for Sacha. Well, there all Roza. There’s one for Marija as well.” The story Roza relates to Chris has a beginning, middle and end, and throughout we’re left to wonder what will happen when she reaches the end of her story, even if Chris doesn’t seem to have thought about it. The arc of Chris’ life is defined by others. Chris never acts on his desires, he listens – often, when lost in his own daydreams, admiring and fantasizing about making love to Roza – while Roza, teasingly aware of the affect she has on Chris, continues to talk, relating every lurid detail of her life, including the most intimate details of her sex-life in Yugoslavia and her life as a refugee in London. Over the course of many weeks and many cups of coffee, served in a squalid basement apartment of a building slated for demolition, Roza draws out her story, in chapter after chapter, while Chris returns and patiently listens, dreaming of the day when she might invite him into the intimacy of his dreams. He remains passive and makes no advances. One wonder’s if his descriptions of his wife, the ‘Big White Loaf,’ might be a fitting description of himself.

Review by Paul Schlieben


Living upstairs is ‘The Bob Dylan,’ probably the errant son of affluent family, who sings in the style of Bob Dylan and works as a motorcycle mechanic. While not at work, ‘TBD’ rebuilds engines in a dilapidated attic room, open to the weather. He’s heard Roza’s stories himself; a fact that give Chris fleeting pangs of jealously, but of no lasting consequence. Officially, for “the sake of the rent book,” everyone in this abject neighborhood has assumed the name of a previous tenant. There’s no telling how long this has gone on. This is the transient world of the 70s in which Chris feels too old to partake, while Roza, in her 20s, is of the generation for which the times and circumstances seem perfectly suited. De Bernières chooses his subjects and details carefully. The difficulty I alluded to earlier is that, in this book, the shadows cast by these two characters and their respective cultures require the reader to peer into the shadows cast by history and adjust to the darkness in order to discern the details hidden there. On the surface, this is a love story, albeit a squirmy one that, you think, cannot end happily. We learn much more about Roza than we do about Chris. But then she has so much more to tell, while Chris, driving his “shit-coloured Allegro” from one shabby doctor’s office to the next, has missed out. At one point, Chris says, “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.” Chris is a placid, passive Englishman out of step with the times, standing remote to events broiling around him; a representative of a timid, disengaged life, too old by just a dozen years not to feel he’s missed something important; while Roza’s life mirrors the turmoil that is on the verge of erupting in the Balkans. A crucial dimension of ‘The Partisan’s Daughter’ relates to the ethnic and nationalistic tensions in the Balkans. While her stories are full of individual Croats, Bosnians and Serbs who she has loved, Roza experiences have taught her to hate “… so many different peoples, Turks, Croats, Albanians, just about everybody else in the region.” Chris remembers “… a joke about Irish Alzheimer’s disease, which is when you forget

Review by Paul Schlieben


everything but the grudge, and if Roza was anything to go by, … that would be a pretty good description of Bosnian Alzheimer’s too.” (When I hear modern day Serbs going on about a 14th Century war in Kosovo, and similar historic justifications for ethnic hatred, I too have often wondered if a collective Alzheimer’s, including the grudge, is just what is called for in many regions of the world today.) But in Roza defense, “…in that region it isn’t ever possible not to live a hostage to history. They’re all possessed and tormented by it. It takes a logic and humanity out of their souls and gives them heroic stupidity.” There’s a sentiment that describes much of the world today. -Why did de Bernières write this book? Is he getting at something fundamental about the histories of the UK and the Balkans, something that separates these characters, in love with each other but unable to communicate there love, one out of cautious habit, perhaps, and the other timidity? A barrier forged by history, culture, gender, experience and language keeps Chris and Roza from communicating their affection forthrightly. Is de Bernières intention to contrast the lives of a bored, placid, average Englishman and a young woman who grew up in a tormented region of the world? Is this a book about the psychological imprinting left by one’s nationality? Or is it simply about the seductive power of storytelling? One is from a region with so many stories to tell; the other, remote and detached, with nothing interesting to talk about, whose listening disguises his physical attraction and, in the end, is exposed by his own timidity and folly. She falls in love with the listener, he with the storyteller; but once the story is told, then what? Her need to tell stories of her past prevent her from dealing with her feelings in the present; he, seduced, believes he is in love with her, but is unable to express his

Review by Paul Schlieben


feelings because his whole life depends on others taking action, of his own passivity. He’s afraid that he’s too old for her, not hip enough, and will disappoint her. While fascinated by her, does he becomes subconsciously aware of how completely different and, ultimately, incompatible they are? As is so often the case, does the truth become exposed only when he becomes inebriated? That first evening he stopped, she, at first surprised, even taken aback, presents herself to him consistent with the fantasy that she has created for herself out of boredom; young, beautiful, teasingly outrageous and seductive all at once, dressed as “a vamp from a French novel”, splashing on “eau de streetwalker”, standing in a conspicuous spot as a hooker might, cigarette in hand and, consistent with a pattern she established with him, at once, mirthful, teasing and shocking, offhandedly, jokingly – a joke he misses – tells him she charges five hundred pounds. The tragedy for her was of never correcting this false impression, for, as she reveals to the reader, but never to Chris, “I didn’t need any money and I’d never tried getting if from streetwalking.” But why does she compound the impression that she is a “bad girl” with her stories about “Berganzi’s Pussycat Hostess Paradise”? It’s as though she wants him to believe two contradictory things about her. The tragedy for Chris was that he naively believed her, perhaps assuming that her clientele was exclusive, above his station (as I imagine him expressing it to himself), in spite of the obvious contradictions posed of her living conditions. Chris starts to save, five pounds here, ten there, gradually saving for the day when he could afford her, the only way he might be worthy of her affection. Poor man. So, every few days or once a week, after his rounds, Chris listens to the story of her growing up in Tito’s Yugoslavia and of the dissolution of her family, her life, her country; stories that foreshadow a time when Yugoslavia would disintegrate after Tito’s death; a time when the national unity enforced by Tito’s iron hand would unravel; when a narrative of national unity would prove to be utterly false. So too, this brief romance.

Review by Paul Schlieben


In defense of slow reading – whether or not I’ve uncloaked what de Bernières intended, I understand more than I would have had I simply said, “good story” and gone on to another in the pile of books accumulating at my bedside. Thinking is the best antidote for thoughtlessness I know.

Review by Paul Schlieben


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