The foreign adventures of Louis de Bernières

Louis de Bernières.

Louis de Bernières.

CÚIRT 2009 is now in full swing and one of the highlights still to look forward to is the reading, this Saturday in the Town Hall Theatre at 1pm, by Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

De Bernières has published six novels so far since his 1990 debut with The War of Don Emanuel’s Nether Parts, the opening instalment of the author’s so-called ‘Latin American trilogy’. That novel appeared when De Bernières was already in his mid thirties and his CV at the time included such varied experiences as landscape gardener, motorcycle messenger, and car mechanic, as well as an ill-fated stint at the Sandhurst Military Academy.

Speaking by phone ahead of his Galway visit, he recalls that writing was always central to his life. “I always felt it was going to happen,” he says. “I think from the age of 12 I had that sense of vocation about writing, though it wasn’t until I was 31 that it all really started happening for me.”

De Bernières himself has readily acknowledged the key influences of South American authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez on his early works, and after leaving Sandhurst he travelled to Colombia where he worked as a teacher. Oddly though it wasn’t until his return to England that he actually discovered the Latin American writers.

“I went to Colombia to get away from a family crisis and I just fell in love with it,” he says. “Funnily enough though it wasn’t until I was back in England, at Manchester university that I first encountered the books of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, mainly because a friend kept insisting I should read them. Manchester was incredibly grim and dull and I loved immersing myself in these amazing Latin American authors while my peers would all be reading Martin Amis.”

A chance accident a few years later paved the way for De Bernières’ literary breakthrough.

“I had written a chapter for another intended novel when I was 18, then put it away,” he said. “Then when I was 35 I broke my leg and couldn’t go out for a few months so took that out again and started re-working it and that one story basically contained the seeds of my first three novels.”

It was with his fourth novel - 1994’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - that De Bernières found major success. A wartime historical romance, it has since been translated into 35 languages. How did the book’s success impact on his life?

“Corelli’s success happened slowly, it was a word of mouth thing,” he replies. “The success thus happened slow enough so that it didn’t have a disconcerting affect on my life. I started getting asked to festivals and readings and getting to know other writers, so I didn’t have that sense of loneliness so much anymore which writers are prone to; you can feel like a freak locked away writing by yourself while everyone else goes about their business.”

The novel was also the subject of a high-profile Hollywood adaptation. As with many novelists seeing their work transferred to the big screen, De Bernières has mixed feelings about the end result – for instance the film dispenses with the downbeat ending, homosexual undertones, and negative portrayal of Greek partisans.

“They did ask my opinion as they were working on the film,” he recalls. “They were meticulous about being faithful to some parts of the book and then they would change around other things. But the cinematography was very good in it and I think Penelope Cruz and John Hurt were excellent in it. The film probably came out too late to affect sales of the book though, it probably put people off it if anything!”

Since Corelli De Bernières has published Birds Without Wings partly set in WW1 Gallipoli and A Partisan’s Daughter which evokes WWII Yugoslavia. Why has so much of his work featured locations far removed from his native England?

“I think that stems from my experience of living in Colombia when I was younger,” he asserts. “That gave me a sense of freedom regarding what I could write about. Having said that my next novel, which comes out in the autumn, is set in an English village so I’m not totally fixated on abroad!”

While he may not be “totally fixated” on abroad he has also been working for some time on another international epic. “It’s based on the travels of a forebear and it follows his adventures in places like Sri Lanka, Africa and the Rocky Mountains,” he said. “That said, I just started writing something else the other day which looks like it has the seeds of a novel in it, so who knows which one will see the light of day first.”

Alongside his literary activities, De Bernières also plays the flute, mandolin, clarinet, and guitar, and performs regularly with the Antennas Players. Might he have pursued a career in music rather than writing?

“I love music just as much as literature, they’re equally important to me, I would say,” he avers. “How I think my ability lies more in writing, music requires more practice for me.”

Critic Jules Smith has observed of De Bernières that “ [his] books are vastly entertaining, by turns funny, moving, and nightmarish, capturing the persistence of humane values and eccentricity even amidst the horrors of war. He seamlessly mixes broad comedy with graphic descriptions of suffering or violence, tender episodes and visionary flights of fancy. Yet for all the sexual burlesque, and the bizarre happenings in his crowded, highly entertaining novels de Bernières is also a moralist: people are brutalised - and saved - by their own natures, whether angelic or satanic.”

Certainly his reading at Cúirt is one we can keenly look forward to. He reads at 1pm this Saturday along with fellow-novelist Tim Parks.

Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.

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